The Lives of Mormon Women

Claudia Bushman
August 2006

The Lives of Mormon Women

I am not sure that I belong at a conference on apologetics for the Church. When Scott Gordon invited me to give this talk last year, I was here because my husband Richard was speaking. I asked him what topic he had in mind. He said he would like a strong defense of polygamy. But I didn’t want to do that.

I don’t think of myself as an apologist at all. I think I look at the facts unflinchingly and say what they mean or suggest. I do not think we do ourselves or anyone else a favor when we try to make the church look any better than it is.

We come off best when we present ourselves as simple Christians who try to live good lives and keep trying even when we don’t succeed. We have wonderful things to share, our community of loving friends, our excellent programs, our access to personal revelation, our belief that our prayers are answered, our moderate way of life, our teachings that promise future improvement and eternal life and those are the things that we should emphasize.

In any case, when Scott Gordon reopened the question in March of this year, he suggested a different topic, something related to LDS women. That’s a topic I like to talk about. I appreciate the opportunity that this invitation gives me to speak to you. I wrote about women in my new book Contemporary Mormonism where I try to look unflinchingly at the situation and to tell the honest truth. But what I think I say, is not what people hear. When I submitted the manuscript, the man at the press who asked me to write the book said that it was much too favorable to the Church. I reworked the manuscript for a cooler tone, dealt with the hot issues without emotion and was temperate and descriptive rather than judgmental. So I was interested to read the following review on

Firstly, I have to say, I did not finish this book–not because of lack of interest or time, but because it was much too biased a work to read. The author clearly states she is a Mormon and will use personal experiences and church doctrine in her book, but just saying that doesn’t make it OK. . . . I think there is a difference between using stories from one’s own personal life and just outwardly promoting a cause. For the most part, she is an apologist, especially concerning women and gays (for the latter, she says, “the seeds of tolerance are growing”–who is she kidding here???). I thought this book would offer a somewhat-objective viewpoint on, believe it or not, contemporary Mormonism–all I got was one of their TV commercials that trick you into watching until the end… but in print form. However, there were some instances wherein I learned a few things that cleared up a few misconceptions I myself had about Mormon thought. It was surprising to see the scale of converts they have each year. (A statistic which the author never failed to mention to show what a great religion Mormonism is becoming!) All in all, it’s an easy read, but not a worthy one.

So, who am I? Am I an apologist after all? People would be surprised.

As one of my stake presidents used to say, “The most important thing I’ve learned is that people are different.” People respond differently to the same material. I see us in the church, and in this room ranging along a very broad spectrum of opinion, divided by small degrees of difference. And maybe none of them, none of you, are like me. People are different.

I’m a lifelong active member of the Church, one who knows about the Church by study, by work, and by observation. I’ve watched the Church for good parts of two centuries now. I’ve lived in lots of states, attended many wards, know many Mormons. I love the Church, I am a product of it. Everything I ever needed to know, I learned at Church. But, as all of you apologists know, there is a wide gap between what people expect to hear from insiders and outsiders. I am an insider, and I tried to speak to outsiders and be understood. I want us to be able to interact with the real world, to have them see us as real people. I hoped I could bridge the gap, but the gulf is still a brook too broad for leaping.

All this is to say that you may very well disagree with me. What I am going to do is to talk about some of the issues for women in LDS life, but without the sentimentality that usually goes with those descriptions.

Just where do the women of the Church stand, those self-sacrificing purveyors of service, that silent majority, that crowd that can never be considered a quorum. Is there a female LDS world?

In this day, it is notable that the Church’s leadership at every level is male. Meetings are run by men in dark suits. As men are recruited, encouraged, refined, groomed, tested, they become strong leaders. In this churchly kingdom, men are essential. Deep devotion and faithfulness bind men to the Church. During difficult years, as students with heavy obligations, still building careers, with families of young children, men serve as bishops, spending time they cannot spare.

There is no question that this socialization program of scouts, priesthood, missions, education, marriage, and church service is a great success for our men. The pool of seasoned, well-trained, loyal, reliable male leaders in our church is astounding, bottomless, an endless supply of leaders ready to answer any call and to serve wherever asked. The Church is pro-male, but it is not anti female.

Women, too, serve in the Church. Tending to be faithful anyway, women are men’s equals in spirituality, intellect, efficiency, human relations, and hard work. The Church produces strong, capable women who like men serve despite other heavy obligations. But the Church doesn’t have to work so hard with the women as with the men and so they don’t. Faithful women do not get the encouragement, the recognition or the appreciation that men do.

