Standing up to Mormon Female Stereotypes

By: Devika Ranjan

March 16, 2015

This past month, I had the opportunity to attend the Wheatley International Affairs Conference in Utah hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU). Though the conference focus was policy prescriptions in the Middle East, I was also immersed in Mormon culture for the first time. It was certainly a culture shock; I constantly asked questions and was grateful for the willing and frank explanations from BYU students and faculty. 
A conversation that struck me deeply was the role of women in society. Near the end of the conference, the female conference chairs hosted a discussion about women in academia. One girl raised her hand and explained that she was “on the fence” about having a career. While I have never really considered not having a career, it seemed like a weighty decision for some of the female BYU undergraduates.

Only in reflective conversation with a friend did I come to understand that this is a norm in Mormon society. “The Church is everywhere in your life,” he explained. “Up until 30 years ago, the leadership had a strong stance that women should be mothers, and mothers should be housewives. Only in the last 10 years has it become acceptable for women to work.” Even still, he is met with surprise and skepticism when he tells people that he would like his wife to have a career. They tell him that this kind of a woman is dangerous—that she does not have her priorities straight.

I realized that the female Mormon scholars at this conference were pioneers in their fields. When they began their careers, they must have been culturally ostracized, which is why they stated that careers were a sacrifice for women. Though I instinctively balked at the statement, I now understand their perspective. For some, their social standings were tarnished—devastating in a culture in which community is everything. Mormonism is foundationally centered on tradition. Any discontinuity from the norm has enormous repercussions not only for the woman, but for her family as well. 

Another scholar regrets that she was never able to have children because she focused on her career for the greater part of her youth. While a Mormon woman’s primary responsibility is to raise many children and instill community values within them, the inability to have children is another thing that sets this woman apart.

On the other hand, I think of my grandmother. She wrote her dissertation while raising five children in India as her husband travelled for work. I am sure that she too faced social stigma for her academic work. However, she ended up with five grown children, a 60 year marriage, and a doctorate in front of her name.

In America, I take my ability to challenge norms and existing structures for granted; it’s hard to believe that a struggle for women’s rights continues a few states away. But even in our society, we haven’t achieved gender equality. It is expected to follow the status quo, and every society still struggles to fight sexism. Those that shine through are people like my feminist friend who believes that women should have careers, the roundtable chairs who defied stereotypes, and my grandmother—brave enough to stand up to stigmas despite expected homogeneity.    

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Standing up to Mormon Female Stereotypes