An address last fall by the general president of the LDS Relief Society on motherhood continues to raise discussion and disagreement nearly a year after it was delivered.
Panelists addressing the topic "Mormon Motherhood: Choice or Destiny?" at the annual Sunstone Symposium on Thursday discussed why a talk by Sister Julie B. Beck during the October 2007 General Conference troubled them and hundreds of others enough to support a Web site whatwomenknow.org to counter many of Sister Beck's characterizations.
The Web site has garnered signatures from more than 500 women and several hundred men since it was put up in the weeks following the talk.
Five presenters spoke for more than an hour about their belief that Sister Beck's talk, and other recent messages by LDS leaders, narrow the role of women in the church by minimizing the contribution of those who don't have children and stay at home to raise them, whether by choice or through circumstances they can't control.
During the question and answer session that followed, one mother of five lamented that the remarks didn't reflect her experience, or that of many other LDS women, and asked that her choice to feel validated by staying at home with her children be respected. Several audience members approached her in the hallway at the Sheraton Hotel following the session and a heated discussion ensued.
Janice Allred, president of the Mormon Women's Forum, said as she listened initially to Sister Beck's remarks, she thought "there will be trouble, but the firestorm that followed surprised even me." She said she had seen some indications in recent years that the church "has become more accepting of women's roles and parenting in the wider society. But once again, women felt they were being handed a script for their lives that they couldn't follow."
Sister Beck's talk mirrored gender roles outlined in the church's "Proclamation to the World on the Family," Allred said. The document "gives a woman only one role. The single woman exists in the proclamation only as daughter of heavenly parents waiting to fulfill her destiny ... Being a mother is a good and a necessary role, but a good mother must first be a good person, with roles and needs outside that of mother."
Lori Winder quoted one secular author regarding motherhood, saying, "We are fed up with the myth that it's the most honorable and important thing we do ... and if you don't love every second of it, there is something wrong with you." She said "motherhood is prescribed essentially as the only role for women eternally." She said Sister Beck is "in many ways the only voice within the patriarchal structure of the church. The weight falls on her to illustrate our experience." Yet there is a "gap between Beck's rhetoric and (some LDS womens') experience, particularly as women's influence expands in the secular world."
Margaret Toscano, a professor of classics at the University of Utah, said she doesn't think LDS women "reacted strongly enough" regarding "women's roles and person-hood in the church structure." She said many "patriarchal systems use women as the primary tool for keeping other women in line" and "patriarchy gives women protection for playing by its rules."
She said she believes Sister Beck's talk created a flash point that focused on her as a person, "rather than critiquing the underlying system." She said the backlash "reflects the idea that it's more acceptable to question women's authority than men's in the church."
The address also elevated LDS women as "those who know the truth about motherhood versus secular women who are ruining the family," she said, adding "most women want to be good mothers and care deeply about their families."
Emily Benton, who holds a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University, said she became less active in the LDS Church after marrying a returned missionary and then divorcing while he was in law school. "The Mormon map for women is limited and can sometimes leave you feeling lost." For her, "a lot of it came down to feeling that I didn't belong in a singles ward or a family ward, and my mother is worried because I haven't married and procreated like my sisters. My success isn't a grandchild."
She said that during the time she was away from the church, "I learned integrity ... After being away for a while I realized I missed the gospel," so she returned "with a new perspective ... Ultimately I'm at church to learn how to become a disciple of Christ." She said that while at church, she "would be better served if" the messages focused on love, compassion, service and personal worth rather than, as Sister Beck said, learning how to be the best homemakers in the world."
Janet Garrard-Willis, a Ph.D candidate and blogger for Feminist Mormon Housewives, said "motherhood really is meaningless unless there is a person being the mother in the first place." Her blog saw "an immediate firestorm following Beck's talk," and it was "not my liberal friends who were most upset they just tend to disregard her.
"It was my deeply conservative friends who believe every word out of a church's leader's mouth came from Jesus Christ. They locked themselves in the bathroom and cried about it." Because she had great difficulty getting pregnant, Garrard-Willis said she had a "free pass to pursue a tenure track job. Once people in the church found out why I didn't have kids, they were very sympathetic and I was given a real place in every ward I've ever been in.
"I felt I was being incorporated into the structure with an identity apart from other women. That was fine, but I didn't realize that identity was contingent on my remaining childless." She said she experienced the "erasure of a significant portion of my identity when I became a mother."
She said the LDS Church does provide "a skeleton architecture for building an identity for women in the church, in part through its Young Women program, which emphasizes values such as faith, knowledge, good works and integrity. She suggested "a larger discussion about fatherhood" in the church, and "how traditionally female attributes are integrated into his role."
Following the presentations, Camille Aagard was the first to address the panelists.
"I wish I were on this panel. I'm the mother of five, I'm not a Ph.D candidate, and that's not in my future." She said she has "always had a very confident sense of self and I attribute that to being raised in the church. I feel powerful. I don't need anything more than what I do, but I want that mutual respect" that panelists had discussed for those outside traditional LDS roles.
"I want to know that if I were in the Toscano family, there wouldn't be little remarks about me behind closed doors. I feel so deeply respected when I hear motherhood is near to divinity. There are 96 pictures of me on my blog with my arms covered up to my elbows in vomit and (expletive deleted). I did have a five-year career, but this is a much harder game I'm in. I don't want to be in a forum where I'm with Latter-day Saints and feel under-valued. I heard words like 'confined' and 'mindlessness."' Aagard said she is raising four daughters "to emulate me, maybe, without letters after their name. It's not something small I'm teaching. I ask you to show the same respect for me."
Aagard was approached by several audience members in the hallway after the presentation, defending her right not to be offended by what church leaders say about her role. One man told her, "You're a slave and you don't even know it.""I'm not a slave," she shot back. "That's pathetic that you would say that to me."