Demoted to Mrs.

Marriage is at once the most public and the most private of institutions. On the private side, although we can both be incredibly stubborn, my husband has never treated me with the slightest hint of condescension or domineering. Even in the early days of our marriage when he was still a believer, it would never have so much as crossed his mind to pull priesthood rank, which is of course one of the reasons I married him. But as ECS’s excellent post about the cultural blind spots in which women reside recently reminded me, whatever private arrangements husband and wife make, for women, marriage can mean social invisibility.

My first intimations of my impending invisibility came during our engagement. We went together to make the security deposit on our apartment, and the older woman who took our money and wrote out the receipt would speak only to my husband. She refused to address me or so much as meet my eye, despite the fact that I was the one writing the check. (I’m older than my husband, and I was already out of school and working at the time.) I was completely taken aback. I’d been single and relatively independent for years, and I was used to people dealing with me directly for the simple reason that there was no one else to deal with. Now I suspect that the woman was simply doing what was proper a couple of generations ago–addressing the man of the house. But at the time her attitude made me profoundly uneasy about the public aspects of marriage. Would I continue to be regarded as a person after I married? What exactly was I getting myself into?

To my relief, over the past almost twelve years I’ve now been married, such experiences have been rare (and much rarer since we’ve left Utah, it must be said)–but every person who has ignored me to speak only to my husband has been, without exception, Mormon. People outside of the church generally take it for granted that I have my own interests and my own life. Even at the many social gatherings of psychology graduate students and psychologists I’ve endured over the years, my husband’s fellow students and colleagues, although they often can’t be restrained from the inevitable jargon-laden shop talk, address me as an individual, and generally inquire about my life, work, and education. At church, by contrast, I have sometimes experienced marriage as a profound demotion. For me, there have been two phases: when I’ve been pursuing my own education (particularly when I was at BYU) I’ve sometimes been regarded with suspicion and hostility. I was one of “those” women with embarrassingly evident ambitions of my own, and our lack of children played straight to stereotype. On the other hand, during the long years I was putting my husband through graduate school, I felt as if I were making a tremendous sacrifice that was completely invisible to the good men and women at church who were saturated in their cultural assumptions (as of course we all are). No one seemed to see the hopes, dreams, and life-sustaining intellectual pleasures I had given up to move to a remote rural area so that my husband could pursue his, because only “those” women had such hopes and dreams. Many of the other women in my situation seemed to regard their own educations and jobs as trifling or peripheral or as a means to the all-important end of getting a husband. For both men and women, my sacrifice of my formal education was nothing remarkable, just “natural” to women, who after all, if we’re good (not like “those” women of the world with ideas and ambitions of our own), don’t have any educational or career desires to give up. It was sometimes immensely frustrating to be demoted to M___’s wife precisely because the demoters seemed blithely unaware that I had ever been, or might ever desire to be, anything else.

When we were at BYU, there were the home teachers we had as a married couple, who, upon seeing my half-unpacked books all over the living room, asked my husband in tones of (truly frightening) awe if he had been a philosophy major, and when I told them that I had been the philosophy major, they were embarrassed and quickly changed the subject to figure out what my husband did, lines of inquiry about my life and interests evidently being irrelevant. There was the home teacher who, after listening to my husband analyze a gospel issue largely along the lines of a recent marital conversation to which I had substantially contributed, turned to me and asked me if I didn’t just love to sit at my husband’s feet and absorb his deep words of wisdom. Although we’ve been fortunate to have excellent home teachers for years now, a number of past pairs have talked only to my husband about his schooling, his work, and his life and have ignored me entirely, leaving me to wonder why I was there at all. And during my years at BYU, I encountered male students who seemed particularly uncomfortable that I had continued my education after marriage and were eager to put me in my place, who would tell me anxiously and repeatedly that their wives had no academic interests or read me sexist passages from nineteenth-century writers with evident relish. Although the Mormon men who indulge in these petty sexisms are a shrinking minority, I have never once encountered such blatant put-downs from non-Mormon men.

Most Mormon men I know are perfectly courteous and polite, and yet a significant minority continue to treat me as subtlely irrelevant, unable to contribute meaningfully to conversations about ideas, politics, social issues, or the gospel. What’s really alarming is the patronizing chivalry that sometimes thinly masks these attitudes–oh, you charming women who have the angelic patience to do jobs we could never do (read: can’t stand the thought of doing) like wiping dirty bums and quieting screaming children all day, you’re so much more naturally divine than we groveling beasts who because of our fallen nature must concern ourselves with law, business, science, deep doctrine, and generally running the world. To such men the marriage of dangerously intellectual or ambitious women sometimes appears an almost palpable relief; now she can be enveloped in her divine nature. (Of course, such men wouldn’t dream of marrying dangerously intellectual or ambitious women themselves; we’ve all seen the prevailing pattern of singles’ wards in which the male graduate students date–not the female graduate students, heavens no!–but the female undergraduates. But that’s already been exhaustively and exhaustingly covered in posts of years past.)

Demoted to Mrs. How exasperating, and how sad, that in the true and living Church of Jesus Christ, we continue to experience faint cultural pulsations emanating from the likes of the Taming of the Shrew, more than 400 years on.

90 thoughts on “Demoted to Mrs.

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    Hmmm. I’ve never lived in Utah or been assoc. w/BYU, but I am wondering how much of this is luck of the draw, location, attitudes, perceptions, personality, etc.

    When we first married, my husband moved out to Berkeley because I was in the middle of grad school. He worked to put me through school. No one said anything.

    Then, he stayed home with babyman while I worked. No one said anything.

    Then, I stayed home while he went to school. I didn’t have any of the ‘demoting’ experiences that you describe. Maybe because this was Northern California, I don’t know.

    Then, we moved to TX so he could work and I was at home. While we have rarely had home teachers, they always seem interested in my academic interests. I can think of two bishopric visits to us as new members in the ward where most of the conversation was about me and my institute teaching, writing, etc. Again, maybe this is because it is Austin. (Or maybe because my husband’s job is dead boring and so I’m the only one to talk about . . .)

    I don’t know. I am sorry that you have had such crappy experiences. Maybe I should be more grateful for mine.

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    Normally, my wife is the interesting talker in the relationship. She’s the professional singer who’s been to italy and londan and syria and jerusalem etc etc. She’s the one with funny stories about our kids. I’m the one who is a data analyst and some what of a downer and anti-social.

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    Oh! I’m not the only one! I’m so glad. Obviously not glad that this is an issue, but glad that I’m not alone. For so long I’ve felt what you have articulated so well.

    I work in a very male dominated industry (I’m an engineer by degree), so I’m used to working mostly with men. At work, I am respected, speak my mind, and do very well. I have very rarely had an experience where a man has been condescending to me at work (only a French expat mistakenly assumed I would know how to use the copy machine better than him since I was female, but that is for a different story!) At church, I have been dismissed by many men – with a condescending undercurrent that I’m really not capable of doing my calling without priesthood “help.” I want to scream when it happens – I am just as smart, just as capable, and in many cases, my marketable skills exceed theirs!!

    That said, my current ward has been much better. These days, it tends to be the missionaries who are surprised that I speak up after they ask my husband the “where do you work” question. I’m lucky now to be in a ward where there are many, many strong, very well educated, and more than a few working (mostly part-time, but some full-time) women.

    I wonder, who are the men who are the worst “offenders” married to? Is it perpetuated by a lack of respect of their own wives and mothers? Do their actions/attitudes in their marriages inform how they treat the other sisters in the ward?

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    One more thought: One thing that is unfortunate in american culture (not just mormon culture) is we often need to put up front what is socially different about us. People act to the social norm 99% of the time, and unfortneately, the social norm at any resteraunt is that the man pays, and so the waitress gives the man the check. My wife and I only have one bank account, so this isn’t a big deal, and I just ask my wife to tak ecare of it, as I am holding the baby, and the four year old is pulling on me to go in some other dirrection.

    Okay, I lied, another thought. This is exactly how I felt when we went to the OB\GYN with my wife when we were having our baby. The Woman doctor completely ignored me (didn’t even acknowledge I was in the room) while she talked to my wife about the baby. It was especially weird, because it was like some sort of odd arguement amongst 5 year olds. The Doctor would tell my wife something, and my wife would then ask my opinion on it, then I’d say my opinion, my wife would agree with me by nodding, then the doctor would wait a few moments, and then ask my wife the same question again as if she hadn’t been standing their listening to our interaction.

    Very weird.

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    Julie, # 1,

    but I am wondering how much of this is luck of the draw, location,…

    You have indeed been lucky in the places you have lived. I can say without equivocation that Berkeley /= Provo. And although Provo is peculiar in some ways, it is hard to imagine the residents there organizing a bumper sticker and t-shirt campaign to “Keep Provo Weird”. 🙂

    Good post, Eve. As Julie observes, there are places where experiences like yours are less likely to happen, but for the time being, the behavior you describe is pervasive in the church.

    I was looking at the BYU honor code yesterday. It is divided into sections, and under the part labelled “Live a Chaste and Virtuous Life”, it enumerates examples of inappropriate behavior that constitute violations of the code. The first item on the list is this:

    a. Repeated stereotypical gender-based remarks

    Sometimes it seems to me that the only way we ever speak about gender is in terms of stereotypes. If that provision of the honor code were to be enforced vigorously, half the student body would be gone tomorrow, and probably 75% of the faculty.

