Mormon leaders give women mixed messages, say sociologists


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.”