The most insightful things I’ve ever heard an LDS leader say about the role of women were said 20 years ago

I just got back from a trip to Capital Reef National Park (now officially my favorite Utah National Park) and, as has become my habit, I went running around the park by myself in the early morning, taunting the various cougars and rattlesnakes I may have witlessly encountered. While doing this, I listened to a collection of random talks that I have collected from the website, which releases a talk (usually a conference talk or a BYU devotional) to the web daily for your listening pleasure. On one such morning, I was listening to a wonderful talk by Elder Faust on the role of women, entitled “To my granddaughters.” I assumed that it had been given at the most recent General Young Women’s meeting (as he had spoken at that event). When I got back, I gave it to my sister-in-law to listen to (it was that good) and she pointed out that President Faust referred to “President Kimball” and “Governor Bangerter” without a former in front of either of those titles. It turns out that this talk, which I found fascinating, was over twenty years old.

The actual title is “A Message to my Granddaughters: Becoming ‘Great Women'” and it can be found here. Feel free to read it, although I will give a brief summary below. We’ll wait.

The talk is couched in terms of the advice that Elder Faust would give to his own granddaughters about their coming life. Here is how the advice begins:

I do not want to tell you girls what you must be. That is for each of you to decide. You have your agency. Each of you will have to work very hard to learn all you can and develop your skills. It will not be easy to achieve anything really worthwhile. I only tell you what I think will help bring you identity, a sense of value, and happiness as a person. I also challenge you to reach your potential, to become a person of great worth, to become a great woman.

Now, you need to know that to me great does not necessarily mean your becoming a great doctor, lawyer, or business executive. You may, of course, become any of these if you so desire, and if you work hard enough, and I would be proud of such an achievement. However, to me, greatness is much, much more. I hope that each of you girls will become an individual of significant worth and a person of virtue so that your contributions are maintained in both human and eternal terms.

It seems to me that much of the objectionable material that people encounter regarding the role of women (or men, for that matter) is objectionable in that it is perceived as an assault on our agency. It implies that our choices to be that which we feel led to be are wrong because it may interfere with our ability to fulfill a role that someone else has projected onto us. Now, I would be lying if I said that Elder Faust doesn’t do any projecting in this talk (he does, as we will see, later on), but couching it in a discussion of agency, and allowing that more than one choice can be appropriately made, is, it seems to me, refreshing. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of it is Elder Faust’s confession of pride in the potential professional achievements of his granddaughters.

Elder Faust moves on to discuss the different/complementary roles of men and women in life. But, let’s move on to the next quote of importance to me:

It is unfortunate that it is taking so long to bring full economic justice to women. The feminization of poverty is both real and tragic. That is why you should work very hard to prepare for your future by gaining some marketable skills.

The struggle to improve the place of women in society has been a noble cause, and I sincerely hope the day will come when women with equal skills will be fully equal with men in the marketplace. However, this is an issue of equality, not sameness; it does not mean that women should be the same as men or try to do things the way men do them. Although some jobs that are traditionally masculine are now being done by women, it is possible for them to be done in a feminine way and yet be done equally as well-or even better.

In some ways this is ridiculously basic, and yet it is so rarely stated nowadays that it seemed revolutionary just to hear it as I trotted along the Fremont river. An acknowledgement that some forms of gender discrimination are institutional and ever-present seems so out of place with our ecclesiastical rhetoric today. I don’t mean that as a criticism either, as I am aware that the Brethren are aware of the problems of poverty and the role of gender in it (see President Hinckley’s Priesthood session address (helpfully summarized here) for more on that). It just seems like we, in the church, often adopt an “All is well” attitude as regards problems that do not address us directly. This talk denies that sort of complacency.

Over a hundred years ago, in 1872, Eliza R. Snow said that some women ‘are so radical in their extreme theories that they would set for her an antagonism to man, and make her adopt the more reprehensible phases of character which men present and which should be shunned or improved by them instead of being copied by women.” (Women’s Exponent, 15 July 1872, p. 29.) Becoming like men is not the answer; being who you are and living up to your potential and commitment is.

