During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the issue of women in Mormonism arose. His wife, Ann Romney, was a stay-at-home mom and someone made a comment that was seen as derogatory towards mothers who do that. Along the way, as happens with these things, the debate went on to include women’s roles in general and Mormon women’s roles in particular. Mormon is a nickname for the people who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The name should not be applied to the church itself.
In some ways, Mormon attitudes towards women are very traditional and in others, they are surprisingly liberal. In the 1800s, when women had few rights, pioneer Mormon prophet Brigham Young said,
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 (DBY, 216–17).
This was, without question, a shocking teaching in Brigham Young’s time. It reflects the early church attitudes towards the abilities of women. Pioneer Mormon women were doctors long before women in other parts of the nation were even allowed into medical school. The first female state senator was a Mormon woman in Utah who ran against her own husband and won. She was a wife in a home that practiced polygamy. Mormon women had the vote from the start, along with the other civil rights then denied women, until the federal government took it away from them in Utah. At that time, the Relief Society, the official Mormon auxiliary for women, took on the cause of women’s rights and some, including at least one wife of Brigham Young, traveled often to the east to work with suffrage leaders and to campaign for a restoration of their rights. When women were finally allowed to vote, Utah was the second state to give women the vote.
Although polygamy was seen as being a practice that oppressed women, the polygamy practiced by the Mormons was very different than the polygamy often addressed by the media. The FLDS, a polygamous organization that calls itself Mormon, is not actually a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are an entirely different group and today, real Mormons are excommunicated if they practice polygamy.
In the 1800s, very few Mormons actually practiced polygamy. Only about 1/3 of the women of marriageable age were in a relationship involving polygamy and thirty percent of these were previously married—widowed or divorced. In a time when single women had few rights, it gave them legal protections and someone to ensure their temporal needs. No one, male or female, was required to practice polygamy. If a man wanted to take a second wife he first had to obtain permission from his first wife, who also had the right to approve all new wives. He then had to ask the church for permission, in order to demonstrate his ability to properly care for an additional wife. Finally, he had to have the approval of the woman he wanted to marry. Often it was the first wife who convinced her husband to take on an additional wife (as did Sarah, wife of Abraham in the Bible) and who even chose the new wife. Women who entered into a polygamous marriage and then realized they could not handle it were allowed to divorce, although men who found they couldn’t handle it were told to go home and work on their marriages. The church leaders did not arrange marriages unless asked to do so. Men who hoped for a second wife had to make certain they were a good husband to their first wife, since women were free to choose whom to marry and would certainly evaluate what type of husband the man was. If one wife was willing to care for all the children, Brigham Young told the other women they were free to take on a career or return to school. As a result, many women in polygamous marriages were well-educated and in non-traditional careers.
At a conference on women’s rights, Eliza R. Snow, then president of the Relief Society and a wife of Brigham Young, said:
“Our enemies pretend that, in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage—that she does not act from choice, but by coercion. What nonsense!
“I will now ask of this assemblage of intelligent ladies, Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No! the very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense … as women of God, filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demands we should!” (See Jaynann Morgan Payne, “Eliza R. Snow: First Lady of the Pioneers,” Ensign, September 1973.)
But what of Mormon women today?
Mormon women today, unlike women in some churches, are allowed to preach and to pray in worship services. Mormons have a lay church, and the bishop, similar to a pastor, earns his living outside his church work. As a result, he does not give a weekly sermon. Instead, members of the congregation twelve and older take turns speaking. Generally one or two teenagers speak for five minutes each and then two adults speak for ten to fifteen minutes. These short sermons are called talks. Both men and women give them. Opening and closing prayers are also given by members of the congregation, both male and female.
All work in the church is done by unpaid volunteers. These jobs are called callings. Some callings are reserved only for men, but some are reserved only for women. Some can be held by people of either gender. In some callings, men are supervised by women. Women hold callings extending to the international level. Auxiliary programs for children, teenage girls, and women can only be led by women at every level of the church. The women of these organizations at the international level have a full-time unpaid job that involves supervising more people than are led by women in any corporate position.
While it’s true that women cannot hold the priesthood, it must be remembered that the priesthood is not employment for Mormons and therefore only keeps women from performing even more unpaid work. It is merely a position of service to others. A priesthood holder is not paid and cannot use his priesthood to benefit himself in any way. If he needs a healing blessing, for instance, he must find two other priesthood holders to administer it to him, just as a women might. Women do not lose any blessings as a result of not holding the priesthood. They can receive every priesthood ordinance a man can receive, and like men, must receive it from someone else.
Is it discriminatory not to let women hold the priesthood? For a Christian, the obvious answer is that it is not. After all, God makes decisions about His church, not humans, and God does not discriminate. And yet, throughout the Bible, we note that He never gave the priesthood to women. Nor did Jesus Christ choose female apostles. At the same time, it is also clear God and Jesus Christ highly valued the work women did. Jesus first announced His divinity to a woman and he appeared first after the resurrection to a women. He treated the women in His life with great respect, as women capable of learning and doing good in a wide sphere, as witnessed in His acceptance of Mary and Martha’s diverse views on the proper roles of women.
God did not discriminate against men by making them unable to bear children. It was nothing more than an assignment of responsibilities. In the same way, the priesthood is nothing more than an assignment of responsibility—one more unpaid way to serve God and mortals. God sent His Son, not His daughter, because the role of the Savior was a priesthood function for Jesus (but not for fully mortal men). Throughout the scriptures we note that God had specific roles for men and for women, but neither role was more important. The roles are merely different.
In a Mormon home, the traditional roles of women are held in high regard. Nothing is considered more important than the nurturing and training of one of God’s children. Men understand their role as wage earners is considered less important in the eternal scheme of things—although important in the temporal world—than is the role of a mother. Women who do not have children are encouraged to nurture other children and many serve the children in their extended families, their church, and their communities.
Mormon women are not forbidden to accept employment, but they are encouraged to be at home while their children are young if possible. Church officials ask people not to judge the woman who is employed because we don’t know the circumstances that cause her to make that decision. It is interesting to note that more Mormon women have advanced degrees than do men, a fact that is also true in the secular world.
There is nothing degrading about being a good parent of either gender. When done properly, raising children is not a mindless and meaningless job. It is one of eternal significance…raising a child of God.