Nineteenth-century Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball once said that to him, adding a new wife (he had 56 wives) was of as much consequence as buying a new cow for his farm.
I know, it’s not exactly fair to judge modern Mormonism by one man’s rather awful remarks from 150 years ago, but I’ve been thinking about some of the ways that assigned gender roles tend to dehumanize both men and women. Given that my experience is within a Mormon context, it’s natural to discuss this in Mormon terms.
Every Mormon knows from an early age what his or her destiny is. Boys are to grow up to be priesthood leaders. They are to be strong and righteous fathers who preside over their families. They are the breadwinners.
Mormon girls, on the other hand, are taught that their value comes from their roles as wives and mothers. The ideal Mormon mother is a stay-at-home mom who shuns a career in favor of having and raising children. (Of course, Mormon women are advised to get an education, just in case things don’t work out.)
Structured Mormon religious education is the same for girls and boys until age 12, except for the boys participating in church-sponsored Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. From the age of 18 months, they begin attending “Primary,” which is a two-hour meeting involving activities, songs, and scripture-based lessons. At age 8, Mormon children are baptized and confirmed as official members of the church.
At age 12, boys and girls are given separate instruction, with different goals and different milestones.
For boys, reaching the age of 12 means being ordained to the priesthood. This is defined as “the power and authority to act in the name of God.” At 12 they are made deacons and are assigned to distribute the bread and water of the sacrament each Sunday (no wine is used) and collect donations the first Sunday of each month. At 14, they are made “teachers,” which means they now prepare the bread and water to be used in the sacrament. At 16, they are ordained as priests and are assigned to pronounce the blessings on the bread and water of the sacrament, and they can also perform baptisms. Throughout these years, the focus for these boys is always on preparing them to serve two years as full-time missionaries. A glance at this year’s manual for Mormon young men shows a focus on priesthood responsibilities, including missionary service, faith and obedience, and two lessons on honoring the roles of women.
Girls, on the other hand, cannot receive the priesthood, but the church has a sort of parallel program more geared toward learning to be good wives and mothers. Instead of Scouting, the church has a series of “Personal Progress” goals for girls, which they are expected to complete before they turn 18. This year’s lesson manual for girls is quite different from the boys’ lessons. Topics emphasize finding “joy” in a woman’s role (there’s even one about having a good attitude about their gender role), supporting (male) priesthood leaders, finding a good husband, and of course, “Patriarchal Leadership in the Home.”
When they leave home, boys are expected to serve as missionaries, after which they will come home and get married as soon as possible so they can start a family. There is a great emphasis on obtaining a college degree so that these budding patriarchs can support their families (and give ten percent to the church).
Girls, on the other hand, are not given such guidance. They are to prepare for marriage and motherhood, and if their education is interrupted by the needs of a new family, so be it. Mormon women may choose to serve as missionaries when they are 21, but traditionally this has been seen as a fall-back for those not fortunate enough to be married by that age.
For a long time, I believed that the Mormon system unfairly hurts women. Now, obviously, it limits the choices and goals and dreams of these women, so much so that my daughter once asked me why Heavenly Father likes boys more than he likes girls. But it also wedges men into roles they may not want or be comfortable with. Clearly, gay or bisexual men are not going to fit into the Ward Cleaver role carved out for them, but there are also men who are not equipped to be good fathers or husbands, or whose ideas of what a marriage relationship should be differ from that prescribed by the gerontocracy in Salt Lake City.
In short, all of us were taught that we would find joy in our respective gender roles, even if that meant we had to work on our attitude about it. Happiness was defined for us as a nuclear family with the husband working and lots of children in a suburban home. So, we spent our whole lives trying to convince ourselves we were happy, because if we couldn’t find happiness in what God wanted for us, we could never have it.
When I left the LDS church, I literally felt like I had lost my identity. No one was there to tell me what to think or what to feel, what to do, what to wear, what to eat. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that I wasn’t really happy as a Mormon. Being Mormon made me feel guilt, shame, and inadequacy, and I learned later that I’d been suffering from depression for many years. But how could that be? I was happy. I had what every Mormon man was supposed to have. I presided in my home, and everything.
But as my therapist explained to me, every time I surrendered my feelings, my needs, to the church’s dictates, I lost a little of myself. I’m back, and I don’t miss who I once was.