Recently there was an article that equated the results of feminism with “Girls Gone Wild!” (I have forgotten where it was and am of the mind that looking it up with those search terms would be an unfortunate choice). I remember when Lil’ Kim first appeared on the scene and how the critics raved about a female rapper who was as sexually voracious as the men who surrounded her; who found empowerment in her degradation because she chose it, like Sisyphus and his rock. Was this really the goal of feminism? To remake women into p~rn stars and men into pimps? Eliza Snow’s (and Elder Faust’s) comments are prescient and scary. As the father of a daughter, I am scared of the world she is growing up in.

Elder Faust goes on to quote extensively an article by Sarah Davidson in Professional Esquire June 1984 in which she described her struggles to “have it all”: a career, a marriage, and a family. Quoting Elder Faust, quoting Miss Davidson:

Some will no doubt disagree with her conclusion, and there may be many exceptions, but she goes on to tell of three women who are partners in a New York law firm and observes that their personal lives are frustrated and unhappy. ‘The problem, of course, is that family happiness is less clearly definable and more often elusive than career success.” (Ibid.) For some, the answer has been to find and marry a man who will assume the female roles. But such men are rare.

The same author says: ‘At some point along the way, a number of us woke up and found that we were wonderfully self-sufficient and successful and our lives were empty. There was no one to share it with, no living, growing ties to the future; something vital had been discarded and we scurried to recapture it.” (Ibid.)

Once again, we are lacking a sense of judgment. Elder Faust is allowing Miss Davidson to describe her journey and the journeys of those whom she chronicled without much commentary. Although his choice of her article is telling, which he admits, he allows others the possibility of drawing their own conclusions and working out their own solutions. He even discusses the possibility of house-husbandry as a workable, although rare, solution.

For Miss Davidson, the birth of her child gave her some cause to evaluate and adjust her priorities:

As Sarah Davidson approached forty, after years in a career, she and her husband were blessed with a baby. Of this experience she says: ‘This baby was the great missing link for me, the one I have longed for in my life. That, once realized, brought the hoped-for satisfaction. Nothing in my life prepared me for the happiness, the wholeness I felt when my son was born. I am embarrassed to tell you how many nights I would walk into his room and just stand at the crib, my heart brimming. The bond between a mother and child is so special, it is in the soul.’

‘All my time is spent on three things: baby, work, and keeping the marriage going. I find I can handle two beautifully. When my husband is out of town or when I am between projects and not working, things go smoothly, but three pushes me to the edge. Someone is unhappy, something is always getting short-shrift.” (Ibid.)

Elder Faust then continues:

But, my dear granddaughters, you cannot do everything well at the same time. You cannot be a 100 percent wife, a 100 percent mother, a 100 percent church worker, a 100 percent career person, and a 100 percent public-service person at the same time. How can all of these roles be coordinated? Says Sarah Davidson: ‘The only answer I come up with is that you can have it sequentially. At one stage you may emphasize career, and at another marriage and nurturing young children, and at any point you will be aware of what is missing. If you are lucky, you will be able to fit everything in.” (Ibid.)

Doing things sequentially-filling roles one at a time at different times-is not always possible, as we know, but it gives a woman the opportunity to do each thing well in its time and to fill a variety of roles in her life. A woman does not necessarily have to track a career like a man does. She may fit more than one career into the various seasons of life. She need not try to sing all of the verses of her song at the same time.

I don’t know that this is the solution for every woman and I don’t believe that it is intended to be. I have often thought about the double bind that women in today’s western world are presented with. Be perfect at home and at work. It is an impossible expectation, but, like so many expectations regarding womanhood, it is one that women are regularly saddled with. That Elder Faust is addressing it at all is, I think, remarkable.

He continues:

The various roles of women have not decreased a woman’s responsibility. While these roles are challenging, the central roles of wife and mother remain in the soul and cry out to be satisfied. It is in the soul to want to love and be loved by a good man and to be able to respond to the God-given, deepest feelings of womanhood-those of being a mother and nurturer.

Now, I wish to note clearly that what I am saying is in the spirit of general counsel-that is, it applies generally. But there are exceptions in its application.

The notable exceptions that he cites are working single mothers, but he does nothing to indicate that these are the only exceptions. However, he does seem to hold the line that women have a kind of innate “motherliness” within them that needs to be expressed. This is interesting in itself.