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    I’m wondering if all these sad examples are because you’ve been around more Mormon men. If you had been at a different university, might you have had similar bad examples, just ones you couldn’t blame on Mormon culture?

    Also, I wonder sometimes if the taboo of talking to the wife is because people are too afraid it will be taken as flirting or something.

    I’ve got to admit that one of the things that worries me about getting married some day is that I seem to get along much better with men, but being limited to being good friends with my husband seems hard. Will I really have to give up all my guy friends? Why can’t a girl have a best man at a wedding and after?

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    Michelle, I’ve had (non-Mormon) friends who’ve had “Best Women” and “Men of Honor” at their weddings, so I don’t think you’d have to give up on it.

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    I have two best friends (aside from my husband–so really three, I guess), one male and one female. My female best friend is also my husband’s good friend, so for my wedding my male best friend was Man of Honor and my female best friend was Best Woman.

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    I think I’m just kind of oblivious because I’ve rarely had experiences like this, even at BYU. There were one or two grad students in my program there that were uncomfortable with female grad students and were somewhat rude to us, but the women outnumbered the men quite a bit so I felt pretty comfortable. I also tend to just jump right in and talk to people no matter who they are, and since many of the men in my ward are also students I’ve often ended up talking to them. Here in my student ward I’ve actually found that most of the women I know are well-educated and well-rounded, but most of them choose not to work because they have several children. I was also realizing in thinking about this that the fact that I do have children is much more of an equalizer/visibility thing for me. I can talk to men or women about parenting–I think not having children is even more marginalizing in Mormon culture than level of education.

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    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Julie, thanks for the sympathetic words. I’d second Mark’s observations about location. In my experience Berkeley and BYU are so culturally dissimilar it’s hard for the mind to grasp that they pertain to the same nation-state (I remember having similar thoughts about the U of U College of Humanities and the MTC–somehow their relative physical proximity should have caused a massive repulsive explosion). I strongly suspect that had I met and married my husband in Berkeley or Boston, I would have had quite a different experience. But we since we spent the first two years of our married life living in Wymount–well, those of you who have BYU experience can imagine.

    Matt W., interesting counterpoint. I hadn’t considered the effect of introversion on gender dynamics, but it’s clearly part of what’s at play with me–I tend to be reserved in general. So I can see how if the wife is more extraverted than the husband, the dynamics of home teaching, for instance, could be quite different. Gender is, as always, only one of many factors.

    Your restaurant story made me laugh. When we go out my husband pays the check (which as in your case comes out of a joint account) and then gives me the receipt for accounting purposes because I handle all the family finances. I think this male show-of-power model is what the church has ended up with (elsewhere referred to as “chicken patriarchy”) in our attempt to reconcile patriarchy with equality.

    Mark, your quote from the BYU Honor Code is absolutely fascinating! I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in there during my brief stay.

    Michelle said,

    I’m wondering if all these sad examples are because you’ve been around more Mormon men. If you had been at a different university, might you have had similar bad examples, just ones you couldn’t blame on Mormon culture?

    I don’t think so. I’m now on my third university, and I’ve now spent a total of seven years (combining undergrad/grad) in public, secular, non-LDS schools. Never in all those seven years have I heard a single remark along the lines of what I describe above. That isn’t to say there aren’t subtler forms of sexism–some of my fellow male students do seem to be more likely to go on and on about themselves and their brilliance and achievements or dominate class discussion so as to call attention to their own scintillating powers of analysis in ways I’ve rarely seen women equal, but outright blatant put-downs are passe.

    I should add that my male professors at BYU were fantastic–if anything more supportive and encouraging than my professors at other institution have been. But as lyn notes and as Mark notes, there are peculiar forms of sexism that I repeated encounter at church and rarely or never encounter in the academy (or in other work contexts). I’ve heard a number of other women make similar observations. Someone I know once said she was amazed after she left BYU to attend graduate school to find that her male peers addressed her as a real person with ideas, plans, and ambitions of her own. At BYU she’d never been fully “real” in an academic sense–the men assumed she was just killing time with all this studying stuff until her life began when she had the honor to be chosen by one of them (ah, the joys of male narcissism).

    The thing is, in the church we want to maintain that men and women are different and have different roles and we need to have men preside, although given our relatively newfound commitment to equality and egalitarianism we can no longer give a coherent account of what exactly presiding might mean. But then when accusations of sexist behavior arise, whether of the relatively trivial sort I describe above or really egregious violations like wife-beating and rape, the general discourse is to fall all over ourselves to insist that these poor misguided men have misunderstood patriarchy, that patriarchy in no way licenses lack of respect to women. (Not to say you’re making that argument here, Michelle–just thinking of where it often goes.) I’m pretty skeptical, though, that Mormons are somehow an exception to the entire rest of the human race in terms of our susceptibility to social and cultural attitudes. If we want to make the case that patriarchy is necessary, or is inevitable, or is the least of all possible evils in this fallen world of ours, then we have to consider that these various kinds of sexism may just be an inevitable cost–BYU Honor Code’s valiant efforts to rein them in notwithstanding.

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    I was also realizing in thinking about this that the fact that I do have children is much more of an equalizer/visibility thing for me. I can talk to men or women about parenting–I think not having children is even more marginalizing in Mormon culture than level of education.

    That’s definitely been my experience (sigh). It’s no one’s fault, just the downside of any system of tight social cohesion, like Mormonism itself. Having children (like being Mormon) is an amazing, intense experience that clearly forges deep common bonds among those who undergo it. It’s just that it can be really isolating to be on outside of those deep common bonds.

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    Over half the student body and 75% of faculty, Mark? Is that an ironic joke about stereotypes?

  13. 13

    Of all the Mormons, Eve, who address your husband and not you, where were they raised? I wonder if this is a Utah Mormon thing, where (perhaps) a native East Coast Mormon wouldn’t have this mindset.

    I think it’s like Julie says — it may be a function of circumstance, but not YOUR circumstance — theirs.

    My wife worked as a waitress here in Texas briefly, and she was taught (early-to-mid-90s) never to assume who was paying for the meal, not to hand it to the man or woman. This was 14-15 years ago.

    I think most of the world “gets it”. I wonder if many Mormons don’t.

    Interesting thing in the Church’s MLS software (the records for membership). When a woman gets married, it doesn’t want you to change her name in the system — it assumes that when the SLC computers actually process her marriage, her new name will be automatically changed to “first name, middle name, husband’s last name”. In my clerk days, I found myself fixing sister’s names 2-3 times a year.

    Of course, MLS is written and developed by Utahns.

  14. 14

    I wonder if this is a Utah Mormon thing…..Of course, MLS is written and developed by Utahns.

    If it’s not ok to mistreat women because they are women, why are comments like this seen as ok? I grow so weary of this divide. Makes me want to make a bumper sticker: “Utah Mormons are People Too.” 🙂

    I’ve lived both in and outside of Utah, on both coasts and in the midwest, and we are ALL subject to cultural weakness and quirks. (One of the worst outside of Utah is the perception and criticism of “Utah Mormons!”) No one likes to — or should be — categorized or judged or lumped together and labeled and dismissed.

    I have had positive and negative experiences with both men and women, inside and outside the Church, and inside and outside of Utah, by both “Utah Mormons” and those who are not, in business situations and Church situations.

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    Thought-provoking post. I would like to admit to having had an entirely different experience, without in any way invalidating your own. It is unfortunate–evening maddening–when people put their foots in their mouths or are insensitive and ignorant, and I’m not naive enough to believe that people don’t. But I don’t know that it’s fair to generalize that it’s necessarily unique to Mormons or to Utah.

    I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m not from Utah, but I’ve lived in Provo the past 27 years, and I have rarely been marginalized because of my gender and never for my marital status except by some rather bold feminists (which is sad, because I too consider myself a feminist). I have, however, noticed some less-enlightened ways of thinking in more rural areas–both in Oregon, where the LDS population was hardly measurable, and in Utah–and among the elderly. I wonder if some of the mindsets you speak of could be a product of other variables such as education (or lack thereof) and/or age as well. In the elderly I often see similar thinking reflected by both men and women.

    I could list examples of how my experience has been different–my voice is heard and my opinion is respected in meetings, I usually pick up the tab when my husband and I go to dinner, real estate and insurance agents and other business professionals have no problem with the fact that I handle our finances and make important financial decisions, people seem just as interested in where I served my mission, my education, my job, as with my husband’s interests.

    And although in my husband’s circles I am known as Mrs. R. and in some of my children’s circles I am known as so-and-so’s mother it is just as true that in my circles–and I do have my own–they are known as my husband and my kids, so I think some of that may be natural. I have never in any way felt it was a demotion.

    I am not, by any means, excusing ignorance when it occurs, I’m just saying that has generally not been my experience in as a Mormon woman living in Utah for the past 20-something years.

  16. 16

    I grow so weary of this divide.

    Well, I do, too.

