Mormon Women: A Convert’s Perspective

An edited version of remarks delivered at the Brigham Young University Women’s Conference, 1 February 1980 Used with permission of Brigham Young University Press.

Mormon Women:

This past October I attended a women’s conference. One of the sessions was entitled “Mormon Women: Three Perspectives.” I listened with interest to the panel members and the three women who responded. I have reflected frequently on the ideas expressed at that session. In retrospect, I have found it interesting that there were few, if any, references to the scriptures, teachings of the Church, or words of our prophets. My perspective as a Mormon woman was not expressed in that session. I am grateful for this opportunity to share my viewpoint and beliefs.

I want to preface my comments with some personal background. I came to Brigham Young University ten years ago this past fall to begin work on a graduate degree. I selected BYU because I had become professionally acquainted with one of the faculty members here and I wanted to study with her. I knew little about BYU and less about Mormons. Yet, when I came to this campus, I felt at home; I was comfortable here. I sensed the difference which is frequently spoken of by visitors to our campus. I had come here on a one-year leave of absence from Iowa State University. When it came time to return to my position, I resigned in order to stay at BYU and complete my studies. The following summer, a class of students whom I had taught presented me with a Triple Combination. That gift, and the sincerity and feeling with which it was presented, had a great impact on my life. I began a serious investigation of the Church, and in March 1971, I was baptized. I joined the Church after much study and against the wishes of my parents and friends. I joined the Church because I believed that the Prophet Joseph Smith had indeed received a revelation from our Heavenly Father to restore the gospel.

As I have continued to study the scriptures and explore the teachings of the Church, my testimony has been strengthened. I have gained new understanding, as well as meaning and direction in my life as a woman.

Since my conversion, I have often wished that I had been raised in a Latter-day Saint home, that my parents and other members of my family had a testimony of the restored gospel. However, because I was raised out of the Church, I feel I have a special appreciation for the teachings of the Church—which we sometimes confuse with certain cultural practices, which are a matter of preference, not doctrine. I will discuss the teachings of the Church here, as they relate to women.

We live in a time when there is much talk of equal rights, but this is not a new notion in the gospel. The scriptures and the prophets have clearly taught that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). President Kimball reaffirmed this when he spoke to the women of the Church last fall. He said, “We had full equality as [God’s] spirit children. We have equality as recipients of God’s perfected love for each of us” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 102).

Equality, however, does not imply sameness. Although men and women are equal in the sight of the Lord, their eternal roles and assignments differ. Men’s primary duties are associated with fatherhood and the priesthood; women have responsibilities relating to motherhood and sisterhood. By virtue of these assignments, men are directly responsible for Church governance and thus have organizational and administrative duties. Women, on the other hand, have specific responsibility to create and nurture.

Because men hold the priesthood and are therefore often more visible in the operations of the Church, some people assume men are more important and more competent than women. But Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve made it clear that the priesthood is not a reward for competency or excellence:

“Women of a congregation … may be wiser, far greater in mental powers, even greater in actual power of leadership than the men who preside over them. That signifies nothing. The Priesthood is not bestowed on the basis of mental power but is given to good men and they exercise it by right of divine gift, called upon by the leaders of the Church. Woman has her gift of equal magnitude” (Priesthood and Church Government, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 90).

On another occasion he said, “No man who understands the gospel believes that he is greater than his wife, or more beloved of the Lord, because he holds the priesthood” (Evidences and Reconciliations, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, p. 308).

Although women do not hold the priesthood, they are partakers of every blessing necessary for salvation. The temple endowment makes this clear. The general ordinances of the temple are all performed by authority of the priesthood, and women have access to all of them. And the instructions, ordinances, and covenants of the temple endowment are basically the same for men and women. In the temple men are prepared for their roles as kings and priests, and women are prepared to become queens and priestesses. Woman stands beside the man, “a joint-in heritor with him in the fulness of all things. Exaltation and eternal increase is her lot as well as his. Godhood is not for men only; it is for men and women together” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 844).

The differences between men and women are designed to be complementary and unifying, not divisive and separating. The ultimate plan is for achievement of a perfect balance, with neither sex to be unduly emphasized. President Kimball reinforced this when he spoke of marriage as a full partnership: “We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment. Please,” he said to women, “be a contributing and full partner” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 106).