Men hold priesthood, while women do not. Women, even those in high leadership, ultimately answer to men while Protestant Churches–and at least one branch of Mormonism, the Community of Christ–level gender differences.

There are many explanations why. When I once specifically asked President Kimball why, he said because that’s the way we do it. I like the folklore that has arisen to explain the disparity. Some Mormons say the priesthood is necessary to make the men equal to women. Others say that keeping the priesthood a men-only club is a good idea because if the women, who are able to do it all, could do it all, the men would recede. Without duties of their own, short of setting up tables and chairs, men might stay home and watch football.

One convert described this dynamic. “I’ve never seen such active, liberated women as in the church. I’ve never been to any other church where women spoke equally with the men. I think it is good that the men have a separate priesthood and the women aren’t permitted to participate in it. That must sound strange because I am a feminist. . . . Look how the women run Relief Society. Can you imagine if they ran the church? The men would be totally out of a job.1

Without autonomy, women would seem to have little power in this religion. But what is power in religion? Leadership seems important, but many religions, certainly ours, have stressed the humble vineyard worker as the powerful position. The greatest of all is the servant of all. A New York Times Magazine illustrated this apparent paradox in an issue highlighting Doba Levin, the wife of a Lubavitcher rabbi and the mother of fourteen children. A reader objected to featuring her as a religious exemplar because she was subordinate to her husband, had no independent status, and lived a premodern life. Her activities, the writer said, were clearly circumscribed. Another correspondent concluded the opposite, noting that as the mother and guide of many, Levin was, in terms of moral independence, powerful indeed.2 This question of where power lies is significant for Mormon women who wield uncelebrated influence. Is it therefore insignificant or diminished? Should women, apparently not important in modern terms, sue for influence? Should they deny their ambitions? Can women deal with this puzzle?

A chronological consideration of the post-World War II years reads that the Mormons led the return to American domesticity and suburbia. But as the nation moved toward a liberal counter-culture in the Sixties, threatening traditional roles, the Church perpetuated a conservative ideal. The Church “correlated” autonomous women’s leadership roles under the priesthood. Mormon women, who follow but lag behind national trends, faced a divided culture. In the 50s they had been ideal American women. By the 70s, some felt left behind. Many women relished their roles in the traditional Church, while a vocal, progressive minority felt ostracized, lamenting the disparity between the LDS female past and present.

This minority, hoping to expand the sphere of Mormon women beyond the home, looked to the Church’s past for models. As many know, Mormon women got the franchise in 1870, long before U.S. women did. Women’s advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited in Utah, rallying Mormon women around them. Utah women voted from 1870 until 1887 when legislation disfranchised all Church members and all females, but Mormons have used this short progressive experiment as evidence of male liberality towards women. Nineteenth-century male leaders encouraged Mormon women to get education, and Utah had a high percentage of early female doctors. Mormon women worked outside the home, encouraged by Brigham Young who said in 1869,

We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds and raise babies, but they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation.3

LDS women expected this traditional reliance on women’s talents to continue, and were disappointed when male leaders in the 1970s and 80s suggested a contracted role. Today most women are likely so busy with their families and congregational duties that they do not think about their limited access to organizational power. They may not notice that their voices are absent at the higher levels. But the institutional changes in the Church have increased priesthood powers and decreased all female responsibilities. Women have lost visibility and are scarcely involved in areas where they had been prominent: welfare, leadership training, publishing, policy setting. Whereas LDS women had once assumed many responsibilities, running women’s, children’s, and many social and cultural activities, they found themselves by the 1970s without autonomy, just when other American women were pressing for more social influence.

There have been some accommodations to the changed role of LDS women in recent years. These include an annual women’s meeting and some female speakers at General Conference. And those talks are always good. The official stance is that gender roles are separate but equal, and that woman’s place is in the home. Many women are content in the home, but others have felt patronized by this rhetoric, pointing out that the equation of priesthood with motherhood is asymmetrical, leaving out fatherhood, and is, furthermore, not scriptural.4 This gender relationship means that male leaders direct women in their lives, assuming they know how women feel, think, and should behave.

So is there an LDS female world? Yes, despite all there are still remnants of the days when women gathered together for prayer-meeting sewing circles, when they saved grain, nursed the sick, put on their bazaars and dance festivals. Female camaraderie and leadership bloomed.