    For me, the problem has never been with Utah Mormons who live in Utah, but Utah Mormons who come out to wherever, and try to inflict Utah Mormon culture on the local church members. They complain about the weather, keep talking about how things were done “at home” (which is how they keep referring to it, 10 years after moving here), and insist on singing “popcorn popping on the apricot tree” even after everyone exolains that it is “dogwood tree.” We’ve known families who do not send their children to seminary, because they feel entitled to released-time seminary, and think early-morning is obscene.

    Obviously, not every Mormon from Utah does this. Some are interested in how things are done locally, rejoice in the differences, and fit right in.

    Also, a lot of bad karma is generated by Utah Mormon students who feign an address in our state via a parent or grandmother or whatever who lives here to take advantage of in-state tuition and acceptance policies, then steal our tax dollars that provide 90% of their education because they then they go off to live in Utah (for a while, our local dental school was refusing to admit BYU grads for this reason).

    So if you want to avoid this stereotype, tell your brothers and sisters how to behave when they move away. It is a two-way street.

  17. 17

    Of all the Mormons, Eve, who address your husband and not you, where were they raised? I wonder if this is a Utah Mormon thing, where (perhaps) a native East Coast Mormon wouldn’t have this mindset.

    As it happens, by far the worst offender I ever encountered at BYU was, in fact, raised on the East Coast (from some of what he said, in what sounded like an alarmingly patriarchal family).

    I think it’s sometimes understandably tempting, but ultimately untenable, to make Utah origins the source of any embarrassingly provincial Mormon behavior. Utah has its own peculiar culture, and I do get the discomfort with it; I have my own deep ambivalences about growing up there, which was socially a pretty negative experience. Certain cultural patterns are, of course, going to be more predominant there. But ultimately it’s far too simple to appeal to imaginary divides between the pure doctrines of the restored gospel as propagated in more enlightened areas of the country and the backward cultural misinterpretations of the Jell-o corridor.

    M&M has a point. The same East Coast student I mentioned above who laughingly read nineteenth-century sexism at me also derided me for what he assumed was my hopelessly narrow, limited experience of the world, coming as I did from the cultural backwater of Utah. Sexism, it turns out, is eminently compatible with regional and class snobbery.

    (Do you get the sense he just didn’t like me? 🙂 ).

  18. 18

    They complain about the weather, keep talking about how things were done “at home”

    I don’t disagree that this happens, but it also happens when ‘non-Utah Mormons’ move to Utah and complain about living here. People can be narrow-minded or inexperienced or struggling to adjust regardless of where they live, or to where they move.

    And my comment was not meant to say that there aren’t quirks about Utah. There are. But there are quirks everywhere, because HUMANS are quirky –all of us, in our own, unique, quirky way.

    My exception story? A non-Utahn who decided that I shouldn’t get a Master’s degree (after all I would be taking a man’s spot in the program) because I wanted to eventually be a mom. NEVERMIND that I was not married, and didn’t have any immediate prospects….

    Or the East-coast woman who ‘complimented’ me by saying I fit in well there ‘for a Utah Mormon.’ …as though being from Utah was a curse all its own.

    This kind of insensitivity happens everywhere, by lots of people from lots of walks of life and experience. That’s all I want to point out. It hurts whenever it happens, but I think we should keep it to individuals rather than denounce a whole group of people who surely won’t all fit into a nice little mold.

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    Dalene, thanks for your thoughtful observations, particularly your point about other variables such as age, generation, and educational experience, which certainly play a big role in attitudes. I’m really delighted to read about experiences such as yours; they give me hope that if we do move back to Utah, we might have quite a different experience. (And although I’ve fallen in love with the Midwest–fireflies and gorgeous green deciduous forests!–I still desperately miss the mountains, and my husband would like to be closer to his family, so we might just end up back there one day.)

    Naismith, I certainly agree that the behavior you describe is obnoxious. I observe similar patterns in my largely young-married-student ward; young couples do sometimes arrive in the “mission field” full of well-meaning zeal and want to set the old-timers and converts straight about Mormon reality. But this one cuts both ways, in my experience. When we lived in a small rural branch in South Dakota, for instance, we had a family sweep in from a large East Coast ward with exactly the same set of attitudes–they were going to show us backward rural hicks how things were done where the church was bigger and truer.

    So if you want to avoid this stereotype, tell your brothers and sisters how to behave when they move away. It is a two-way street.

    But I don’t think it’s fair to hold me, as a native Utahn, responsible for all the obnoxious things other people from my state might do, or to expect me to instruct all of my fellow Utahns in good manners, any more than it would be fair for me to hold non-Utah Mormons like you responsible for the sometimes snobbish, contemptuous behavior of your brothers and sisters when they come to BYU.

    There’s nothing wrong with talking about home. I think many, perhaps most, of us have a particular and profound attachment to the landscape and ways of where we grew up that’s fundamental to who we are. Such passions shouldn’t be confused with the gospel or elevated above anyone else’s local attachments, of course, but in themselves they’re good and profoundly constitutive of our humanity.

    As for complaining about the weather? I always thought that was a way to bond with the locals! 😉

  20. 20

    Or the East-coast woman who ‘complimented’ me by saying I fit in well there ‘for a Utah Mormon.’ …as though being from Utah was a curse all its own.

    People have said this to me too, more than once. It’s just like being patted on the head and being told I’m smart for a woman. Uh…thanks. I think.

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    Whe we were in law school, my non-member girlfriend’s biggest complaint about my church was the way male Mormon law students failed to engage her in conversation at social gatherings. She was touched, however, when a number of those same men attended her baptism despite what she perceived as an absence of any sort of relationship.

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    Mathew, very interesting–I’ve seen that dynamic as well. Reminds me of a story from one of my lifelong best friends, a non-Mormon who’s lived all her life in Utah. When she was in medical school, one of her Mormon peers described being home-taught by two of her husband’s law school colleagues. The home teachers commiserated at length about how hard law school was, but neither said a word to her. When one of them said, “At least law school isn’t as hard as medical school!” she just smiled and said nothing, assuming that it would eventually get back to him that she actually was in medical school and he would feel silly.

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    Also, a lot of bad karma is generated by Utah Mormon students who feign an address in our state via a parent or grandmother or whatever who lives here to take advantage of in-state tuition and acceptance policies, then steal our tax dollars that provide 90% of their education
    I’ve likewise heard an amazing amount of whining from out-of-state students at BYU “forced” to come to Utah to attend a private university where their tuition is 70% subsidized (or 100%, if their parents are picking up the rest of the tab).

    Explaining away one stereotype by introducing another is unproductive.

  27. 27

    Wow, this post really resonates with me. I can really relate to that stunned realization, after marriage, that I’ve been “demoted” but even more so after I became a mother. Now that I am a physician I am treated much better, but I still get that occasional “invisible” treatment by strangers. Thanks for this essay. You’re not a shrew, and I know how it feels to get that subtle message that I am one of “those” women, although it is much less now than it was 15 years ago.

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    I should add that I think this kind of attitude is definitely not the norm for Mormon men, but it does seem to exist in a significant minority. And like Julie, I can honestly say that “no one said anything”, but it’s more subtle than that.

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    Katya, at least the out-of-state students are members of the group that subsidizes their tuition!

    Where important functions are privileged to one group over another, the privileged can come to consider these functions as something they have by merit or entitlement. By extention, those who do not have those same privileges, through lack of merit or entitlement, are perceived as “other” or less.

    I blame the patriarchy.

  30. 30

    My experience is similar to Dalene in that I grew up elsewhere (the midwest), but have been in Utah for 20 years now. The only time I ever felt marginalized was outside of Utah, by very clearly non-mormon men.

    My experience at BYU was very different from yours, too. I wonder why that was…it would be interesting to dissect the situations more to ascertain if there were clear indicators that would predict or preclude certain behaviors.

    I was always encouraged and championed, and since I married (after graduating from University) I have never felt demeaned or marginalized, with the only exception being one horribly abusive fellow in our ward who felt that all women everywhere were only around to be ruled and lorded over by men holding the priesthood. He was a real gem…

    The only issue I take with the assertions you make is that the ‘other’ women, the SAHM’s, the ones who did or didn’t graduate, the ones who don’t aspire to higher education or whatever…I know so many of those women, and far from being judgmental, they have largely been strong women of love and faith, most who admire and look up to other women who choose to continue their education. Most of these women, whether they feel trodden down or not, only cheer on the other women in their lives. I’m sorry you found yourself surrounded by some who felt threatened by you, but my experience with the women around me has been vastly different.

    My experience has been that women of faith, regardless of their aspiration and desires, can quite easily stand together and support each other. Perhaps it is my misunderstanding or mis-reading of your statements.

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    I would think in a Mormon ward it’s the opposite. It’s the women I notice, and who get the most notice. It’s the husbands that are darn near invisible.

  32. 32

    I have a strong suspicion that at least some of your experiences are due to, as other posters have suggested, personality and circumstances. While both my husband and I are introverted, he is far more so than me, and I almost always take the lead. He’s generally the one who’s treated as invisible (and yep, we’re in Utah). I didn’t experience any of the marginalization you describe at BYU either, before or after marriage (I was in the zoology program). It was par for the course for the women to continue their education in our student ward. Probably 90% of them were in school, and among those that weren’t, I think most of them had graduated. In my normal, family ward here in Ogden, it’s actually quite common for the young married women to continue going to school after they have children.

