Pink and Personal, Dialogue Part II

31 Jul

I was surprised by the content of Dialogue’s pink issue. I expected to encounter more scholarship than personal essays. My own supposition about the content likewise surprised me. I am deeply persuaded that sharing stories is an essential way for women to claim their agency, to challenge official narratives by saying, “In my experience, that is not the case.” Or, “That way of doing things does not work for me.” But when I came across a group of women doing just that, I felt let down. I had conditioned myself to think (despite my own aforementioned conviction) that women should contribute to the conversation in ways proscribed by academia, with footnoted papers on historical subjects and the like. Part of my ambivalence about blogging for Juvenile Instructor was my own failure to post anything of scholarly merit. I could only bring myself to write spiritual autobiography sprinkled with theology, which, although valuable, seemed somehow not good enough. As a woman searching for her voice among mostly men (all fine human beings), I angsted about it a good deal. Did the fact that these ladies were writing about themselves in very personal ways, like me, make their project less valuable or interesting? Absolutely not. But, what was I supposed to take away from this issue, as a young Mormon feminist forty years later?

One of the pieces I found most affecting was Lucybeth Cardon Rampton’s Mother’s Day sermon. Perhaps this is because matronhood/motherhood as the divinely appointed role of women is an unavoidable issue the Mormon woman must come to terms with and is (often) a determinant of her place on the Mormon cultural spectrum of acceptability; at least, it is an aspect of Mormon theology and my female identity that I have struggled with.

I observed my mother’s model of motherhood. She married when she was thirty and regularly pursued creative projects, work outside the home, and her career, as well as serving faithfully in church callings throughout my growing up years. Thus, I never really expected to marry early, and I didn’t see career and family as mutually exclusive alternatives. However, I experienced the sometimes excruciating cultural expectation to be a Mormon woman whose primary obligation was not her own self-actualization but the nurture of a family. I passionately told my mother I would get married when I was good and ready, and tramped off to BYU, where I was determined to reach my academic potential.

The environment challenged me. I was surrounded by people who seemed overeager to play traditional gender roles in what to me seemed like a wacky Mormon time frame. Women married early, sometimes even dropped out of school for such; returned missionaries zealously searched for mates. And I studied, wearied and cynical and all the while feeling as though my aspirations were out of place. Landing in graduate school has not eased this conflict, as I have allowed myself to desire, even need, human affection and to hope for a future partnership. At the same time I have grown in my career aspirations and have begun to fear that I might not be able to accomplish my dreams and pursue romance.* So many Mormon women bravely confront this dilemma and feel as though they are thrust out of the garden.

Lucybeth Cardon Rampton briefly and beautifully explained the universal aspect of motherhood, which resides within each human being. This “is the part which wants to cultivate and nurture young growing things, especially children, and see that they have a chance to grow and mature properly. It takes pride in their maturity, and wants that maturity to be as productive as possible. It respects and values age, and wishes to see it accorded the dignity it deserves” (89). This definition of motherhood is not restricted to women or the home; marriage is not a prerequisite. It has allowed me to consider the boon of my creativity, my desire to experiment theologically and personally with my fiction. I can be a mother to my friends, to my artistic creations**, and to my family. This kind of motherhood is not a consolation prize; it is a characteristic of divinity.

So, what is my pink Dialogue take-away? My struggles are not new, nor am I the last who will experience them. In addition to being a fascinating and often under-considered part of the historical record, women’s stories are powerful vehicles for solidarity and an indispensable window into what makes us human, as well as helpful tools for improving our humanity. Women are wonderful and smart, and they are even taking over the post-industrial economy.*** So we’d better listen up.

* Christine Meaders Durham found a way to have her cake and eat it, too (see pp. 35-40), as did Juanita Leavitt Brooks (see 15-21).

**The gestative and parturitive metaphors are especially strong in my personal descriptions of my creativity. After writing one particularly difficult paper I exclaimed, “I feel as though I have given birth and I have no love for my child.”

*** Check out Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control—Of Everything,” in The Atlantic (July/August 2010), 56-72. The gender shift is shocking and tragic in terms of what it is doing to men, socially and economically, and should no doubt be the subject of an entire post itself. Although we haven’t yet defined feminism on this blog, since we hope it will primarily be about women’s history (although writing women’s history might be an inherently feminist endeavor; thanks to Rachel C. for the link), I hope the other ladies would agree (I know Amanda would), that it includes a complete consideration of gender dynamics and seeks for an uplifting understanding of males and females alike.

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9 Responses to “Pink and Personal, Dialogue Part II”

  1. amanda5245 August 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    Liz, this post is beautifully written. The pressure that you describe for women to get married at an early age is pervasive throughout the Mormon Culture Region. One of my high school teachers after hearing me lament my lack of a boyfriend accused me of sounding like an old maid — at the age of 17. I got married at 24, an age that although not elderly by Mormon standards was considerably later than most of my high school friends. When I moved to Michigan, I found myself in a completely different world. One of the most disconcerting things about graduate school has been the clash and juxtaposition of two cultures. In Idaho, I am getting rather old not to have children. In Ann Arbor, I am one of the few graduate students my age to be married. I wonder if you could comment a bit more about your experience at Yale. What is the culture there surrounding marriage and gender roles? Has your experience in a liberal Protestant divinity school changed your position on marriage and sexuality?

