LDS leader's '07 address still causing controversy

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

An address last fall by the general president of the LDS Relief Society on motherhood continues to raise discussion and disagreement nearly a year after it was delivered.

Panelists addressing the topic "Mormon Motherhood: Choice or Destiny?" at the annual Sunstone Symposium on Thursday discussed why a talk by Sister Julie B. Beck during the October 2007 General Conference troubled them and hundreds of others enough to support a Web site — whatwomenknow.org — to counter many of Sister Beck's characterizations.

The Web site has garnered signatures from more than 500 women and several hundred men since it was put up in the weeks following the talk.

Five presenters spoke for more than an hour about their belief that Sister Beck's talk, and other recent messages by LDS leaders, narrow the role of women in the church by minimizing the contribution of those who don't have children and stay at home to raise them, whether by choice or through circumstances they can't control.

During the question and answer session that followed, one mother of five lamented that the remarks didn't reflect her experience, or that of many other LDS women, and asked that her choice to feel validated by staying at home with her children be respected. Several audience members approached her in the hallway at the Sheraton Hotel following the session and a heated discussion ensued.

Janice Allred, president of the Mormon Women's Forum, said as she listened initially to Sister Beck's remarks, she thought "there will be trouble, but the firestorm that followed surprised even me." She said she had seen some indications in recent years that the church "has become more accepting of women's roles and parenting in the wider society. But once again, women felt they were being handed a script for their lives that they couldn't follow."

Sister Beck's talk mirrored gender roles outlined in the church's "Proclamation to the World on the Family," Allred said. The document "gives a woman only one role. The single woman exists in the proclamation only as daughter of heavenly parents waiting to fulfill her destiny ... Being a mother is a good and a necessary role, but a good mother must first be a good person, with roles and needs outside that of mother."

Lori Winder quoted one secular author regarding motherhood, saying, "We are fed up with the myth that it's the most honorable and important thing we do ... and if you don't love every second of it, there is something wrong with you." She said "motherhood is prescribed essentially as the only role for women eternally." She said Sister Beck is "in many ways the only voice within the patriarchal structure of the church. The weight falls on her to illustrate our experience." Yet there is a "gap between Beck's rhetoric and (some LDS womens') experience, particularly as women's influence expands in the secular world."

Margaret Toscano, a professor of classics at the University of Utah, said she doesn't think LDS women "reacted strongly enough" regarding "women's roles and person-hood in the church structure." She said many "patriarchal systems use women as the primary tool for keeping other women in line" and "patriarchy gives women protection for playing by its rules."

She said she believes Sister Beck's talk created a flash point that focused on her as a person, "rather than critiquing the underlying system." She said the backlash "reflects the idea that it's more acceptable to question women's authority than men's in the church."

The address also elevated LDS women as "those who know the truth about motherhood versus secular women who are ruining the family," she said, adding "most women want to be good mothers and care deeply about their families."

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