Mormon leaders give women mixed messages, say sociologists

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bride and ringRecently at the SSSR annual meeting, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan Cragun and J. Sumerau, both sociologists at the University of Tampa, to talk about their research on Mormon women and gender roles in the LDS Church.

Their joint study “The Hallmarks of Righteous Women: Gendered Background Expectations in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is available now from the journal Sociology of Religion. Drawn from research into discussions of gender in Mormon General Conference talks and in the Ensign magazine (with research going back as far as 1897 but focusing most strongly on the period since the 1970s), the study points to a mixed message that Mormon leaders — both male and female — have been sending women.

Said Sumerau,

Two solid themes showed up in every decade, though we focused most heavily on the 1970s to the present. . . . The overall point was that they [leaders] defined femininity as something innate, God-given, and automatic. But what was odd was that the other big thing that kept showing up was that they were teaching femininity. In other words, God made you exactly this way, but we also have to teach you how to be a woman. The way I explained it to the student [researchers] who were noticing that was, “you’re automatically female, if you do these things in life that you automatically know how to do.”

In other words, their research into gendered terms like male, female, womanhood, manhood, father, and mother revealed two competing ideals: On the one hand, women are born to be nurturers, destined for motherhood from the dawn of time. On the other hand, femininity is something that must be developed — and protected at all costs.

The article is interesting, pointing out that every time Mormon leaders emphasize the fragility of womanhood, they undermine the notion that femininity is innate. If “outside forces are capable of corrupting godly womanhood,” then such statements “granted credence to the notion that gender itself was a social, rather than a godly, construction.”

In our conversation, Dr. Cragun asked what this means in Mormon discourse:

What does that really tell us, if they are saying that gender is innate, but that it also has to be taught? But at the end of the day the leaders know it’s not actually innate because they insist on teaching it.

This apparent double-speak was the most surprising finding of the sociologists’ research into Mormon gender.

The second-most surprising thing? That almost nothing has changed over more than four decades.

In their research into nearly half a century of Mormon leaders’ discourse on gender, they found that the language leaders use has softened somewhat, “but overall there has been no change” in the double message: Femininity is inherent, a divine gift to every woman, but it is also under attack. To counter that attack, Mormons must be hyper-vigilant about protecting it.

“It’s inborn, but only if you do these specific things that you weren’t inborn to do. You have to learn to take care of the house and the husband. That’s a hallmark of patriarchy,” says Sumerau. “You need to learn to be submissive to the needs of others, to service the needs of others, and appearance norms have to be strictly enforced.”


  • Tortdog

    By that logic we should not have to teach children about being Christ-like or God-like because we also teach that all are children of the only living God, are like Him, and have His attributes.

    But when we come to Earth LDS doctrine teaches us that we become like natural man and thus need help to get back to our God-like roots.

    So teaching a young woman about feminity may be less a “mixed message” and more about helping God’s children to remember who they are and where they come from.

  • Brian

    This is an absolutely brilliant piece. In all my life in Mormonism I had never picked up on the conflicting message pointed out here.

    And that gives me yet another reason I am so glad my wife and I left the LDS church.

  • i get so frustrated by the rigid definitions of womanhood and femininity. I don’t need to wear skirts or nurture children to be a woman. I get to define what my womanhood and feminine qualities are for me. I’m different and unique.

    One day we’ll wake up and realize the true definition of being a woman of God. As Rachel Held Evans so eloquently teaches, being an “eshet chayil” (woman of valor in Hebrew) has nothing to do with what you do and everything to do with *how* you do it. It’s your character that counts.

    The highest and holiest calling is to become His disciple.

  • I think that’s a fair point: Mormon doctrine teaches that we are children of God AND that we have to cultivate the traits of becoming more like God.

    However, we don’t then tell people that their identity as children of God is under attack, or threatened in a serious way. We do say, quite often, that the family is under attack, and that the consequences to society will be dire if men and women — particularly women — don’t toe the line of Victorian gender norms.

  • I’m a big fan of RHE’s work. Thanks for mentioning it.

  • naomi

    I think there’s a difference in dynamic; in one scenario you’re being told you’re inherently a seedling and here’s how to blossom, and in another, you’re told you’re inherently a blossom, but to inherently be that blossom you have to inherently be a particular colour of blossom that you’re not, else we wouldn’t have to keep reminding you of our chosen colour. There’s a slight hint of True Scotsman coupled with a bit of mixed messagery for me.

  • Hedgehog

    From the paper (p7): “..we also demonstrate that potential accommodations may ultimately be used to forestall – rather than promote – substantive changes in official religious teachings about gender.”


  • CG

    Interesting. Also interesting to note that divine femininity is taught to women mostly by males. Easy for them to say- men have 2 Perfect, Celestial examples and represntatives of masculinity and maleness. And those males claim that there is a Divine female representative out there somewhere, but yet we have no real example. Divine gendered femininity is all well and good, if we had a Heavenly example, wouldn’t you think?
    I love being told how to be a woman with eternal attributes without any true Divine representation…at that point I see the guidance and instruction as all speculative.

  • melodynew

    Women At Church

  • TomW

    Thanks, tortdog. I was struggling to find a good way to say what you said so perfectly. Nice.

  • TomW

    I don’t know how these are different, Jana. Our identity as children of God IS under attack, a component of which includes the traits of our respective genders. It needn’t be an either/or.

  • TomW

    CG, last I checked, all of my daughters’ YW leaders – the ones who teach them about femininity and the like – are themselves female. And while I haven’t attended Relief Society since, well, okay, I’ve never attended Relief Society, I’m pretty certain that my wife receives instruction from women as well.

    When you really think about it, the norm is for women to hear these things from other women. The exception, usually in a General Conference setting, is hearing it from men.

  • melodynew

    It’s always nice to see an objective source verify one’s subjective experience. This is a remarkable study.

