The image of a lipsticked lady pulling a homemade cake out of the oven as her children play in the yard and her husband sits in an armchair reading a paper seems more like a scene from The Donna Reed Show than a reality in the 21st century. Today, 39 percent of women in The United States work outside the home full-time. However, among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “occupation: housewife” defies national statistics. According to a 2013 study done by sociologists Tim Heaton and Cardell Jacobson, only 25 percent of LDS women in the United States work outside the home full-time (Riess). At the same time, 41 percent work part-time, which is higher than the national average, and 26 percent identify as housewives, which is twice the national average.
It is in this context that The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s famous book which confronts the idealized image of femininity for causing widespread unhappiness among the sex, reenters the conversation. In the 1960s, Friedan identified what she called the “Problem That Has No Name,” by which she meant the pervasive dissatisfaction among American middle class white women indicating “occupation: housewife” on the census. I’d argue that this discussion is still relevant for LDS women today where housewifery—or at least the plausible façade of housewifery (remember those part-time employment numbers)—is culturally admired. For instance, a Mormon housewife blogger commented this year (2015),
I’ve realized it seems to be the story of most LDS families our age that I’ve met. It’s startled me though that even though apparently most of us aren’t truly happy with this set-up [of being a housewife], and many women long for more opportunities beyond child care, that we’re still presenting motherhood in the form of staying at home with the kids to our women in the Church as the greatest, and best thing they can ever do, and what God wants them to do. God wants men to be fathers, and work for pay. But women should only be mothers. (Thunderchicken, 2015)This blog post yielded a plethora of comments. Some disparaged Sister Thunderchicken for what they considered negativity towards her God-created sphere, but the majority expressed gratitude that she was willing to be open about these feelings with which they have also struggled. This blogpost and its responses demonstrate that “The Problem That Has No Name” lives on in the Latter-day Saint community. Because the problem Friedan identified—the dissatisfaction of women due to the inability to define themselves outside the walls of their culturally defined feminine role—is still mystifying women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, perhaps Friedan’s solutions are worth examining in this present context. Friedan’s argument that the pursuit of completeness through essential human characteristics may be the key to the demystification of Latter-day Saint women today.
First, Friedan’s proposal for overcoming the Feminine Mystique coincides with the unchanging Latter-day Saint doctrine of the pursuit of perfection. Friedan often articulates the importance of women being “complete.” Throughout the book, Friedan explains how a woman is incapable of being successful—even in the role of wife and mother—if she is not first an individual. She cites a therapist who states: “[Woman] must be complete herself” (Friedan 246). Friedan in no way suggests that all women must reject prescribed gender roles by chopping off their hair and buying a pantsuit for every day of the week. However, she does propose that escaping the prescriptions of gender roles can be effective in helping women become “complete.” For instance, Friedan notes the result of the early feminists’ battle was that, “in turning their backs on the old feminine image, in fighting to free themselves and all women, some of them became a different kind of woman. They became complete human beings” (72). According to this passage, it is the “old feminine image,” something outdated as well as a fabricated ideal, that restrained women from becoming “complete human beings.” It’s important to note that Friedan argues the goal is not to reject womanhood as culture may define it; these early feminists she describes did not become men but rather became a “different kind of woman.” Therefore, the path to completion should be a focus on essential human characteristics rather than a reliance on social constructs of gender definitions. Additionally, I think the most important distinction Friedan makes in this passage is viewing the goal as becoming a complete “human being” rather than becoming a complete man or woman. I believe that focusing on becoming a complete human being, without regard to gender specific traits, should also be the aim of Latter-day Saint women.
Just like Betty Friedan argues the need for individual completion, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that every individual’s purpose in life is to achieve completion. According to Paul Johannes Du Plessis, whose etymological studies of the Bible are cited by many of Christian scholars, including Mormons, there is a connection between the Biblical term for “perfect” and “complete.” Du Plessis says the Ancient Greek word for “complete” is “teleois” but, in the Bible, was translated to a word of similar meaning, “perfect” (Du Plessis). In the gospel of Matthew, originally written in Ancient Greek, Jesus Christ exhorts His disciples to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect” (King James Bible, Matt. 5.48). This verse states clearly the commandment to be perfect, or as Du Plessis suggests, complete. Jesus also explains in this verse what perfection looks like by providing the example of Father in Heaven. Therefore, the goal of Latter-day Saints is to become like Heavenly Father who is perfect. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the meanings of the word “perfect” is “having all the essential characteristics, elements, or qualities” (“perfect”). Therefore, in order to fulfill the mission of becoming like Heavenly Father, one must obtain all of Father’s characteristics. In other words, becoming perfect, or complete, like Heavenly Father depends on the development of all divine attributes regardless of their categorization as feminine or masculine.
