During the spring semester, I took a course entitled “American Religious Innovation.” The course examined Mormonism, the Nation of Islam, and Scientology. Each unit covered the history of each religious movement and focused on different aspects of the religion’s beliefs, which encouraged discussion and comparison. The readings for Mormonism addressed American religious culture in the early 19th century, the Book of Mormon, polygamy, Mormon Christianity, the Mormon community, and modern Mormonism.
At the end of the class’s section on Mormonism, a group of “real live Mormons” were invited to answer the class’s questions.[i] The panel was comprised of a PhD student in History, a worker at UVA’s hospital, a local bishop and his wife, and a set of Mormon elders (one from Southern Utah and one from Taiwan). As might be expected, there were many questions about the role of women in Mormonism and Mormon history.[ii] I’ve included the answers given (if any were addressed on the panel) in italics.[iii]
- Do you believe the Church has oppressed or silenced women in the church and has it tried to remedy these results, such as they did with Black leaders?
Women have a wide array of responsibilities in Mormonism. They minister to each other, young women, and children. There were also comments about the belief in Heavenly Mother and the freedom for women to choose what they would like to do in their careers and home.
- Do you think women should be encouraged to go on missions?
The male missionaries didn’t comment (which I thought was odd).One female panel member had served a mission and spoke about what she learned and the benefits she had experienced. The bishop was encouraging but reiterated that a woman choosing to serve a mission was not necessary, but was an excellent option.
- What is your opinion of the church’s stance on gender roles?
Some panel members expressed the desire that there were more opportunities for leadership in the LDS Church and that women’s voices were heard more prominently. Two of the women on the panel expressed their satisfaction with the Church’s gender roles. One panel member defined herself as a believing feminist who appreciated the opportunities of Mormon women but wished there was a greater attention dedicated to topics important to women on a general scale (not just taught in women’s meetings or bracketed as a “women’s issue.”
- Female members of the panel – how do you define femininity in light of Mormonism and what do you think of the modern feminist movement?
This was not formally addressed in the panel any further than questions 1 and 3 went to answering the questions.
- What is your relationship like with other Mormon women? Do you feel especially supported by the Mormon community in your family and career pursuits? Have you ever felt discouraged by others to pursue career interests? What do you consider to be the Mormon ideal for women?
Every woman on the panel said they enjoyed participating in the community of Mormon women. None spoke particularly to career pursuits; those who worked full-time said they had the full support of their families.
The panel of “real live Mormons” did an admirable job representing their faith to others. The panel, combined with the classroom sessions, was a phenomenal way to understand the questions students have about Mormonism specifically and religion in general. Has anyone participated in a similar course, such as “Mormonism and the American Experience” or a class on New Religious Movements? If so, what was your experience like?
[i] A representative from Scientology spoke to our class via Skype. The Nation of Islam declined their invitations to attend and answer questions.
[ii] I’m not sure that the panel members gave answers to the class that they would have elsewhere. Several students wondered aloud if this was a “missionary effort” for the speakers, who thereby would not offer their true opinion.
[iii] To be fair, I have very notes from the panel’s meeting. I did not write down each individual’s response to the question. That said, I believe I am representing the panel’s answers as truthfully and completely as I can. Anyone who attended is welcome to correct me.