Keep Sweet

Last night I was watching PrimeTime Live’s report on a woman from Colorado City who had escaped a polygamous marriage with her five children and returned to confront her abusive father and husband.  It was uncomfortable for me to watch–the kind of story that makes me wonder about my polygamous ancestors, and what kind of ownership I have over the current cult problem because of distantly shared religious ideas. 

One idea that won’t leave me is the focus the reporter put on the phrase "Keep Sweet."  Apparently it is something of a mantra repeated to young girls to remind them of their place–their submissive role in marriage.  Disturbingly, this notion of submissiveness is somehow fixed to a notion of femininity–a package presented to these girls, tied up with religious guilt and obligation, that they must accept, whether willingly, guiltily, or painfully.  Why femininity?  Is it simply an effective weapon used against these girls, or is there some spiritual merit to femininity that we can either responsibly harness or warp in an effort to gain unrighteous dominion?

The obvious role of femininity is as a sexual attraction mechanism.  I’m not really an expert here, but I imagine that men are as attracted to the trait of femininity as women are to power and strength.  However, this is probably a sliding scale.  I personally am not looking to lasso me a body building CEO.  I find other traits to be much more desirable in a future spouse.  While strength, appropriately manifested, is important to me, there are other traits, such as kindness and selflessness that are far more vital.  I would think that femininity as an attractiveness measure is on a sliding scale for most men and depends on their individual taste and experience. 

Another way that femininity might be spiritually vital is its relation to motherhood.  Again, though, I’m skeptical as to its importance.   Obviously, nurturing is vitally important, but I don’t think that nurturing and femininity are synonyms.  Further, I’ve had the chance to observe many young LDS mothers, and the ones that I want to be like are efficient but patient, caring but disciplined, and have a sense of humor that they rely on to simply make it through the days of coping with whining children, playing princess despite boredom, and cleaning up various bodily fluids.  It seems that femininity is more of an optional trait that falls far down on a list of more important attributes. 

The submissive form of femininity stressed by the polygamous cults could be a metaphor for spiritual submissiveness.  We know that we must become meek and submissive to God in order to accept and live his gospel.  However, this submissiveness to God is not a requirement for women only…men must submit their wills to God as well, and a failure to do so because of excessive pride in strength or power is detrimental to a man’s eternal progress.  Clearly then, submissiveness, in a spiritual sense is not a female trait, and therefore it seems illogical that it should be so closely related to femininity.

This entire post begs a more fundamental question, what is femininity?   And once defined, what is its value? Is femininity a necessary spiritual trait?  Outside the realm of sexual attractiveness, is it even a worthwhile trait?  Should instilling femininity in girls be a goal, and if so, of whom–parents or church leaders or both?  What role does femininity have in our spiritual understanding?

Comments

  1. Julie in Austin says:

    I’m sure at some point this discussion will derail into an endless morass of trying to define what exactly femininity is, but that doesn’t interest me, so I’ll just shoot from the hip:

    I am not feminine. I am a female, heterosexual, stay at home mother of three, but I am not feminine. Here are some things I do not own: make-up, jewelry, perfume, high heels, scarves, more than one purse, more than one pair of everyday shoes. Here are some things I am not: sweet, sunny, gentle, poised, gracious.

    I don’t think that, when it comes to virtues, the gospel calls men and women to different things. Women should not aspire to be more X than men. Women are not naturally more X than men. God does not want women to be more X than men. God does, however, call men and women to some different roles in life. For example, women are generally called to spend more time caring for children, but this doesn’t mean that they ARE or SHOULD BECOME more patient than men. We are all striving to develop patience.

    This is a hot button issue to me, because I think that to confuse the different ROLES that we are called to with being called to different attributes or having different natures is a recipe for perverting the gospel. It leads you to a place where men don’t have to be patient and women get no credit for developing patience.

    To sum, I think feminity (or masculinity) cannot and should not have a role in the Gospel.

