What It's Like to Be a Mormon Woman

Of course, I cannot speak for every Mormon woman. Each of us has a different experience, but here are a few of the experiences which I think unite us. I hope that this make us as a whole a little less mysterious to outsiders, and perhaps even to the Mormon men who think they know us so well.
09/29/2015 01:40 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016
Wyoming, United States, North America
Wyoming, United States, North America

Of course, I cannot speak for every Mormon woman. Each of us has a different experience, but here are a few of the experiences which I think unite us. I hope that this make us as a whole a little less mysterious to outsiders, and perhaps even to the Mormon men who think they know us so well.

A reality of being a Mormon woman is a heightened consciousness about modesty. Because of the sacred temple garment that most wear and take pains to conceal, it can be difficult to shop at regular stores for clothing.

Shopping on-line is also tricky, because even a dress or shirt that looks like it will cover the right areas may not work once you try it on. And sometimes an outfit that conceals well may still "slip." This can feel embarrassing, is something that we Mormon women often check regularly, and other women also "police" this sort of thing for us, reminding us if something is showing that shouldn't. As a result, we often wear very conservative clothing. When the editor of my Linda Wallheim book series came to visit, she felt very self-conscious wearing a knee-length skirt because she saw that most adult women were all wearing nearly ankle-length skirts. She claimed the only time she had seen such long skirts was among the Orthodox Jewish population in New York.

For Mormon teenage girls, this modesty consciousness is enforced nearly as stringently, even though they are not wearing garments. My daughters struggle to find shirts that cover their stomachs even if they raise their hands and dresses and skirts that are long enough but don't make them look like "old ladies" (the phrase they use to describe women of my age).

It is even more difficult to find modest formal gowns for important school dances like prom. Because most formal gowns are sleeveless these days, shops in Utah routinely carry shrugs in different colors to put over top of various gowns. Whether or not the gown you like has a shrug that looks good on it is often a big question. And if you are unlucky enough to be well-endowed, you may have to find a way to wear a shirt of some kind underneath your gown.

Some Mormon teens choose to ignore this kind of a rule and suffer quiet disapproval and even some gossip. There is varying pressure for such modesty rules to permeate down to small children, though I find even working with toddlers in the nursery that there are comments about little girls keeping their dresses down or sitting with legs crossed to avoid showing underwear. These are not comments the little boys typically have to deal with.

I feel that there has been much improvement from my teenage years to the present on the issue of female sexuality. I listened to more than one adult talk about my virginity as a kind of commodity that could be used and destroyed, like a piece of gum or a licked cupcake.

I don't hear my daughters talking about anything similar happening to them. But I think that there is still a problem with young Mormon women seeing themselves as subjects of sexual desire rather than objects only. They are taught to protect themselves from a male sexual gaze through modesty and are taught to come to marriage as virgins because God approves of this, but there is little discussion of consent issues. I wonder sometimes how many young Mormon women are raped without understanding that is what happened to them. The anger they feel shouldn't be self-directed, and too often is.

Because of our doctrine about God being married, Mormonism should celebrate married sex, but I find very few adult Mormon women are comfortable talking about sexual practices in any form at all. Trying to gauge what is normal sexually from my conversations with other Mormon women is very difficult.

One Mormon woman I knew admitted that she hoped very much that there was sex in heaven, and she got some shocked replies and some laughter. But more often, it is simply referred to obliquely or not at all. I think it can be difficult for many Mormon women to transition from the unmarried state focused on virginity to the married state where sex is virtually unlimited without discussion or help offered by those who have already made the transition.

Moving past body issues, Mormon women are taught to look up to pioneer women as models for feminine strength. Primary manuals are replete with stories about Mormon pioneer women who pushed carts across the plains, many while pregnant or nursing and some under the age of eighteen. Some buried husbands and children along the way. These were physically strong, tough women who were also devotedly faithful to the church.