But now that our cultural and relief society programs have been simplified we have to reach hard for those close relationships. We find them in the auxiliary presidency meetings, sometimes in enrichment mini-classes, in special committees, on social occasions. Visiting teaching is a great help when it works. We all need to work on ways of connecting with our sisters. We should work at preserving the female world. If we lose our female LDS world, we will have lost a lot.

Issue the next. Should women take their lives seriously? How does the church play into that? Is the self sacrifice motif for women so strong that no interest and care should be taken about their own lives? We have to doubt that. We come alone into this world and we leave it alone. We are responsible for what we make of our lives. Yet because we think of ourselves as spokes in the family wheel, we often tend to ignore our individual destinies. The most unfortunate result is that too many women in the church live passive lives. We cannot afford to do that. We have talents to multiply.

We must pray for direction and then take risks. We have to launch out into the world. My own observation is that it is not as important to find the right thing to do, which may not exist, as it is to do something. Action must be taken.

We are told that we are to get education, and fortunately there is no end to that. But when I was a young woman, there was a feeling that single women should wait quietly for their celestial partners, their CP’s, that they could be nothing but wives. In those days there was also a feeling that older women and mothers with children had no business having special interests outside home or church work. When the husband of a friend was asked how he could allow his wife, the mother of several small children, to be working toward a master’s degree, he responded laconically, “It’s cheaper than therapy.”

In one of his recent talks, Pres. Hinckley told the church’s twelve- to eighteen-year-old girls to “study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resolution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women.” “You are creatures of divinity, for you are daughters of the Almighty. Limitless is your potential. Magnificent is your future, if you will take control of it.” He encouraged the girls to “find purpose in your life.” He described meeting an LDS nurse who was raising three children while working. “There is such a demand for people with her skills that she can do almost anything she pleases,” he said. “She is the kind of woman of whom you might dream as you look to the future, an educated, expert, loyal woman.”5 Times have changed.

Older women are encouraged, too, after meeting family responsibilities. Jessica T. Healy Ellsworth, featured in the Church News, dreamed of becoming a doctor. Married in 1975, she began college when her youngest child entered junior high and medical school when he turned eighteen. She served her medical residency at age forty-seven. It was less demanding than being the mother of three. She did not regret the delay, having avoided the guilty struggle between medicine and motherhood. Her husband sold his business to move with her to medical school and moved again for her residency. “She supported me when I was going to school,” he said. Mrs. Ellsworth said that mothers, used to losing sleep, had good years left. “If I could do it over again I would do it exactly the same way.”6

Going to school has always been my solution. I did not want to leave my children to work and I needed something to think about while I rocked the cradle. I could take courses because my husband was a professor and we were always near a university. I was not that brilliant a student, but I was willing to suffer the humiliations and the miseries, and there were many, of being a student again for that exposure to the wisdom of the ages and the sense that I was making some progress. I felt that going to school was legitimate because in an emergency, I could miss class or hand in a paper late. No one would suffer but me. If I had been employed, I would have suffered terrible conflicts of responsibility.

School was vital for me for many years; it gave me an escape, as well as something to escape from. School made housework a pleasure. I was glad to make cookies or sew Easter dresses or read stories. All those things became more precious and desirable. To have interests outside of childcare or housework doesn’t necessarily mean being a career woman. There is lots of space between being a devoted stay-at-home mom and being an executive in a Fortune 500 company. Mothers are encouraged by the church to raise their own children, but a woman has years before and after children, and even hours during children when she can read or write something. We don’t have to milk our cows, stoke our coal stoves, or spin our wool unless we want to. Even with many children there is time for choices and compromises. What do we choose to do besides what is required?

As a lazy daughter of another age, I still marvel that women think they find freedom in working rather than staying at home with their children where they have free time and some control over how to spend it. But I have come to believe that a woman should never give up on her outside interests, no matter how weary she is or how pruned her life seems to be during the heavy years of childcare. She should keep one foot in her own life.

It is true that we hear an awful lot about family and marriage in our church. There is no question that this is hard on the single women who have very little choice in our society about whether to be married or not. But I look at the blitz about families as a defensive strategy. The Church preaches home, marriage, and family, not because they are the norm, but because they are the rapidly diminishing ideal. The nuclear family with the breadwinner father, the stay at home mother and the children, now accounts for less than a quarter of the population in the US.

