Mormon Women Emerging From Shadows

Associated Press/January 29, 2008

Salt Lake City - Last fall, the head of the Mormon church's Relief Society delivered a treatise on motherhood that equated nurturing with keeping a tidy house. Women in poor countries who dress their daughters in clean, ironed dresses, the speaker said, honor a sacred covenant.

Julie B. Beck's exhortation at the church's General Conference that Mormon women strive to be "the best homemakers in the world" did not go unanswered. More than 250 women signed an online rebuttal.

The exchange illustrates that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is years removed from open hostilities over feminism, passions still run high over the role of women in a patriarchal church.

No one can profess to know how women's issues will be handled by the successor to church president Gordon B. Hinckley, who died Sunday at 97.

But few expect major changes along the lines of opening the Mormon priesthood - an office granted only to Mormon men - to women.

But women could still emerge as stronger voices of the church.

"My feeling is that things are not going to change much, that the church is going to keep its very conservative positions on women's roles," said Margaret Toscano, a self-described feminist activist who was excommunicated in 2000 and teaches language and literature at the University of Utah.

Although the church did not reveal why Toscano was excommunicated, she argued a historical precedence for women in the priesthood. She also promoted the concept of a "Mother God," a deity who was described in an early Mormon poem as a consort to God in heaven.

Today, Mormon feminism thrives in a different form. A blog called Feminist Mormon Housewives, for instance, calls itself as "a safe place to be feminist and faithful" and offers the protection of anonymity.

Toscano said Beck's 1950s vision of motherhood astonished many Mormon women who believed the church, while not encouraging career women, had at least acknowledged women could work and still be good mothers.

Beck was not available for interviews, church officials said. Other LDS women came to Beck's defense, and pointed out that her talk also made clear that wives are "in equal partnership" with their husbands.

The agency which Beck heads, the Relief Society, is one of three Mormon offices open to women. Billed as one of the world's largest women's groups, with 5.5 million members, it provides spiritual instruction to women and aids needy families, among other things.

Mormon women are increasingly visible in worship, often called upon to give the major talk during sacramental meetings, said Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"Women can't be bishops, they can't be pastors, but they're much more visible and much more a part of leadership of local congregations than they were 30 years ago," said Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of the faith.

Kim Farah, an LDS spokeswoman, said in a statement that women play an integral role in the church, from preaching to teaching to "sitting in council" with male priesthood leaders about running congregations.

"However, we believe that great happiness comes from our work in the home and that, regardless of individual circumstances, women have perhaps the greatest influence for good when it comes to the family," Farah said. "Personally, this gives me great peace, joy and self-esteem."

In a 1996 interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," Hinckley said, "In this church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side. They are coequals in this life in a great enterprise."

Hinckley's likely successor, Thomas S. Monson, said in a speech last year that women should seek secular education - not to pursue careers, but because their husbands might fall ill or die.

"You may find yourself in the role of financial provider," Monson said. "Some of you already occupy that role. I urge you to pursue your education - if you are not already doing so or have not done so - that you might be prepared to provide if circumstances necessitate such."

Claudia Bushman, a Mormon author who has studied women's issues, said there has been little progress giving Mormon women new opportunities in the church, although she envisions greater roles in representing the church in civic settings and working with other faith traditions.

"The church does repress women, but it really doesn't repress women as much as bring men forward," Bushman said. "From the time Mormons are children, boys get a lot more encouragement than girls because they are needed for leadership roles. Men need more encouragement, I think."

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