Often when trying to help people mentally map my hometown in their minds, I describe it as a being three hours north of Salt Lake City. Although Idaho Falls is located in Idaho, I have discovered this Utah city better gives people a sense of my hometown than describing it as four hours east of Boise. Although this partially stems from the fact that few people out East can locate or even know Idaho’s state capital, I have found it helps in describing my town’s culture and so I have come to dramatically extend my definition of Idaho Falls into “a small suburb located a few hours north of Salt Lake.” A “Mormon Mecca,” an “Aryan Zion,” there are many connotations associated with Salt Lake that could easily be applied to my hometown’s mostly white and religious population where at least more than half belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
There are plenty of stereotypes about the Church of Latter-Day Saints once you leave the greater Utah area, but many of them are simply just that: stereotypes. For the most part, they are simply just average people with a taste for green jello, funeral potatoes and little smokies. They love music. Many of them play the piano or violin or sing and since moving here, I have yet to be in a public gathering where the majority knew how to read music and match pitch. Additionally, they have a very strong sense of family. This in part stems from their beliefs, but helps to build a very integrated community.
Perhaps because my family prefers to self-isolate with each of us residing in our separate corners, the degree to which my friends’ families meet the American ideal of the supportive, loving, dinner table family has always fascinated me. While I do not believe these families have reached perfection, and the pressure to reach this ideal can be just as crippling as it is helpful, I admire the effort they devote towards building a strong family. In fact, I find this dedication to be one of the church’s strengths, but I believe it may also have inhibited the development of equality in particular areas within the church, specifically in dealing with sex, gender and sexuality.
First and foremost, the church believes males and females to be equal; that is, their roles are of equal importance in the societal unit of the family. Each sex has his or her role: Men are the providers, while women are the nurturers. The separation between the two is somewhat blurred, as women are encouraged to pursue a higher education and men are expected to play an active role in their children’s lives, but on the surface there are two distinctly different roles. They are different, but of equal importance in the fostering of a family (1). More simply put: Separate, but equal. For those who want to play these specific roles, the characterization of these specific parts is not a problem; but, for those who do not fit the convention, they are lost in the binary spectrum of this synopsis.
But things are beginning to change.
Last fall, the presidency announced new mission requirements: lowering the age from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women (2). This change in requirements means that, while there will be less men will be goofing around before jetting off on their mission, more importantly, women will not be left behind waiting. Waiting to go on a mission. Waiting for a missionary to come home. Waiting to be married. Much less waiting. Beforehand, although women could go on a mission, waiting until they were of age generally meant they would be married by the time they were eligible for service, as it is common for a woman to be married during or before her junior year of college to a returned missionary, commonly referred to as “RMs.” But this shortens the waiting game. Although not perfectly equal, as women still have an extra year before receiving their mission calls and cannot stay as long, they will no longer be “waiting,” a word that recalls the times of the women sitting at home while the men were out hunting/fighting wars/working.
The age requirement, the length of the mission, even the title given to missionaries (a boy will be called “Elder Smith,” while a girl will just be “Sister Smith”) still are full of inequalities, but the lower age requirements show a step towards merging the separation between the sexes. These past few years I watched my males friends from home say good-bye and head off to serve. This spring many of my female friends are heading off to join them. Christmas vacation might be quieter, but I am delighted for them to not have to wait to pursue their goals (3).
This decision to lower the age requirements came from the presidency of the church. Though I can only speculate on the reasoning behind this decision, I doubt feminism played a strong role in influencing the announcement as other factors did not shift. More likely it came from a desire to increase the number of missionaries and ease the transition to missionary and back, as it no longer cuts in the middle of one’s college education. It even might increase marriage as the timing of return between both girls and boys is almost the same and the women who did choose to wait would not have to try to find a husband her last year of college. Ironically the women who chose to wait in order to go on a mission would end up leaving the men waiting for women to return. In short, increasing missionaries and marriages were likely the goals of the presidency, stemming from religious beliefs, but the decision still has a profound effect on closing the divide.
The divide though cannot just be closed from the men at the top. There is a feminist movement within the church, although small as feminist generally has negative connotation at home. Young Mormon Feminists and Feminist Mormon Housewives are a couple of the better-known groups. Last winter, Stephanie Lauritzen, tired of petitions and playing “nice” encouraged women to engage in some “good, old-fashioned Civil Disobedience,” founding the group All Enlisted in the process.
“…the Suffragists won when they stopped playing ‘nice’…
As it turns out, the Suffragists weren’t traitors, but liberators.
Can you imagine what would happen if the Mormon Feminist movement stopped playing nice?” (4)
She then encouraged women to wear pants to church (5).
The response to this movement ranged from supportive to vicious. From pants-wearing women and be-purpled tie-wearing men to death threats leading to the removal of the original Facebook page (6).
Responses from a variety of views populated the blogosphere. Questions about the definition of gender roles, the legitimacy of staging a demonstration within a church, and even the meaning of pants began sprouting in the minds of conservatively stable population.
The responses ranged from the positive:
“You rock your identity. You live it up with your hopes and dreams. Be extraordinary and magnify the pants off your divine potential” (7).
To the negative:
“You think you are saying that women should be equal to men, despite our physiological differences.
You are actually saying that women should be the same as men to be their equals” (8).
To the Facebook (9):
It was the discussion these women hoped to generate.
Spotlighting something so simple caused reaction and now, a dialogue that could stretch and reshape church doctrine has been brought center stage. If these women succeed in breaking from their assigned roles, the future might be less scripted: the theatrics of the idyllic wholesome family redefined.
This sense of family, the place of acceptance, refuge, support, by all means could and should stay. It is a powerful idea and its definition has changed over time and it can change again. From a family lineage, to a household, upstairs and down, to the “typical” 1950s picket-fence pitch, it has evolved. I grew up in a household with two breadwinners where my dad took up the responsibilities of carting my sister and I to tennis and other after school activities. He even took up cooking, fearing we would die from eating my mother’s Kraft Mac n Cheese. Families do not need one of each sex; France just passed a bill legalizing not only same-sex marriage, but also adoption. Family does not even necessitate legal or blood bonds; we create family from the people who surround us.
Family does not necessitate gender roles.
1 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation
2 A mission is two years (18 months for women) of service given to the church and is the reason for the stereotype of Mormon missionaries on bicycles coming to one’s door. However, many of the missions are more than proselytizing and many consist of community service, especially in China where proselytizing is illegal.
3 I also am very excited I still have a few more years before becoming one of the unmarried minority in my town.
5 This something that is not forbidden or even mentioned by church doctrine. Additionally, men who supported the movement were asked to wear purple as a shout-out to their sister suffragettes.