While Heavenly Father is the example of perfection, Latter-day Saint women do not have a female role model of perfection. At this time, there is a lot of unrest in the LDS Church due to women trying to claim rights that are doctrinally or traditionally claimed solely by men. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan counters those who said women were just attempting to be like men by remarking, “We did not want to be like them and yet what other model did we have?” (Friedan 60). However, something that separates Latter-day Saint doctrine from so many other Christian religions is the belief in heavenly parents. Mormons believe in not only a Heavenly Father, but also in a Heavenly Mother. This belief should solve the absence of a female model of perfection.
However, Heavenly Mother Herself is veiled by a Mystique; we know little about Her. In spite of the fact that there is little said about Heavenly Mother, there are those who recognize that her completeness must equal Heavenly Father’s. Former apostle, John A. Widtsoe stated in response to revelation by Joseph Smith about the eternities, “[We have] a mother who possesses the attributes of Godhood” (Widtsoe). This statement reveals that the attributes of godhood are not defined by gender. In actuality, the female God has “the attributes of Godhood.” Therefore, the characteristics of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father are not associated with their gender but with their godliness. This means that both men and women must also acquire all divine attributes in order to become complete like their heavenly parents.
Although there is not much definitive knowledge of Heavenly Mother, it is accepted that Jesus Christ exemplifies the characteristics of our perfect heavenly parents. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, the majority of human contact with Heavenly Father is through Jesus Christ. But Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father are “one.” Jesus even says, “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son” (Matt 11.27). Therefore, Jesus’s example and characteristics teach the way in which to become perfect like the Father.
Therefore, may I suggest that not only does knowing the Son teach us about the Father, but we also learn something about the Mother. Interestingly enough, while Christ exhibited what some consider masculine virtues such as strength and courage, many of His characteristics would be considered “feminine,” by today’s standards. For instance, Christ is nurturing. He spent time with children, listening to and caring for them. In fact, Christ is often compared to a mother throughout canonized scripture. Quoting Jesus, the scriptures say, “how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you” (3 Nephi 10.4-6). This image of Christ as a hen caring for her chicks is repeated throughout the Latter-day Saint standard works (see Matt 23.37, Doctrine and Covenants 10.65). The comparison of the male Christ to a hen illustrates that He also embraces a self-conception that includes nurturing motherly qualities. If men intend to follow Christ and become like Him, it is requisite that they also develop their “feminine” attributes. Because Jesus Christ has both what many define as “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics, it is important for everyone, regardless of sex, to develop all virtuous attributes.
Despite these examples of divine persons being complete through the development of all characteristics regardless of the characteristic’s “gender,” there is a tendency within Latter-day Saint culture to reinsert gender roles as essential to the definition of completion. In other words, there are women who believe that their value as a Latter-day Saint comes from their successful fulfillment of the role of housewife. According to the observations of a blogger who dubs herself The Mormon Housewife, “Some (not all) women in Utah feel a certain pressure to act, and live, a certain way. They feel they have to perform, put on a certain face, and be so-called ‘on’, all the time...They are to be perfect housewives, and perfect mothers, and the perfect neighbor” (The Mormon Housewife, 2013). The important thing to note about this statement is that “The Mormon Housewife” does not say women feel a pressure to be perfect people but specifically to be perfect homemakers, mothers, and neighbors. This distinction illustrates the search for becoming perfect or complete in the narrow alleyway of culturally-defined gender roles.
This same issue is identified by Betty Friedan. She gives a multitude of examples of women who misinterpreted the significance of being a housewife. Friedan explains these examples by saying, “[T]he young bride now seeks in her marriage complete ‘fulfillment,’ that she now expects to ‘prove her own worth; and find all the ‘fundamental meanings’ of life in her home” (Friedan 184). Here Friedan demonstrates that the housewives she studied were looking beyond the mark. Her use of absolutes such as “complete” and “all” suggest the issue is not with the desire to find fulfillment within marriage and the home, but instead with the expectation that marriage and the home are all that a woman needs to find fulfillment. Anything desired in profusion should trigger a second look. Satan often uses the distortion of true principles as a way to lure people who are intending to be righteous into sinning. When people focus on developing a perfect role instead of on becoming a perfect person, they are distorting the true principles of God.
