Documenting Changing Church Rhetoric on Gender Roles

My impression is that Church rhetoric defines women by their roles more often than it does men. Women are wives and mothers. Even if they aren’t technically mothers, women are mothers, because that’s just who they are. Men, on the other hand, sure we’re admonished to be good husbands and fathers, but those roles are discussed as being much less central to who we are. I would be shocked, for example, if someone gave a talk titled “Are We Not All Fathers?” in General Conference.

When this difference in the centrality of women’s and men’s gender roles is discussed, one hope that is often held out is that the Church is changing. Women are coming to be defined less by their roles and more as people of worth even if they don’t take on those roles, and men are being reminded more often that our roles as husband and father should be central to our lives.

It occurred to me recently that I could easily test for whether such a change is actually occurring by looking at how often different words are used in articles archived at Specifically, I chose to look for how often role labels (wife and mother for women; husband and father for men) were used versus how often the general labels woman and man were used. So for each year from 1971 to 2007, I counted how many articles in the Gospel Library used the words woman, wife, mother, man, husband, or father. For each year, I found the ratio of articles using wife and mother to the number using woman, as well as the ratio of articles using husband and father to the number using man.

My first hypothesis was that the discussion of women’s roles relative to the discussion of women in general would be declining. This hypothesis would be supported if the wife to woman and mother to woman ratios were declining over time. My second hypothesis was that the discussion of men’s roles relative to the discussion of men in general would be increasing. This hypothesis would be supported if the husband to man and father to man ratios were increasing over time.

The results are in the figure below. The red squares plot the mother to woman ratio. The orange squares plot the wife to woman ratio. The blue circles plot the father to man ratio. The black circles plot the husband to man ratio. For each of the four ratios, the dashed line of the same color shows the best linear fit to the data.


Both the mother to woman and the wife to woman ratios declined with time. Only the decline of the wife to woman ratio was statistically significant, though1. You can see why the mother to woman ratio did not achieve significance: its values are much more scattered around the best fit line than are the values for the wife to woman ratio. These results offer partial support for my first hypothesis, that women’s roles are being emphasized less over time.

Both the father to man and the husband to man ratios increased with time. Although the father to man increase was much more dramatic, both increases were statistically significant2. These results are consistent with my second hypothesis, that men’s family roles are being emphasized more over time.

A few other random notes:

  • These ratios are clearly extremely crude measures of how much women’s and men’s roles are being emphasized. Given that there are clear effects even using them, I suspect that a better measure might show the changes over time more clearly. Perhaps they would even show effects depending on who the prophet is. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or energy to do a study with a more precise measure.
  • It would be interesting to see how many articles refer to wife or mother versus woman instead of just looking at wife and mother separately, but unfortunately, the Gospel Library search tool does not support boolean “or” searching.
  • I said at the beginning that I think Church rhetoric defines women more by their expected roles than it does men by theirs. Unfortunately, I don’t think these data can be used to test whether that’s true. My first thought, for example, was that I could compare the mother to woman ratio to the father to man ratio to see which was higher. The problem with this is that both father and man are used in many contexts that have nothing to do with fathers or men. Man is often used to refer to all of humanity, for example, and any talk that refers to Heavenly Father would show up as a match for father. If we assume (as I did here) that these kinds of usages are fairly constant over time, then we can take some meaning out of the change in the ratio over time. But without accounting for these usages, we can’t meaningfully compare the ratios for men’s labels to the ratios for women’s usages.
  • Related to the previous point, if the use of man to refer to all of humanity is in decline in the Church, this would account for some of the increase in the husband to man and father to man ratios. If this effect accounted for the majority of the declines, though, we would expect that the slopes of the man lines would be more parallel. Given that they’re quite different (and it’s the woman ratios that are in fact nearly parallel) I think there’s clearly something else going on here. A change in how man is used might account for some of the decline in the ratios involving man, but certainly not all or most of it.
  • I considered including partial year data for 2008, but ultimately decided against it. I was concerned that General Conference talks might be consistently different from other materials in the Gospel Library, so having data including only one General Conference might make the partial year data a bad proxy for the full-year data.
  • Of course I began with 1971 because that’s as far back as goes. Does anyone know where I can get electronic indexes of earlier Church publications?


