Defending the family by exploring changing gender roles

Recently, at the General Women’s Session of April Conference, several talks where given on the theme of “defending the family.” There have been a number of responses to this session already (including two very good ones here at BCC), so we can safely say that this is a topic that has been covered. So, why bother talking about it some more? Because I think that I have found, hiding inside President Bonnie Oscarson’s talk, a message regarding marriage and family that is practically progressive in its outlook.

President Oscarson’s talk, entitled “Defenders of the Family Proclamation,” begins with a story of a girl defending or protecting a group of missionaries in her family’s home. From this narrative, she segued into a discussion of the home more generally, and the role of women in protecting the home in particular. It is interesting to note that this role, the protection of the family and the home, is set aside for men in the The Family‘s seventh paragraph. This talk begins by undermining any strict notion of gender role exclusivity, which allows her to spend the rest of the talk discussing what really must happen if women and men are to be “equal partners” in marriage.

In order to do that, President Oscarson must first dispense with the elephant in the room, the oft-cited, current “war on the family.” She notes that there are many political, social, and economic trends that could weaken the strength of families, but interestingly, she does not name any of them. Perhaps this is done because, frankly, there always have been and always will be trends and legislation that may weaken familial bonds and, therefore, specifics are unnecessary. But the talk does not seem to be aiming for the timeless. In fact, President Oscarson cites the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Family as prompting this particular call its defense.

In asking her listeners to defend The Family, President Oscarson recommends three actions. The first of these is positive. In order to demonstrate the value of celestial marriage, men and women should strive to have better marriages now. It is significant that, for all the potential dog-whistling in this and surrounding paragraphs, gay marriage (or any of its euphemisms) is not named. If President Oscarson wanted to specifically call out gay marriage, or to encourage members to agitate against it in legislatures and other fora, she could have done so. It has been done in the past. But, faced with the challenge of encouraging members to defend the Mormon doctrine of celestial marriage, she instead asked husbands and wives to be better spouses to one another. It would seem that the key to defending the family and The Family is to actually attempt to have a good marriage.

But how should we behave in marriage? Here we come to the most interesting part of the talk. In the General Women’s Session of Conference, speaking to a crowd of mostly women and girls, President Oscarson assumes that every exhortation she gives applies to all members of the church, male and female. She states that we must elevate the divine role of mother and father, that there is no higher position to aspire to than parent of either sex. Functionally, she is saying that creation of the home is the work of both the husband and the wife. In fact, she simply states this in her final exhortation. “All of us—women, men, youth, and children, single or married—can work at being homemakers. We should “make our homes” places of order, refuge, holiness, and safety.” Every member of a family, not even just parents but children as well, is a homemaker. What we make of our home is our mutual responsibility within a family. This spreads the work of nurturing, providing, protecting, and, seemingly, presiding through all the members of the “equal partnership” of homemaking.

You might be tempted to say that, in spite of President Oscarson’s inclusive gender language, the fact that she said this in a women’s meeting indicates that these commandments are only intended for women. But that language in that setting tells a different tale. It takes for granted that a message, written and given by a woman, a president in a church auxiliary, presented in a women’s meeting, will be read, considered, and applied by men in the church. That this message was given in this setting in this way by this President represents serious pushback against common understanding of traditional gender roles in the church.

Now I may be wrong. I am drawing inferences from things left unsaid and playing on possible meanings of what was said. Of course, I might be guessing the things unsaid wrong and, therefore, misinterpreting the text we have. But, consider this, if President Oscarson really wanted to emphasize a traditional, exclusionary understanding of gender roles, why go to the trouble to avoid language to that affect? Why include men, who probably weren’t members of her immediate audience, at all? I suspect that what we see here is what a talk looks like when it makes “equal partnership” the key to defending the family. That is a goal I wholeheartedly support.


  1. Strrreeeeetch. But it works, so I’ll take it

  2. I hope you’re right. It’s certainly the most supremely charitable reading, and given my love for Pres. Oscarson, it’s the least I can try and do.