In addition to recognizing the differences in eternal roles of men and women, we must remember that men and women do have qualities and characteristics that distinguish them from each other. Elder Bruce R. McConkie emphasized and paid tribute to some feminine qualities during his remarks at the dedication of the Nauvoo Monument to Women (see Ensign, January 1979, pp. 61–63). He cited Eve’s spiritual sensitivity when she said, “Were it not for our transgression we never should … have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption” (Moses 5:11). She had come to recognize that she and Adam needed to partake of the fruit. Elder McConkie also stated that together Adam and Eve set the “perfect pattern” for perfecting the family. Their complementary relationship can be instructive for us.

Rebecca provides another example of woman’s spiritual insight. Elder McConkie suggested that she understood her obligation to “engineer and … arrange so that things are done in a way that will result in the salvation of more of our Father’s children.” You will remember that Isaac, Rebecca’s aged husband, was preparing, in accordance with the law, to pronounce a special blessing upon his firstborn son, Esau. Rebecca knew, however, that it was their righteous son, Jacob, who should have the blessing, for the Lord had revealed it to her before the children were born. She therefore “engineered” the situation so that her husband did indeed confer the blessings of Abraham upon Jacob. Here we have another demonstration of obedience to higher law.

Elder McConkie is quick to affirm that women have, from the beginning, been entitled to impressive spiritual endowments. He indicates that “Where spiritual things are concerned, as pertaining to all the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies, the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness—in all these things men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord.”

The differences between men and women are eternal differences. Not only are men and women gifted differently to accomplish the purpose of providing mortal bodies for immortal spirits, but they have differing qualities and strengths, as well as unique ways of perceiving the same experiences. The whole truth emerges only when both perceptions are applied. Acknowledgment of these differences lends special significance to the Apostle Paul’s observation that “neither is the man without the woman, neither is the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11).

I agree with the concluding paragraph of a paper prepared last year by the Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns at BYU, which states,

“As we come to realize how essential this two-sided vision is in the search for and assimilation of truth, in the daily living of lives, in the happy functioning of families, we are impressed to suggest that … just as women need the support and counsel of men in their particular Church callings, so do men need the support and counsel of women in theirs” (Thoughts on the Concerns of Women at Brigham Young University and Elsewhere, 29 May 1979, p. 12).

While I am convinced that full equality of men and women is an important precept of the restored gospel, I also believe there is sometimes a disparity between our doctrines and our actual practices. Our prophet himself acknowledged this when he spoke at the general priesthood meeting last October. After describing specific ways in which sisters of the Church were being treated condescendingly by some individual members, President Kimball made an important distinction: “I mention all these things, my brethren, not because the doctrines or the teachings of the Church regarding women are in any doubt, but because in some situations our behavior is of doubtful quality” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 49).

President Kimball has counseled women of the Church to appreciate the gospel’s implications concerning the eternal nature of our individual identities. He has stressed the importance of each woman experiencing for herself the perfect love of our Father in Heaven. There is no question that our prophet expects women to reach their highest potential—eternal progression and the possibility of godhood. I believe that his admonition to the women of the Church is to help prepare us for our immensely important role in building up the latter-day kingdom. You will recall his encouragement to study the scriptures, set goals, apply ourselves and learn all we can. He said that women should be as concerned about the capacity to communicate as they are to sew and preserve food, and that “much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world (in whom there is often such an inner sense of spirituality) will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world. …

“Thus it will be that female exemplars of the Church will be a significant force in both the numerical and the spiritual growth of the Church in these last days” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, pp. 103–104).

I have found that the scriptures and teachings of the Church help me better understand my place in the eternal scheme of things. As a result of my conversion, I have become personally acquainted with the Savior and his saving principles. I have experienced direction, vision, and that peace “which passeth all understanding.” I strive daily to overcome weaknesses and to prepare myself to participate in building up the Kingdom of God in preparation for the second coming of our Savior.

Carolyn J. Rasmus, administrative assistant to the president of Brigham Young University, serves as Young Women president in the Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.