    .For many, many years while listening to General Conference talks I’ve felt like turning around and looking over my shoulder with the question, “Who are they [general leaders] even talking to? Is there someone back there behind me who really needs or wants to hear this?” because I don’t need to be taught how to be a woman. Thanks for this post and for your commentary.

  • CG

    But, as stated in my comment, where is the Divine representation? And YW leaders etc are telling the YW what they’ve been told from male leaders. Where is our Heavenly Mother, Tom? Where is our Divine Representation? Our gender traits are eternal and inherent? From what female source??

  • Emily Elizabeth

    That’s the point, TomW. The research looks at authoritative statements on gender from General Conference, which is mostly male speakers, and the Ensign. In those settings, CG’s point is on target. The speakers and writers are primarily men instructing women about how to behave.

  • Tortdog

    I’m not sure how accurate that is. All the teachers and advisers of young women are female. Yes, they use Church approved resources for the materials, but I have doubts that those materials come from male-only committees.

    If the fault big that these materials use a lot of quotes from priesthood leaders, that is not a diversion from what all the scriptures reflect with very limited exceptions.

    I am willing to bet that the priesthood leadership is fairly open, if not deferential, when it comes to the tenor and substance of the same as is certainly reflected in local congregations.

  • Anarene Holt Yim

    That statement jumped out at me too. Are we doing ourselves a disservice when we advocate for and celebrate tiny concessions (like pictures hanging in the lobby or calling the Women’s Meeting a session of conference), when what we really need and want is complete equality?

  • Tortdog

    We are not even sure that there is a Heavenly Mother. We know a few things about God.

  • Anarene Holt Yim

    The article makes the important point that the only women who make it into official meetings or magazines are the ones who stay within the party line.

    In addition, as a woman who has been in the church for quite a while, I vehemently disagree that I receive more instruction from women than from men. Men teaching women about how to be women is absolutely not an exception. It is the rule. Women who will parrot that are sometimes allowed to speak or write publicly.

  • TomW

    CG, I think you underestimate the capacity of Relief Society and Young Women leaders to teach about womanhood from myriad sources, including their own experiences.

    With regard to Heavenly Mother, I think it’s a safe bet she’s with Heavenly Father. I understand the yearning for more light and knowledge about Her. And I’m sure that someday we will receive that information. What I do not understand, however, is the outright animosity from some individuals in the church with regard to the limited knowledge of Her existence. In all of Christendom, the only source of the very CONCEPT of a Heavenly Mother is derived from the Restoration. We know of Her existence through the instrumentation of modern prophets and apostles. That this information is limited seems to be more a function of divine determination rather than prophetic disinterest. To the extent that someone has a testimony of the restored church of Jesus Christ, with a corresponding testimony that God calls living prophets and apostles in our day, it suffices (even if unsatisfactorily) that God will reveal what He will reveal according to His own perfect knowledge of when to reveal it. To get testy about the matter, which some people choose to do, is an issue between them and the Lord, not between them and their church or its leaders.

  • karen smyth

    Thank you for this, Jana, and I applaud the research presented here. This is exactly what I’m doing in my dissertation, “The Errand of Angels: Gender, Sexuality, and Feminism in the Mormon Church, 1972-2014,” and one of my main arguments relates to the Church insisting that gender is divinely appointed but acting like it is socially constructed, and MoFems* believing gender is socially constructed (to varying degrees within the movement) and trying to refute the idea that it is divinely appointed. And some MoFems believe gender is both, and these beliefs change over time within the movement. We’ll see how these two viewpoints can be reconciled…
    Thanks for a great column Jana!

    *MoFems- the term for Mormon Feminists

  • TomW

    Anarene, what we truly need, and should really want, is “Thy will be done,” whatever that ultimately entails. May we all have the grace and humility to accept His kingdom as He chooses to reveal it, rather than insisting upon our own way if there is ever a divergence between them.

  • CG

    I underestimate nothing. I am a woman in this church and have been taught under the direction of the RS and YW my whole life. Their sources, though sprinkled with their own experiences, are 99% male-derived sources. This church, the scriptures, the manuals, the revelations, are all received and brought forth by men.
    The Restoration brought about the idea of Heavenly Mother. Yes, but a feminine divine has been around for millennia. I resent being told what suffices for a testimony and what doesn’t, and the implication that getting “testy” about this is a waste of time. Where is my maternal example? This is a matter between me and my church leaders since I’m supposed to be waiting around for them to receive inspiration on the matter.
    As a woman in this Church I am tired of being told HOW to be a woman by men, and a few women, who lack the Divine interpretation or example. Your assumption that “That this information is limited seems to be more a function of divine determination rather than prophetic disinterest” is easy for a man to say, and speculative. When we are pigeon-holed into gender roles by our leaders and those roles are labeled divine and eternal, I need representation, not speculation or assumptions. Revelation has apparently been abundant on our male Dieties- their attributes, qualities, and traits- so it isn’t too much to ask for revelation on our female one. They are so quick to tell us what our attributes should be, but nothing is divinely represented.

  • TomW

    Tortdog, while you are technically correct insofar as the canon does not declare the existence of a Heavenly Mother, we have sung since the infancy of the church:

    In the heav’ns are parents single?
    No, the thought makes reason stare!
    Truth is reason; truth eternal
    Tells me I’ve a mother there.


    When I leave this frail existence,
    When I lay this mortal by,
    Father, Mother, may I meet you
    In your royal courts on high?
    Then, at length, when I’ve completed
    All you sent me forth to do,
    With your mutual approbation
    Let me come and dwell with you.

    If there was any uncertainty about the existence of a Heavenly Mother, someone ought to have considered doing something about that hymn by now.

    Beyond that, the leaders of the church have referred to Heavenly Parents for at least several decades, and the Family Proclamation (yes, I know, not formalized as canon…yet) states, “ALL HUMAN BEINGS—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

    Enshrining the teaching of the existence of Heavenly Mother in the canon is, at this point, a mere formality. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. I don’t think there is any longer room for plausible deniability.

  • TomW

    Anarene, you write, “The article makes the important point that the only women who make it into official meetings or magazines are the ones who stay within the party line.”

