Three Lessons

Number One: What I was supposed to learn on Pioneer Trek when I was 14

Pioneer trek is an admittedly weird tradition that has popped up in LDS stakes all over the Mountain West. And every pioneer trek I have ever heard of made sure to include the ritual known as the “Women’s Pull.”  What usually happens is all the boys get called off to the “Mormon Battalion” and while they are away doing whatever it was they were made to do, all of us girls are left to pull the handcarts all by ourselves.

And I remember on my first trek that they called away all those boys right before a big hill, just as it was beginning to rain. There I was with my “sisters” and my “Ma” in my “pioneer family” pushing or pulling our handcart, slipping and stumbling up a big, muddy hill. And my sisters and I—we felt awesome. We did it all by ourselves! And honestly it wasn’t that much harder without the boys than it was with them, and we learned that we were capable of doing hard things when we worked together with other women and supported each other!

Except, when I answered with those words when my “Pa” asked 14-year-old me what I learned from the Women’s Pull, he only looked at me blankly, chuckled a little and said, “No, no. What you were supposed to learn was how hard and difficult things are without men and the Priesthood to help you. I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as you think it was.”

“Oh.” I thought.


Number Two: What I was supposed to learn about marriage in my BYU Single’s Ward

So there I was as a 19-year-old. Just starting my sophomore year at BYU. And I trudged up the big hill onto campus with my roommates for either Stake or Ward Conference (I can’t remember which). We sat down, journals open to empty pages and ready to take notes. Not surprisingly, every talk was about dating. Dating Dating Dating. And probably chastity.

The last person to speak got up and to build up for his point he was telling us about the time he climbed Mount Everest. He had hired a Sherpa. And he told us all about this Sherpa. How this Sherpa had carried all of his heavy things. How this Sherpa had made him breakfast and lunch and dinner. How this Sherpa reminded him to drink water often and held him up in rocky portions of the trail.

And as his final great example of how wonderful his Sherpa was he explained how there was a large boulder that had to be climbed. And how he was so tired and oxygen deprived that he couldn’t climb it. So the Sherpa got down on his hands and knees and allowed this man to step on his back in order to get over the boulder. This Sherpa became a stepstool.

“And that, Brothers and Sisters, is how a good marriage works. Sisters—you must always support and encourage your husband just as the Sherpa did for me. Brothers—look for that quality in the girls that you date because that is the kind of wife you want to have.”

“Oh.” I thought.


Number three: What needs to be clear about the role and purpose of Relief Society

There was a combined Relief Society/ Young Women meeting in a ward in the Salt Lake area earlier this month. They had a special program for the newly-graduated young women to celebrate their accomplishments and welcome them to Relief Society. Their parents spoke, and they were given a little box that had—along with their new lesson manual, Relief Society directory, and the most recent edition of the Ensign—these three things:

  1. A Box of Green Jell-O (“because no ward function is complete without it!”)
  2. A recipe for funeral potatoes (“because you will be making this all the time for the rest of your life!”)
  3. A hairnet (“so that you can keep your hair back as you serve food out of the church kitchen at all sorts of ward activities!”)

“Oh.” Thought every 18-year-old “graduating” into Relief Society.



These are three important lessons “the Church” tries to teach us women that we are supposed to do, feel, or agree with. You can find these lessons in correlated manuals and in conference talk after conference talk after conference talk.

It is very disheartening to think back to 14-year-old me, who concluded at the end of pulling a handcart up a muddy, steep hill with other women that we were strong, able, and awesome—only to be rebuffed and told that no. I was wrong. We were weak and needed help. What other sincere 14-year-old somewhere is rebuffed and made to think she is weak?

It is alarming to me to think that I was told along with an auditorium full of other young single people that a good marriage is one where the woman must always give and give and give and make herself a glorified stepstool so that her husband can climb over a boulder and get to the top of a mountain. That is not the recipe for a good marriage. That is the kind of paradigm that fills domestic violence shelters. What other 19 year old is ingesting the idea that her role is to be her future husband’s eternal stepstool?

