Vol. 19 No. 2 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. -
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Honorable Mention--College Essay Winner
Natural Woman is an Enemy to God
By Michelle Conrow
The following is an account of my experience as a female growing up in the Mormon faith. I was born into a family whose Mormon heritage stretches back for generations. My ancestors trekked across the United States pulling handcarts. I spent my formative years surrounded by other Mormons in a mid-size northern Utah town. The population in Utah is around 75 percent Mormon. In rural Utah that figure may be as high as 90 percent. Salt Lake City is considered diluted with an estimated 60 percent of the residents reporting to the Mormon Church house on Sunday.
I developed a strong sense of self at an early age. I also had a fierce independent streak. The trouble I faced as a young woman in the LDS (Latter-Day Saint) Church stemmed from the conflict between my knowledge of who I knew I was and the person the Church taught me I should aspire to be. With each new principle I learned, I discovered that my natural self was an enemy to God (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:19). 1 could not accept this. If God existed, surely He wasn't so sadistic as to force me to deny the traits with which I had been born. Was it possible that the Mormon God really intended that I reinvent myself as a new person, devoid of individuality? Was I really expected to follow the teachings of the Church leaders, like all those around me seemed to do, without question?
I was very happy for the first twelve years of my life. As a child I was unaware that anything was amiss. Until the age of 12, Mormon children attend Primary class on Sundays. In Primary I learned about a cute, cartoon God who loved and missed me very much. Once my time on earth was completed, if I obeyed all the commandments, I would be able to live with God for time and all eternity. As a child I felt God's feelings would be hurt if I weren't a very good girl. I was certain I could live up to the challenge.
At age 12 a Mormon child graduates from Primary into the Young Women's or the Young Men's group where he or she will stay until the age of 18. At this time the young men receive the Priesthood. In a nutshell the young men are given "keys" to the ministering of angels, the gospel of repentance and baptism for the remission of sins, according to the Mormon text, The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 13. As the young men mature, their holy powers increase and they may act in the name of Jesus Christ conducting his work here on earth. The Priesthood is vital to the plan of Salvation. Mormons believe that only a man who holds the priesthood may enter the kingdom of heaven.
As the boys I had grown up with were receiving the keys to Salvation, I was in the Young Women's group learning what it meant to be a woman in the Mormon Church. After the excitement of making the transition from child to woman (in the eyes of the Church) wore off, I noticed the first crack in my faith. I was 13. The Prophet and the Apostles continually impress upon members the high regard in which women are to be held. Even so, I began to feel like a second-class citizen within the walls of the religion. The holy texts, rituals and teachings of the Church simply do not support the repeated assurances that women are wondrous and precious. It began to sound very condescending.
In the Young Women's meetings my teachers were more specific about the requirements that I needed to meet in order to enter the Celestial Kingdom (Mormon heaven). Since I was female and was not allowed to hold the Priesthood I would not be able to enter on my own. LDS Apostle Erastus Snow preached the following: "No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her, if she is worthy to have a husband; and if not, somebody will receive her as a servant" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 5 p. 291). This point of doctrine is still in place but the emphasis is now on the general importance of a temple marriage for both males and females rather than specifically pointing out the necessity for a woman to have a man in order to get into heaven.
Marrying a good Priesthood holder wouldn't automatically provide me with entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Naturally I would have to do my part. A combination of Bible doctrine and latter-day Mormon doctrine advises women of their divine role here on earth. The Bible teaches that "[women] shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety." (Timothy 2:15). Modern Mormon text states: "[F]or [wives] are given unto [their husbands] to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment . . . and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified." (Doctrine and Covenants 132:63)
As a girl with seriously underdeveloped maternal instincts I hoped that a life on earth bearing and rearing children would be spectacularly offset by my eternal rewards. As it turns out, heaven would be more of the same. If I obeyed my husband, bore my children and held true to the teachings of the church, my eternal husband and I would become the God and Goddess of our own worlds. I, the eternal breeder, would supply the inhabitants of these worlds. Fortunately the responsibility of bearing billions of spirit children might not rest on my shoulders alone. My husband had the option to take as many eternal wives as he wished. I was taught that, because women are more spiritual than men, the Celestial Kingdom would have an overpopulation of women. Any woman fortunate enough to have a mate on earth, should show compassion in the afterlife to a woman or women who lacked an eternal companion. In an act of charity and love I should welcome them into my eternal family as additional wives for my husband. The crack in my faith widened to a crevice.
Though my personal beliefs had begun to separate from the teachings of the church, at age fifteen I didn't have the strength or courage to extract myself. Every member of my family was a faithful Mormon. Not one aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent had strayed. I saw every one of my friends in church every Sunday and since I was a church insider, I knew how Mormons really felt about nonbelievers and therefore knew I would lose all my friends if I left. Also, the fear of God was alive and well in my soul. Even though I couldn't swallow all I had been taught, I still worried that it might really be true. Every Mormon knows of the severe penalties faced by someone who has been made aware of the fullness of the gospel only to reject ft. I decided to continue along my path in the church.
Since, when I reached the gates of heaven, I would not be able to stand on my own merits alone, I went to church every Sunday to be coached on how to land a good man and thereby be saved. Finding the right LDS man is tricky business. Just as in the rest of the world, it all comes down to appearance and behavior. The difference in Mormonism is that as Mormon women look for a mate they must be plain and unadorned and must not arouse or entice men in any way. The written and spoken words regarding the proper attire and accepted appearance and behavior of the ideal Mormon woman are plentiful. The former Prophet Spencer W. Kimball had this to say: "Any young woman who conducts herself so as to be attractive spiritually, mentally, and physically, but will not by word, nor dress, nor act stir or stimulate to physical reactions, she is a jewel" (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 285).