    Well, yeah. Why would the church publish unauthorized commentary in its official publications? Men don’t get to do that either!

    You write, “as a woman who has been in the church for quite a while, I vehemently disagree that I receive more instruction from women than from men.”

    Instruction in Sacrament Meeting is generally split. We hear from both the men and the women of the congregation. Perhaps you’re keeping a stopwatch. I’m pretty sure that God isn’t keeping score.

    Sunday School is taught by whomever. It’s a fairly gender-neutral exercise.

    Relief Society and Young Women are taught almost exclusively by women, with the rare exception perhaps being a ward conference setting.

    If you think that people who teach the actual doctrine of the church are just parrots, I find that pretty darned sad and an insult to the women who faithfully teach the doctrines of the church.

  • Anarene Holt Yim

    I believe God’s will *is* equality of all people. I believe God is no respecter of persons. I don’t believe in or worship any god who values one sex over another.

    I think I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t accept that we as church members have no responsibilities except to wait for the brethren to tell us what to do. God can speak to regular old church members too, not just the leaders at the top.

  • TomW

    CG, I’m afraid we’re stuck with God’s kingdom as He has chosen to reveal it rather than the manner in which we may personally wish He had revealed it. Personally I’m not of a mind to challenge Him on such things, but apparently there are those who are really ticked off about it. Sorry.

    You are correct that most of the scriptures and revelations were revealed to prophets – men. The manuals, on the other hand, are probably written by a hodgepodge of church employees, and they probably never took a census to give us the full demographical information. I personally am incapable of reading instruction manuals and determining the gender of a given anonymous writer based on sentence structure and choice of vocabulary, but if that’s your superpower, that’s totally awesome!

    You write, “Where is my maternal example? This is a matter between me and my church leaders since I’m supposed to be waiting around for them to receive inspiration on the matter.”

    So tell us, CG, what are your expectations? Should the prophet go to the pulpit every General Conference and provide a status update for you?

    “Dear brothers and sisters, following is a report on our petitions to the Lord on the subject of our Heavenly Mother since we last adjourned six months ago. The First Presidency has specifically asked for a revelation on this matter on 24 occasions, each time a minimum of 8 minutes dedicated solely to this topic. In addition, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has separately petitioned the Lord on this matter 17 times, with a minimum of 9 minutes on each occasion. At the behest of the the First Presidency, we have additionally asked all 15 living apostles to keep a prayer journal at their bedside, and to report on their private petitions, which we have tabulated to be 779 pleadings with the Lord for further light and knowledge on this matter since we last convened. We regret to inform you that Heavenly Father has remained silent on this matter at this time. We urge your continued prayers that He may see fit to reveal more on the topic between now and the next conference, at which time we will update you further on our activities both as quorums and individuals. Thanks for your support.”

    As absurd as this example is intended to be, there are some whose complaints would suggest that this would be considered a mere start.

    Seriously, this really does come down to “did the Father and Son restore Their church to the earth through the instrumentation of the Prophet, Joseph Smith” and “does God continue to guide His kingdom on the earth through living prophets and apostles”? If the answer to the afore questions is affirmative, then our issue is indeed with God and not with His anointed representatives. If the answer to the question is negative, then none of this matters anyway and the beach is a splendid place to relax on Sundays.

    You are completely barking up the wrong tree. Your issue is with God.

  • Mike

    Maybe I’m reading too much in to this comment, but interpreting the criticism of a religious idea that has no physical evidence (god exists, homo sapiens are his children) as an attack seems like a little much. People (women) have rights. Ideas, including religious ideas, don’t.

  • TomW

    Anarene, I believe, and the church teaches, that God is not a respecter of persons.

    I do not believe, nor does the church teach, that God values one sex over another.

    I know, and the church affirms, that God speaks “to regular old church members too.”

    But revelation for the entire world as it pertains to directing His kingdom has an established channel. And if we are not receiving revelations fast enough to fill our individual voids, perhaps we need to do a better job as a church to deal with the light and knowledge we have already been given. God DOES keep information back from us. He always has. Do we choose to trust in Him and His holy purposes? I do.

  • Mike

    I think that when the researchers talk about “gender is innate”, they mean gender identity. As in gender dysphoria is the result when someone is not living authentically to their gender identity. The counter example of “we are children of god, and need to learn his attributes” doesn’t have any evidence at all.

  • CG

    Unfortunately, you have resorted to insulting me and my spiritual plight, so I stopped reading our retort shortly after I started. If you start with condescension and continue on with patronizing the other party, you discredit yourself and your argument. It is an unintelligent way to defend your position, and you simply come off as self-righteous and holier-than-thou. You’ve attempted to place yourself on a higher spiritual plane than me and claiming you understand God’s will better than I. How dare you.

  • TomW

    CG, you accuse me of resorting to insulting you, but I cannot find anything I have written to specifically insult you. I stand by my previous question: What are your expectations? Should the prophet go to the pulpit every General Conference and provide a status update for you? It seems you are intent upon blaming the Lord’s servants for the fact that the Lord hasn’t revealed to them what you desperately desire for Him to reveal. So either you do not believe them to be the Lord’s servants in the first place, and then just be honest about that. Or you do believe them to be the Lord’s servants, and I wonder why you then fault them for not sharing with the world what God has chosen for the time being not to reveal to them in the first place.

  • As of this writing there are 32 comments on this post, and a third of them are from the same person. Just for the record for those of you who have written to me today and in the past to complain about this individual’s tendency to respond point for point and at great length to anyone who disagrees with him, and to always require the last word, please know that I have written to this commenter to limit him to no more than two comments per post in the future.

    I will be enforcing this rule, one I have never had to employ for anyone else in four and a half years of blogging. And I have told this person that if he continues to try to dominate discussions until they no longer resemble discussions but are instead merely vehicles for him to pontificate, he will be permanently blocked.