Mormon women are also told stories about Emma Smith, who was disgusted with certain habits of the men in her husband's Sunday School and asked him to pray about tobacco use and drunkenness, and eventually inspired The Word of Wisdom health code that Mormons still obey today. Emma Smith organized the first Relief Society, the women's organization in the church. She also compiled the first Mormon hymn book. (She was also very much against the revelation on polygamy, though that is discussed less often.)

Beyond Emma Smith, there are many women from the early days of the church who serve as role models. They raised families often without husbands (who were serving missions for the church outside of Utah for years on end). These women managed farms and child rearing. They served in church callings, some of them Relief Society presidents who did amazing charity work in the day. They also ran for office, had the vote before most women in the United States, and sometimes left children and husbands behind to learn art in Paris or to be trained in medicine, so that they could return to Utah and share their talents to improve God's chosen community of Saints.

Yet now Mormon women are largely encouraged not to seek full-time employment, particularly in careers that would require a lot of time away from home. We are told that our most important duty in life is to our families, and that we are uniquely qualified to nurture children and to be kind and loving. Many a Mormon woman has been called an "angel" by her husband, and receives a tribute on Mother's Day or on other occasions (like a baby blessing) when he feels particular gratitude. When a man is called to be a bishop or into another leadership position, he will often thank his wife for serving behind the scenes and for making this a possibility for him.

For Mormon women who are unmarried, the state itself is problematic. They are told to seek marriage with a worthy man, and that if that doesn't work, they are told they will be married in the after-life, either one who is already married and will take her as a polygamous wife, or a man who did not marry in this life. As you might imagine, this can make a positive identity as a single Mormon woman problematic at best.

For a married Mormon woman who does not have children, there are constant questions and suggestions. The idea that a married Mormon woman might choose not to have children is honestly so strange within Mormonism that infertility is assumed even when it is not the case.

There is a great deal of pity for women who cannot have children of their own, but not much sympathy if it is a choice. The idea of Mormon womanhood is so focused on being a mother that if you are not a mother, your only choice is to exhibit traits of mothering to other women's children to make up for it. As a woman who personally has found motherhood very fulfilling, I nonetheless find this disconcerting. Men can find fulfillment serving in the church with or without children, but a woman without children is an anomaly.

One Mormon man wrote to me after one of my early essays critical of the position of women in the church and said that the truth that every Mormon man knows is that "women run the church." He meant behind the scenes, of course. But there is a truth to this. High Priests Activities and Elders Quorum Activities are often sparsely attended, if they occur at all. Yet Relief Society meetings are monthly and the Relief Society numbers for visiting teaching are often far above the priesthood numbers for home teaching.

In my ward, I always hear ward news (about the birth of children, people moving away, deaths in the ward, service opportunities and so on) through the regular emails that come to me from the Relief Society Presidency. I tell my husband what's going on because I get sometimes daily updates this way. Mormon women have a strong community and through email, we find people who need mattresses we are done using, offer childcare services to each other, share recipes that are easy and delicious in our time-crunched lives, and swap car pool responsibilities.

So why are some Mormon women agitating for more? It's partly because of visibility issues and because of a disjunction between the work roles modern women inhabit versus the church roles that are more limited. But do Mormon women think that they have less access to God's presence? Only in the sense that they don't believe they can receive revelation beyond that for their own family or through a calling with women or children.

Mormon women probably feel that God's presence in their lives asks them to do a lot of work within the church and at home, and they are scrambling to do everything that they need to get done. This is why when the Mormon male leaders speak to women, it is often with an attitude of telling them they are doing "enough" already and to take time to enjoy their lives.

If Mormon women say they don't want more to do, they mean they are already working part or full time, as well as managing church service, childcare, household chores, and do not want more to do than that. They find satisfaction in what they are already doing and sometimes feel like outsiders (or feminist Mormon women) who think they are oppressed do not understand anything about their connection to God, to other women, or their identity derived from generations of strong Mormon women who have taken on the world.