Our leaders stress family life because they are all too aware of casual divorce and abusive relationships, as well as extensive singlehood. I think that these talks are for the benefit of the males who have not yet managed to get with the program. Unfortunately the burden of all this talk about righteous family life comes down on the heads of our single sisters, who listen harder and are more obedient anyway, who feel themselves judged and found wanting for not being married. But I think we keep stressing traditional family life because we are not succeeding.

In the congregations in New York City, there are many beautiful, charming, intelligent, amazingly talented single women doing good things, taking their lives seriously. But at church every Sunday they hear lessons that talk of the glories of marriage. We have to recognize that these exceptions are becoming the mainstream. The world is changing and so is the Church. What is to be done about this? I say let’s have some benign neglect, some blindness to the marital state.

Single women will have to solve their problems individually, by making a strong connection with our heavenly father as working parts of the kingdom of heaven. But, it would help if everyone in the ward was treated as an individual. In NYC I have a single RS president. A recent stake president of the primary was an unmarried woman. They have serious church jobs.

But in our new organization, there are not enough good jobs to go around, certainly not for women. We need imagination to create new positions, jobs with teeth and interest. I’ve been making up my own church jobs for years now. We need to help the Church help us to live vital lives. I can see this phenomenon over a wide span because of my own family experience. My mother and grandmother and myself have all found a home, a cause, a platform, willing helpers, a family in the church. Our women have built their lives on church work, my grandmother on genealogy, my mother on music, much of which they devised themselves.

But I am also interested in new organization. How about a single women’s ward, operating as a Relief Society with just a couple of priests to come in to fix the sacrament. We’ve had widows’ wards for years, why not some never-married ones? Women could easily manage their own organizations with administration, teaching, visiting, good works, and social lives. There would be many opportunities for friendship as well as meaningful church work. Women need encouragement and church opportunities to take their lives seriously.

What is the role of feminism in the Church?

Peggy Fletcher Stack, the religion editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote a piece a couple of years ago about feminism. She asked me what I thought, and I said that feminism was dead, that the word itself had become so frightening that the movement was now moribund, extinguished. That was strong talk.

There are still many old self-described LDS feminists around. Feminism has not been stamped out, but it has certainly gone underground. Groups of sisters continue to meet outside of Church networks, providing some strength to a female LDS world. They gather for discussion and activity. Some have retreats or revivals. But this movement is of no danger to the Church. It’s not going anywhere. It is mostly mutual comfort for those who feel excluded in some way.

I am a feminist myself, and I doubt that many people would disagree with my definition of feminism, that the talents of women should be developed for the benefit of their communities, their church, their families and themselves.

And so defined, our sprawling Relief Society organization, with a chapter in each congregation, is a feminist organization. Mormon women find emotional support and personal and spiritual growth there. The Relief Society, even in its curtailed form, provides a network for us to know, teach, and befriend each other. In Relief Society we are encouraged to exercise that most important feminist strategy, reaching beyond our patriarchal structure to a personal relationship with deity through which we can discover our own personal revelation and destinies.

The general Relief Society aims to be accepting and inclusive. Church-wide Relief Society leaders preach the creation of a “global sisterhood” among their four million members, all of whom “feel loved by God.” They want LDS women to “stop being judged for working or staying at home, being single, divorced or childless.” They want women to feel “valued and supported and bolstered” in life, not alienated and alone, to have an “eternal perspective.”7 I’d like to see more of this acceptance of women by women. I’d like to see women feel free to say the things they think and feel in RS classes and not be hushed or silenced when they deviate from the accepted script. Relief Society should be where we can share our pain honestly as well as our joy and testimonies.

Relief Society sisters get a lot of encouragement to serve others. I am not too keen on service myself. I like working with people, showing concern for other people, sharing similar interests. When we go serve others, we often become superior and condescending. We hear reports of people not living up to our standards. Oh my dear, you would never believe the state they live in. We switch from being helpful to being judgmental. I once heard of three eminent sisters who made a solemn pact that in case of accident or trouble, they would race to each other’s houses and clean them up before the Relief Society could get there. I don’t want someone to come in and throw out my treasured items. I don’t want anyone to scrub my floors. The only person allowed to scrub my floors is my husband.