    /ducking

  2. Karen,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you . . . for teaching me this wonderful phrase. It’s truly money in the marriage bank;)

  3. D. Fletcher says:

    My greatgrandfather, Heber J. Grant, had 3 wives, and I’m descended from his third wife, Emily Wells. These women were anything but submissive, but strong women with real ideas, commitment and faith. We forget that the polygamists of today are quite, quite different. I wish someone would write a book about actual Mormon polygamy, one that isn’t a polemic.

    Julie, I think you underestimate your graciousness, but I am glad to have a kind of picture of you, thanks for that!

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    But Julie,

    The authors of “Fascinating Womanhood” would beg to disagree …

    Aaron B

  5. danithew says:

    My wife tried on a skirt this morning. It was very attractive and feminine … in fact, we talked about it and in the process I think she decided it was too feminine and playful in its style for the workplace. So she changed into something else.

    It’s interesting to think about how women who have this quality can accentuate or de-emphasize their femininity according to context. I imagine it can be an avenue for women to develop their artistry and identity if they desire to do so.

    Of course women have different degrees of femininity and in some ways it might be treated (as the post indicates) as a spiritual gift. A woman who is less feminine probably has other gifts that give her advantages in other areas.

    The same kinds of things could probably be said about men and masculinity. There are square-jawed manly men who can walk around in muscle shirts and the like. If I tried to dress like that and saunter around — people would fall down laughing right there on the sidewalk.

    And of course femininity (and masculinity) can be distorted or abused. But if they are handled in right and appropriate way, they can add a kind of grace and charm to a persona that is very refreshing.

  6. It seems useless to sit around and discuss “femininity” without definining it. We all have different definitions, and what my best friend considers femininine in his wife is not something that I have associated with femininity, so, to a degree, this discussion doesn’t have adequate boundaries.

    I will disagree a little with Julie in Austin, though, because I do think that, generally speaking, there are innate differences, not just biological, between women and men that make women generally better at some things than men generally and vice versa. It surprises me that people even dispute this.

    On a totally different note, Julie in Austin, could you email me please at danielsure at hotmail dot com? My wife and I are considering homeschooling and want to get ideas. Our oldest is 4 and we are in Houston, so I figured since you’ve already gone down that route, you might be able to share a little wisdom.

  7. a random John says:

    danithew,

    Shouldn’t your wife be wearing scrubs at work? You have no idea how much we’ve saved on clothes the last few years…

  8. danithew says:

    A random John, I think for security reasons they don’t allow the docs to war scrubs when they are entering or leaving the facility. I’m guessing they’ve had people impersonate doctors and get past security by wearing scrubs, and thus the precaution. But that’s just a guess.

  9. Rosalynde says:

    Fortunately the “femininity” meme has receded a bit recently, but for a while there seemed to be a real concern among leaders that feminism was somehow making women androgynous. This resulted in some of the most difficult quotes (for me) of all time in GC, witness Margaret Nadauld c. 2000: “The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.”

    I think “femininity” as it’s used in contexts like these not only sexualizes women demeaningly, but also writes them out of the public sphere and any real contribution to the wider world: Sister Nadauld’s passage could be summarized, I think, as “We need more women who stay at home.”

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Rosalynde, we have enough homemakers; we need more ultimate cage fighters.

  11. Rosalynde says:

    Steve, don’t be jealous because I’m training to be a cage fighter when I’m not online chatting with babes.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Rosalynde, at BCC we use the buddy system. No more flying solo. You need somebody watching your back at all times. Second off, you’re gonna learn to discipline your image. You think I got where I am today because I dressed like Peter Pan over here?

  13. GreenEggz says:

    Julie in Austin:

    I think you’re using the wrong definition of femininity. Make-up, jewelry and perfume does not constitute femininity, or make someone feminine. I’ve met a couple of transexuals who wore make-up jewelry, perfume and scarves, and they were NOT feminine! They just came across as guys in drag.

    Sunny, sweet, gentle, poised and gracious can also be used to describe President Hinckley. So those are not the definition of feminine either.

    We address Heavenly Father as “our most kind and gracious.”