1. For mother to woman, p = .102. For wife to woman, p = .002. These are two-tailed p-values based on a permutation tests: I shuffled each series of ratios 9,999 times and found the proportion of the 10,000 datasets (9,999 shuffled and one original) in which the absolute value of the slope of the best fit line was greater than or equal to the absolute value of the slope of the observed best fit line.

2. For father to man, p < .001. For husband to man, p = .001. These are also two-tailed p-values based on permutation tests with 9,999 shuffles.

18 thoughts on “Documenting Changing Church Rhetoric on Gender Roles

  1. 1

    Wow, Ziff. This is incredible.
    You’re developing a reputation, though, of putting so much work into your posts, that you’re beginning to make the rest of us look bad :)

    It looks like your hypothesis is on the right track, and I do hope that it’s right, that women are being defined less by their roles than they were years ago.
    My sense is that’s true. However, we still have a long way to go.

    Thanks for putting all of the time and effort into looking at this.
    If there was a reference section for the bloggernacle, I’d put your work there.

  2. 2

    I would be really interested in seeing this data controlling for the use of the term Father in reference to Deity. My guess would be that the use of the term Father is referencing Deity at least 80% of the time. Probably too large a task for a blog post, but it would be interesting.

    And we know the term Mother is never/almost never conflated with Deity (on anyway), so no worries there :)

  3. 3

    My guess is that talk of men’s roles is more normally wrapped up in “priesthood holder” than it is in “father.”

    I will say anecdotally that I think there is much less attention to women being good wives than there used to be–you almost never hear anymore about things that women should/should not do in order to make lives better for their husbands. (Contrast that with how often you hear about what men should/should not do to make lives better for their wives.)

    Anyway. Interesting stuff.

  4. 4
  5. 5

    I think Julie nailed it. Priesthood is often portrayed as the corollary of motherhood, and the reason for the “every woman a mother” rhetoric.

  6. 6

    Very well done, once again, Ziff.

    I have no graphs or nifty data sets to back me up, but I think I have noticed something of a shift in the past 13 years, andI am wondering if anybody else is noticing it, or if I am off base.

    It seems to me that right after the Proclamation to the world was issued in 1995, there was a heavy emphasis on the separation of duties and roles. I think that still exists for women, but in the past few years the direction has been greater emphasis on the need for men to perform well both outside the home as a provider AND inside the home as a co-nurturer. It is my impression now that is is now perfectly acceptable for a man to take over as much of the homemaker/nurturer riole as he wants to, as long as he also keeps up with the provider role. Has anybody else noticed that, or is it just my weird impression?

  7. 7

    Mark, I think you’re right, or at least I’ve seen a similar thing. I guess I just hadn’t noticed the timing as specifically as you have. But I certainly agree that it appears that men are now encouraged to do as much parenting as possible.

    Julie–good point about the end of the “how to make your husband happy” article/talk. My impression is that those persisted at least until the 1970s; do you know when they finally disappeared? Or was it earlier?

    Good point, Bree. We’re probably not going to see references to “Heavenly Mother” except when someone gives “the new seven deadly heresies” talk. It would be much clearer to pull out all the references to deity and see what the numbers look like, but of course I’m too lazy to do that. :)

    Thanks, jessawhy. I like the idea of a reference section for the Bloggernacle. I always like when new posts build on older posts, or discussions that followed them. Perhaps collections of data like this might be useful in some future discussion, at least as a starting point.

  8. 8
  9. 9

    I actually tried to do something like this a while ago, but failed miserably both because I lack statistical skill and your tenacity with such things. The failure to support boolean searches drives me bananas! Thanks for doing all this.

  10. 10

    Janet, I’d be happy to, just so long as your committe doesn’t mind an abrupt shift from actual content to a bunch of random charts and tables. :)

    I agree that the lack of boolean searching is a pain. Also I’ve sometimes done searches where I was counting the number of hits, and the number changed over time, and not always by increasing. Also I’ve found that the labeling of the documents that the search tool uses isn’t consistent. For example, searching for “General Conference” won’t necessarily turn up all General Conference talks. Neither will limiting your search to General Authorities necessarily get you all General Authorities. Also the non-intuitive URLs are frustrating. If their structure were more transparent, it would be easier to use Google to search them.

