Thursday, July 22, 2004

Inferior?

Today at lunch a friend of mine told me that she had just been informed that Mormon women are bred to consider themselves inferior to their husbands.  Appalled, I asked her to explain.  She went on to tell me about a secretary she knows who works for the only Mormon partner at our firm.  As with most secretaries, this secretary is very aware of the personal matters of her employer.  Basically, she hasn't liked what she has found---particularly the fact that the wife is unable/not allowed to make even the smallest decision without consulting her husband.  In most cases this kind of behavior would probably be chalked up to "co-dependence" or one of those other terms we use to describe unhealthy relationships, but, in this case, his being Mormon provides the secretary with an alternative explanation.  "Mormon women are just bred that way," she tells people.

I have to admit, when I first heard this, I was very tempted to sit down and right a scathing email to this partner about the example he was setting and the detrimental effect it was having on the missionary work that I was trying to do.  But the more I thought about it the more I become concerned that, maybe, this is a real problem.  Now I need to point out that I do not think that the Church advocates or approves of this type of behavior in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, the do quite the opposite.  Instead, my question is whether, as a culture, we promote this philsophy.

Growing up I saw no sign of it in my home.  There weren't girl chores and boy chores.  There was no descrepincy in the encouragment each child recieved to pursue an education to the highest degree possible or to go on a mission.  But, when I step out of my immediate family, I have to admit I do see some signs of it.  My aunt, for instance, is shocked that I'm planning on going back for my Masters (often making comments such as, wow, you're family really does emphasize education), yet she thinks its perfectly normal that her son, my cousin, plans on getting his MBA.

I have also seen traces of this philosphy at BYU where, each year, a number of girls quit just short of finishing their degree in order to have children.  How do we explain this behavior?  Certainly, having children is the higher calling, but can't it wait a year?  Does it make you less righteous or more selfish if you educate yourself first?  What makes me question this even further is that, though I know many women who have made this decision, I don't know one man who has.  In fact, I think it would be fairly frowned upon by the community at large if a man came forward and said, "I want to have babies so I'm going to quit school now, okay?"

Any thoughts?

 

17 Comments:

At 7/22/2004 02:37:00 PM,

Janelle, didn't we agree that you would have me approve any communication you had with the outside world? :)

 
At 7/22/2004 02:42:00 PM,

That was classic, Chris. Few jokes on the www have ever worked as well as that one. I compliment you and all your family for your keen commentary.

 
At 7/22/2004 02:59:00 PM,

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At 7/22/2004 03:01:00 PM,

Thanks jason. I was hoping someone who knew that janelle and i were married would clarify, otherwise it just seems wierd.

When we first started dating Janelle was a breath of fresh air. All the LDS girls I had dated previously had defined what their life would be in terms of marriage and family. Now, like them, I think that marriage and family is the most important thing in this life, but these girls' only aspirations were marriage and kids. None of them had personal aspirations apart from motherhood, none of them challenged my opinions and ideas, and none of them disputed any important decisions I though I had figured out at the time. It may be that I just came across a unrepresentative sample, but I was really concerned. I can remeber thinking "I guess this is how they are, so i should just settle." WHEW!!! that would've been a mistake. One of my favorite qualities about Janelle is that she has her own ideas, opinions, desires, and fears apart from her role in our family; she challenges my ideas, and she feels like she has a vested interest in the decisions I make.

My experience is that most of the LDS girls I've dated really are as janelle describes. I agree that the church doesn't support this, in fact, I've heard Pres. Hinckley say that "it's not the role of the mormon woman to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen." But i do think the culture encourages women to be less than they could. I'd love to be wrong, and if I am please let me know.

 
At 7/23/2004 01:59:00 PM,

Sorry for that ode to me, guys. What can I say? My husband likes me :)

 
At 7/23/2004 02:12:00 PM,

This is a really troubling issue for me, especially since I am still single, and desperately hopeful that there are superior (is that the alternative to inferior) or at least equalish women to be found, and hopefully somewhere on BYU campus (though they aren't in the law building...) and hopefully before the clock runs out.

I see, like most people with the opportunity to observe Mormon women, some very pernicious trends, not the least of which is what I term as "the Crafts Problem" that has made several women I know very materialistic in a way that Moroni maybe foresaw but didn't prophesy of (that would have been irrefutable evidence of Book of Mormon inspiration!).

I agree that this isn't what the Church teaches, and it is not how I read Joseph Smith's teachings, especially to the early Relief Society and their mission to save souls. I have heard very non-controversial General Authorities praise women they know from the pulpit for pursuing their education even after marriage. It simply makes sense and fits perfectly with our religious emphasis on self-improvement in all aspects of life, not just the spiritual.