    Now, I know there was definitely some sexism at BYU, but I always got the impression that it was not a sizable majority of the men as you conclude, but a very tiny portion of them. While I was there, we had one of the notoriously ridiculous wars on the opinion page, the focus of which was whether or not women should be wearing one-strap backpacks which ran diagonally across the chest and between the breasts. It was men that whined about it in the first place, but most of the scathing reactions (that were published at least) were /also/ by men.

    I keep reading stories like yours on the bloggernacle and I’m really left baffled. Am I just lucky or oblivious that I’ve encountered almost none of this outside of stupid teenage boys in Sunday school class growing up? I’ve even lived in Utah my whole life (and while I know you don’t see it as a Utah thing, a lot of those complaining about it seem to). It’s so outside my experience, though, that I hope you no longer encounter these things if you do end up back in the area, or if you do, that it is due to other influences like personality rather than Mormon sexism.

  33. 33

    Eric, # 12,

    Over half the student body and 75% of faculty, Mark? Is that an ironic joke about stereotypes?

    Eric, no, it was just an observation, mostly about the pitfalls of drafting documents by committee. I mean, what does it even mean, to make stereotypical gender-based remarks? Don’t we do that every time we quote from the Family Proclamation? Precisely because the statement is so devoid of meaning, it can be stretched to mean anything we want it to mean. The plain English reading of that part of the code could be understood to require that the next GA who mentions the Family Procalamation in a devotional be booted off campus. Of course, that isn’t what the drafters meant, so the question then becomes: What in the world did they mean?

  34. 34

    To continue the threadjack –

    It doesn’t make sense to interpret that part of the honor code to mean offensive remarks of a graphically sexual nature, because they are dealt with in the next sections:

    b. Sexually oriented joking, flirting, or comments
    d. Verbal or physical abuse
    e. Graphic, sexually-oriented comments about an individual’s body
    f. Derogatory or demeaning comments concerning gender
    g. Offensive or crude language

    I especially like f. At my recent stake conference, a GA made the statement “Let’s face it, brothers and sisters. Men are pigs.” The statement was made in the context of praising the angelic women who somehow condescent to marry us swine. I take an unseemly glee in thinking that this GA would find himself on the carpet in the standard’s office if he said the same thing at BYU. Or maybe not.

    To bring things back on track just a little bit, I think the presence of of the statement about stereotypical gender comments in the honor code is an indicator of our confusion about this issue. Whether or not you agree with the way we currently construe male and female roles in the church, you have to admit that is is both gender-based and relies on stereotypes.

  35. 35

    Firebyrd said,

    Now, I know there was definitely some sexism at BYU, but I always got the impression that it was not a sizable majority of the men as you conclude, but a very tiny portion of them.

    Well, actually, I didn’t anywhere conclude that a “sizable majority” of BYU men were sexist. I tried to make it clear in my post that, as you say, it’s a minority of BYU students and a minority of Mormon men. So I suspect our analyses of the situation aren’t actually that far apart.

    One factor I suspect may have contributed to my negative experiences was the fact that I was a graduate student. At BYU it sometimes seemed that a bachelor’s was fine, but further education was a bit more suspicious. You say that it was “par for the course” for the women in your ward to be in school, but I suspect the majority were pursuing undergraduate degrees. Being in graduate school made me an object of suspicion in my Wymount ward in a way that I doubt I would have been had I still been finishing my bachelor’s.

    Please don’t get me wrong–I don’t think there’s anything particularly wonderful or glamorous about a graduate education or a master’s degree, which can often be had for a single year’s effort and which in the humanities only serves to make the possesser less employable. There’s much truth to the observation that undergraduates are consumers, and graduate students are slaves. These days master’s degrees are almost a dime a dozen. But for some, in that conservative environment, graduate education wasn’t quite appropriate for a woman. I wonder if that difference might account for some of the variation between my experience and others’.

    Justine, actually, the “other” women to whom I referred were women like me with non-traditional lives, not the SAHMs you’re defending. I have nothing whatsoever against SAHMs who haven’t had the opportunity or desire to pursue further education–had my own life circumstances been just a little different, it’s likely I would have been one, and like you, there are many such women I respect, admire, and love.

    But at the same time, I think that our own cultural judgments and contempt are often invisible to us until we’re on the receiving end. The fault lines between SAHMs and working mothers or traditional and non-traditional women (or however you want to frame it) run from broader North American context straight into our Relief Society rooms. Women on both sides of the divide sometimes make devastating judgments about each others’ lives, and I think we’re better off considering ways we can be more tactful, accepting, and inclusive than thinking that our faith exempts us from such human frailties.

    It’s particularly fascinating to me that, as Mark so pointedly observes above, men can be castigated as pigs at church, and we’re all supposed to be amused, while suggesting that women are anything less than angelic can make us uncomfortable. Surely neither attitude is a religiously healthy one; surely there are more respectful ways to talk about men and more realistic ways to talk about women.

  36. 36

    Katya, at least the out-of-state students are members of the group that subsidizes their tuition!
    Good point. But my point still stands that there’s nothing inherently sanctimonious about Mormons from outside Utah, nor pervasively evil about Mormons from Utah.

  37. 37

    there’s nothing inherently sanctimonious about Mormons from outside Utah, nor pervasively evil about Mormons from Utah.

    If you say so, Katya 🙂

    Maybe the church’s admonition to avoid close friendships with members of the opposite sex is behind some of this, rather than just overt sexism.

  38. 38

    What an interesting discussion. I am pleased to hear that the BYU honor code at least gives lip service to sexual equality. That certainly was not the case forty years ago when I was a student there.

    Thank you for the post, Eve. Your experience validates my own. There ARE many good men in the Church (I was fortunate enough to marry one), who honestly (and humbly) try to break with past history and heal the wounds of patriarchal sexism. However, it only takes one or two, especially if they are in positions of authority, to make all the others look bad. I generally try to ignore them, but that doesn’t do much to change their behavior. Thank you for speaking up.

  39. 39

    Thanks for the post and the insightful comments. It too is very validating for me and I have had similar experiences. Once I was married at BYU I felt like things changed in how I was perceived both in and out of the classroom. There was a lot of subtle pressure to just “support my husband” and stop pursuing my own professional goals. We moved back to the midwest about 18 months after we were married and it was quite a relief to be considered a serious student once again. After completing my own degree I worked and put my husband through his graduate degree. We then moved through a series of Northern and Midwestern small communities while he worked on building his career. It was here that I encountered some of the greatest opposition. I began to pursue my own graduate degree and was definitely one of “those” women. We were told flat out by our home teachers and leadership in one branch that “the Lord was sending us a message that I shouldn’t be in school” when my husband had an emergency appendectomy. I never let these attitudes get to me, but I was definitely aware of their existence. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  40. 40

    There are a few data points that probably belong in this conversation.

    1. Within the last 10 years, Elder Ballard has spoken in conference, twice, on the importance of male priesthood leaders noticing and respecting the contributions of women in the church.

    2. He also wrote a book which contained the same insruction and acvice.

    3. Within the last 8 years, as part of the training that priesthood leaders are supposed to get when a GA comes to stake conference, a training meeting was help where men serving in stake presidencies and bishoprics received instruction in how to interact with women effectively within the church structure. The training included role-playing a ward council meeting which the RS president conducted, and in which she called for progress reports from and gave assignments to the priesthood quorums.

    It is very possible that some of us have never dealt with the situation Eve describes, but I think it is quite problematic to extrapolate from there and say that the problem happens only rarely. If we take that approach, we then need to explain why Elder Ballard thought it was necessary to talk about it in GC. Much of his book and sermons was directed at the very good men who serve in SPs and Bishoprics, not the random holdover Neanderthal occasionally seen roaming around the distant parts of BYU’s lower campus.

    I think we need to conclude that, at least from Elder Ballard’s perspective, there is a pervasive and systematic (albeit unconscious and unintentional) overlooking and and marginalization of females in the church. Why else would he have spoken so directly about it? The part about the role-play where a woman conducted ward council is especially interesting to me. I doubt if there is one ward in a hundred where that is happening today. Sometimes I think the church leaders want to move ahead, but they can’t because we are complacent and take the attitude that all is well.

  41. 41

    Eve-I misspoke. I meant to write “sizable minority” but the wrong word came out. 🙂 I got the impression from your post and comments that while you did think it was a minority, it was still a significant number, whereas I always had the impression it was very, very few.

    Talking about graduate programs is a ballgame I can’t proclaim my personal experience about. I just know that one of our RS presidency was going to law school and everyone always seemed to be quite impressed and respectful of that. Not having been her, though, I could be completely wrong, of course. The female grad students in the zoology program didn’t seem to be treated any differently either.

    I really do wonder if part of it was the program you were in, at least as far as the on-campus idiocy. While certainly this wouldn’t apply to everyone, I did meet some women at BYU who were majoring in the various humanities programs as a sort of default, not ever planning on doing anything with it career-wise, just getting a degree to have one. Totally anecdotal, of course, and I might just be doing the human pattern-finding, but that sort of thing seemed far rarer in my science classes when the subject came up. If the men in your program had perceived the same thing, I can see how they might have extrapolated it to you and wondered why you were taking up the space in the graduate program. It certainly doesn’t justify the jerkiness, of course, but it might be an explanation of what line of thinking they were following.

