Q&A: The roles of men and women in Mormonism

Jul 31, 2012 by

We recently received this question from a reader.

I have recently been investigating the church and am a 20 year old woman. I have always grown up in a household where women and men are equal and that both my parents held high paying jobs. I am currently getting my undergraduate degree and plan on getting my masters. I and am concerned about the role of the woman in the church. I know that women are “suppose” to be the family care givers and be centered on the family. However, I am not interested in having a family until later in life and would want to stay in a high paying full time field if I did start a family. My parents concern with me joining the church and that men hold higher power than women in the church. While I was able to dismiss this as “that is just the way it is” my parents have been asking me a lot of questions that have raised some concerns of my own.
1) Do men run the household because the have the Priesthood authority and have a higher role in the church?
2) How would I be percieved if I joined the church and did not plan on getting married later in life and if I did and had a family that I worked and was perhaps even the one who held the higher paying job?
3) Also do men take the fact that they hold higher roles in the church and apply that to their home lives with their families?
Thanks
-k.

k., thanks for your question. It’s actually not unlike a question we received last year from a woman named Jo. We’ve gathered some responses here to your question from several Mormon women, but I also wanted to point you to the post where several Mormon men and women responded to Jo as well.

Here’s Jo’s question so you have that as context:

I’m a female in my mid 20s and not a member of LDS but am looking into the idea of joining. What I’m trying to figure out is….I guess, would there be a point in my life outside the church? I’ve been a typical young woman shall we say, and do not want kids. Have a degree, a job, etc. I’ve read elsewhere these sorts of thing could mean that if I were to join, I’d basically end up alone for life. Not that I’d join looking for a husband, but if it came down to the only way I marry someday (which I do want to) is to marry a non member, that seems a bit silly to join in the first place. I understand this might make me sound like a horrible person, but I’m only now really pursuing the idea of being active in a religion for the first time in my life. … Any thoughts?

Following are some responses to your question, k. I’ve even included some of the back-and-forth of the conversation from a group of women whom I invited to help respond to your question…so you can see some of our interactions as well.

I should add the probably-obvious disclaimer that we are just some Church members sharing our thoughts – we don’t officially represent the Church. But we love the Church…and we also understand why your parents (and you) have the questions you do. I hope something that is said below can be helpful. Please feel to follow up if you have more questions.

(You can read some of my thoughts and a compilation of quotes in a post I did a while ago called Eternal Equality (look at the first comment if the post doesn’t show up…I’m not sure what is going on but the text wasn’t showing up for me so I reposted it in a comment.)

I’ll start with a thought. (I was going to send it via email but decided to do it here instead, so I’ve edited the post to add this.)

One of my dearest friends joined the Church at about your age, and she was a passionate feminist. And quite frankly, even though she knew joining the Church was the right thing to do, she was just plain mad about the different roles in the Church, and thought for sure that somehow the message of the Church was that God favored men simply because of their anatomy.

I wish you could meet her and hear her talk both about her honest, heartfelt, fist-shaking questions she would ask God, and about the answers that slowly distilled over the years. I believe (and I think she does, too) that her convictions and passionate testimony wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to her had she not had to seek God’s guidance and help as she sorted through hard questions she had.

And she’s taught me more about God than almost anyone.

My hope for you is that through this process, you’ll simply come to know God and His love and truth more in your life. None of us has all the answers, and you will find that there are some women in the Church still wrestle with the questions about gender roles and such. But ultimately, most women who choose to be Mormon simply choose it because we believe this is where God wants us to be. Because we believe the Church to be Christ’s restored church. Because the truth of the gospel has changed our lives. Because we’ve read the Book of Mormon and know it’s another testament, with the Bible, of our Savior.

Because God’s Spirit has guided and kept us here.

If He’s guiding you in this direction, trust Him. You won’t have all the answers (even to heartfelt and good questions), but you’ll know enough to take the first step. And then, one step at a time, He’ll be there for you, and help your faith in Him and His Son to grow. He’ll help guide you in your personal decisions, too, about life, career, marriage, family.

And keep asking questions in faith, because He will give answers, in His time and His way.

- – - – -

Bonnie writes:

These are completely valid questions. Here are my thoughts:

1.  There is nothing in family management that diminishes women. Even in division of “roles” – if families choose to pattern after traditional collaborations – each counsels with the other as equals.

2. A choice to join the LDS Church is a far-reaching choice, moving far beyond the cultural observations of our time and place. It’s a choice to accept great truths about God and how he deals with us. There will be many opportunities for someone joining the church to be perceived differently than others in society. God has always had peculiar people as his own. It’s the challenge of faith – to yield to our inner beliefs about a relationship with God in opposition to outer beliefs held by our culture. One of those choices is often regarding money. It is, after all, a temporal and transitory thing.

3. Welcome to the fold!

She also adds (in response to a thought that power in Mormon doctrine is a rather expansive topic that extends beyond gender-based assignments in the church): “I think this is what Alma was trying to teach the poor Zoramites who felt powerless: it is not about worldly power. Power is in faith, and it comes line upon line, every effort rewarded in baby steps until we find ourselves one day in the presence of God, comfortable there. If we can only desire … then let this work within us. It’s where we start – not with all the answers, but with the desire to try the solutions proposed.” [See Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon for this analogy of faith being like a seed, growing little by little as we give it place and nurture it in our hearts.]

