Men, Women, and Cows

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.

8 Responses to Men, Women, and Cows

  1. mcarp says:

    I’m afraid that after 40+ years in the church, I’ve lost so much of myself and become so depressed that I’ll never get back to what I think should be “normal”.

    Someone once told me in a work context, “They suck the life out of you if you let them.” Unfortunately, that’s also true about the church. Your last three paragraphs ring so true with my experience that it just makes me sad.

  2. runtu says:

    I can totally relate to that. It’s just been in the last few months that I feel like the damage isn’t permanent. I feel like a real person again. I know I can’t erase the impact the church has had on me, but I can function and be happy without it.

  3. Simplysarah says:


    I spent nearly a decade in YSA wards. When I was active, I remember thinking that it was unfair of church leaders to vilify the single young men (who apparently are shirking their responsibility to get married asap). Obviously, I was also terribly dissatisfied with the role relegated to me as a single woman in the church.

    I think part of the reason the LDS singles aren’t dating and getting married as much (or at least as early) is because they’re experiencing a generational identity crisis…they struggle to reconcile their individual desires with the cookie cutter life supposed to bring them happiness.

  4. aerin says:

    Thanks for this post Runtu. I agree wholeheartedly. The cookie cutter mentality is very damaging for everyone, both men and women. Woe for anyone who doesn’t fit the cookie cutter.

    It is true, this was/is American culture – it’s still there as an undercurrent (strict gender roles, women becoming wives and mothers, men becoming providers and a house in the suburbs). But LDS culture seem to put this on steroids.

  5. Thanks for your honest post. I’m glad you had the wisdom to recognize that the Mormon lifestyle wasn’t working for you and to move on.

  6. Kameron says:

    Interesting post.

    I see what you describe as, at least partly, the risk of getting too attached to a plan or ideology rather than measuring the results. Ye shall know them by their fruits, as I once read somewheres…

    To the devoutly LDS, for example, The Plan is seen as essentially infallible. There is little to no room for serious disagreement with The Plan. To the devout, that’s precisely the point: we may not understand or agree, but God says so, so we do. One result of this way of thinking is that when The Plan doesn’t work as promised, The Plan is never blamed. What is blamed? Anything except the plan is a scapegoat. The commonest scapegoat is the person who notes flaws in the plan, or whose results don’t match those promised by the plan. Aren’t happy in church? The Plan certainly isn’t at fault. So select a rationalization to neutralize cognitive dissonance and avoid logical examination of The Plan: you’re unhappy in church because of a) your sinful nature; b) your failure to follow every precept of The Plan; c) your lack of faith; d) your unrealistic expectations; et cetera.

    I see this same pattern of plan-worship in places other than religion. Schooling (where learning and education are often secondary or tertiary concerns), politics (where allegiance to the party platform is preeminent) are two examples. The plan-worship is also, I think, a) a way to avoid personal accountability (don’t blame me, I was following orders) and; b) to conceal one’s self interests under another guise (God commands you to marry leave your husband and marry me).

    Not that there’s anything wrong with a plan. It’s just important to escape the closed feedback loop occasionally, and evaluate the results with something approaching neutral objectivity.

    And any plan that causes people a lot of renting, misery and self-blame is ripe for reexamination.

    (Yes, it is a slow day at work…)

  7. Amen.

    While I was in the young women presidency, briefly, I tried to teach the girls that they may not get what they wanted out of life, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be happy. I got married at 27 (past old-maidhood! egads!), and had a miscarriage or two early on, before eventually finding out I was infertile. And now I’m leaving the church, so shame on me all over again.

    My husband and I were talking about the whole polygamy thing, and that quotation you listed by Heber C. Kimbell is totally illuminating. My husband is trying to live with the cognitive dissonances after all the things we’ve learned. He wants so desperately to believe the church is true that he’s ignoring all the evidence that it is not. I asked him Sunday what he would do if the current prophet/president came to him to ask him for me, his wife. My husband’s response? I would let him have you.

    WTF???????? I am no one’s property. No one’s cow.

    I’m tired of the church telling me and my husband what we should believe, because heaven forbid we actually think. I’m tired of it telling me what to feel and what not to feel. I’m tired of it telling me that if I don’t fit into this tidy little mold called Mormon Womanhood, that there is something wrong with me and I must find a way to fit into the mold.

    Sorry; I’ve got a lot of anger right now.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying reading your blog. Thank you.

    • “I asked him Sunday what he would do if the current prophet/president came to him to ask him for me, his wife. My husband’s response? I would let him have you.”

      Whoa! That is so totally what I might have expected my SO at the time to say, and that attitude was really quite scary to me. How could someone feel secure in life knowing that at any moment a church leader can give an order and a spouse blindly obeys even if it means tossing the wife/husband/family under the bus. Family is supposed to have your back…they’re supposed to protect each other.

      How did you handle that response?

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