  3. While I have always had major concerns about the Proclamation, it seems that it being presented in the women’s meeting 20 years ago carries with it the idea that men should be paying attention to the contents of the meeting. In the small branch I lived in at the time, there were only 2 of us women thereat the building that night. Later it was replayed at both Youth Conference and 5th Sunday forum. Both times the entire broadcast was played in its entirety

    I am the only one in my branch who saw it all three times, but in a branch that only had 4 families who met the “ideal” taught in the Proclamation, our branch and stake leaders did not emphasize it very much. Moving back to the West Coast, I was disappointed to find that the emphasis on the Proclamation on almost every program was presented with emphasis on the ideal, rather than on the value of all members.

    I really hope that your interpretation of the talk is what will be emphasized, as it is used as the basis of talks and lessons. Several members of our current high council have encouraged the use of the talks from Women’s session. A number of us are waiting to see if this will be the first time that they are officially included for everyone. (The stake RS has been including them on the lesson schedule for several years.) The Priesthood session has always been included for the men, and was only added to the RS rotation after it started streaming live.

  4. Well said. All sessions of General Conference are meant for everyone. I have particularly enjoyed Pres. Oscarson’s efforts at conference and in the work she does every day.

    Interesting side note: You may notice the Women’s session is listed first in all publications now.

  5. I do think she pushed the envelope, though it be a tiny envelope. It’s the first time fathers have been called homemakers. And given that I think they were assigned the topic of the meeting (again maybe I’m following your most charitable reading pattern here) she used what wiggle room she could find.

    That being said, is this line in the women’s meeting something that will change perspectives and gender roles? No, because those amongst whom it would effect the most change aren’t listening to the women’s session. The talks may be for everyone, but it’s a small % that even follow conference, let alone the meeting for the opposite gender. Also those whom it would challenge the most don’t read the same passage that way; do you really think the gender role types would interpret it this way? Nope.

    So then it just turns into throwing a bone to us egalitarians who are already listening. Was it progressive? Sure. Does speaking progressively in code change the culture of the church? No.

  6. An *incredibly charitable* reading. I believe in trying to be as charitable as possible so I can get behind most of it, but the dog whistling…that was real and really, really sad. Even if she didn’t mean it that way, it speaks volumes that in the context of the session she gave this talk it is almost impossible not to interpret much of it this way. For me it destroyed the talk. I was so disappointed because I have had such high hopes and respect for President Oscarson. That talk just didn’t sound like her at all. Given how cohesive that session was I almost feel that she was giving marching orders and told to toe a company line she wasn’t really vested in. Priesthood alignment and all that.

    Still I laud your effort to make lemonade out of lemons. It is in our power to interpret and reinterpret such counsel to find positive messages for our lives. It is one of our strongest forms of moral agency.

  7. Kristine, you don’t say anything that I disagree with, except to note that when she could have been disambiguous, she chose not to. Every time.

  8. “all the meetings are meant for everyone” Erik? I have never met a man who watched the Women’s session. Only in the last ten years did I realize that women go to that session. Given the separation on a different weekend than the rest of conference, I have always felt the women’s session is less than, different, not as important and certainly not aimed or intended that men would ever hear it. – this felt like lemonade out of lemons for sure. but a noble attempt indeed.

  9. President Oscarson’s remarks seem to follow those given by President Eyring at the Vatican. Speaking of his relationship with his wife, President Eyring said: “We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined. Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage.”

    I am encouraged by this development. The church seems to be moving to an emphasis of roles instead of the gender. Granted, President Eyring and the Proclamation still suggest that certain attributes are inherent (or at least more inherent) in one gender than the other. But his testimony clearly evidences a belief that roles can lose their genderness over time. While I don’t expect to see the church promoting stay-at-home dads or mom choosing which child says family prayer instead of dad (at least in the near future), I do expect to see a larger embrace of women presiding, providing, and protecting, and of men nurturing. This is good.

    Also, while the focus on roles seems to be declining, I have detected an uptick in emphasis on spouses “complementing” one another. Often this is presented as an argument against SSM on the theory that two men or two women cannot be compliments. I disagree with this premise. Missionary companionships are complimentary despite being same gendered. Pairs of eyes, ears, hands, and so forth are complimentary even though each member serves the same nominal function.