  • Sylvie

    Breastfeeding has to be one of the most natural things in the world, but I needed help from nurses and my sisters when I didn’t know how to help the baby latch. Also, I needed my doctor when I soon developed a breast infection. Even with something as natural as using my body to feed my infant, I benefited from people with more experience. Do innate things not need the added support of wisdom? Also, taking this example further, why have there been so many public health initiatives to encourage women to breastfeed…isn’t it innate? Why do we need to protect breastfeeding from messages that discourage it?

  • CG

    Providing a status update is exactly what the prophet does for all of us. If he doesn’t have an answer to my very specific questions, I have no choice but to pray and wait that he asks the questions and receives an answer. So, until I get the “status update” on the Heavenly Mother I, and millions of others, so desperately want, the information I receive about being Divinely Female is incomplete and assumptive. Regardless of the Lord’s “timing”, regardless of your self-assured, clearly delineated, male divine potential that prevents you from having any sort of sympathy for anyone who can’t fit on your pedestal of privilege, and regardless of all the women in the world who wait and plead and yearn for more understanding of the mother we are supposed to emulate, if the prophets aren’t revealing the information (whether due to lack of knowledge or withholding the info like caddy, petulant, schoolyard bullies) is is the same— for we are left to follow assumptions of what She may or may not be like. My expectation, Tom, is for there to be more information about this God, my Heavenly Mother. I will demand that from our leaders, and I will demand it from the Heavenly Father who apparently has such a perfect plan for us all. It is 2014, and the “timing” argument is specious and unwarranted. It is the fulness of times, is it not? And yet, an entire half of the world has no Divine Representation. I expect more.

  • PC

    I have found TomW’s comments to be well constructed and (for the most part) just as respectful as anyone else’s. I admit, however, that I have not every visited this site before and am unfamiliar with his commenting history. Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think you do your readers and commenters a disservice by limiting a person’s voice in this type of forum (with the exception of abusive speech). This website says that its mission “…aims to be the largest single source of news about religion, spirituality and ideas. We strive to inform, illuminate and inspire public discourse on matters relating to belief and convictions.” Public discourse cannot happen to any extensive or useful degree if responses can only be limited to two posts. Either that, or you’re going to get a lot more novels, and tons of comments that say, “TL;DR.” I’d urge you to avoid censorship in this way.

  • Diana J

    TomW, that seems to be what the debate always comes down to. No matter what our feelings are on the issue, or what logically makes sense, it comes down to “thy will be done” i.e. follow God’s will, don’t ask questions. When I hear members say this, they are usually referring to something a church leader has commanded, so they are saying “Do what the prophet (or Stake president, or bishop, or other P.H. leaders) says.” In my opinion, if we truly believe everything our leaders say comes from God, that makes them infallible. That is a heck of a lot of power to give to mortal men. I wish members, instead of running around saying “thy will be done,” would mention that caveat to that – that to them it means that they are unquestioningly doing what their leaders tell them to do.

  • Diana J

    TomW, are you aware that the manual for RS lessons this year is “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith”? Yes, they may be hearing it from a woman’s mouth, but RS curriculum is created by men and includes mainly teachings from male leaders.

  • Mary

    Very much agreed with PC.

    I think Sylvie’s example is very apt as well.

  • Thomas W. Scott

    You deleted my post !!!

  • DougH

    That looks like an interesting article, I’ll have to read through it when I have more time.

    But for the point raised in this post about mixed messages, I don’t really see the conflict. I think it’s fairly well accepted that we are born with certain tendencies (varying per individual), and that those tendencies can be altered by our experiences and how we choose to react to them. I once heard character defined as what you end up with when the personality you’re born with collides with reality. Likewise, as best I can understand from what I’ve read gender attraction has both a genetic and an environmental aspect to its formation. So I see no conflict with the Church teaching both that femininity is innate and can be cultivated.

  • Moss

    It is not difficult to determine the gender of who creates the materials for our courses of study in RS:

    We have the presidency message the first week. Then we have two weeks out of the prophets of the church manual (all dudes) and then the last week is a conference talk (most likely another dude). So, one week out of four we are going to hear materials generated by a woman.

    We as women hear a great deal about how to be women of God, from men.

  • Artemis

    Rational Faiths addressed this particular question earlier this year. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Because the role of the 1st counselor in the General RS Presidency is to oversee the education structure for the sisters, Sister Okazaki was looking for ways to help the lessons better help the current needs of the women in the church. She realized that the lesson manual was due to be updated soon so she prayerfully wrote a general outline to get the important process underway. After her outline was approved by the RS presidency, she brought it to the Curriculum Committee. She was promptly told that her lesson manual outline and suggestions were not needed because a new manual had already been written for them and was near completion.
    ‘I asked what [the new manual was about], and he said, “Well, it’s the manual on Harold B. Lee.” It was the first one in that series of teachings of the Church presidents. I asked, “Why are they writing a manual for us on Harold B. Lee?” He didn’t know. I told the presidency, so we went and asked the Curriculum Committee, “What is this all about?” They said, “Well, we’re already almost finished with the first book.” We said, “You’re almost finished with the first book, and you didn’t tell us that you were doing this? Why is this is the first time we have heard about it?” “So I asked, “Who is writing this manual?” It turned out to be five men, and the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and Relief Society would have the same lessons. I asked, “Why aren’t the women included in this?”’

    As was the case with the new manuals, the biggest hurdle with getting the needs of women heard was the fact that women simply aren’t included where the most important conversations and discussions are being had.”

  • Artemis

    I’m more of a reader than a commenter, but I agree with Jana’s assessment of this particular person’s “discussion” tactics. Even when I have thoughts on Jana’s articles, I’ve usually opted not to post specifically because of that person’s repeated passive- (and sometimes not so passive) aggressive comments to everyone he disagrees with.

  • Fred M

    Aw, I wouldn’t call it censorship. Just encouraging him to be a little more courteous and little less argumentative.