- – — -

Liz says that “there are men (and women) in the church who limit themselves to stereotypes. They exist. It’s frustrating to run head-long into the wall of their limitation. The *gospel* calls all to be disciples, and I’ve yet to find gender differentiations within the actual roles of disciples. So: I’d suggest looking for a disciple-minded fellow when it’s time to marry. Match up two disciples, and you get an amazing marriage partnership without the artificial power struggles some would choose to layer in.”

(“Basically,” Liz adds, “Don’t marry a power-hungry jerk, or be one yourself. :) )

- – - -

Hailey responds:

There are lots of different ways to be a Mormon woman. I know of an ObGyn, an opera star at the Met., a lawyer for the Justice Dept. in D.C. (my sister!), and one who runs a global humanitarian project. Read some of the profiles at Mormon Women Project, they will get the stereotypes out of your head.

[You can also see the breadth of Mormon women's lives in the Mormon.org videos and profiles. We also have various portraits of Mormon women here at our site, including women who have careers. You might also want to read a couple of our Ask a Mormon Woman questions about the topic of whether all Mormon women are married stay-at-home moms (here's another post about whether all Mormon women stay home after having children.]

- – - – -

Hailey adds: “And yeah, marry someone nice. I am amazed sometimes at the level of humility and selfless dedication of Mormon men. For the most part, they give huge amounts of time and energy into this church, not to gain more power or leverage over someone else, but simply as servants of Christ. Men and women are of equal importance in this church. They have different roles, but they work together in their homes as equal partners. It looks peculiar from the outside. And it’s true that your ideas about money and status will change as you grow spiritually.”

- – -

Rebecca adds her thoughts:

#1. I do believe men are the head of the household partially due to the priesthood. The priesthood is the power to act in God’s name. What better thing to have at the head of your home. We need the power of God to help our families survive in such a difficult time. But that does not mean he controls everything. The husband and wife should and in most cases do work together to come to decisions. Working together as one, because after marriage, that is what a couple is. They are one.

#2. There will be those who perceive the choice to get married and have children later on in life as wrong, but that is because they think that because the Lord told them to have a family earlier in life that that is what the Lord wants of everyone. But if you look around, you will see many women in the church who choose many different life styles. That is because we know that we are to be our own person and that we each have a plan for us that does not fit into one mold. So don’t worry about perceptions, just worry about what the Lord wants for you.

#3. There are men all over the world who think themselves better then other and especially women. If you marry a good man, who respects you, he will not take anything and put it above you to make you feel less. A man who has the priesthood or a high calling in church has nothing to hold above a women’s head. The man and the women are one and should act accordingly. Most men in the church realize, that the women have just as much given to them, it is just not as obvious as what the men have.

- – - -
Kaylie shares her thoughts:

Motherhood is very highly emphasized in the Church, and some church leaders have interpreted this to mean that mothers should stay home with their children. But in the last several years, there has been more of an emphasis on mothers making their own decisions and praying about what’s best for their themselves and their families, so while motherhood still matters, most LDS women I know combine motherhood and employment in a huge variety of different ways. [Editor's note: Kaylie actually runs a non-profit website to open up dialogue and share resources and ideas for LDS women who are mulling over ways to balance career and family. FWIW. You may also be interested in keeping tabs on the BYU Women in Business Conference.]

Yes, the Church is mostly run by the priesthood. By that I mean that callings such as bishop, president, apostle, etc. are exclusively male. If you’ve grown up with men and women having egalitarian roles, this might be an adjustment for you. To be honest, sometimes it’s still an adjustment for me.

But there are other things that keep me going, such as doctrines I’ll never find anywhere else and convictions that I believe came from the Holy Spirit. I think it’s OK if you feel like you’re different than other LDS women.

I know of some LDS men who think their priesthood means they can rule their wives with an iron fist, but as far as I know, they are rare. The official teachings of the LDS church do not support any kind of spousal abuse or control. In my mind, men like that would use just about any kind of excuse to abuse their wives, and the priesthood happens to be the most convenient one, even though the church teaches the exact opposite.

In short, the role of personal revelation (asking your own questions and getting your own answers) is really important. And if people judge you for not being married or for not having kids or making more than your husband, they’ve forgotten that you are entitled to make your own decisions and receive your own answers to prayers. But I’m hoping they won’t judge you. Many LDS women are highly educated and work. You certainly won’t be alone.

- – - – -

Hailey shares this quote from Elder L. Tom Perry, one of the current members of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family . . . They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”

- – - -

Jamie quotes Matthew 23:11 which says, “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

She then adds:
“I have always felt that the role of men to preside in their homes is a call to serve their wives and children. The role of women is to serve their husbands and children. I believe that the idea of men presiding in the church is an opportunity for men to learn to be more like Christ. I believe motherhood is an opportunity for women to be more like Christ. I have long believed that the organization of the church helps men to become more serving and selfless. It seems like women are more naturally this way perhaps due to their more biologically intrinsic role of motherhood.

