There’s a disconnect among the leadership of the LDS church. You won’t hear it said at General Conference, but the Mormons are bleeding members in the 18 to 30 age group. Less than half of the kids I grew up with in my staunch, strong LDS ward are still in the church. And yet all the leaders do in response to this is tighten down. Stricter gender roles. Abolishment of homosexuality, even for those who are not Mormon. Reinforcement of the idea that a woman has no place outside the home.
The church has just finished revamping its Personal Progress program for girls aged 12 to 17. A welcome change includes marginally less ugly jewelry for completing milestones. (The old ones looked like disco medallions and nobody, not even the staunchest Molly Mormon in my class, would ever wear them in public.) The new manual is “soft and pink,” just like the girls are supposed to be. Great.
A girl who is today participating in the Young Women’s program has never lived in a world without the Internet, laws prohibiting sexual discrimination in the workplace, and increasingly generous accommodation of the demands of family by employers. She will have seen a gender-neutral approach to leadership positions in government, business, and education. She will hear about how the United Nations has identified gender inequality as essentially the root of most problems in third world countries.
But then what will she see at church? Mormonism assigns her career, life, and personal duties based on her biological function. Men have no such restrictions. Women are permitted to supervise only women and children, in a very outmoded way of thinking about the competence of a woman. Men are given leadership, authority, and the ability to seek a unique identity in their professional choices. As Jeans put it over at Beginnings New:
I’m okay with the pink, and I think I can get the hang of all the new sparkly doodads, but my only complaint is with the description of the leadership opportunities the program provides: “doing this will help you learn the leadership skills for your future roles as a wife, mother, and homemaker” (34). End of sentence.
Women are not overtly mistreated in Mormonism. LDS doctrine and culture certainly does not encourage wife-beating, and statements regarding women are generally kind-hearted and laudatory, if a little patronizing in a Victorian “angel in the home” sort of way. But they are infantilized and denied authority, independence, or identity, which often leaves them vulnerable to being abused or marginalized. Essentially Mormons have taken a snapshot of mid-19th century views on women and tried to freeze them in time. Shoot, even the underwear women are forced to wear after going to the temple is modeled on 19th century undergarments. They’d go great with a corset but are highly incompatible with modern clothing. But the social taboos around discussing the difficulties of garments, bras and menstruation ensure that Mormon women steer clear of modernization and stay put in their Victorian underwear, both in the literal and philosophical sense. And Mormon women are well trained to always keep a smile on, to always work harder, and to never complain, as it implies some kind of lack of faith to do so.
The Personal Progress program is essentially a dry run for adulthood as a Mormon woman. You work, work, work, and in return you’re handed a few trinkets. Boys who earn their Eagle and Duty to God awards are given elaborate Courts of Honor, with photos, awards, and great ceremony. Young Women awards are given to the girl by the Bishop, someone who had no role in her participation, and the trinkets are handed out as a quick matter of ward business at the beginning of the meeting. Where’s the elaborate ceremony where her female leaders, who guided her in so much effort, is able to honor her? I noticed this as a teenager and saw the message: This is what it is to be a Mormon woman. You’ll work, work, work, and never get recognition. That’s reserved for the men.
When I went to the temple, this message was repeated again. I could see the pattern. Adam got to do everything interesting. Eve stood by, mute and still. She follows him. She makes her oaths to him. Adam handles the business of actually engaging with God, Satan, and serious discussion of doctrine. There is no mention of a Heavenly Mother. I can see my future. If I do everything that I am told, then I will bear children on earth, and keep bearing them in the afterlife, except with even less time and attention from my husband. The spirit babies I will bear will never be allowed to speak to me. They will never know my name, because I am “too sacred” to discuss.
That’s when I walked away. In it’s 19th century setting, it could be argued that Mormonism offered a certain degree of empowerment to women, because they were all economically, socially, and religiously discriminated against. The freedom afforded polygamous wives when their husbands were away may have been welcome. But if you take a look around today, the world offers women a significantly better deal than Mormonism, with its outmoded caricature of Donna Reed serving as the only mold to fit into.
That’s why they’re walking away. The church has repeatedly failed to adapt or re-think its view of women. Why is the canonization of Victorian views of women now a point of doctrine? Why must the gender divide be so impenetrable? Stuff like this guarantees that more women will simply walk away. It’s why I left, and it’s why many, many others I know have left. I don’t want to be on a pedestal. It’s confining and I can’t move anywhere. I don’t want to be stuffed into a box. It’s stifling and leaves me unable to breathe. I don’t want to have the joy of choosing to be a mother taken from me because it was an assignment from the beginning. It makes my love for having a family irrelevant.
Time to pay attention to the ones who are walking away, Salt Lake. Perhaps showing your true colours on the cover of the Young Women’s manual isn’t such a clever idea after all.