  42. 42

    I think Ann has a good point in comment #37.

    Maybe the church’s admonition to avoid close friendships with members of the opposite sex is behind some of this, rather than just overt sexism.

    I think of the social interactions I have with men:
    + at church, it is ALWAYS through the wife.
    + at work, if I get together with co-workers, it is always arranged with the co-worker (male or female) I don’t arrange dinners with the wives of male coworkers (even though I know them) – if we get together with spouses/family outside of work I coordinate it with the co-worker.
    + the hybrid of this would be the friends from my college engineering program. It is the wives of the men I graduated with that I keep in touch with – even though my contact during school was extremely limited with their wives. (yes, I graduated from BYU)

    Could it be that as a Mormon culture we just don’t teach men (and women) how to interact appropriately for fear of the inappropriate interaction? (Similar to the way we are reluctant to teach youth about s*x? NOT intended as a threadjack, so please don’t use it as such – but I think it could be an interesting similarity)

  43. 43

    Just something that plays out in all areas of our lives and is worth considering for this discussion:

    ONE negative experience generally wipes out 5-10 positive experiences in our memories. Also, the more negative an experience is, the more positive experiences it takes to override that negative experience.

  44. 44

    Just curious – is it possible that much of the “demotion” is a result, neither of Utah nor of Mormons, nor even of patriarchy, but simply personality – both yours and others?

    For example, my personality is brash enough that I am rarely demoted. My husband, on the other hand, frequently has to deal with the feelings and experiences you have mentioned.

  45. 45

    I think this is not so much anti-female as anti-other-sex. I am a single male, and as a rule married women in the church never talk to me either and act funny if I ever talk to them. I doubt it would be that much different if I were married. So I don’t think one can argue this is largely some sort of male chauvinist conspiracy.

  46. 46
  47. 47

    Ray: “ONE negative experience generally wipes out 5-10 positive experiences…”

    Sad but all too true. And it takes even more than the strength of 10 positive experiences to wipe out one negative.

  48. 48

    “Most Mormon men I know are perfectly courteous and polite, and yet a significant minority continue to treat me as subtlely irrelevant, unable to contribute meaningfully to conversations about ideas, politics, social issues, or the gospel.”

    Yeah there’ still a few jerks around, but mostly it’s just a bit of “locker room” mentality creeping in–nothing against women per se.

    “What’s really alarming is the patronizing chivalry that sometimes thinly masks these attitudes–oh, you charming women who have the angelic patience to do jobs we could never do…”

    Call it patronizing if you want. But in the minds of many men it’s simply true. And if you want to reduce it all to men’s lack of interest in wiping dirty bums so be it–but the “truth” remains in spite of the nagging ulterior motive.

  49. 49

    40: Mark IV
    I’m very encouraged to read that Elder Ballard seems to be interested in women’s roles in church leadership.
    I read parts of your comment to my husband (currently EQP) and asked him if he would forward these ideas on to the Bishop. Nope, he says it doesn’t directly affect him (the way asking for changing tables in the men’s room would), and he doesn’t want to be seen as “counseling” the Bishop.
    Do you have any kind of reference for the part about the training where they did role-plays of the RS Pres conducting ward council?
    DH seems to think that if that were true, then everyone would know about it and do it. (of course, we rolled our eyes today when they read a letter from Pres Monson about not using props or asking people to open their scriptures during Sacrament meeting talks. Isn’t that counsel 10 yrs old?)

  50. 50

    OK, to take some of these in reverse order, just for fun….

    Jack, I think it’s precisely that nagging ulterior motive underlying such claims that make me suspect their truth. Not that I think all chivalric discourse is necessarily tainted; much of it is certainly heartfelt and well meant. But I’m far less suspicious of men praising women’s nurturing capacity when it comes from men who are themselves involved in the endless, unglamorous labor of childrearing. The fact that men’s involvement in their children’s lives has so dramatically increased over the last generation or two suggests that such “truths” are anything but simple or culturally transcendental.

    Mark D., lyn, and Ann point to the perplexing difficulty of interactions between the sexes in Mormon contexts, which I too have found are more constrained at church than in other settings. That’s a difficult problem worthy of its own extended discussion, and certainly parallel in some regards, but not in others. Like Mark I’ve sometimes gotten vibes of discomfort from men at church, but such vibes, and the avoidance that accompanies them, aren’t the same as the experiences I describe here. The first example I gave was of a woman who refused to deal with in a business context, and I can only wish that the most obnoxious of my fellow students at BYU had avoided and ignored me. Repeated sexist put-downs simply don’t fit into the model suggested by avoidance of opposite-sex contact.

    Also, just in case there’s been any misunderstanding, I don’t generally believe in conspiracies, male chauvinist or otherwise. Occham’s razor would tend to mitigate against positing such when all relevant phenomena can so easily be accounted for by appeals to culture.

    Which brings me to my next point. I’m somewhat bemused by the repeated attempts to leap over any suggestion of a connection between sexism and Mormonism or Mormon culture and account for my experience as wholly or primarily personal, a product of “personality” (as if personality can ever be severed from culture and cultural norms). Certainly, individual temperament is a factor, as I said above. Certainly gender is only one of many other factors, some of which Dalene mentioned–education, generation, age, class, and of course the here hotly contested one of region (Utah vs. non). But it’s fascinating to me that in the context of a church which emphasizes gender more than any of these other distinctions, which has declared gender alone among them to be an eternal characteristic, there’s such reluctance to see any connection whatsoever between our doctrine and our practice. In my experience we’re delighted when our doctrine has positive implications for individual lives, as it of course often does, and we’re happy to credit the institution and the doctrine we teach, preach, and study for the longer and healthier lives of individuals (the Word of Wisdom) or lower divorce rates (temple marriage, chastity, fidelity, spousal commitment) or greater participation in higher education (work ethic and emergency preparedness). If I mentioned that I’ve benefited from all three of these trends, I suspect the same commentators who want to make an absolute separation between the Mormon church and any sexist experiences I’ve had in it would be perfectly delighted to credit my relatively good health and the longevity of my marriage and my pursuit of a Ph.D. to the doctrines of my church and my culture. I’d be the first to say it’s not just some strange quirk of my “personality” that has granted me these benefits; it’s the teaching of the church to which I belong. But why can’t we make the same connections when it comes to gender? Surely our ideas about men and women have the same sorts of palpable consequences for individuals–positive and negative–that our ideas about health, work, marriage, friendships, and education do. One of those consequences, in my experience, is a form of sexism among a minority of Mormon men that I’ve rarely if ever encountered outside church contexts. If this were wholly a matter of my personality, wouldn’t I have encountered it equally everywhere?

    It’s within this broader context that I’m uncomfortable with what I trust are well-meaning attempts to attribute my discomfort at sexism to my personality. And it’s in that context that I’m uncomfortable with Ray’s ratios of positive-to-negative experiences–although I’ve seen enough of Ray around the Bloggernacle to know that he has nothing but the best of intentions in mentioning it. And on a certain personal level of course getting beyond such experiences, forgiving, not harboring resentment is vital. But it’s also vital that we address institutional problems, as I think sexism within Mormonism is, and not try to write them off as the unaccountably strange behavior of a few random individuals.

    To try another parallel: would it have been appropriate to tell Martin Luther King that his “personality” was making him susceptible to racist attitudes and that he simply needed to have more positive experiences with whites in order to efface the negative ones? On the contrary, isn’t it patently obvious now that what he needed to do was seek the social transformation of unjust institutions rather than reducing the experience of a racism to such a radically individual level? And isn’t there clearly an ulterior motive in such radical individualism–namely, that the institutions and cultural patterns producing it completely disappear and that the individuals who suffer from discrimination are blamed instead?

  51. 51

    I agree that treating anyone that way in a business context is inexcusable. Social contexts have different rules.

    For example, there appears to be a somewhat reasonable expectation that I become socially acquainted with a husband before becoming socially acquainted with his wife, and vice versa for females. That is a little odd, but not really in the same category.

  52. 52

    Eve, I considered the personality difference simply because my experiences have been so vastly different from yours. I have experienced more sexism outside of the Church than in. I have not observed what you have observed, though I have lived nearly ten years in Utah, both in Utah Valley and in Salt Lake, and nearly twenty years outside of Utah, all over Europe and the United States. Perhaps it is because I am not looking for it, but I have noticed far more blatant sexism (such as score cards and whistles/boos) when away from Utah. I have not observed much, if any, of the subtle sexism (such as being looked over in favor of speaking to someone I’m with, as you have described) except for when I lived in the South. (Yes, some men have said silly things about women at times, but I say silly things about men and other women and everything at times. If it really offends me, I address it with the person directly, believing it to be a problem with them and me, personally.) When I have experienced subtle sexism, it was not difficult to assert myself and let them know I was the one to talk to, or whatever the case demanded. I also simply assumed it was a personality quirk of theirs, and not a product of an overreaching social discrepancy. I hardly think it on par with discrimination against the blacks, as (with the exception of bathrooms, which I hope to keep) women have not been asked to use different facilities than men since Victorian times. I have suffered no loss of function or convenience because of being a woman. To the contrary, I have observed certain benefits, such as scholarships and career opportunities, which are more available to me as a woman than they would be if I were a man.