    You sound like a tomboy. That’s fine. Lots of guys like tomboys.

    Are you single? :-)

  14. so does femininity not exist outside the realm of fashion and style? In other contexts is it just a euphemism for female weakness? This doesn’t seem right. I would describe myself as one part tomboy, one part geek, and one part purse-collecting princess…but this may be in an entirely secular context…

  15. Julie in Austin says:

    GreenEggz–

    Happily married, thanks for asking.

    RW, I’m with you on that quote.

  16. D. Fletcher,
    You said:
    “We forget that the polygamists of today are quite, quite different.”

    In defense of modern polygamists…
    We forget that the only polygamists we hear about today are the crummy ones. There’s no PrimeTime Live story in reporting that modern polygamists live quiet, happy lives. Who knows, maybe there are women in modern polygamous relationships who are “anything but submissive” and are “strong women with real ideas, commitment and faith.”

  17. From what I hear, most women in polygamous relationships start out as girls in polygamous relationships. Some of them are happy though. I am sure not all polygamous husbands are jerks.

  18. Its hard to describe feminine qualities or what femininity is.
    I do know that my husband is attracted to me. He would not be attracted to me if I were a man.
    I wonder, which parts of me would be different if I were a man? My physical parts of course. If I were a man, I would have made many different choices. I would have interacted differently with my male peers, than I did with my female peers.
    I would still be good at math and like to play Boggle and other games. I would still hate exercising but maybe I would have enjoyed sports more.
    I wouldn’t be a SAHP of 3. I wouldn’t want to call my mother as much.
    Would I even think burping was funny???

  19. Here are some things I do own: jewelry, perfume (aftershave and cologne), scarves, more than one pair of everyday work shoes.

    (assuming cuff links, wedding ring, watch, etc. count as jewelry).

    But I don’t think of myself as feminine.

  20. I see femininity as a myriad of positive attributes often first associated with women, but I don’t see femininity as a weakness. Rather, when used properly – like any trait which can be handled for good or ill – femininity gives women strength. To me, femininity is being comfortable with ourselves as women, shouldering those roles – such as motherhood – that are unique to women. We are confident in those roles, we conquer them without fear, and yet we approach that confidence not with pride, but with grace and dignity.

    Femininity is knowing our talents, knowing ourselves, having pure confidence and intelligence, using our best traits to approach the world with an outlook of hope, positivitity, and good intentions. Just like motherhood, we look at how we can change the world for the better in whatever field we enter. We excel, but we excel without stepping on others; rather we encourage others to excel alongside us. These are all traits often first associated with womanhood because women throughout history have, by and large, been more visible examples of such traits than men. From the earliest mythologies to modern day culture, women are symbols of nurturing, motherhood, teaching, wisdom, righteousness, and selfless love. Not that this makes us better than men, or that men are somehow lesser beings, it’s just that’s what women are known for. Our brains are typically wired in such ways as to better enable us to nurture those around us, either our children or our fellow beings.

    Femininity has nothing to do with lipstick, being sexy, or trying to attract mates; it is grace, confidence, selflessness, and love. Not a single one of these traits has anything whatsoever to do with being submissive, but just like anything good in this world, it can be perverted into a weapon. Being subjugated by men is the absolute opposite of the confidence exhibited by feminity, lowering the woman into a position where she is without intelligence, personality, or the ability to reach her own educated conclusions. Any illusions that a feminine woman is childlike in indecisiveness or lost in confusion are perversions of the divine potential of womanhood. Femininity is the exact opposite of confusion; it is ability paired with grace.

    That’s not to say that men do not possess those same qualities, or cannot strive to achieve them. Rather, when a man exhibits grace, confidence, and love, they are known as a Gentleman – a perfect compliment to a feminine woman.

    Sorry to go on about this, but this is a hot button for me as well. I’d recommend checking out “Fashioning Women in Law” by Cheryl Preston of BYU (http://www.law2.byu.edu/preston/). It’s a really interesting look at a professional Mormon woman’s research into the perceptions of femininity by modern society and its effects on both women and men. It’s fascinating.