And it is depressing to me that people can effectively say, “Welcome to Relief Society! Here is a recipe and a hairnet. This is what Relief Society is. Get comfortable.” Because that is not what Relief Society is supposed to be. Relief Society is not supposed to be the ward’s catering and maid service. And we should be actively trying to change that trend—not welcoming in a new generation to perpetuate it. What other woman is surprised and disappointed when she learns what it means to be part of the “World’s Biggest Women’s Organization!” that she has heard lauded her whole life—welcomed with a hairnet and a promise of never-ending demands for her to make another pan of funeral potatoes?


Why are we teaching these lessons? Why?


  1. These are all truly awful. The first example really strikes me. You learned that you were stronger than you thought you were, but then were told that you *should* have learned that you were actually weaker than you thought you were. That seems like a message offered up by someone who is threatened by another’s strength–it says a lot to me that someone felt threatened by the strength of a 14-year-old girl.

    The “Welcome to RS” gift pack is truly bizarre. Apparently, it’s not just our gender roles that are stuck in the 1950’s, but our culinary choices as well.

  2. This needs to be mailed to every bishopric and RS presidency. It is the uncomfortable “truth” that needs to be remedied.

  3. These are awful examples but I would say they are certainly not the norm, at least where I have lived. There will always be people that don’t “get it”. Hopefully they are a small minority.

  4. Like Laura, I’m particularly struck by the first story. It’s really interesting that, in effect, the lesson failed, and you learned exactly the opposite of what they were expecting you to learn. But of course, then you had to be corrected so you wouldn’t accidentally think you were more powerful than you’re supposed to be. 🙁

  5. I just sat through a Seminary graduation that wasn’t, “Good job on four years of scripture immersion and hard work,” but “staying in the gospel and being a good person mean that you immediately look for the person you need to marry… maybe after you go on a mission.”

    As a single teacher of seminary, I was livid. Their only worth is in their marriage? What about all the insights that four years of gospel study will prepare them for in their lives?


  6. Part of me wants to stop reading these posts, because I’m depressed enough as it is.

    Another part makes me keep coming back, because I have four daughters, and I need to hear, over and over, the messages to share with them that are powerful and healing and that support them in their strength.

  7. No. 1 was particularly interesting to me, because our stake is going to do a trek this summer (and I assume there will be a women’s pull, because as you rightly say there always is). But there is also a girl’s high adventure trip this summer (I’m not sure of the details, but in our stake the most common form of this is going canoing in the boundary waters).

    I know the point of the high adventure trip is exactly the opposite of the supposed point of the women’s pull, so I will be curious to hear about how they end up doing this. In fact, I’m going to share this with our Stake YMP to see if there is any way to forestall the supposed “lesson” of the women’s pull, and maybe turn it into a positive thing.

  8. You know the Sherpas went on strike this year, right? Probably a lesson there too.

    As for the woman’s pull, the post-youth conference testimonies I’ve heard on the subject focused only rarely on the young women’s sense of accomplishment and never on their dependence on priesthood holders. They focused on how faith and prayers got them through the trial.

  9. Here is the message I want everyone to learn about RS as they transition. Visiting teaching is about the one. It is about learning to serve people who might not be your natural best friend. My mom took me VTing when I was home from college. Her list included two less-active single moms who really appreciated that my mom came every month. She shared a short message, really 5 minutes, then answered lots of questions about parenting very small toddlers and babies. One of them was HS age still, and she appreciated my mom so much. I had no idea that she did this all through my Jr. High and HS years. Another lady she visited was older like 70, and had a funny sense of humor. Getting her VT done was important, but not because of the approaching end of month… It was about it having been a couple weeks since she saw them and she was worried a out them she loved them. That is what RS is about.

  10. When I went on trek in the 80s, the women’s pull lesson was supposed to show the boys that the girls really were doing physical work, in fact, they could do it even without them. And the girls could see that they could do it without the guys.
    It was a feminist lesson.
    I was just annoyed that there was a women’s pull but not a men’s pull. I complained.
    Also, there was no reenactment or telling of stories back then. It was only mentioned briefly “women’s pull because sometimes women had to do it alone” and no other mention of a lesson.
    I think people drew their own conclusions back then and no one insisted it was a particular lesson. In fact, it was my mother later telling me what the lesson was…..that the women could do it alone and the guys needed the lesson.
    Hmmm. I wonder my kids will be taught is the “lesson”

  11. When I was a Pioneer Trek “Ma”, we did the women’s pull, and I definitely framed it in terms of female empowerment. I talked about how the pioneer women proved their strength and competence over and over, in the harsh western frontier. We talked about the strong, powerful, hard-working women of early Utah. I talked about how women received the vote in Utah earlier than in most of the U.S., perhaps as a result of men seeing the undeniable strength, perseverance, skills, and courage of those 19th century women.