    Because our experiences have differed so vastly, I can’t help but consider the most obvious variable – personality – as a strong affecter in our differing experiences, though I am sure there are other variables as well. I don’t find it as easily dismissed as you do.

  53. 53


    I don’t know if it’s heartening or disheartening, but my friend Zillah recounts some anecdotes of academic Mrs.-discrimination outside of BYU here

  54. 54

    Eve, thanks for your kind words. The positive-negative ratio aspect was not meant to diminish, overlook or excuse anything, but merely to point out that such a ratio does exist.

    For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with people who are inactive in the Church and heard them explain it as the result of being offended by another member’s or leader’s actions or perceived hypocrisy – but they never mention that there were far more members and leaders who DIDN’T offend them or were NOT hypocritical. These people have left activity over the actions of one or two rather than the actions of dozens or hundreds. In many cases, they can’t even remember the positive associations – specifically because their focus on the negative literally wiped out their memory of the positive.

    I’m not giving that example for any other reason than to illustrate the ratio issue, but it’s something that at least needs to be considered, imho. I also was a school teacher for a few years, and I saw the same thing happen there with students, their parents, the teachers and administrators. That is fascinating to me.

    As to the original issue as posted, the worst example of this with my own wife was when we received mail – from a completely non-Mormon source – addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Ray __________.” That’s just wrong.

  55. 55

    I can’t remember ever experiencing these kinds of issues. I pay the check, but my husband calculates the tip (I hate doing that). For years I worked fulltime while he was home with the kids. He would hang out with the housewives in our ward (activities committee I think it was). I had more in common with all the men. And I’m the introvert—he’s the extrovert. Maybe I’m just so introverted that I don’t care and thus have never noticed.

    But I am curious about some things. Did your husband tell your HT that many of the ideas he was expressing were yours? It seems like if I were in that position I would have mentioned that I’d just been talking about that with my spouse and told him to express his own part of the conversation.

    Matt W. (#4), when you were at the doctor with your wife, why didn’t she just tell the doctor to address you and not her?

    What seems weirder to me than the fact that some people expect a certain person to have certain knowledge is that you didn’t correct them in their assumption.

  56. 56

    My wife suffered an almost-opposite reaction in our professor-filled ward in Provo. She got plenty of bored stares when it was discovered that she was not actually pursuing another degree. That she was content to just work. For some reason, many members of that ward just couldn’t be bothered by someone who wasn’t seeking an advanced degree. Maybe it’s just a college-town phenomenon.

  57. 57

    This whole discussion spurred yet another discussion on the subject between me and my husband last night. After 35 years of marriage, we agree on two things (concerning this subject; we do agree on more than that overall): sexism is inherent (and VERY difficult to overcome) in an organization where the men hold all the key administrative positions; and, it isn’t possible for a man to truly understand or comprehend the extent of sexism in the Church, nor the feelings it produces in a woman [along the same line as I can’t truly understand what it feels like to be a Black woman in a predominantly white culture].

    Like some of the men in this discussion, my husband prefers concrete examples (which I believe Eve has given). Addressing the problem on a case by case basis is one way of approaching it. For example, when year end tithing receipts were issued in January of this year, I called the clerk to ask why we hadn’t received ours. His reply was that he hadn’t seen my husband (who has a stake calling) at church in the past few weeks, so he hadn’t been able to give it to him. With supreme self-restraint I told him that I handle all the financial matters in our family, and I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to not give the receipt to me. He admitted that it hadn’t occurred to him to give it to me, since my husband’s name was on the envelope. I then called the other clerk, who had put the names on the envelopes, and requested that either my name alone or my name along with that of my husband be typed on any receipt/envelope/letter, etc. He then told me, “That’s not how we do it.” To which I replied, “Well, that’s how WE do it.” I’m not sure it made any difference, but at least I tried. (He ended up mailing the receipt.)

    And yes, he also told me that the computer system wouldn’t allow him to put my name first, because my husband is the “head of the household”. 😉

    Sexism is alive and well in the Church. Acknowleding it (and discussing it in counsels) won’t make it go away, but it would help dull the sting. Admittedly, some of us feel that sting more than others, which may be attributable in part to personality/temperament (i.e. tolerance for pain). However, the level of individual perception does not change the reality (not wanting to get into a discussion of perception vs. reality).

  58. 58

    This topic strikes particularly close to home for me (as Katya states above, I seem to blog about it incessantly). Briefly, though, I find it interesting that there has been so much discussion here about men’s treatment of women. While I have certainly experienced plenty of that in the Church (one home teacher in particular comes to mind, as does the boyfriend who explicitly mentioned my desire for a PhD as one of the reasons he didn’t feel that we would ever work out together), some of the most blatant “demotation” I’ve experienced has come from women in the Church, outside of Utah. They didn’t mean any harm, but it happened so often and so blatantly (“you don’t have children? oh, that’s why you’re still in school”) that it was an unmistakable trend. I think that the patriarchal structure, the culture, and various popular doctrinal interpretations keep the Church from making the same strides at the same pace in terms of actively recognizing the contributions and activities of women in ALL possible spheres as the rest of Western society outside the Church.

    Rarely malicious, always revealing.

  59. 59

    I also did not experience this at BYU, which I think you rightly attributed to the undergrad/grad divide. BAs and BSs are now a given, the equivalent of a HS diploma, so woman undergraduates are wholly acceptable. I am sure wackos abound in the graduate programs and all that heady academia makes them say (or even think) crazy things.

    I have ample examples of my own of instances of male superiority from Mormon men, some from peers at BYU (but none that I respected, so I just laughed them off). I think it is more noticeable from Mormon men because I expect better from them. I expect that they have wives/mothers/sisters/friends who they respect and that they view as children of God. When they treat people poorly, it is disappointing because I think they should know better.

    Also, clearly some men (and women) attribute men special deference based on the priesthood issue (as that is the only substantial difference in the Church). It seems to be a wizard of Oz phenomenon. I think my mission experience was a good peek behind the curtain: we all had the same job and clearly some PH holders were total yahoos and some sisters were the best stinking missionaries around. When I hear someone say something outrageous, I generally attribute it to their not having enough experience with enough extraordinary women (or not noticing what is around them) OR to that social issue several commenters have alluded to where we tend to socialize at Church strictly through our same-sex counterparts and wo be to the singles or those whose spouses are not at Church, because they are automatically cut off from half of the ward.

    I also wondered about your husband’s response to the HT who was awed at his wisdom.

    RE: the awkward ob/gyn visit someone else had: isn’t it conceivable that this doctor needed to hear the wishes of the PATIENT, and not the wishes of the patient’s husband? I know many men THINK and feel very involved in pregnancy and childbirth, but that fact is, you are an on-looker. If I was at a doctor appointment about my husband’s cancer treatment, I would expect the doctor, even after over-hearing a private discussion, would need express direction from the actual competent patient.

  60. 60

    I think I sounded like I contradicted myself, so I just wanted to clarify:

    I did not hear these sorts of comments from anyone important to me while at BYU. I heard them from men who were in my ward or in a class, not anyone with whom I would have cultivated a relationship.

    I would also add that women (as Zillah pointed out) are as susceptible as men: they can attribute too much power to men and can downplay themselves (and other women). Women I know (and even some I consider friends) have made some statements to me or in my hearing which indicate that they feel they love their kids more than I do because I do things (like graduate school or working) without my kids. While they tolerate my choices, they certainly adjudicate them as lesser (often a two-way street).

  61. 61

    Whether or not its true, I find the assertion that men can’t truly comprehend the extent of sexism in the Church both relatively offensive and not super-productive. Offensive because it degrades my empathetic abilities and unproductive because, if I can’t understand it, then what is the point of the conversation.

    FWIW, I find similar problems to what Eve discusses, but in the converse. I generally try not to predict, when I’m dealing with new members of the ward, which of them is in school (because our ward takes in a lot of grad students). But I haven’t figured out a good way to ask why they’re here; my wife has a certain ambivalence about being a stay-at-home mom: she loves the time with our daughter, but she feels judged, both in and out of the church, for not being out there working. I don’t want to contribute to what Eve feels, but I also don’t want to contribute to what my wife feels, i.e., I don’t want to make women (or men, for that matter) feel like their choice to stay home with the kids is an inferior choice.

    Of course, on a practical level, this is ameliorated by being in the Primary, because I generally don’t meet any of the new people in our ward.

  62. 62

    Okay, that may not have been completely clear. I’m not saying that what Eve has talked about doesn’t exist: I’m entirely sure it does. I’m just saying that the fact that some people in and out of the Church look down on women who work/pursue higher education combined with the fact that some people in and out of the Church look down on women who stay at home to raise the children makes it hard to find out about a woman until after you know if she works outside the home or not, the discovery of which is actually generally one of the first topics of polite conversation, creating a vicious conversation-sucking dilemma.

  63. 63

    Eve wrote in 35:
    Women on both sides of the divide sometimes make devastating judgments about each others’ lives, and I think we’re better off considering ways we can be more tactful, accepting, and inclusive than thinking that our faith exempts us from such human frailties.