    I find him to be over-zealous in defending every perceived slight of the church, and a bit of a holier-than-thou bully in some of his responses, but he also seems to have a sense of humor and I’ve enjoyed interacting with him. I think asking him to take it down a notch and setting some perimeters isn’t such a bad idea. Maybe eventually he can earn some time off for good behavior…

  • Artemis

    But why are we so often hearing men telling women how to be women?

    My larger question is what are these feminine attributes that are so important for only women to develop? Compassion, charity, nurturing, kindness, selflessness, and so forth should be attributes all followers of Christ should be striving for, not just women.

  • JasonS

    I agree with DougH wholeheartedly: Where’s the conflict?
    I think the authors are overlooking a very important point: we aren’t animals. Innate attributes in the animal world are reflexive in nature, and not easily altered by the environment. What separates humans from animals is our ability to override our innate tendencies if we so choose. If we didn’t have this ability, and didn’t live in an environment where occasional reminders of who and what we really are was required, the “plan” would be pointless.
    In regard to one author of the article (Ryan T Cragun), I think it’s important to note that he is a former Mormon (raised in Utah…and even went on a mission!) An earlier commenter stated that she is glad to see an objective opinion parallels her subjective experience. To say Cragun’s opinion on this matter is objective, is bunk. In all fairness to Cragun, I find it hard to believe any former Mormon’s opinion on any aspect of Mormonism (other than on that which can strictly be quantified) is going to be tinged by a negative personal bias. I mean, come on….if you’re a former Mormon, you’ve got a beef. Especially if you were raised in the church and served a mission.
    Thanks for trying to make a big deal out of nothing Cragun. But, hey….you did stir the pot a bit and give us all something to think about.

  • Hedgehog

    I was arguing this during in RS lessons, in which there were numerous quotes by men telling women how we naturally are by virtue of our being women, over 20 years ago…

  • RTC

    JasonS, you seem to be under a mistaken impression (or two). First, humans are animals. To suggest otherwise is to draw a line that, from a biological standpoint, makes absolutely no sense. You can argue that humans are slightly different from OTHER animals for reasons X, Y, or Z, but we are still animals.

    Also, I think it is worth pointing out that your criticism of me is a logical fallacy. It’s an ad hominem attack. It’s a flawed argument that allows you to ignore the argument being made by calling into question the character of the person making the argument. I’ve heard this argument so many times I finally wrote about it:

    You’re welcome to disregard all of the evidence my co-author and I provide on the grounds that I’m a former Mormon, but I’d just like everyone to be clear that you’re doing that in order to ignore the argument, not because it makes logical sense to do so.

  • Nate Oman

    There is nothing contradictory about saying that a trait is innate and saying that it requires cultivation and can threatened. For example, the ability to run is innate. One can become a better runner by training and a worse runner by sitting on the couch all day eating cheetos. The sharp distinction between natural/innate and “socially constructed” strikes me as rather simplistic. It allows for some gotcha theorizing — they know its not really innate! — but that’s a rhetorical game and little else. There are thing about LDS gender discussions I dislike but this dichotomy doesn’t strike me as helpful in thinking about them.

  • dac

    I would like to strongly support PC’s comments above regarding limiting one person’s comments. I think that this will detract from the richness of the discussion that heretofore has often been at least as compelling as the original posts. It also seems profoundly unfair to limit only one contributor’s comments while allowing everyone else unlimited posts. Personally, over the past couple of months that i have been visiting your blog, I have found TomW’s comments to be generally well thought out and thought provoking. For those not interested in his comments, it is easy to scroll past them as all contributor comments are clearly identified by author. I think this is a preferable option to shutting down comments. For me, TomW’s comments are one of the reasons I come back to your blog posts more than once.. Finally regarding the statement about responding to comments point by point, I think that this may be done because a failure to address points raised may otherwise lead to the incorrect impression that there is no response to unaddressed points. Unlike a face to face discussion where taking floor time reduces time available to others, in a written comment forum, one person’s comments do not prevent others from simultaneously contributing. Please reconsider restricting TomW or any other contributor whose comments are civil and on topic of the geneal ebb and flow that takes place in the comment section.

  • K

    The irony of two men with academia-endowed authority telling me, a single Mormon woman that, whereas I wasn’t previously thrown off by the seeming “mixed messages” of the LDS Church about womanhood, I really ought to be…

    Because, you know, Mormon women are too intellectually fragile to grapple with the nuances of these messages themselves.

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  • JES

    I must say I find the assertion “there is no conflict” quite interesting because the examples used to back this assertion up – child of god, breastfeeding, and running thus far from what I can tell – don’t hold up well logically.

    If one is innately a child of god, for example, then there is no need to teach people how to be godly because every natural impulse (e.g., our innate desires) would automatically be godly – this would logically suggest that all morals and rules churches come up with are pure imagination and unnecessary and the scriptures are just stories that have no real moral value because we are innately godly and thus we need no instruction to act in a godly manner because our godliness will be a natural part of all we do. In other words, if we are born with a connection to god our actions do not matter because that connection is innate and thus nothing we do can destroy it. This is, of course, not what churches teach – instead they teach we must act in certain ways and that only certain things (many of which require ignoring or fighting biological or innate urges) are godly. This is the same contradiction as with gender – if we are innately godly or gendered then why does anything we do matter since we are already godly and gendered no matter what we do because we were born children of god and people with genders? The answer is that we don’t define natural behaviors as automatically godly, we use rules instead that we make up over time, and we don’t have an automatic biological meaning for gender, but rather we teach it to children and hope they conform – this is likely why both gender norms and religious teachings change so much over time, since we make them up we can easily adjust them when we feel like it and if we are innately godly or gendered it doesn’t matter what the rules are anyhow because we have a natural connection we cannot control. Thus, neither of these things (based on evidence) are in any way innate, but rather they are things we have an innate potential to learn how to do and believe.