Despite Relief Society’s universal message, it does not speak to everyone. One young single woman reported, “Most things in the church are geared toward families. People give talks about families and family home evening. That’s why Relief Society and I never clicked. The lessons would be on health habits for your children or disciplining your children. I don’t think there’s too much emphasis on families, but they could put a little more on individuals. I’m not in the mainstream. When you’re single you have to accept that in our church you’re going to hear a lot about families.”8 Single women felt greater inclusion after Sheri Dew entered the general presidency of the Relief Society in the 1990s. Dew’s charismatic talks rallied singles to the organization as never before.

Dew taught that a successful career woman, self-supporting and devoted to the Church, while questioning her single state and thwarted motherhood in public speeches, could spin her remarks by redefining her categories, regarding all women, even those who had borne no children, as natural mothers. “Motherhood is more than bearing children, it is the essence of who we are as women.” Some of us, then, must simply find other ways to mother.9

Defining every woman as a mother is a matter of style. Women who are in tune with this preferred style can justify most behaviors. So, Mormon women are strong and effective. They are great achievers in education and professional life and do the lion’s share of Church work. Mormon women, feminists all, exercise leadership roles in the community and in business, developing their talents.

What can women hope for from the church?

We should come to church to worship, sing, take the sacrament and renew our covenants. Everything after that is gravy. We do want to help the leadership make the best use of female talent for building the kingdom. Women know what they can do and can sometimes help the leaders to see that, if they suggest in the right tone of voice. Again, the benefit of the proper style. Women should realize that the Church is a great enabler, not a hindrance. The Church provides a wonderfully welcoming arena for working out our own ideas and building our talents as we seek for and follow our own revelation.

As women, we must have dreams and follow them. We must stuff our heads with knowledge. If there is anything we really, really want to do, we have to figure out a way to do it What is the proof of the pudding, our reward for supporting the cause?: access to divine channels, contentment, productivity, continuity, connection, significance, and best of all, a crowded funeral and a great send-off.

That is not to say that improvements in the women’s sphere could not be made. Just for starters, here are a few.

  • A better program for girls that compares in quality to boys’ programs.
  • Better facilities and meeting times for our neglected young mothers.
  • Let’s divide Relief Society classes by age, as priesthood classes are.
  • Let’s have calls to engage in civic work.
  • Let’s return to our roots and have additional cultural programs.
  • And finally, let’s work toward a broader view.

So those are my issues today. The need for an LDS female world, the need to take our lives seriously, the recognition that we are all feminists, and need to be help create our own Church lives.

While I was working on this talk, the international head of the YWCA visited Salt Lake. As I read about her views, I was struck by how insular, how middle-class, how pedestrian the concerns I have been talking about seemed. She stressed the problems of women and families around the world including violence, teen pregnancy, HIV-aids and poverty.

As Musimbi Kanyoro toured the Church’s Welfare Square, Family Library and Humanitarian Center, she said she was impressed by the Church’s efforts to provide emergency services to those around the world, but said the real solution was to end wars and violence. Her thoughts confirmed my own predilection toward pacificism. How can we help the people of the world if we promote the terrible warfare that is going on today? Like the Relief Society leaders she said, “Every woman has the potential to be a leader.” and “Good leaders have the potential to change lives and better society.” This is advice that we could well take to heart. We must act in our communities and in the world, trying to make ourselves instruments for good. LDS women have done much good in the past and will continue to be agents for good in the future.


1. Susan Buhler Taber, Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 321.

2. Anne Lapidus Lerner and Corrine Coakley, “Keeper of the Flame,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 30, 2001; original article, Samantha M. Shapiro, “Keeper of the Flame: The Paradox of the Rabbi’s Wife,” New York Times Magazine, 9 Sept. 2001, 127-131.

3. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 13:61 (18 July 1869).

4. Sonja Farnsworth, “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Connection,” in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism , ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 299-311.

5. Julie A. Dockstader, “‘Limitless is your potential, magnificent is your future,'” Church News, 31 March 2001.

6. Sarah Jane Weaver, “First she was a mother, now she is a doctor, too: Her children are her greatest accomplishments,” Church News, 9 Sept. 2000.

7. Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS’ Parkin Wants ‘Global Sisterhood,'” Salt Lake Tribune, 5 October 2002.

8. Taber, Mormon Lives, 73.

9. Catherine Reese Newton, “Every Woman is a Mother Says Sister Dew,” Salt Lake Tribune, 30 Sept. 2001.

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