    Thanks for writing this – it was beautiful and good for me to keep in mind.

    I have appreciated reading this post and its comments. I had an experience completely unrelated to mormonism. My husband is a SAHD. We took our twins to our family practicioner (a woman). I know she was busy, but at each visit, we would remind her that my husband stayed at home. Yet she would constantly address the questions to me. Are they eating okay? How much milk do they drink, etc. I would turn to my husband and say, so, honey, how much ARE they sleeping at night?

    In the end, we went to another doctor (who has remembered that my husband stays at home). Again, this could just be habit of sorts (she was my doctor before she was my children’s doctor). But it was still irritating. So I believe some of these stereotypes are societal/cultural.

    With that said, just because one person doesn’t experience something, doesn’t mean it’s not there or that it didn’t happen. Not that anyone was suggesting that, just that I think it’s important to note.

    There is (as has been suggested) a wide variety of experiences, vastly different based on age, geography, ethnicity, family and social history. I’ve always heard the comparison to MLK, just because I didn’t experience racism first hand, doesn’t mean it’s not (or was not) there.

    I do believe some people are simply socially awkward. I’m not trying to excuse their behavior.

    I just understand (as someone who often puts her foot in her mouth) when a person doesn’t understand tact, doesn’t understand social cues, and never learned that some topics should be taboo.

    I don’t know how this could be better handled in our society, more than it already is. But pointing out when someone asks rude questions or makes inappropriate assumptions is a good start. Not that this is always necessary, as we only have so much energy, but a few well chosen statements could work wonders.

  64. 64

    I’m just saying that the fact that some people in and out of the Church look down on women who work/pursue higher education combined with the fact that some people in and out of the Church look down on women who stay at home to raise the children makes it hard to find out about a woman until after you know if she works outside the home or not
    Very true. I experienced this situation the first time I met my SP’s wife. I knew her kids were grown but I didn’t know if she worked or not so I ended up faltering and saying something like “So, what do you . . . do?” Luckily for me, she was very good natured and understanding about how some women work / go to school and some don’t and it can be hard to bring up the topic without sounding critical of one camp or the other. And if you’re constantly avoiding all potentially divisive topics, you’re going to end up in awfully bland conversations where no real information is gathered or exchanged.

    For me, the thing I value is not that people never make mistaken assumptions about me, but that they’re willing to make nonjudgmental reevaluations when I correct those assumptions.

  65. 65

    I find that a genuine “Tell me about yourself” is a good neutral way to inquire about anyone’s life because it is completely assumption free, and it allows the person to share what they feel is most pertinent. It is a phrasing that I try to remember and use frequently when meeting new people.

  66. 66

    Eve-I think a lot of us are trying to come up with explanations as to why you’ve had the experiences you have when a lot of us have not. I know for me, it’s hard to say, “The Church is sexist,” because that’s not my experience at all. I haven’t even encountered that many members that are sexist, and all of the ones I can think of were stupid teenagers at the time and hopefully grew up with more time and experience. It’s not trying to dismiss things as, “Oh, it’s just you, it’s your personality,” it’s exploring what variables might exist to explain the vast differences in experiences.

  67. 67

    My experience of Eve is that she has a fairly forthright personality, although I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of this in light of the anecdotes she’s related–observe that she’s conveyed completely different types of experiences, some in which she was simply ignored while her husband was addressed exclusively, and others in which she was followed around and harangued for being a graduate student (what personality trait elicits both of those essentially opposite reactions??). Also, I don’t know how she reacted in these various situations–how to deal with clueless or rude people, which includes all of us, is an interesting issue in itself–but setting that aside I think it is interesting to wonder aloud what leads people to harbor such assumptions to begin with. Are there others of you who, like Eve, were married graduate students at BYU while your husbands were undergrads? ‘Cause it might be enlightening to compare notes.

    On the most basic, descriptive level, I’m not sure how we can avoid concluding that the Church is sexist: it systematically creates and denies opportunities on the basis of sex (men cannot be Primary presidents, women cannot be bishops, etc.). The question of whether that inculcates misogynistic attitudes in certain of its adherents obviously can’t be answered by appeal to one person’s experience, but as Catherine pointed out, it’s hard to believe it has NO effect on us–that we compartmentally respond to gender in Church interactions and gender in the outside world in qualitatively different ways.

  68. 68

    Those of you who are concerned Eve isn’t “brash” (i.e. “rude”?) enough might want to be careful about tempting fate into providing us with a demonstration of her capacity for brashness. 🙂

  69. 69

    I read an interesting article on Feminism 101 yesterday that made me think of both this post and Julie’s recent “I choose my choice!” post on Times and Seasons. The thrust of the article was that sexism doesn’t have to be obvious or offensive to exist. An example was given of a sign that said “Boy Toys” in a toy department over a display of trucks and tractors and fire engines. Someone suggested changing the sign to say just “Toys” and got ripped a new one for it. “Only an idiot would take offense.” “It’s not sexist – it’s just descriptive!” That’s not the point! The point is that it’s assigning a sex-based preference to a neutral object. No, it’s not offensive, but it’s still sexism.

    Mormons are not very good at setting healthy boundaries. Virtual strangers often feel perfectly free to comment on the number of children we have, the level of our participation in activities, and how we are doing on the obedience scale. I think a LOT of what Eve is seeing is just exactly that: people with a no comprehension of proper social behavior and no sense of appropriate boundaries. And because they are our “brothers and sisters,” instead of calling them on it, with an incredulous “How dare you?!” (I heart Miss Manners) we just politely…seethe. Sure, they MEAN no harm, but in spite of that, harm is done.

  70. 70

    I am not in a lot of situations where I feel marginalized. But it only takes a couple times where you know, you really know that it is your gender that makes someone dismiss you, your opinions, or your contributions. I really don’t like it.
    I think that your husband’s personality and social behavior might really come into it. Is he really interesting? Do other guys think he’s really cool? Does he have a lot of charisma? I had a best friend who had more “presence” than me, so people treated us differently. I kind of faded into the background.

  71. 71


    Virtual strangers often feel perfectly free to comment on the number of children we have

    You just described living in New York City!

  72. 72

    (and, from what I understand, Ithaca and Berkeley, probably Salt Lake. That is to say, strangers telling you what you’re doing wrong, especially with your family, seems to be endemic wherever people are self-righteous and run into each other. I’m sure it happens at Church, but, in my experience, it’s more likely to happen on the subway or the bus or if I’m carrying my daughter down the street and she’s not wearing a heavy coat.)

  73. 73

    I really enjoyed this post. Having attended BYU I can empathize with your plight.

    I am a SAHM Mom to 2 kids while my husband is an attorney at a big firm. Most recently the sexism I have encountered has been from non-mormons and their incorrect assumptions about our religion and roles as husband and wife. One particular coworker of my husbands, whom we have quite a bit of contact with, maintains an incorrect assumption that because I am a mormon woman and that I stay at home, I must be “oppressed” and that I only stay at home because it is what my husband wants. After all, how could I possibly choose to do this? Despite being our friend, he will make snide offhanded remarks about my choice. This type of unknowing-sexism is, in my opinion, the most dangerous and hurtful. My husband has always been supportive of my career and education and repeatedly reminds me that he has no expectations of me staying home. We share housework, we value each other’s ideas, we are equals. This particular person, while claiming to be liberal and promotes gender equality, is marginalizing my role and my choice by assuming that he knows best. It infuriating because it is sexism masked as feminism.

    Somehow the sexism I experience in church, like the “you should have more kids” comments that I get are a lot less offensive because they are more visible and easier to respond too.

    How do I respond to our friend, who although I’m sure he thinks he has the best of intentions, is marginalizing my role, my choices and my husband?

  74. 74

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed to a lively discussion.

    Just to tie up a couple of loose ends: I don’t think these experiences can be attributed to any great differences between my and my husband’s personalities. We’re both fairly intense, private people, pretty similar in social situations; I wouldn’t say one of us has vastly more presence or charisma than the other, and we tend to participate in conversations about equally.

    When the home teacher described his little fantasy about me sitting at my husband’s feet absorbing his words of wisdom (I’ve always wondered if that’s what he himself wanted his own wife to do!) he and my husband were deep into their doctrinal discussion, and I could tell my husband was so focused on the topic under discussion he didn’t even notice the comment. I simply pointed it out to him later, and he agreed that it was obnoxious and said he’d try to be more aware of such comments and assumptions and more actively correct them (this was also about ten years ago now, in the early years of our marriage). Now he wouldn’t let something like that fly.

    Firebyrd, certainly experiences differ, and I do respect those differences. But I suspect that the variables you seek in order to account for them aren’t easily to be found in “personality,” my husband’s or mine, for some of the reasons Kiskilili gives, and for some I’ve already given.

    I’d look first to deviation from social norms. In any community, the further one deviates from the norms, the more subject one is to censure. Graduate school is, for women, a greater deviation from Mormon norms than an undergraduate education, and so Mormon female graduate students are likely to provoke censure in a way female undergraduate students aren’t. Of course this dynamic holds in other communities as well, as in the exasperating situation E describes just above, in which someone wants to liberate her from what he imagines to be her oppression.