But the culture problem is a different story. How do women decide to limit their pursuits in life to crafts and homemaking? Are there men in the church that expect their wife to have few interests besides children, him, and church activity? I know there is a time-constraint for mothers, especially those with young children, and in that phase of life, a spare afternoon in the research library, a course or two at the local university, practice of a rusty foreign language or political activism will probably not be practical. And even after the kids go to school (making the unrealistic assumption that wives do not work outside the home), there are needs to be met with the home, and if those fall upon the mother/wife during the day for attention, she does not have an open calendar.

So in the light of these obligations, the question becomes where do we find the time for our "personal pursuits" that define our individual interests and passions. To put it in perspective, how many men would seem deep and multidimensional if the main pursuit of their weekdays were not considered in the formation of their identity? If my life were observed for signs of individualism and developed interests and productivity outside of the up to 12 or more hours I spend at law school or in legal employment during the week, I would be a sad pathetic jerk who read the scriptures almost everyday (for about 10 minutes), watched some CNN, spent inordinate time blogging, and maybe if he was lucky cracked a book for fun on Saturday afternoon, or playing a rare cheap round of 9 holes. What a loser!

But because I approach school and my work with my mind, and try to be reflective about it, I feel (though society may not accord) like a decent guy, like I am improving myself and not merely floating through life on a shallow stream of other people's expectations for my caste.

Are there women who break the one-dimensional mold of without losing the cherished form of a loving mother? What do they do differently? If they do more than mother, do their multiple commitments conflict noticeably or often?

 
At 7/23/2004 02:56:00 PM,

No one, especially a mother, will ever "find" time for personal pursuits. You have to make it. And I don't think that's something that can be accomplished alone. It has to be an effort made by both partners in a marriage. Maybe that's why so many efforts fall short. Sure, husbands want their wives to continue personal development, but are they willing to sacrifice for it? Maybe they have to take that moderately less interesting job that pays a little bit higher so that they can afford to hire a babysitter so the wife can take that class. Maybe they'll have to donate some of their own rare free time to take care of household things so that the wife can pursue an interest. Maybe it's a cultural problem that extends to both genders. I don't know if I believe this is the case, but it's definitely something to think about.

And don't me started on the "Craft Problem". Oh the awful memories of the many mutual nights I spent being forced to work on something inane like a puffy fabric scrapbook cover while a half finished book was sitting at home calling to me.

 
At 7/24/2004 02:58:00 AM,

First, I’d like to point out the fallacies inherent in isolated case studies representing an entire culture, especially when the informant operates on hearsay.

Second, if I may relate a portion of my wife’s life experience (she’s not here to ask approval, so I’ll assume it’s okay):

If this is an issue of “breeding” and upbringing, my wife, Ali, was not raised in an LDS family. As she was preparing for her high school graduation, her aspirations were to join the Air Force, be trained as a pilot, Join NASA, fly missions until her late 40’s, and then die in a mission accident. She did not plan on marrying or having children, so she did not see the need to live for longer than that. If may be important to note that she was provided for and loved by her family. Nonetheless, she was not interested in a family of her own at the time.

During her senior year in high school, she investigated the church, and was baptized. Instead of the Air Force, she enrolled at BYU. She studied psychology and plans on receiving her master’s in social work. We now plan on having a family of our own, and we both hope to live well beyond our 40’s. Ali may not work once we have children. She says she couldn’t stand to leave our children each day to go work. I envy her (somewhat-because, man, kids are tough).

As I see it, it’s an issue of end goals. If your goal is to be successful in business, you know where to invest your time. If your goal is to be a successful parent, that will require most of your time. However, this does not preclude extensive education. The main reason Ali plans on getting her master’s in social work is to be a more successful parent who can understand what our children will be going through. It’s one of the means to our end of successful parenting.

To those who think education is wasted on future parents, I would ask how education fails to be an asset to parents as they teach their children. To those who think that the emphasis upon the family overshadows one’s potential in other vocations, I would ask what is more important than one’s family. Let each person's actions represent chosen means of accomplishing chosen goals.

 
At 7/24/2004 03:10:00 AM,

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7/24/2004 06:52:00 PM,

One more thing: I feel it's inappropriate for us to determine whether others’ choices regarding timing of children are inappropriate-be it the case of children interrupting education or the case of education before children. This is a decision between the husband, wife, and Heavenly Father, and should be approached with prayer and fasting. This in mind, I don’t feel that we should judge the decisions of others in this matter. Think of those that receive children unexpectedly and love them. Think of those that try for years to achieve such happiness and cannot. Think of those that will wait just long enough until they can offer their children the appropriate home atmosphere (and I don’t mean financially, I mean preparing a family founded upon a strong marriage). Will we judge the motives of parents in any of these cases? If we withheld judgment in this area, the community disapproval spoken of above would not be a factor, as it shouldn’t be.