    If we take the breastfeeding example, we run to the other side of the behavior spectrum wherein we could get help for all matter of breastfeeding activities as the poster notes, but it is also something that we could have (if we were born with the biological capacity or innate ability, which not every one and not every female is by the way so even this is not completely innate for people) done without any help (people have for centuries and continue to do so) in the first place. The practice is innate because even with 0 instruction anyone capable of doing so can do so naturally. However, when issues arise (e.g., the full capability is not innate for that person) then we can get help to do it. Similarly, if we want to we may find other ways to go about the practice in specific contexts through learning from others and select to do it in ways beyond biological function. To contrast this to gender, all we need to note is that there is no case of anyone able to do gender without instruction. In fact, those raised without gender don’t develop gender identities and don’t label other people’s activities in gendered ways, but those who are raised without any information on breastfeeding who are able to breastfeed may still do so without instruction. This is a pretty obvious distinction between innate, innate potential for developing, and learned behaviors – in the former case, one can do the act without any instruction, in the mid range one has the potential to learn how to do the act though it might need biological functions for the completion, and in the latter case one must be taught the act and interpretation in the first place for it to make sense. So we have a spectrum wherein one with the biological capability can breastfeed without instruction (there is not an equal form of gender we know of because people need to first learn the gender rules of their time and place to even believe it exists), one with the biological capability to any extent can breastfeed naturally or in other ways with help and instruction (again, we don’t need biology to gender ourselves or others, but we do have the potential to learn these things), and where one can learn breastfeeding tactics from a given society and thus interpret those as how breastfeeding should be done (this is the one that gender aligns with, one learns the rules and conforms to or rejects them based on context).

    Finally, the running example is quite fun because it relies on a logical fallacy noted in the post. The poster suggests innate versus learned is a problematic dichotomy and i would agree, but so is whether or not there is a god, so is whether or not people do or have genders, so is lots of our world so that statement is merely an attempt to hide from the debate about gender. Second, the poster notes that you may get better or worse at running due to exercise, but better or worse does not destroy the ability to run – someone who can’t run well because they are out of shape will still have the ability to run as long as they have the biological capability and someone who runs well may hurt their health since running is not an exercise that is considered very good for long term health because of the damage it can do to the joints. In either case, unlike the Mormon leaders talks on gender, running is not destroyed if you don’t do it regularly or properly – rather you just get better or worse at it. Mormon leaders suggest not doing gender regularly or properly destroys gender, that is a very different assertion from the false parallel the poster made to running. Finally, running fits the same criteria as breastfeeding – if you have the biological capability to do so, you can accomplish this action without any teaching because the development of muscles in the legs will urge the body to stretch those muscles – it is a biological process interpreted by the person and those around her, but it doesn’t need much (if any) instruction to accomplish. Gender is not the same – there is no (that anyone can find and demonstrate thus far) biological need or imperative to call this thing one gender and this thing another, rather gender is purely the interpretation of activities by people based on the context in question. For example, long hair once meant man, now it usually means woman; makeup once meant man, now it usually means woman; pink once meant boy, now it usually means girl = there is no biological act that equals a gender, there is a biological act that equals what we call running, the poster is comparing apples to oranges in order to avoid the debate most likely.

    This is fun and I look forward to reading other comments.

  • Sylvie

    “The practice is innate because even with 0 instruction anyone capable of doing so can do so naturally.” I’m not a sociologist with your expertise, but I am a woman who has breastfed. I”m not sure I agree with the above quotation.

    “This is fun and I look forward to reading other comments”. Humility appears to be a learned behavior and not an innate one:)

  • Sylvie

    Just another thought for JES’s entertainment value as I’m not a sociologist. Is it possible to categorize certain things as completely innate (“The practice is innate because even with 0 instruction anyone capable of doing so can do so naturally”) and other things completely learned? (“To contrast this to gender, all we need to note is that there is no case of anyone able to do gender without instruction”). Can we divide things so definitively? When my husband and I had sex, my body became impregnated. Due to the biology of this reality, my behaviors changed to care for this new life. Are gender roles all just learned by others and not also influenced by innate, biological factors? It seems challenging to me to separate innate and learned behaviors – they seem intertwined.

  • Anarene Holt Yim

    Ryan, Thanks for the study and the work you and your group did. It was NOT fun to read–it made me sad to see how little progress we’ve made–but I’m old enough to remember most of the talks you quoted, and I think you got a pretty good take on what women in Mormonism have been taught.

    I was also able to read Lori Beaman’s “Molly Mormons, Mormon Feminists and Moderates” (a source listed at the end of the article) which takes the angle of how LDS women perceive and live out what they’re being taught. I recommend her paper to any other readers who are able to get access to it.

    Jana, Thanks for alerting us to this study and others like it. Sociological information is so valuable to have, so we can see what’s going on in the big picture, and not just be trapped in the frames of our own local wards.

  • Anarene Holt Yim

    Ryan, I forgot to add that if you’re looking for another conservative religion project, we sure could use some studying how masculinity is taught and followed too! 🙂

  • JasonS

    RTC, thanks for your response.

    In hindsight, for me to say you have a “beef” was a little extreme, and I apologize for that. But for me to say that you disagreeing with Mormon theology would cause you to interpret Mormon writings from a negative standpoint is not unfair or unreasonable at all. It is something a reader should throw into the mix before drawing a conclusion.

    Ironically, I actually agree with the ad-hominen thing (and thanks for providing us with the fancy name). I have been preaching to my kids and the elders quorum for years that we oftentimes get so hung up on who said what that we don’t listen to what is being said. That fallacy definitely holds water. There is another fallacy that exists with general populace, however, and that needs to be taken into account. And that is that the experts (in this case the sociologists) are right because…well, they are the experts.

    To be honest, I feel badly for experts in any discipline. They carry the burden of knowing their titles alone have the ability to impact thousands. Because of that they must think, and re-think, every word that falls from their lips. And they have an ethical responsibility to carry out well thought-out and designed researches and studies. If you strip the former-Mormon thing from the equation completely, any two people who simply read a half decade of writings (on ANY topic) and render an opinion haven’t conducted the kind of meaningful scientific research worthy of public dissemination.