For instance, he cites Beverly Campbell:

Women seem to arrive at decisions in different ways than men do. I have noticed that your grandmother ‘thinks” with her heart. My approach seems more logical. Your grandmother is concerned about how her decisions affect the people around her. Beverley Campbell talks about it this way: For a woman, ‘her primary concern is what will be the greatest good for the greatest number of those around her. In value terms this would be called ‘care and mercy.’ For men the research indicated that the moral thought process was probably much more direct. It generally boiled down to firm rules of right and wrong, black and white.” (‘Understanding the Uniqueness of Woman,” transcript of a talk delivered at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, May 1981, p. 2.)

What interests me here is the manner in which Elder Faust breaks down his essentialism. He mentions Sis Campbell’s talk, which contrasts womanly “care” with a male interest in “law”. Although I haven’t read the transcript of Sis. Campbell’s talk and, therefore, don’t know what she was directly addressing, it seems from here choice of terms that she is referencing the work of Carol Gilligan. Dr. Gilligan is a pioneer of feminist ethics and has suggested a working terminology of ethical perspectives. In particular, she sees an ethical perspective present in most men and about 60% of women (if I recall correctly) that she dubbed “justice perspective”. Justice perspective is concerned, primarily, with the establishment of moral laws and with judging right and wrong in relation to those objective, moral laws. Dr. Gilligan contrasts this with “care perspective,” which she encountered in 40% of the women she tested (and a smaller percentage of the men). In this perspective, morality is concerned primarily with the establishment and maintenance of relationships. Good is, in care perspective, that which tends to induct or bonds others together with us in a relationship and bad is that which alienates or excludes others. Dr. Gilligan presents this, not as a morally superior mode of moral thinking, but rather as an equally valid alternative view that some people take. Both ways of approaching can be abused and both can create exemplary lives. The question is, does Dr. Gilligan’s finding of care perspective to be more prevalent among women and her association of it with gender justify Elder Faust’s citation of essentialism (or, perhaps, does his ecclesiastical authority justify her social science findings)? Dr. Gilligan’s primary research was done 50 years ago; should her findings still be considered valid? I don’t know. I do know that when Elder Faust and our other leaders tend to discuss “essentialistic” aspects of gender, they tend to fall along the lines that Dr. Gilligan drew. Take that for what it’s worth.

One last quote:

I hope your husbands will be more helpful than I have been, but homemaking is whatever you make it. Every day brings satisfaction along with some work that may be frustrating, routine, and unchallenging. But it is the same in the law office, the dispensary, the laboratory, or the store. There is, however, no more important job than homemaking. As C. S. Lewis said, it is the one for which all others exist.

The equation of homemaking with other work; the admission of personal weakness; and, the ubiquitous C.S. Lewis quote. These are among the reasons why I find this talk interesting.

There is more and I will let you find it. I am however curious. Do you think that there has been better talk on the role of women in the past 20 years? If so, what (I’d like to read it)? If not, why? Why does this talk seem so fresh now, when it is 20 years old? Has the world caught up with us? Is it just a matter of me being in the reddest of red states? For that matter, what are the best talks about the role of women? Also, is it presumptuous of me to limit this to what the Brethren have said, especially concerning the topic? I have my reasons, but they may be bad, so feel free to take me to task for it.


  1. Aaron Brown says:

    No comments yet? What can I say, Daniel except you just can’t compete with gay marriage fantasies.

    But seriously, I am struck by both the tone and content of this talk (as much as one can assess “tone” from reading transcript excerpts). Unfortunately, I have never systematically studied the content of Conference talks on Woman’s roles, so I’m not sure I can say how out-of-the-ordinary this really is, but it does strike me as unusual. In a good way.

    Aaron B

  2. I think one reason this talk seems refreshing now is because it’s a genuine attempt to address the truth about these issues. Today it seems rare to read an essay devoid of platforms and rhetoric, on either side of every topic.

    For example, the Eliza R. Snow quote is extremely relevant today. Far too many feminists have indeed adopted all the worst attributes of men. Yet discussions of this reality are too rare today.

  3. Aaron,
    I believe that it is impossible to compete with Gay Marriage fantasies and therefore I don’t even try.

    I don’t think that Elder Faust or the Brethren have been ignoring reality in the interim. I just don’t think that their rhetoric has been terribly effective, sometimes. Luckily they have the Spirit to make up for their imperfections.

  4. I adore this talk. Thanks for your elegant thoughts and for giving me a chance to reread and ponder President Faust’s inspired words.

