“As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large.”
– Brigham Young
If you’ve ever decided to search “women and careers” in the lds.org searchbar, it might not come as a complete shock that the first titles to appear are “Wife and Mother: A Valid Career Option for the College-Educated” and “Eternal Marriage Student Manuel.” It is no secret that Church leaders have been urging women to work in the home as full-time homemakers since long before the “historic” announcement of the Proclamation on the Family in 1995, which states, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” (https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation). Whether the origins of such instruction were a reality of patriarchal culture or a mandate from God, it’s hard to say. Yet this hot-button topic has been a very real issue of strife, anxiety, and shame for many members of the Church since the political, social, and economic advancement of women started to be placed at the forefront of the world’s concerns.
With the rise of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century and the growing opportunities for women to work outside the home emerging, Church leaders began to speak out more than ever about the importance of mothers’ “nurturing responsibilities” and the need for men to retain the breadwinning status they have held since the beginning of time. The ERA movement was a particular sore spot for the LDS Church, and leaders passionately advocated against such legislation, as it was thought to disrupt traditional family life and encourage women to “be like men” (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/03/the-equal-rights-amendment?lang=eng).
Women have of course been consistently encouraged to pursue higher education and to “reach their highest potential,” but usually only as it relates to current or potential mothering responsibilities. As Elder Oaks said, “An education will improve a woman’s ability to function as an informed and effective teacher of her sons and daughters, and as a worthy and wise counselor and companion to her husband. Some have observed that the mother’s vital teaching responsibility makes it even more important to have educated mothers than to have educated fathers. ‘When you teach a boy, you are just teaching another individual,’ President Harold B. Lee declared, ‘but when you teach a woman or a girl, you are teaching a whole family.’” (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1975/03/insights/women-and-education?lang=eng)
Despite the influence of the Church in my life and the religious devotion of my family, I never had the impression from my parents that I was in any way required or expected to aspire to a career as a homemaker. When I was six years old I was determined to be an archeologist, a profession I had read about in my father’s National Geographic magazines. By the time I was eight I changed my mind and was lured to the calling of zoology, dreaming that I would one day work in South Africa with elephants or in China with giant pandas. I knew I was going to be a professional musician as I devoted much of my time to the violin in junior high, but by high school I was convinced I would enter into the medical field, working in refugee camps in East Africa. All through this time of self-discovery and learning and becoming, my parents supported me 100 percent, assuring me I would succeed in anything I chose to do and never deterring me from pursuing my dreams.
My experience at Church, however, was different. I would like to clarify that I never felt that I shouldn’t pursue my academic goals at Church – in fact, I was told on many occasions how important it is for everyone, including women, to receive the highest education available to them. President Gordan B. Hinckley said in a 1988 address:
“We live at a time when things are happening to women across the world. There comes to my desk periodically a magazine titled Leadership. It is published in South Africa. The most recent issue I have carries on its cover a photograph of a striking and impressive face. Beneath the picture are the words, ‘A New Generation of South African Women.’ It is happening everywhere, some of it for good and some for ill. Strong and able women today fill responsible posts in industry, government, education, and the professions…It is wonderful to witness this great renaissance. I think it will continue to grow for the blessing of people everywhere.
“Every young woman ought to be encouraged to refine her skills and increase her abilities, to broaden her knowledge and strengthen her capacity.” (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/09/our-responsibility-to-our-young-women?lang=eng)
And yet, I felt strongly discouraged to develop career aspirations to compliment my studies. From a young age it was noted that my impending motherhood would be the most important role I could aspire to. As I grew into my tender adolescent years, I noticed that the Young Women program was designed for the preparation and molding of future wives and mothers – this was evident in our leaders’ choice of activities, which often included stereotypically domestic endeavors such as sewing, cooking, and hair care, among other things – whereas the Young Men program allowed the youth of the male persuasion to participate in sports and outdoor activities. And as if the subtle hints whispered among the BYU population wasn’t enough, I encountered a young man on campus during my undergraduate career who boldly declared, “You are so lucky you’re a woman because it doesn’t matter what your major is – you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom anyway.”
There is of course nothing wrong with preparing women to aspire to motherhood. It is and will be an important part of many women’s lives, and wanting to be a full-time homemaker is a lovely career choice for women or men who would love to do so. For me, however, it was not and is not a choice I aspire to, which often left me feeling confused as a Primary kid, uninterested in Young Women as a teenager, and uneasy as an adult in Relief Society.
What I find sometimes very difficult to swallow is the dogma perpetuated at Church that God has already defined a path for me – that is, being a wife and mother – and that wanting a career could only mean that I am selfish or greedy or worse: that I want to “be a man,” as Boyd K. Packer would so lovingly phrase it. Has it perhaps occurred to anyone that I have talked to God about this? I do believe I am entitled to revelation, and I have yet to read or hear of Church doctrine that claims all the revelation I receive will be in complete and total congruity with the expectations laid before me and my sex. Maybe God wants me to have a career. Maybe it’ll make me a better person, wife, or mother. Maybe, just maybe, I have made prayerful decisions that have led me to where I am today – happily pursuing an academic and travel-intensive career – and will continue to lead me down the path that brings me closer to God.
Just for clarification, I don’t want to be a man. Having a career means more to me than competing with male counterparts or making money or abandoning any home life I could have. I want a career because it makes me feel whole and happy. I love traveling and learning new languages and contributing to a greater cause. And those are things I believe God wants for me, too.
Lesa also writes a personal blog where she discusses religion and feminism. Visit her blog at http://lesayoung.blogspot.com/.
Additional resource: https://www.lds.org/manual/eternal-marriage-student-manual/mothers-employment-outside-the-home?lang=eng