  21. Rosalynde,

    I’m shocked. I read the quote, trying to figure out what was potentially offensive about it, coming up with a few ideas, and then was hit with something that came out of nowhere, “Sister Nadauld’s passage could be summarized, I think, as ‘We need more women who stay at home.’”

    I can’t imagine a more ungenerous reading. I haven’t read the rest of the talk, so maybe it’s in the context of other remarks. But not in a million years would I have tied that quote alone to domesticity. Sister Nadauld speaks of nothing here but general virtues. She lists tenderness, kindness, refined (as opposed to rude), faithfulness, goodness, virtue and purity. Which of these is tied to domesticity and how?

    The potential complaint that I foresaw were that these remarks were addressed to women and not men. But I wouldn’t read anything more into that than her role of Young Women General President and simply addressing herself to an audience of young women. I’m willing to bet that if you asked her, or any other general authority, they would agree that all of the above apply fully and equally to men.

    In fact, each item on the list appears to correlate with some point or other in the Scout Law. I would imagine a talk on “masculinity” would embrace the very same points. Whenever we discuss what it means to “honor your priesthood,” we end up making the very same points she does.

    Basically, I don’t see any of the above virtues as tied exclusively to either domesticity or femininity, and I don’t think that Sister Nadauld is claiming otherwise.

  22. danithew says:

    There is a review in the Guardian of a book titled “Beauty and Misogyny” that reminded me of this thread — except that the lesbian feminist who wrote the book has immersed herself in the issues to a degree that is unusual. The first paragraph is pretty arresting but there’s some disturbing stuff in there and at least one f-word. It’s a unique perspective on things but it appears there are very serious questions asked about how women seek to achieve femininity and are manipulated by forces around them. Here’s the link.

  23. Rosalynde says:

    Eric, take a deep breath. Haven’t you learned yet that I regard BCC as my personal platform for performing uncharitable readings of GC quotes? ;)

    This passage makes its meaning not only by listing desirable attributes, but also by making those desirable attributes explicitly exclude other (negative) attributes: tough, greed, fame and fortune, rude, course, popular—these, taken together, read to me like a barely-disguised description of the public sphere, and by telling women that in order to be good they must eschew these attributes, the passage pretty effectively writes women out of that public realm.

    And while men are certainly encouraged to be kind, refined, faithful, good and virtuous, it’s never (to my knowledge) suggested that in doing so they can’t also be tough, and achieve fame and fortune and popular recognition.

  24. Eric,

    Perhaps reading a little more of Nadauld’s talk would help. The following is an excerpt from a paper of mine.

    “Speaking to all LDS adolescent girls between 13 and 17 Nadauld says, “You young women have a role to play in at least three families.” Notice that these teenage girls are encouraged to see themselves in terms of relational, familial roles. Nadauld goes on to discuss the roles of sister and daughter that these girls currently play in their immediate families. She then asks the young women to “Think for a moment about your future family. Can you imagine yourself as a mother? Close your eyes. Picture yourself in 10 years. What will you be doing? What will you be like? In your mind’s eye, do you see yourself as nurturers of precious sons and daughters of Heavenly Father? Do you picture yourself as mother who could help her children with math or science or history? If so, guess what you’d better do at school! Do you want to have beauty and music and refinement in your home? Today you can begin developing your artistic and musical talents for the sake of your future home and family. Do you want to have peace and order in your home? Then, my dear young sisters, help keep your home clean and orderly, help with the laundry. Can you imagine your future family sitting around a table enjoying the delicious, nutritious food that you prepared with love? Then it looks like you’ll have to learn to cook!”