    In short, what really troubles me is that you and the co-author didn’t find a way to take your research about five steps further before publishing your results.

  • RTC

    Anarene, thank you for the very kind words.

    I apologize for the paper not being “FUN” to read!


    We hope to continue the project looking at masculinity as well.

  • RTC


    I’m intrigued by these additional five steps. Would you mind explaining what you mean?

  • Your points have been heard — thank you! — and overruled. I have had several readers contact me to complain about this commenter’s relentless domination of discussions. He was asked to limit himself and did not do it, so now as the moderator of this community I have chosen to limit him.

  • JasonS

    RTC, haha good point. Five steps?hmmm…I’m intrigued to know as well. I am prone to exaggeration. But as we’ve already agreed, a fault like this shouldn’t cloud one’s willingness to consider my remarks.

    Let me re-word my last sentence: “…didn’t find a way to take your research a step or two further before publishing your results.”

    Surely there is something substantive that could have been done in addition to reading a bunch of conference talks.

  • DanielD

    I second Dac’s comment. Your only reason for shutting down TomW is because people complain. If people are put off by TomW’s comments, then they can simply ignore them. The only reason people would be complaining is because TomW addressed their points, they cannot refute them, and they don’t want to feel humiliated again (or they do not have time enough in the day to respond). I cannot believe that you have sided with the speech police. Can’t you see that “relentless domination of discussions” means “he is right and I can’t admit it” or “I wish I could stay at the computer all day and respond to every argument he makes”? Please reconsider, Jana.

  • RTC


    “Reading a bunch of conference talks” isn’t entirely an accurate description of what we did. 😉

    Yes, we did do that (and read lots of Ensign articles, too), but we also looked for patterns in those talks/articles and then brought those talks and articles into dialog with modern scholarship on gender. It’s actually quite a lengthy and challenging process that provides insights that cannot be derived from quantitative methods (which is the direction most of my research leans). I’m of the opinion, when it comes to research methodologies, that the best method of analysis is the one that will answer your question. In this case, our question was: how do LDS leaders construct what it means to be feminine? That isn’t a question that can be answered using statistics.

    On a related note, in this particular paper we didn’t include any figures depicting word frequencies, but we have done that in some of our other research based on this data. We have several articles forthcoming looking at how LDS leaders talk about pornography and homosexuality that include word frequencies. These figures are particularly relevant to the discussion of homosexuality as the words that are linked with homosexuality are reflective of the different ways homosexuality is framed at different times. Thus, more quantitative measures can be useful at times when doing this kind of research, but it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

  • Wrath of Kahn

    Oh please. TomW is a bully. When I first happened on this blog, I wondered if he wasn’t the guy Jana turned down for the prom and was stalking her blog in revenge because of how doggedly (and often rudely) he kept harping on her and everyone who even mildly agreed with her posts.

    I’ve seen TomW tell people that their personal stories of pain don’t matter because their experiences were, to use his word, “aberrations.” When he was called on it, he refused to see how he was being unkind and hurtful–it seems to be all about “winning” to him. People don’t want to engage with him because he has a history of condescendingly browbeating others, not because he’s just so insightful that people can’t respond to him. If he wants a space to dominate, he is welcome to start his own blog.

  • maddy

    Jana. I wasn’t aware of the rules for this blog. Are they posted somewhere?
    Just wondering….

  • Tortdog

    I presume that Wrath of Khan will get limited as well for the personal attack?

  • Marni

    Thanks for pointing out this fascinating study. For various reasons, I have always had the perception that I was receiving dual messages from LDS leaders. On one hand they seem to have endless praise for the contributions of women to the gospel. However, they also seem to fear given the opportunity, women will immediately turn away from homemaking and motherhood. The vast majority of women (and men) I know, LDS or not, want a nice well run home and want healthy cared for children and do their utmost to achieve both. The truth is, due to a myriad of factors, worldwide women’s roles are inevitably changing in both religion and society. I think much of this change is positive, but in LDS culture the reaction to this seems to be fear.

  • JasonS

    RTC, thanks for the additional clarification. Your explanation was helpful.

    I am curious if LDS women interpret the church’s teachings on feminism the same way that you do. Bringing patterns in those talks and articles into dialog with what a meaningful sample of women in the church is actually thinking would be a worthwhile exercise.
    Thanks again

  • Wrath of Kahn

    I’ll choose to moderate myself. I should have said,”TomW’s snarky responses and hyperbolic characterizations of those he disagrees with could cause people to feel they are being bullied” rather than labeling him a bully. I apologize for using overtly hostile language rather than cloaking that antagonism in sarcasm, which apparently makes the hostility okay.

  • Another Brian

    This post is sort of silly. Of course women (and men) have innate characteristics and abilities, and of course some of these are Christlike attributes we should seek to further develop or maintain. You don’t hear professional athletes complaining that they’re getting “mixed messages” from their coaches for telling them that they’re both naturally talented AND need to practice.

    And speaking of sending mixed messages…
    Wow, Jana! In publicly threatening to ban TomW, you have set a very odd standard for this blog. TomW does comment a lot, but most of his comments are responses to false or misleading information being spread about LDS beliefs and practices- and his comments are more factually-based and substantive than a majority of the comments on these threads. If you don’t want TomW to comment so much, all you really have to do is correct or prevent the misinformation yourself.

    Apparently as anything more than two comments per post is excessive, I’m sure Jana would like the following people publicly warned:
    Anarene Holt Yim
    Jason S
    Jana Riess

  • Another Brian

    And myself 😉

  • Elizabeth Mott

    The final quote Jana included seems key to me inasmuch as it asserts that LDS Church leaders are reifying the abstract concept of “femininity” as “tak[ing] care of the house and the husband,” and “being submissive to the needs of others.”

    This reification is taking a concept that arguably has a scriptural basis in the LDS canon–the divine feminine–but defining it in a way that has largely been informed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-American cultural practices.