Every bit of counsel the church directs toward women about appearance or behavior is followed by a suggestion of the effect that a woman's actions will have on men. At best the authorities encourage women to toe the line in order to attract honorable, worthy men. At worst the church leaders berate women for placing men in the path of temptation.
President Kimball had something to say about this also: "I wonder if our sisters realize the temptation they are flaunting before men when they leave their bodies partly uncovered or dress in tight-fitting, body revealing, form fitting sweaters" (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 227). By making such an irresponsible statement, President Kimball placed the burden of any impure thought a man might have squarely on the shoulders of women.
The potential effect on men wasn't the only thing I had to consider while getting dressed each morning. The Mormon Church advocates moderation in all things. I enjoyed then, as I do now, seeking out odd clothing and wearing outlandish makeup and hairstyles. I love expressing my internal individuality by my external appearance. Unfortunately for my free spirit, President Kimball taught that extreme styles betray a weakness of character.
The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, says, "To be overdressed, to be gaudily dressed, to be dressed to look sexy, to be overdecorated is bad taste, to say the least." He went on to say that, "Perhaps there is no transgression in painted eyelids or dangling earrings or fancy hairdos, but surely all these eccentricities and extremes betray character. There may be no harm in the style itself, but it may indicate some weakness, some insecurity, some unsureness" (p. 287). To really drive the point home he added a bit of guilt by warning that irregularities in appearance not only brand the individual as weak but also cause the family of the said individual to be judged poorly.
At age 18 the crevice in my faith had widened to a gaping chasm. I turned my back on the Mormon Church. I certainly wasn't anti-male or anti-marriage. What I opposed were the specific and rigid gender roles prescribed by the Church. Also, I could not abide the dual standards for men and women. Even though both men and women are required to demonstrate worthiness, a woman must account not only for herself but also for any effect she may have on men. Additionally, I found it unbearable that I was required to marry and required to bear children in order to achieve a place in heaven, and even then I could only enter at the bidding of a man. Finally, it was the shackles placed around my desire to do the simplest thing--to dress as I desired--that tipped the scales and caused me to walk away. The Mormon Church exerts control over every aspect of its members' lives, especially the lives of the women. As far back as my first Primary class, I remember being taught the importance of free agency but the LDS church only talks the talk, it does not walk the walk.
At age 21 I married a perfectly heathen man in a perfectly heathen setting. That action sent my family into a tailspin. Until I married outside the faith, my family maintained hope that I would change my mind, get married in the temple and be saved. After my wedding my family members were placed in the awkward position of (1) hoping my marriage would fail, thereby allowing me to try again for that temple marriage, or (2) accepting that I was lost to them for eternity. A non-temple marriage in the Mormon Church is like a death in the family. My marriage was not cause for celebration.
I thought I had purged the religious conditioning out of my system. I hadn't. It wasn't until my 27th year, after my husband and I moved out of Utah, that I began to acknowledge the lingering effects. Once I was out of the shadow of the temple I began to rediscover parts of myself that had been dormant for many years. I had buried many talents and dreams so deeply that I didn't even realize they were still clinging on somewhere inside.
As my 30th birthday approached, I paused to reflect on where my journey in life had taken me. I knew I wasn't fulfilling my potential. With the exception of leaving the Mormon Church and later choosing my partner, every action in my life had been happenstance. I had let life happen to me rather than plotting my own course. Though I hadn't given it a thought in years, the battle between who I really am and who the Mormon Church taught me I should be had never really ended. Walking away from the religion hadn't been enough. I had not been deprogrammed and, like a computer virus, church teachings lurked inside, crashing and deleting the new files I created for myself.
It's amazing how rejected dogma can still have a forceful, almost unseen, effect even years later. To this day fear and self-doubt plague me. Sometimes I stop to investigate the source of my paralyzing inability to pursue the things I desire. I find a slippery thread tied back to the years I spent trying to find a place in a religion in which I didn't belong.
It is my opinion that no woman belongs in the controlling world of male dominated religions, but there are hundreds of thousands of Mormon women who would beg to differ. To each her own, I guess. However, I will always maintain that a woman may do as she pleases. She may think as she pleases. She may dress as she pleases. She need not carry the burden of chastity for the entire male gender on her shoulders. If she is a believer in a god, she may walk into heaven on her own merits. And whether she is spiritual or not she may let the light of her true soul shine brightly all her days, without reproach.
"At age 30, after deciding I was wasting my life away, I delved deep inside myself to rediscover my dreams. I have a love of fashion that I shelved after high school. A low self-esteem and residual concern about excess vanity and worldliness, suggested by my religion, derailed my teenage dreams. In the twelve years after high school I bounced around from job to job. Currently I work as a designer in a civil engineering company. It is a good position but offers no nourishment for my creative energies. Finally, last year, I decided to stare down all the church-related fear and self-doubt that lingered in the corners of my mind. I enrolled in FIDM and have successfully completed my first year as a fashion design student, with flying colors.
"The break I made from the Mormon religion strained the relationship between my parents and me for many years, as I feared I would. I am happy to report that my parents and I have since been able to forge a mutual respect for each other's belief structure. This is unusual. Thankfully my husband and I are able to enjoy the company of my family while keeping the specter of the religion somewhere at bay."
March 2002 Excerpts