    This extended passage by Nadauld is characteristic of official statements to women and reveals much about the central symbols which define LDS womanhood. These teenage girls are asked to picture themselves as mothers. This motherhood goes beyond mere maternity. As females, these young women are expected to bear children, but they are also being held responsible for whether there is beauty, music and refinement in their future homes. They are counseled to gain an education not for their own sake, for personal development, or as preparation for a career in the public sphere, but to be able to help their children with their homework. To the extent that they wish to have an orderly house, they must do housework; to enjoy family dinners, they must learn to cook. In Nadauld’s talk homemaking skills are represented as an ideal of the motherhood role, which is not understood as being separable from the female sex. To my knowledge there are no parallel talks that encourage boys the same age to do the laundry and learn to cook. Furthermore, when it comes to the traits necessary to mother there is the assumption that women are naturally more qualified than men. In Nadauld’s words, “Heavenly Father blessed His daughters, with some very precious qualities in extra capacity—qualities such as sensitivity, spirituality, a loving nurturing nature.” In a talk two years later Nadauld expanded this list to include “delicacy, radiance, creativity, charm, graciousness, gentleness, dignity and quiet strength.” These attributes are the “expression of your femininity,” Nadauld told the young women.

    And, of course, Rosalynde meant “coarse.” Even “perfect” spellers can make mistakes ;).

  25. Rosalynde,

    I agree that Sister Nadauld probably has opinions about gender roles, but it just seems unfair to suggest that she is cloaking them in pronouncements of gender-specific attributes. I see what you’re saying, but it I think it’s a stretch.

    Melissa,

    I am not surprised to see Sister Nadauld tie gender to specific roles. The merit of this has been discussed plenty, and no doubt will continue to be discussed in the future.

    But as far as the link between gender and attributes goes, all she says is that women are blessed with some qualities in an “extra capacity.” May or may not be true, but whatever it is, it’s certainly not demeaning towards women.

    All I’m saying here is that I agree with Julie in #1, that “I don’t think that, when it comes to virtues, the gospel calls men and women to different things.” And I think that Sister Nadauld would agree too.

  26. middle child says:

    I was thinking today as I was doing all sorts of manly duties how much courage it takes to ‘be sweet’, whether a man or a woman. The last few years, because of a disabling accident that my husband of 15 years suffered, I have taken over the role of breadwinner, mrs.fixit, disciplinarian, spiritual advisor, protector (of my husband and children) etc….I have had to become both roles listed in the proclamation. I do most of these duties in very high heels and lipgloss.

    Now, what I have learned, after being a SAHM, then a business woman…working my way up to President of a company, is that femininity in it’s purest form is extremely powerful. It is like every other peculiar trait that we are asked to learn as members, it is difficult at times to maintain. To have the discipline to nurture, teach and love a group of employees in spite of all possible annoyances is an enormous triumph. I am convinced that if more CEOs were able to incorporate more ‘sweetness’ into their motivation of teammates and employees, as well as in their goal-setting, their companies would thrive.

    I agree with many who have said that being feminine could be classified as a personality trait. I have had that trait, and it has been very difficult for me to maintain it through the various voyages I have been forced to go on and have even chosen to go on. However, as soon as I began to betray that deepest part of myself, my effectiveness began to dissolve. This was the case at home, at work and at church and community. Being true to who we are is another form of TRUTH, something that is more and more rare as time goes on.

    Inherently, we are attracted to pure truth, whether we can explain it or not. It is the tears that fall down our face as we hear a perfectly executed symphony-someone being so true to their God-given musical talent that it attracts us to the closest things we can find to Heaven.

    When we are true to who we are, whatever form of femininity (or masculinity, or creativity…or whatever) , people are attracted to that truth, and don’t know why…but, it is because it makes them feel like it’s ok to be true to themselves, pure truth makes us closer to things we may remember from Heaven.

    Certainly, I am no expert on the subject. I have just learned that the myths of “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”, etc. are just lies. I have found tremendous success on all levels by maintaining my femininity. I have a beautiful corner office and I am, indeed, very very nice (but very firm and disciplined)

    Mothering 5 children taught me skills that I have used to grow a compåny. A company that has grown leaders who have in turn become positively influential parents, spouses, friends and community servants. Staying true to my femininity was difficult, but always ended up being the best choice. It has of course, also made me a better wife and mother.