    Again, a parallel might be instructive. On the Bloggernacle I’ve often seen SAHMs and/or more traditional Mormon women describe the discrimination or put-downs they’ve endured from self-described feminists. I’ve seen it too; I’ve heard female professors express truly horrifying attitudes about SAHMs, so I don’t doubt the reality of such experiences. But I have yet to see anyone attempt to explain them as somehow the result of the experiencer’s “personality.” When it comes to certain feminisms, I think we can all agree that there are some real problems–pervasive classism, for instance, and very destructive, narrow attitudes about wage-earning and what constitutes a meaningful life.

    If you stand outside feminist norms and have been censured as a result, we have no trouble attributing your experience to limitations in feminism; no need to invoke the vagaries of “personality.” All I’m asking is that we entertain the possibility that similar dynamics obtain when it comes to Mormonism. If your experiences with Mormons have been filled with nothing but sweetness and light, more power to you. But please realize that may simply be a result of the fact that your life choices and circumstances conform relatively well to community norms, and it doesn’t mean others further on edges haven’t had harsher experiences.

    I hope I would never say to a woman who’d been put down by feminists (or lactation consultants, or what have you) that all of my experiences with feminists (or lactation consultants) have been positive. Even if they had (they certainly haven’t), my positive experiences would in no way eradicate her negative ones.

    All I would ask is the same consideration.

  75. 75

    To rise to the offense of Mormon SAHM’s, I have heard them on multiple occasions, both public and private, accuse employed mothers of shipping our children off for others to raise because we are selfish and greedy. So forgive me if I don’t boo-hoo over how oppressed you are by us evil feminists.

    E, it would be interesting to see how your gentleman adversary would respond to the observation that it is typical of the patriarchy for a man to believe he is more qualified than a woman to decide what that woman really thinks and what is best for her.

  76. 76

    “it is typical of the patriarchy for a man to believe he is more qualified than a woman to decide what that woman really thinks”

    I apologize up front for how blunt this will be, but I simply can’t find a more meek or merciful way to say this.

    After so many comments saying that we are not talking about the majority of men in the Church, and so much excellent discussion about this issue, we are back to claiming that the typical man in the Church believes he is qualified to decide what his wife thinks?


  77. 77

    Ray, I think you may be misreading here. The man in question isn’t Mormon, I don’t think, so there’s no claim about the Church or anything typical of it; he’s E’s husband’s co-worker and a self-proclaimed feminist trying to liberate her from what he imagines to be her housewifely oppression. Ann’s proposed remark simply makes evident the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed feminist man dictating to a woman how she ought to think and live.

    But her suggestion says nothing whatsoever about the church, let alone about what a typical man in the church believes are his prerogatives over his wife’s thoughts or anything else.

  78. 78

    I hope so, Eve. It was the use of the term “the patriarchy” that caught my attention, as that phrase is used often to describe the Church.

    If I misread you, Ann, I apologize.

  79. 79

    It’s typical of men in the church to think that the patriarchy is all about them. It’s not. 😀

    Ray, I was not referring to men in the church with that particular statement, because the man in question wasn’t a Mormon, so that would have made no sense.

    For what it’s worth, I haven’t found Mormon men to be any more patriarchal than the men in the world at large. They tend to be more straightforward about it, which I actually appreciate. And their patriarchal rhetoric tends toward the angel mother paradigm, vs. the sexual receptacle paradigm, which I also appreciate. 🙂

    (Note to self: do not comment late at night when medicated.)

  80. 80
  81. 81

    great post. # 13, I didnt change my name when i got married and was scolded by the temple worker right before we were married. Then, later in another temple a worker called me a trouble marker for not changing it. It always infuriates me!
    Also, with the church records, the first year we were married, i was working and my husband was finishing school but they addressed the tithing yearly review solely to my husband. I has HOT. It may just be the computer program but i felt it diminished my contributions.
    Other than that, i think it is true to a certain extent that the majority of mormon men dont know how to interact with strong females who have academic interests. Could it be that they are taught to interact with women in a less intellectual way? Is this because they are taught to look for a “care taker” someone who will be a good mother? The male/female role dichotomy must affect men just like it affects women.

  82. 82

    In response to sara in 81: a few years back I was sitting in ward council when the topic of a new Korean family in the ward came up. The husband was a graduate student and they had come straight from Korea.

    I clarified that his name was Brother X but her name was Sister Y. [Korean women keep their own family names when they get married.] Everyone turned and stared at me and after a long pause, someone asked, “Are they married?”


  83. 83

    Regarding women keeping or changing their names when getting married (#13, 81, 82), I’m pretty sure that with one of the most recent updates to MLS, the program no longer assumes that the wife’s last name will change to the husband’s. When a couple gets married, the program actually asks “Is the wife’s name changing or staying the same?” which I think is progress, incremental though it may be.

    On tithing year end summaries, I typically write the tithing checks, and I always fill out my wife’s name first on the tithing slip (e.g., “Zophronia and Ziff Zelophehad”) and our year-end summaries have always come back the same way–with her listed first. I’m not sure how much control MLS gives over that type of listing because I’ve never worked on the financial side of clerking.

    I have to say that I share Sam B.’s (#61, 62) concern about potentially insulting women I meet at church by asking the wrong questions. Asking a woman who I’ve already seen has kids “What do you do?” might have the meta-message “raising your kids isn’t enough.” Asking a woman who I haven’t seen kids “What do you do?” might have the meta-message “If you’re doing anything other than raising children you’re evil.” So I appreciate Starfoxy’s “tell me about yourself” suggestion (#65).

    Eve, I really like this post as well as your explanatory comments, particularly #74.

  84. 84

    Kiskilili 67

    “Are there others of you who, like Eve, were married graduate students at BYU while your husbands were undergrads?”

    This is a bit long, but you asked, so here you go:

    When we married, I was in the last year of my master’s program at BYU and my husband was a junior. We lived east of campus in a ward made up of on-campus married RAs, renters and mostly homeowners (including a number of professors). I moved into our basement apartment about five months before we got married so I started attending that ward alone then. It wasn’t until after my husband moved in that the bishopric came to visit, then the elders quorum presidency, and then the relief society did a hit and run hot roll drop off, although I had been in the ward seven months already. I had the strange sense that now that I was a Mrs. I was worthy of notice. (That really helped me understand what a hardship it is for single members) I didn’t feel a lot of prejudice for pursuing an advanced degree, because there was such a distancing between the majority “stable” homeowners and the minority “itinerant” renters that I doubt hardly anyone knew who I was, let alone what I did. I (and later we) also didn’t have home teachers, which may have helped avoid the problem.

    I also had a supportive department and fellow grad students. I also knew what I was doing was right for me, despite all the infamous BYU talks on marriage and children.

    Shortly after I graduated, my husbands parents moved abroad to work, so we’ve been house sitting in their house in Mapleton (south of Provo) while my husband finishes school. Now that’s he finishing (August graduation!), I’m going to pursue a PhD starting this fall while my husband works. When we started telling people in the ward we were moving because I’m going back to school, I (naively?) expected them to be happy for me. But instead I usually get a blank look and a change of subject or a demand to know what my husband is going to do. I was initially hurt, because it was a long hard process to decide this is what he needed to do and I expected support from the ward family. Then I realized they fell into two groups, those who simply don’t support our decision because women (especially married women) shouldn’t pursue advanced degrees and those whose simply have no concept of what I’m saying because academia is too far out of their experience (think Joe vs. the Volcano’s “I have no response to that).

    I would have to agree with FoxyJ, though, that not having children is more of an isolating factor in the church than an advanced degree, at least in my experience.

  85. 85
  86. 86

    In response to sar, I would say that being a Mrs. has been a perceived status position for women since the dawn of time. Or at least since Jane Austen.

  87. 87

    Heidi, thanks for dropping by! I’d love to meet one of these days –I think you may already know my sister Lynnette. 😉

  88. 88

    I do. I do. She’s the freaking smartest woman I’ve ever known.

    uh…second to you…

  89. 89

    Heh, heh, Heidi, please rest assured that Lynnette is much smarter than I am. In fact, I could give an extensive list of the things she’s smarter at than I am (theology, philosophy, human relationships, computers, statistics), but I’ll stop there to avoid embarrassing her too much. 😉

  90. 90

    Thanks for this post and discussion. It’s always helpful to share and talk this stuff through MULTIPLE times!

    I am continually frustrated about one aspect that seems to always creep up in these types of conversations: a divide between SAHMs and feminists. They are not mutually exclusive, nor should they ever be seen as such. I am a SAHM AND an ardent feminist. I have four children AND have given up my career goals–temporarily (not that it should matter)–to be a SAHM. I am educated and have continued my education, as it fits in with the life I have chosen. I feel ambivalent about my hyphenated name, because they are both names from a male line. Neither represent my female heritage.

    I get a lot of the, “you seem too smart to have have gotten yourself into this situation,” (referring to me being a SAHM) which is totally offensive. I’m not saying that this form of sexism is worse than that described toward mothers that choose to work, or wives that choose not to have children, or women that choose neither. It’s all offensive, and should not turn into a “pissing contest” of who has it worse. As humans, we should all be sensitive to and intolerant of this kind of offensive behavior in all of its manifestations and support each other in our personal choices, regardless of what they may be.

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