  2. ep August 1, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Thanks, Amanda! It’s a good question. At the div. there are people all along the spectrum of sexuality, but homosexual relationships are much more prevalent and openly accepted than at a place like BYU. A number of heterosexual people, single, dating, or married, are part of the mix, too. I believe that God wants homosexual people to be just as happy and fulfilled sexually and spiritually as heterosexual people, but being at Yale has messed with that conviction a bit, because of negative experiences I have had with a few gay men. So, in reaction I’ve become more conservative (in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage), at the same time increasingly angry at the church’s stance on homosexuality because it promotes black and white thinking–either you are in the church and celibate or you are out of the church and sexually active, which often leads to terrible psychological pain, impossible attempts at conforming, and suicide. I think a system that causes such pain must be wrong. I believe in moral absolutes, but at the same time I’m not sure that heterosexuality is one of them. Sexuality is a conundrum for single LDS adults in general since celibacy is required until marriage.

  3. amanda5245 August 2, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    Your last sentence — sexuality is a conundrum for single LDS adults in general since celibacy is required until marriage — stands out to me. I wonder if part of the issue here is the current focus among church members and our society in general on coitus as THE sexual act. As part of my research on Mormon women in the 1870s, I have been reading Karen Lystra’s “Searching the Heart.” She argues that our society’s focus on intercourse has meant that we have misunderstood Victorian sexuality, which allowed for a range of sexual expression for unmarried couples. As she read Victorian love letters, she encountered descriptions of women sitting on their lovers’ laps, men blowing in the ears of potential mates, and coquettes biting the necks of potential beaus. I wonder if redefining sexuality to include these acts and to recognize sexual expression as positive and acceptable if it doesn’t cross certain lines would make life easier for single LDS adults. It might also make the transition to married life easier for those people who decide to wed.

    On a similar note, recognizing that sexuality is not black and white and that we all exist along a continuum of homo- and heterosexual attraction might make it easier for those people who identify as queer even if the church never fully accepts homosexuality as an identity or state of being. Recognizing that sexuality exists along a continuum might go a long way to disrupting the idea that you mention that you are either celibate and a faithful member of the church if you are gay or you are sexually active and an apostate.

  4. ep August 2, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    I agree that including other behaviors, other than the sexual act, in our definition of sexuality would help it become less of a conundrum. But the language the church uses to describe sexuality while dating is fairly stringent and does not really admit such a generous interpretation. From For the Strength of Youth, the pamphlet teens and YAs are given as a guide to righteous living:

    “Because sexual intimacy is so sacred, the Lord requires self-control and purity before marriage as well as full fidelity after marriage. In dating, treat your date with respect, and expect your date to show that same respect to you. Never treat your date as an object to be used for your own lustful desires or ego. Improper physical contact can cause a loss of self-control. Always stay in control of yourself and your physical feelings.

    “The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage, petting, sex perversion (such as homosexuality, rape, and incest), masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action.”

    “Improper physical contact” would probably include all of the things you mentioned. Certainly a revision of the language and understanding would help but would likely seem to church leaders as a sinful deemphasis on personal purity. And equating homosexuality and rape? Seems just a tad harsh to me and seems to preclude an understanding of the human person as falling along a continuum of sexuality. The language is very black and white and lends itself to a black and white understanding. Moving toward the kind of understanding you mention would be great.

  5. Daniel Ortner August 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    I think you are underestimating the lived experience of pre-marital physical intimacy in Mormon culture. One need only look to singles wards and see unmarried couples holding hands, cuddling, lap sitting and other forms of non-sexual premarital intimacy. The hand holding at least is not discouraged but occasionally actively encouraged by members of the bishopric. I think most of the Victorian actions Amanada talks about are being done among dating Mormons without punishment or even criticism. The byu dating culture is less repressive and unaffectionate than you suggest.

  6. ep August 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    I think you’re right about lived experience, Daniel. I was talking about the language the church uses to describe that physical intimacy. It wouldn’t hurt for the church to come up with a better definition of sexuality and its acceptable behaviors, including the behaviors you and Amanda have mentioned. The pamphlet is overly simplistic and as you’ve noted people on the ground have their own more broad interpretations. But how broad are the interpretations allowed to be? You mention “non-sexual physical intimacy.” And the point is that it is defined exactly as that, non-sexual, not as a part of sexual intimacy, even if that intimacy doesn’t involve intercourse.

  7. amanda5245 August 2, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    Liz points to one of the points that I would make. By defining those things as non-sexual, the wedding night in which vaginal intercourse theoretically occurs for the first time can be quite shocking. Although my mother tried to teach me that sexuality was a good, healthy thing, I ended up absorbing a lot of negative ideas about sexuality from Christian culture at large as well as from my Mormon friends. It took me a long time — and I’m still not all the way there yet — to view sex as something that wasn’t dirty. The sad thing is no one ever meant for me to feel that way. Everyone who ever talked to me about sex underlined that sex was fine within marriage. Yet, I still developed the idea that virgins = good girls, non-virgins = bad girls.

    Defining the things I outlined as part of sexuality rather than as “non-sexual” physical intimacy would go a long way towards alleviating the shock that sometimes accompanies sex on the wedding night for both Mormons and non-Mormons. I could include some funny and some not-so funny stories, but they really aren’t appropriate for a blog.

  8. Christopher August 3, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Liz. I remember browsing through the Pink Issue a few years ago. The retrospective posts here have convinced me I need to go back through it again.

    Part of my ambivalence about blogging for Juvenile Instructor was my own failure to post anything of scholarly merit. I could only bring myself to write spiritual autobiography sprinkled with theology, which, although valuable, seemed somehow not good enough.

    I really do hope none of your co-bloggers at the JI did anything to make you feel this way. I always appreciated the perspective you brought to the blog, and never felt it was anything less than what anyone else contributed.

  9. ep August 3, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    In no way was that the case, Chris. I thought I should go back and clarify. I felt valued and encouraged–the ambivalence was entirely my own.

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