    The coordinators of the trek had asked each Ma and Pa to share inspirational lessons and stories with our families throughout the trek; they encouraged us to read church history in the months leading up to the event, and pointed out some teaching moments (including the women’s pull). But they didn’t really spell out the lessons for us. I wonder if I misunderstood the intent behind this experience. But I don’t really think so – I think it was Pandora’s “Pa” that missed the boat on this one. I hope he’s an anomaly.

  12. Wow! What a great, insightful, terrifying article. . . . I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry– I, too, have experienced some variation of each of these stories. I’d like to add one of my own: What I was supposed to learn about womanhood in the Young Women’s organization. Admittedly, this was years ago, since I hit the teen years during the 70’s. The young men in our ward did the following: taking 25-50 mile backpack hikes, learning outdoor survival skills, heading out on overnight bike trips, fishing trips, and canoeing trips, learning how to read compasses and build fires, etc., etc., etc. The young women did the following: learning how to crochet a belt, learning how to cross-stitch a pillow, learning how to cook, making a “babysitting kit” that included a hand-made quiet book and other articles that we crafted ourselves, learning how to sing. While I did enjoy some of the things we learned, I remember thinking at some subconscious level that I wished we could do some of the “fun” things the boys got to do. I asked a leader a couple of times if we could take an overnight hike, but was met with a scowl and a statement like, “That wouldn’t be safe for the young women!” I remember being disappointed but not angry (at that point in time). As I look back, I’m definitely upset. I was being taught NOT to take risks, NOT to become self-sufficient outside of the strictures of the home, and NOT to aspire to any other role than being a homemaker and caretaker of children. While I have absolutely loved my opportunity to be a mother, there are so many other things out there that I needed/need to be able to do! The fifties were definitely “alive and well” in the 70’s in my little town in Utah!

  13. The only lesson I would draw from these terrible experiences (but it is an important one) is that the church is built of ordinary people that make mistakes and need transforming and atoning grace. Like all other humans.

  14. I went on a trek in 2008, and I wanted to report that our women’s pull was, indeed, feminist-flavored, but that was the Sacramento area. I remember feeling quite resentful: I KNOW women can do hard things! Stop showing me how strong I am and help pull the stupid cart!
    In retrospect, I think my attitude could have used some adjusting.

  15. I remember being 18 and being introduced to the RS in a similar way- quilting -canning-and sewing. When I was a missionary and called to be a RS president and start a RS program in a small branch in a foreign country, I really had no idea what RS was about. After setting up the RS, the sisters asked me, “so, now what?” I tried my best and prayed, hit the books and manuals, and contacted everyone I could for help.

    I came into some cognitive dissonance.

    Was RS about ‘charity never faileth’ and and did we have an outward focus, or was it about ‘personal, home and family enrichment’ and inward focus? (The RS mission changes every few years and is all over the place.)

    How could I cite that we were a ‘relief’ organization if I had never seen my mother’s RS do any service projects in my entire lifetime? (Yes they did compassionate service in wards, but never outside the flock and never on a large scale.)

    I had seen them do a lot of crafts, quilting, canning and sewing. The impoverished people in this country were unimpressed with crafts, had no time for quilting (terribly inefficient activity) and didn’t have access to food for canning. They also knew that humanitarian work was coordinated by the Priesthood and didn’t rely on the the RS.

    So they asked again, “now what?”

    I think this resonates all across the world . . . the largest women’s organization and we’re all wondering, “now what?”

  16. Thanks for this, Pandora. Wow, what an eye opener. As a young man in the Church we just didn’t have to deal with messages like this. It makes me glad that I am not raising any more girls, but it worries me that my boys might be absorbing some of these sexist attitudes. I guess I will make ZD required reading for them.

  17. I agree with jane d. re: the women’s pull. I really hope it was just your instructor that was confused. When I was a trek-ee, it was definitely framed as a “women can do anything”, and also “pioneers just kept walking, even when it was hard – and it just kept getting harder” scenario.