  27. Middle child, thank you for sharing your experiences. For whatever reasons, there are a lot of LDS women in the workplace, but we don’t talk about them in role-model kind of ways. I find these kinds of discussions very helpful.

  28. With the polygamists, “femininity” and being “sweet” are just manipulative terms to program women to be submissive. Such a usage shows, I think, how insecure the male polygamist leaders are. They aren’t looking for “partners” in the full and relatively equal sense that most monogamist men are.

    I think the modern LDS Church has largely gotten over this approach, although the rhetoric lingers and some dedicated, conservative Mormons still embrace it. But plenty of conservative Christians, with no legacy of polygamy, do too, showing that just a conservative reading of the Bible gets you much the same thing as a legacy of polygamy.

  29. middle child says:

    Karen
    I am working on a few projects right now to make known the many women in the church in situations so much like mine. I am so thankful that I have found this forum to hear so many differing views, as I grew up in an area that is mostly LDS, and the traditions run deep.

    I was thinking today, while in church, another point about being feminine. I have seen unrighteous feminine dominion almost as much as unrighteous male dominion.

    I know this may be a tangent, but…how many of you know women who control their husbands with faucet-like tears, or mean and screaming behavior that rivals the worst PMS, or lengthy silence treatments, or withholding sex? Isn’t this unrighteous female dominion? Any behavior with the intent to control another, I believe is unrighteous.

    I think we can agree that women have the capacity to hurt one another and their families on a very deep level through emotional and manipulative abuse.

    I see it all the time, in the church and out of it.

    So, while men may be able to exhibit more muscle strength than women, and perhaps control them through fear of being beaten or hurt…I see a far more common thread these days of mentally and emotionally beaten down men whose wives control almost every decision that they make.

    Just another point of view to consider as we attempt the understand the psychology of a ‘love’ relationship.

  30. middle child says:

    Karen
    I am working on a few projects right now to make known the many women in the church in situations so much like mine. I am so thankful that I have found this forum to hear so many differing views, as I grew up in an area that is mostly LDS, and the traditions run deep.

    I was thinking today, while in church, another point about being feminine. I have seen unrighteous feminine dominion almost as much as unrighteous male dominion.

    I know this may be a tangent, but…how many of you know women who control their husbands with faucet-like tears, or mean and screaming behavior that rivals the worst PMS, or lengthy silence treatments, or withholding sex? Isn’t this unrighteous female dominion? Any behavior with the intent to control another, I believe is unrighteous.

    I think we can agree that women have the capacity to hurt one another and their families on a very deep level through emotional and manipulative abuse.

    I see it all the time, in the church and out of it.

    So, while men may be able to exhibit more muscle strength than women, and perhaps control them through fear of being beaten or hurt…I see a far more common thread these days of mentally and emotionally beaten down men whose wives control almost every decision that they make.

    Just another point of view to consider as we attempt to understand the psychology of a ‘love’ relationship.

  31. middle child says:

    oops, posted twice…does someone know how to erase a duplicate post?

    :) thanks.

  32. Excellent comment, Dave. There is no question that in this case feminity is being used as a tool for control. I admit to being a bit conflicted when it comes to sexual power dynamics. I really do agree with Julie’s comment (#1) – in an eternal sense; yet, I think that our fallen state presents us with clearly disparate sexual roles. These roles have a power element (going both ways) that is communicated to society at large. I do generally think such power dynamics should be transcended.

  33. I think the talk has more to do with goals. Picture yourself in 10 years. What do you want? How are you going to make sure you have the skills to do what you want to be doing?
    MOST teenage girls imagine they will someday be married with children. But in today’s world “domestic” chores are viewed as beneath us, and not encouraged. Yet, someone needs to feed the future children. Chances are it will be mothers.
    These days how many young women embark on motherhood completely unprepared? There is no class to teach us things we need to know. The Young Woman’s program SHOULD include helping girls make goals in various aspects of their life. But not just spiritual goals, practical goals including budgeting or cooking.

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