However, it’s no wonder many women believe they will find this completion by striving to fulfill the role of homemaker. Church authorities repeatedly remind women that, “[The woman’s] place is in the home, to build the home into a heaven of delight” (“Mothers’”2003). Therefore, whether or not they feel like this is the correct choice for their lives, many men choose to spend all day at work while women choose to stay at home because they genuinely desire to follow the counsel of the Lord as articulated through His prophets. However, there are two factors of this prophetic counsel that complicate the idea of becoming perfect through fulfilling gender specific roles.
First, it is essential to realize the distinction between doctrine and cultural interpretations of doctrine. For example, it is LDS doctrine that we must become like Christ. This doctrine is separate from the way we implement that doctrine and the way doctrine is implemented can be influenced by many things including circumstance and culture. This is to say that perhaps counsel to women to be homemakers is not in itself the doctrine—as many believe it to be—but a cultural implementation of the doctrine. In fact, Julie B. Beck, President of the Relief Society said,
“One of the questions that I get frequently is, ‘Is it okay if I work outside of my home or I don't work outside of my home?’ You have to know that as an international, global, Relief Society president, that question isn’t always appropriate in all of the world’s countries. There are many, many places where if our women don’t work, they don’t eat. So of course they have to work. The question of whether or not to work is the wrong question. The question is, ‘Am I aligned with the Lord's vision of me and what He needs me to become…?’” (qtd. in A. Adams)According to this quote by the president of the Latter-day Saint women’s organization, the idea that women should be stay-at-home mothers is not a universal doctrine because it is culturally contingent. On the other hand, Beck identifies the doctrine to be aligning ourselves with God’s will and becoming who He wants us to be. In other words, it’s crucial that Latter-day Saints focus more on the doctrine of becoming like Christ and less on the culturally prescribed interpretation of that doctrine through roles such as “homemaker.” At times, the best way to follow God’s will is through working at home as a stay-at-home mom, but that doesn’t make it an inherent truth.
Furthermore, in my research I discovered that any exhortation for women to be homemakers was accompanied by doctrinal principles that necessitated this need. Largely, the counsel was focused on the need to cast off the materialism that so often drives a family to choose to have both parents work full-time jobs. For example, former church president Ezra Taft Benson said,“Sometimes the mother works outside of the home at the encouragement, or even insistence, of her husband. It is he who wants the items or conveniences that the extra income can buy. Not only will the family suffer in such instances, brethren, but your own spiritual growth and progression will be hampered” (“Mothers’” 2003). This statement represents many others which all suggest that the purpose of women being homemakers is not because the role helps them to become more perfect but that the role is a tool that can assist in this journey to completion which, in this example, is avoiding materialism. Most importantly, Betty Friedan stated, “At every step of the way, the feminists had to fight the conception that they were violating the God-given nature of woman” (Friedan 70). Here Friedan insinuates that feminists were not fighting their female sphere as defined by God but the “conception” that they were violating this sphere. Likewise, recognizing that gender specific roles are not doctrine, but rather cultural implementations of a principle designed to assist us in reaching perfection allows people to have the right perspective when making personal lifestyle choices.
Bonnie L. Oscarson, General President of the Young Women program clearly recognized this recently when she stated, “All of us—women, men, youth, and children, single or married—can work at being homemakers” (Oscarson, 2015). Likewise, Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated, "Homemaking is to make the environment necessary to nurture our children toward eternal life, which is our responsibility as parents. And that homemaking is as much for fathers as it is for mothers” (Oaks, 2015). Both of these statements by Latter-day Saint Church leaders suggests homemaking is not a gender defined role but that it requires the contributions of both women and men. In this way, becoming complete, or having all attributes of God requires both genders to develop all characteristics regardless of their social prescriptions to one gender or another.
Friedan concludes her book by asking, “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?” (Friedan 313). In response, I say that she will be divine. Her true and complete self has all God-like attributes—both feminine and masculine. She will be like her Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, and Jesus Christ. She need only cast off the cultural mystique that prevents her from achieving such a perfection. Discarding the mystique does not mean that her sometimes lipsticked and aproned self might not pull a few baked goods from the oven, but it does mean that she is aware that being such a woman is her choice and it is only one facet of her complete being.
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Full Citation for this Article: Fox, Melinda (2015) "The Mormon Mystique," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleFoxMystique.html, accessed <give access date>.
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