“I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that personal revelation is paramount in discovering God’s plan for your life. If you will be humble and follow the promptings you receive, you will be led to do what is right. It may or may not end up looking like the stereotypical Mormon family. It may not look the same as the plan you had for your own life. :) Heavenly Father will use your talents to do good in the world, he will strengthen your weaknesses. You will be the most happy that you can possibly be if you follow his personal plan for you.

“The more I learn about the world, and about the individual people who live in it, the less I want to judge any of them. I don’t want to have that responsibility. I don’t want them to judge me either. I don’t want to be categorized or stereotyped, I want to be known for my own self and loved despite my human flaws. I think most people want the same thing. That being said, forgiveness is learned at church, both in concept and practice. I do not believe that I am the only Mormon who has experienced a need to be forgiven and a need to forgive my fellow members. ;)

- – - -

Heather also recommends the Mormon Women Project and Mormon.org, and says this as well: “I think the key to understanding roles is realizing that the FAMILY is the most important [unit] of the gospel. [Church leaders teach that the Church is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families. Christ is at the center of our faith, but families are at the center of God's plan.]  When we think about the family being the center of everything we do then it changes our priorities and how we view our relationships as men and women.”

- – - – -

Marsha says:

“How would I be perceived if I joined the church and did not plan on getting married later in life and if I did and had a family that I worked and was perhaps even the one who held the higher paying job? [Consider Sheri Dew, who] is strong, the CEO of the church’s most recognizable corporation [Deseret Book, a for-profit book company] and never married at all, and I don’t know a single general authority or person (doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I’ve never met them) who isn’t amazed at her talents, her intelligence, her humility and her love. As long as said heart was turned towards the Lord, really, what difference does it make? A strong woman will have a strong faith in herself, her choices and her reasons for making those choices.

“Do men take the fact that they hold higher roles in the church and apply that to their home lives with their families? – What is “higher”? Do they serve more? No. Do they have more decisions to make? Maybe. Do they make them without their wives, Relief Society Presidents input? Usually not. It has been my experience that the perceived ‘higher’ the calling, the more humble the man. (Not always of course, but far more often than the opposite).”

- – - -

Emily says:

Here’s an additional take on having a career/family & when. Perhaps it may become a new attitude versus the old one of waiting? (i.e. maybe some of us are waiting because everyone else is and it seems like the thing to do, but perhaps it’s more advantageous to have families when you’re younger?): http://empoweringldswomen.blogspot.com/2012/07/life-timing-balance.html.

“In response to this article, Penelope Trunk, blogger and career advisor, wrote an article of her own entitled, “Get Pregnant at 25 if You Want a High-powered Career.” It basically suggests that women should do the childbearing thing while they’re young, acquiring key skills along the way, then really bust onto the career scene in their 40s. At that time, you still have at least 25 solid working years ahead of you when you can build a serious career, if that’s what you want.”

Emily adds:

Also from the Proclamation on the Family: “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” and “HUSBAND AND WIFE [emphasis hers ;)] have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children.” “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” Sounds pretty equal to me.

Emily concludes: I think when you begin to understand the doctrine, you *want* to get married and have a family. You don’t want to hold off because you see that family is more important than the career. Your desires change. On a side note though, if you make more money, and you want to be working, and it works for your family, great. If people judge you, they shouldn’t; don’t mind them.

And, #1 & #3 – Personally, I don’t think men run the household — especially if they’re home less of the time. The priesthood really has nothing to do with it in day to day stuff; however, most women really appreciate it when their husbands take charge getting the family gathered for prayer and scriptures and family home evening, etc.

If my husband thought he was better than me for “holding a higher” role in the church, I would laugh. I don’t think the men of the church want to be better than their spouse (maybe jerky ones do?). I think my husband would have a problem with it if someone told him he was better than me. Actually, there are very few roles he could do in the church that I can’t. But some with a division are: he could be a counselor to the bishop, and I couldn’t. I could be in the Primary, Relief Society, or Young Women’s organization presidencies, and he can’t. So, there are things that each of us can and cannot do, and I don’ think it transfers over into the home.

- – - – -

Liz responds to Emily’s last point:

I may not be called as an official first or second counselor to the Bishop, but as a member of an auxiliary presidency, I, ovary-bearing human that I am, become part of the Bishop’s council, and have quite a lot of input and value. And, men might be in positions where they are “led” by women–male Primary teachers, committee members, etc. When the individuals working together understand the nature of discipleship, a lot of the petty power-games fall away. (It happens at home, too… when we divide up adult life needs according to who can best handle them right then, there’s no “Mom work” versus “Dad work”–it’s just *family* work.)

Both blog posts you shared, Emily, are AWESOME. I do not regret devoting my 20s to starting our family (and to some, babies at 21 seems radical). I’m headed for my 40s in a few years… the sense of self I have now, as opposed to then? WILDLY different. As my children launch into the world, I’ll be launching into new seasons, too. I’m loving life right now; I’ll love that season as well.

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