This is a picture of neuron in a mouse brain that I took in my lab
I have a vivid memory of sitting in my Davis High School seminary class my senior year. My teacher explained to us how men should always be the financial provider. In fact, women should not contribute at all. He was embarrassed that since his job as a seminary teacher did not pay well, his wife had to help their family by working from home.
At the time, I rolled my eyes. My mom had been a bored stay-at-home mom for the first ten years of my life. She did small things to occupy herself, but I could tell she was struggling. Before she met my dad and converted to Mormonism she had been in law school in South Africa and staying home with children had never been in her plan. Around the time I was ten, she got a part time job and everything changed. She was so much happier and excited around my siblings and me. She seemed much more content in her life.
So, as my seminary teacher went on and on about women not working, I knew in some situations and for some women being a working mom is the best option.
While I always dreamed of having a career, it never once in my entire childhood occurred to me to be the provider.
As I listened to general conference every six months I heard things like “Ideally, the Latter-day Saint family is presided over by a worthy man who holds the priesthood. This patriarchal authority has been honored among the people of God in all dispensations” from Elder Nelson and the following from President Hinckley:
“Some years ago President Benson delivered a message to the women of the Church. He encouraged them to leave their employment and give their individual time to their children. I sustain the position which he took.
“Nevertheless, I recognize, as he recognized, that there are some women (it has become very many in fact) who have to work to provide for the needs of their families. To you I say, do the very best you can. I hope that if you are employed full-time you are doing it to ensure that basic needs are met and not simply to indulge a taste for an elaborate home, fancy cars, and other luxuries. The greatest job that any mother will ever do will be in nurturing, teaching, lifting, encouraging, and rearing her children in righteousness and truth. None other can adequately take her place.”
President Benson’s talk was delivered in a session of General Conference in 1981. He said the following:
“Beguiling voices in the world cry out for “alternative life-styles” for women. They maintain that some women are better suited for careers than for marriage and motherhood.
“These individuals spread their discontent by the propaganda that there are more exciting and self-fulfilling roles for women than homemaking. Some even have been bold to suggest that the Church move away from the “Mormon woman stereotype” of homemaking and rearing children.”
Some women end up the primary provider by accident as Benson and Hinckley endorse, but I am not one of them.
I went to Cornell University, fully intending on having some career that would justify the expense. I studied biology because I wanted to do something that would always be marketable, although I also love literature and history. Biology ended up being a very fitting subject for me to study. I love questioning and searching. There are methods to test questions and build knowledge in a way that can be shared with other people. I like that.
But then while I was in college, I met a guy. He was a PhD student, twelve years older than me, and very intelligent. But, unlike me, he liked to study things that don’t pay well, philosophy and religion. He loved to write and could happily spend his whole life as a struggling writer. Unfortunately, Mormonism had sent him the message that he needed to do something that would support a family, so he’d avoided marriage and family altogether.
After non-committal dating for a year, we struck a deal. I would be the provider. My career would come first and he could write or travel or do whatever he wanted as long as he also took care of any kids we had. This deal was struck conveniently around the time I was graduating and moving away to go to graduate school.
Unexpectedly, I got pregnant several months after we got married and my husband got his wish of being a stay-at-home dad years before we had expected it. I was a little surprised at the stress of knowing my stipend was what had to sustain us and that if I failed, I was failing more than myself.
When I go to church every week, I am surprised at how weird and out of place I feel. When I was in the Cornell student branch (best branch ever!), we had a mix of married and single students so there were plenty of women and men, married or single to talk to about school and careers without feeling out of place. But here, I feel very weird knowing that, right now, the only other students in the ward are married men. They get to be called to all sorts of positions in the church that can draw on their gifts and talents but I walk into church and feel less because of my career. In A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” Rachel Held Evans says, “When female executive, entrepreneurs, academics, and creative are told they have to check their gifts at the door, many turn away for good.” With the way I feel in church, I understand why.
After this past weekend’s general conference I got into a friendly argument about Ordain Women with a girl from my home ward. The big piece of evidence she used against women getting the priesthood was gender roles. I have a hard time understanding how the potential to be pregnant and give birth somehow exempt me from anything in life.
When I joined the lab I am doing my graduate study in (a neurophysics lab), I was shocked to find out that there were more women than men working there. The professor (a man) who runs our lab treats everyone with the same, incredibly high expectations. It is sort of weird and foreign to be in an environment where there is neither outright nor benevolent sexism. I have to work as hard as I can. Period. It is freeing to know that although academia and industry (the two most popular career choices after obtaining a PhD in science) both offer some amount of gender inequality, any position is open to me, regardless of my gender.
Why are things so drastically different in the church? Why do I feel like so much is expected of the responsibilities given to my husband? It is so discouraging to always feel like there are real limits on what I can do in the church because I am a woman.
As I argued with this girl on her thread, one of her friend’s asked me if I could name one, unselfish reason for women receiving the priesthood. I couldn’t figure out how to realign his perspective. Selfish? Think of the time commitments required by some priesthood offices of the church. The men who inhabit these callings are all encouraged to provide for their family but also have to spend great amounts of time serving others in the ward. They, who already are taken away from their family to work all week, are also absent for hours for their callings. How is that promoting close families? Why not share the burden? Women would benefit from the social aspect of being in church leadership. If a woman is a stay at home parent, she might enjoy the adult interactions and a few hours to redirect her attention and refresh herself. Women in leadership roles might be more fulfilled and are also more able to respond to the needs of other women in the church. Based on the encouragement of women to be home, it seems like the church leadership knows that women spend more time with their children. Why not share the burden so the men can strengthen relationships with their children? How is that a selfish desire?
While women receiving the priesthood may not translate to women being in leadership roles, I certainly hope it would. The gifts of the priesthood stand on their own and could individually be a great gift to women in the Mormon Church. But think of the benefits for the whole church if women were able to join the ranks of the men. Think of the benefits of having women conduct interviews for women instead of men. Think of the benefits of seeing women leaders around us actively doing good.
Like my mom did before me, I am trying to make a life and family that is happy, healthy, and personally fulfilling. For me, a big part of that fulfillment comes from my career. I also hope it will someday include priesthood ordination and more opportunities to use my talents for the church in a positive way.