    I have spent the past ten years of my life *un*-learning submission to the needs of others. Because let’s not confuse husbands’, children’s, co-workers’, friends’, and neighbors’ “needs” with God’s will. Sometimes people can be quite demanding without realizing it, or just flat-out manipulative. Other people do not get to shame me into doing their bidding anymore. Now I give out of love for Christ and for my neighbors, and I take into consideration my own limited resources of time, money, and health.

  • Cynthia

    It is also important to realize that innate does not mean unchangeable. Would anyone say that a white carnation that has been left in blue food coloring was not innately white? Similarly, our sojourn in this mortal world can have a huge impact on what we become, but unlike the carnation we can chose whether to foster the divine nature we partake in as children of God or the inclinations of the “natural man” so prevalent in our fallen world. When you take this doctrine of the dual nature of mankind into account the confusion at this “mixed message” falls away.

  • SanAntonioRob

    I agree with Tortdog.

    This can also be applied to anything God-given, including talents we were born with.

    There is a quote from The Natural (one of the best sports movies ever), where the dad is talking to the hero about his NATURAL ability to play baseball. He says, “You’ve got a gift Roy… but it’s not enough – you’ve got to develop yourself.”

    One more point. We are ALL told “You need to learn to be submissive to the needs of others, to service the needs of others”. In fact, it’s THE WHOLE POINT of the Gospel. Christ taught it. If we want to become like God (“the greatest”), we will become the “servant of all”. God’s whole “work and glory” could be rephrased to “service our needs of eternal progression”. I hope my eternal reward will be to serve others. To be worthy of that reward, I serve others now.

  • DougH

    An excellent point. That verse in Ephesians that is translated to tell wives to “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”? The exact same word is used in the previous verse for Christians to “submit” to each other. Mind, that entire section is rather poorly translated/understood, the better word to use would be “support.”

  • Nobody

    What is the point of this?

  • Nobody

    Hmm…an example of favoritism, perhaps?
    This is classic…support the people who agree with your point! Yay! Kick out the people who disagree. They have no place in the discussion! After all, we wouldn’t want their views to taint the purity of ours.
    That was sarcastic, if you couldn’t tell. This entire discussion has the mindset of “my way is the only way.” If people didn’t like TomW, then by all means ignore him! Banning him is extreme. I agree with DanielD. Reconsider.

  • Nobody

    Good point, Another Brian.

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  • JasonS

    It has been pointed out that women have no divine example. The implication is that men do. Interestingly, as a guy, I don’t feel that way at all (that men have a divine example).

    I believe I have a Heavenly Father, but aside from what my leaders have told me I have no personal experience with what He looks like or what He does all day. Does He work from nine to five? Does He ever workout? Did He throw me around when I was a kid? Is He the primary fixer of things in His mansion on Kolob? Beats the heck out of me.

    As a male, I could just focus on the life of Jesus….the scriptures say that He and the Father are one. At least someone personally witnessed what He, as a male, did all day and wrote it down. On second thought, that’s not going to work—I don’t have time to walk around all day teaching and being nice to people. And was He married or not? Did He have any kids? Did He even have his own home? At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I know in his younger years He was a carpenter, but in his later life did He do ANYTHING to actually put food on the table?

    Once again, I don’t mean this post to sound sacrilegious. I also don’t mean it to sound sarcastic or condescending. The questions above shot through my head as I seriously (and sincerely) considered the frustration women must feel in not having some kind of divine representation (aside from us singing there’s a Mom up there), only to realize that, from a practical standpoint, we’re in the same boat…

  • JasonS

    To be clear, I realize the prophet and general authorities are male. But I have no idea how He actually acts, I just have to take their word for it. And supposedly what they say is not related to their personal experience in life matters (in being male), but from their witness from Him.

  • Nobody

    Your research is lacking if you only counted the leaders in general conference meetings and the talks in the Ensign. The women are taught by male AND female leaders…every Sunday. In order for your research to be complete, you must look at the problem from every angle. Studying General Conference is not looking at it from every angle. Look at Relief Society. Look at the Young Women’s organization. Look at the general women’s meeting. Look at The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Look at the talks given in church meetings. Not trying to be annoying; just pointing out a discrepancy that I see. 🙂 And if I am completely wrong about your methods, I apologize.

  • RTC

    Dear Nobody (awkward starting a response that way),

    You’ve basically suggested a Sisyphean task. With General Conference talks and the Ensign, we have a bounded collection of data. If you want us to include every Relief Society and Young Women’s presentation in every ward or branch every Sunday from UNKNOWN DATE 1 to UNKNOWN DATE 2, well, that’s impossible (I’m only giving this extreme example because you didn’t put bounds on your suggested study, which means such bounds could be anything). And even if you limited this to, say, 15 wards or branches in multiple geographic locations over a single year, you’re now talking about a study that would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars (in travel, living expenses, transcription fees, etc.). And then, of course, there is the problem with the LDS Church being highly restrictive in who it will allow access to study its wards or branches. Unlike many more bottom-up style religions where access to a local congregation would be determined at the local level, with the LDS Church, access is determined at Church Headquarters. If I applied for permission, as a former Mormon, it is highly likely it would be denied (I know, because I have tried to get data before and was denied).

    Finally, whose views would be expressed in Relief Society and Young Women’s presentation? We were interested in the official discourse of the religion, not the views of local leaders and teachers. Thus, for us, it made sense to go with the official discourse of the religion – General Conference talks and Ensign articles. It didn’t make sense to go sit in on Relief Society and Young Women’s meetings to hear what local leaders and teachers said.

    All of that explained, it would make for a good follow-up study to ours to have someone see how local leaders translate what the General Authorities say in Relief Society and Young Women’s presentations. To do this, you’d need to narrow the scope to 1 ward/branch and then attend, both Relief Society and Young Women’s (not sure how you would attend both) for several years, comparing what the local leaders and teachers say to what the GAs and their representatives say in General Conference and the Ensign. It would be an interesting study. But that was not the aim of our study.

    Thanks for the comment.

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