    What I’d really like to know is whether President Eyring views his marriage as improved now that he and his wife’s attributes have grown into each other. Does he believe he and his wife compliment each other to a greater/less/same degree than when they first married? And how does he address the tension between valuing differences in a couple while also valuing the ending of such differences as the couple takes on one another’s strengths?

  10. I have no way of knowing whether missionary companionships are “complimentary” [sic], and I have a hard time guessing why you might be blessed with such insights. But, even if they are, it’s a rather large leap from a two- or three-month collaboration with a single purpose–teaching the gospel–to a lifetime of rearing a child. And your analogy to eyes, ears, mouth and nose is just silly.

  11. Great post. I love this alternative to what has previously been written on BCC and I appreciate the variety. I agree that it is significant that she didn’t specify what is attacking the family.

  12. Reinterpreting this as Pres. Oscarson straining against the bit she was given gives me hope. So sad if our women leaders don’t have the independence to speak their minds and are subject to at least moments of such control. Double ditto to what Kristine said. Throwing bones to egalitarians in coded double speak will not lead the church forward. It is at best a compromise made of indecision and gridlock. Its hard to not feel manipulated if it appears appeasement is the only goal. Of course, by the time Pres. Oscarson gets some influence and a potentially powerful profile, her time will be up Convenient that. Still charity and hope.

  13. Compare Oscarson’s version of “homemaking” to Sis Beck’s from a few years ago. Night and day difference. No mention of laundry, dishes, or “missionary haircuts.” Instead, Oscarson put some gospel meat behind the term. And she “equal partnered” it. And she made it a working concept for working parents, single dads, regular people without kids, etc…

    I know the OP is stretching a bit, but honestly, these are some of the same thoughts I had when when reading it. A much, much better vision of “homemaking” than clean dishes and haircuts.

  14. And re: whether the session is for everyone — I don’t really “watch” any of conference, but I generally read the whole thing, including the women’s session. Do other people not do that?

  15. This talk does represent a subtle shift, and in a conservative church, subtle shifts are all the progress we get. I don’t know that it was intentional on her part, but if not, that’s even more progressive.

    I was reading in Stephanie Coontz’s book, The Way We Never Were, and one things she pointed out about traditional families is that families in the 1950s would have balked at the multi-generational interference of previous generations. “Father” knew best, not grandfather or Aunt Mildred. Parents relied on each other for support first and foremost and made the rules for raising the kids without deferring to their ever-aging parents or relatives. She describes two different ideals that were really at odds with each other (but that we conflate thanks to our limited awareness of history and the prevalence of TV reruns): one in which the family had an authoritarian patriarchal structure in which the oldest male (e.g. Grandpa Walton) made the rules vs. a nuclear family model (Leave It to Beaver) in which parents banded together to create the home environment and determine how to parent (without regard to ever-more-distant elder members of the family).

    It seems that even today in the church we sometimes hear of the former being touted, but (at least what I see) the latter is by far more prevalent in practice in most Mormon families. What Pres. Oscarson said in this talk is a similar type of shift, from a model that church leaders have touted in which the wife/mother is the homemaker, fully available to husband and children, untroubled by “the world,” the moral center of hearth and home, to one in which each family member contributes to a family-centered goal of making the home a haven to all family members. It moves from being mom’s responsibility and her blame if it goes wrong (maternal gatekeeping) to being a group effort, a shared responsibility. Including all family members dilutes the blame when things go wrong, but it essentially makes room for all family types by saying no matter who you are or what role you have in your family, you are a homemaker. You are responsible to create a positive environment in the home. It’s an ideal-buster. Nobody has any “excuse” to not participate in creating a home just because of their sex or age or family situation. We all have the same work to do.

  16. “no matter who you are or what role you have in your family, you are a homemaker. . . . Nobody has any ‘excuse’ to not participate in creating a home just because of their sex or age or family situation. We all have the same work to do.”

    This is so true and meaningful. Words of wisdom there, Angela. Many, many thanks for expressing them.

  17. I guess my question is (sometimes seriously and sometimes said with snark) how does a single person create a home? Organize my room? Do my dishes? Say hello to my roommate? All of that just seems like functioning, rather than “creating a home”. Should I hold FHE by myself?

    That being said, it’s good to know we are all homemakers. Maybe they should combine the enrichment and m-enrichment activities! :-)

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