 
At 7/26/2004 11:30:00 AM,

Mark--I certainly agree that it's wrong to judge people's decisions about when to have kids. In fact, that is exactly what I am questioning. By being judgmental (it's selfish to wait, etc.), does our culture take the decision out of the God, husband, and wife context? I certainly felt pressure to have kids while in Utah, even though I know it's not time for that and I know that my parents had me when they did because of the pressure they felt.

 
At 7/27/2004 04:09:00 PM,

I think pressure on women to do what is viewed as right is often the problem in situations of work and family within the church. I think for many women, staying at home, raising children and focusing almostly solely on the family is meaningful and supremely gratifying. However, that is not all women. Some (such as myself) cannot be satisfied without outside challenge, continued intellectual rigor, and work. Such needs do not preclude having a family, or being an excellent parent, they just require different commitments and time management.

Nothing is wrong with either position, people are just different in what they want, need, and think. The problem, I believe, begins when people who would be better off (both personally and as a family unit) doing one activity feel guilty and pressured to do another.

To me, the image of inferior wife has shifted. I used to view "inferior" as a woman that stayed home and devoted her life to vacuuming and picking up children while her husband worked independently away from the home. I didnt see how that could be fulfilling to anyone (I say this after spending five months at home playing the role of soccer older sister). However, my view has changed a bit. Now, I believe that the woman that plays the role of inferior wife is not merely she who stays home, but rather, she who has chosen to do so not of her own accord with a sense of agency but because it is what she thought was expected of her by society/the church/ her husband. The women who feel forced to conform to a rigid image of family perfection and begrudgingly forego what will make them, as individuals, happy and healthy (for example, being involved outside the home or pursuing higher education) are the women who seem subserviant. They are inferior to their husbands because they have discounted what they want and what is best for them. I think it quite possible to be a stay-at-home mother and not experience any of that; it simply requires an act of choice and cooperation by the parents to do what is best for everyone in each family, even the woman.

 
At 7/28/2004 12:59:00 AM,

Lauren and Janelle,

Good comments from both of you. I hope the decision remains between husband, wife, and God. The choices of others don't factor in because they are not responsible for the life created. And I hope that the responsibility of a parent is the most respected and revered position any person can ever hold in life.

 
At 8/06/2004 12:35:00 PM,

"I do not think that the Church advocates or approves of this type of behavior in any way, shape, or form."

I am not sure I agree with this.

In the first ward we lived in as a married couple, the bishopric approached me about what they perceived as a problem between my wife—the Primary president—and one of her counsellors. I told them I had no insight to offer, and they should talk to my wife.

More recently, my wife received a calling to serve in the Nursery. A member of the bishopric came over to extend the call, and as part of the process made sure it was OK with me. I received a new calling last night from a high councilman and he didn't even come in the house—met me as I was just arriving home—let alone ask for my wife's permission.

That being said, our first stake president did ask for my wife's approval when I was called as elders quorum president.

There are some leaders that do perpetuate this phenomenon.

 
At 8/06/2004 12:38:00 PM,

I must add that I am glad I have a wife who considers the high value of education to be more than learning a new craft. I also enjoy having someone who I can discuss things with intellectually (politics, social issues, etc).

 
At 8/06/2004 09:10:00 PM,

In defense of crafts. I think it is a bit snobbish and judgmental to denigrate crafts and other associated activities as unworthy pastimes. I am a Harvard educated, Mormon woman and a lawyer, and last December in Enrichment I learned to make a Christmas wreath. It's lovely and it would have cost me $50 to buy. I had fun making it, along with my mother and sister-in-law. So, you know, there is a place for everything. Some people are good at crafts (not me) and enjoy doing them (sometimes me). Nothing wrong with that. (And I don't know anyone, Mormon woman or otherwise, who solely limits her progression in life to crafts.)

Thanks for letting me post--Heidi

 
At 8/06/2004 10:47:00 PM,

It starts with the parents who raise the children. My mother was sitting in the foyer at church once when she overheard some boys talking about a girl. One boy said he would never marry a girl like that. "She thinks to much. I want one I can train to be a wife" was about the extent of his comments. The others agreed with him.
This is taught by the parents, and the father. It is also one of the main stumbling blocks I have to feeling good about church.
My wife has been asked when she would have children by others in RS. When she answered probably not at all they would give her the pitty look and she then became second class to the ones who have children and are good moms.
Remember the movie "the color purple"? The main character was second class untill she decided to free herself. That needs to be done more.

 

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