    Okay, I’ll stop complaining now. Thanks for mentioning that this irritates you too because frustrates me endlessly and it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  11. 11

    Thanks for another fascinating analysis, Ziff!

    I’m particularly interested in Julie’s and Mark IV’s observations about a decrease in discussions of women’s duty to be good wives and an increase in discussions of men’s duties to be good husbands and fathers and co-nurturers.

    Definitely something to listen for in next month’s General Conference. (Even the slenderest hypothesis or slightest bit of rhetorical analysis can help keep me from fuming when the inevitable divine gender roles talk comes up. My new motto: don’t get mad, pretend to be a sociologist!)

  12. 12

    Is General Conference next month already?

    It’s funny that Mark mentioned that because I just found an old notepad in my handwriting that was full of church stuff.
    Here’s part of what I wrote:

    “Husbands, love your wives. Wives, honor and respect your husbands.”

    I’m looking back at this (no idea where I was when I took the notes, or why I copied them, but I’m sure I thought it was great doctrine.)
    Now I wonder, why can’t we all just love, honor and respect each other?

    Yes, things are changing. At least they are for me.

  13. 13

    Is General Conference next month already?

    Shocking, isn’t it? Although I find General Conference alternatively inspiring and infuriating, I’m definitely looking forward to staying home in my pajamas and listening on my laptop. Following the threads on T&S and BCC and playing with the language channels have greatly contributed to my friendlier relationship with the whole thing. ;)

  14. 14

    I actually have something useful to add here. My thesis at the “U” consisted of doing a content analysis and then a computer time series of “Constants and Changes in Role Pre-scriptions for Mormon Women based on selected periodicals.” (It seems the first step in doing a thesis is to come up with an impossible title.) Anyway, I read and coded every time certain role words occurred in the March issues of the Exponent, Relief Society Magazine and The Ensign, looking for how the rhetoric had moved or stayed the same from 1881 to 1993. “Wife” was a “relative constant”, that is the word was frequently mentioned but mostly in the context of “wife and mother” then the discussion quickly veered off into some discussion about motherhood. It seemed that “wife” had no function expect to legitimize motherhood.

    However, from the 1940s on with the rapidly accelerating social change in the wake of World War II, there was increasing concern with changes in family life in these periodicals. These concerns included the stability of marriage and the rising divorce rate. For virtually the first time marriage itself was directly addressed. The RSM for March 1948 was almost a theme issue on the stability and importance of marriage. Even though marriage was now being directly addressed, it was still in the context of preserving the marriage for the sake of the children. Nevertheless this was an important shift. For the first time I saw ideas on how husbands and wife should “communicate”, for example.

    The distinct emphasis on “wife” as an important role apart form mother did not come until President Kimball became the prophet in Dec. 1973 and his ideas started appearing in the Ensign in 1974. His emphasis was then echoed by other General Authorities and writers. Marriage was now more than just a vehicle for effective parenting (although, of course, that continued to be important.) But husbands and wives were now distinct roles in relation to one another, quite apart from the children. This pretty much brings this overview to the years Ziff was able to access with his computer searches.

  15. 15


    I’m glad I’m not the only person who plays with the language channels to de-stress about General Conference!

  16. 16

    I think the emphasis Mark mentioned really did come from the Proclamation. The statement about there being primary roles but that husbands and wives need to “help each other in these roles as equal partners” is quite a radical departure from the earlier statements, and I don’t think most members really understand that entire paragraph in the Proclamation very well. (For example, the inclusion of the very open-ended and broad “other circumstances” that make “individual adaptation” justifiable is an amazing step.)

    It might take a generation to embed the new vision into the general membership, but I personally love that vision.

  17. 17

    Wow, Marjorie, thanks. That’s fascinating! It also sounds like a ton of work–actually coding articles must have been very labor-intensive.

  18. 18

    When I first joined the Church, Russell M. Nelson spoke in a stake conference where he mentioned that we were all Fathers, in a sense, to those we had stewardship over. That is the closest I can think of to an “Are we not all Fathers?” moment.

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