    My little brother went on trek last year, and mentioned that in his group, the YM discussed how hard it was to watch the faithful, strong, wonderful YW they knew doing this hard thing, and not being allowed to step in and help. (They walked alongside, and had to be silent. No interaction, just observing and pretending they weren’t there).

    I hadn’t heard of YM being pulled away to do some other activity during the women’s pull, and I think it’s highly valuable for the YM to watch women sacrifice rather than have it happen outside their real awareness. It definitely was, in the case of my little brother.

  18. (Also, I struggle with having a testimony of Relief Society when it’s about catering). (It’s really, really not about catering).

    It hurt to read, but I loved this, Pandora.

  19. My little brother went on a trek where the “women’s pull” was something like what Olea describes, in that the men stood at the side watching (they were allowed to sing hymns for the women, I think). Still… it kind of rubbed me the wrong way that the YM went on and on about how difficult it had been to watch the women push the carts on their own. I mean, was it more difficult for the men to watch than for the women to actually push the carts up the hill? It smacked of, “The women struggle so much without us big strong men, they need us so much.” Or, even worse: “We wanted to help push the carts so badly, but we couldn’t because somebody told us that only the women were supposed to do that; that was the women’s job. Our hands were tied.” I’m not sure that those are actually great lessons for the YM.

  20. I was not raised a Mormon so I went camping and hiking with my family as a girl. I learned to chop fire wood, build a fire, bait a hook, fish, gut and cook the fish over a camp fire, blaze a trail, and return buy the same trail. I have been married to a wonderful Mormon man for many years but could never join the church because of the position of women. My marriage is very egalitarian and most people in the Church don’t understand it. Both of my daughters were raised to believe that they could accomplish anything they wanted to and being a woman was no excuse for not living a full and complete life. They are both capable, accomplished, fearless women and I am very proud of them.

  21. Let me just comment on the first two. I was a part of our stake’s adult trek participants in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007. Whoever said that was beyond dense and was mistaken. What our young women have learned year after year is (1) they are stronger than they thought they could ever be (2) they can do hard things and (3) that without relying on a man, they can do anything and should prepare themselves because they may live all or part of their lives without any help from a man.

    With respect to #2, I am currently serving in a YSA ward bishopric. Nothing like that has ever been spoken across any pulpit that I have ever heard in our YSA stake. Rather, more often than not, we hear that our young men need to step it up because the women are just about light years ahead of the women in (1) education (2) earnings (3) spirituality (4) dedication, (5) etc., etc.

    This author needs to get out of “Zion” and hear what is really going on. You see what you want to see. Some see misogyny where there isn’t any.

  22. Gee, Bill, that’s sure a helpful response. Your experience means Pandora’s is false?

    A far more common problem than people imagining misogyny is misogynists not seeing their own misogyny because they’re so convinced that it’s impossible.

  23. Bill,
    I think it is very harmful and false teaching to teach young men that they are less spiritual or dedicated than young women. Boys have been thrown under the bus for the last 20 years in this regard. It isn’t good for girls to be taught these things about boys either.

  24. I experienced none of this growing up in the church. I was raised in New England and still live here. I love the church and have never been made to feel like the weaker sex by the Priesthood. Get out of Utah!

  25. 1. I have been in wards in Utah, Indiana, London, and Sweden, and have experienced local, personal, non-systemic sexism in all of those places. Let’s PLEASE let go of the myth that Mormon cultural sexism is limited to Utah culture (not least because the abundance of regular systemic sexism in such a highly correlated church makes it impossible to go somewhere the sexists don’t shine).

    2. EVEN IF Utah is a special case where people are extra sexist, so what? Is that not worth addressing? Are the experiences of people living there irrelevant because they were so stupid they decided to live in Utah? If we can work to change attitudes towards women worldwide, and we can work to change them nationally, why not work to change them in Utah too?

    3. If you were raised in New England and still live there, allow me to speculate that you don’t know as much about Utah as you think you do.

  26. I’ve never been made to feel like the “weaker sex” by the priesthood, either. Priesthood holders, sure, but not the priesthood.

  27. This post has been nominated for a 2014 Brodie Award in the category of “Best Religion-and-Gender Discussion”. Please go here if you would like to vote for it! 😀


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