    President Faust has a special place in my heart. One of his granddaughters was a roommate of mine while I was a student at BYU. He would call every so often (not less than monthly) to see how she was doing. In addition to finding out about her, he would ask how all of her roommates, each us by name, were doing. I was floored at his care and concern for girls he’d never met.

    I also like a talk by Neal A. Maxwell from 1979 titled the Women of God. It brought me encouragement during a time when I was most upset about gender differences in the church.

    Here is my favorite quote:

    “We know so little, brothers and sisters, about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood. These were divinely determined in another time and another place. We are accustomed to focusing on the men of God because theirs is the priesthood and leadership line. But paralleling that authority line is a stream of righteous influence reflecting the remarkable women of God who have existed in all ages and dispensations, including our own. Greatness is not measured by coverage in column inches, either in newspapers or in the scriptures. The story of the women of God, therefore, is, for now, an untold drama within a drama.”

    Interestingly enought, President Faust cited this very quote while addressing the sisters in the general RS meeting last year. Like I said, President Faust is one of my favorites.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and that quote, Eowyn. We often get so focussed in on what we believe the Brethren have done wrong on this front. It is nice to have another place to turn to where we believe they got it right.

  6. Elisabeth says:

    HP/JDC – Thanks for this thoughtful post. I appreciate Bro. Faust’s remarks, and I agree with this statement of yours:

    Be perfect at home and at work. It is an impossible expectation, but, like so many expectations regarding womanhood, it is one that women are regularly saddled with.

    This statement is very true, but I wonder why women, but not both women and men, feel “saddled with” this expectation of perfection.

    Along these lines, I think Bro. Faust needs to go a few steps further in his analysis. He recognizes that women’s responsibilities haven’t changed, although women now have more opportunities in the workplace. This reflects the many studies that show women are primarily responsible for child care and domestic tasks (laundry, fixing meals, etc.) even when both parents work (and two-income families are becoming more and more common in the Church). In my opinion, Bro. Faust needs to call on the men to fulfill their family responsibilities – which may just include scrubbing the toilet and taking the day off work to tend sick children – not extoll the virtues of housework to women.

  7. Yes, perfectionism is a hard, hard burden.

    I agree with you, Elisabeth. And thank you, Daniel, for posting this.

  8. Elisabeth,
    Actually, Elder Faust did ask him to help pick up the slack. He quoted another general authority who encouraged it and cited his own failings in this arena as something to not be emulated. That said, much more of the talk is dedicated to extolling the virtue of selfless feminine service.

  9. Dr. Gilligan / Beverly Campbell. This *does* sound 50 years old–wrapped up in gender politics of the time. And I guess I’m a little suspicious about Beverly Campbell after reading about her anti-ERA PR role in Virginia in the new “Pedestals and Podiums” book. Has anyone analyzed the general women’s conference talks over the past 30 years? That might yield some good stuff.

  10. jothegrill says:

    Because of the pressure many women feel to be perfect, I think the brethren are in a difficult position when it comes to giving cousel in this matter. The working mothers feel guilty about not being able to be home with their children, the stay at home moms feel guilty about not making a bigger (or at least more obvious) difference in the world. The fact remains that while women definately have similarities our roles in the world and in the church and in our families are different. For example, I have a wonderful husband who comes home from work and helps clean the house and plays with the kids and is just the perfect daddy for our little family. However he has a job where he sits at a computer all day and he enjoys it but to move around and get physical work done is very refreshing for him. I have a close friend whose husband was doing hard physical labor all day long and when he comes home what he needs is to just sit and let his body relax. So our roles as wives and mothers are very different. Hers is the sole care of the household, and mine along with cleaning and nurturing includes IM-ing my husband while he is at work and keeping him entertained. I know that I am very blessed, (I’d even say spoiled,) in my situation, but my friend takes pride in her work as well and she can do things her own way. We can’t all be happy doing exactly the same things. Thank you for this post, it is a very insightful article.

  11. I want to express appreciation for this thread. I am one of President Faust’s granddaughters and was in the audience when he delivered this talk. I can say that he has stayed true to his words in his encouragement of his granddaughters and their decisions in life. I have not read this talk for a long time, and reading it now as a grown woman I have such a greater appreciation for his counsel. Thank you for bring me back to it.

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