Last month, the Deseret News (a church owned paper in Utah) ran a story about a very, very cool woman named Michelle Wright Amos. She’s currently serving in Louisiana with her mission president husband, but before that, she had a 30 year career with NASA, most recently working at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For almost a year before leaving to serve with her husband, she worked on the Mars 2020 rover as a systems engineer – the same rover that landed successfully on Mars last month.
What was interesting to me upon further reflection was the fact that by having a successful career while also a mother of young children (she has three kids, the same number as me!) she was doing exactly what women in our church were told not to do my entire life. I was born in 1981, and one message I heard consistently from birth to my thirties was that God wanted women to stay at home with their children and only go into paid employment if there was an absolute, life or death situation, need for it.
I can’t say without knowing her personally if Michelle worked all of those years out of necessity, but her husband was a commissioned officer in the navy and had a long and successful career as a nuclear power engineer. Nothing about his biography in any way describes a man who was disabled or unable to secure regular employment. My best guess is that she was smart, talented, and wanted a career in engineering, so she went for it with the support of her family.
In 1989, the same year that I was baptized, Michelle graduated college with her first electrical engineering degree. I have memories around that age from primary lessons on Mother’s Day instructing me how important it was that moms should stay home with their children. I decided to search Google to help me find what leaders of our church were officially saying about women, girls, motherhood and working in the 80s, when Michelle made her decision to go for a career in engineering.
It was easy to find quotes from back then about God commanding women to stay at home, because there seem to be hundreds of them from top church leaders. I personally grew up hearing these things explicitly taught almost every week in church, primary programs, young women’s activities, and even girl’s camp. Ezra Taft Benson was the prophet from 1985 to 1994, precisely when Michelle was finishing her schooling and starting her career and family, and he said:
“Beguiling voices in the world… maintain that some women are better suited for careers than for marriage and motherhood. These individuals spread their discontent by the propaganda that there are more exciting and self-fulfilling roles for women than homemaking. Some even have been bold to suggest that the Church move away from the ‘Mormon woman stereotype’ of homemaking and rearing children.” (“The Honored Place of Woman,” Ensign, Nov. 1981, 105).
Also President Benson: “One apparent impact of the women’s movement has been the feelings of discontent it has created among young women who have chosen the role of wife and mother. They are often made to feel that there are more exciting and self-fulfilling roles for women than housework, diaper changing, and children calling for mother. This view loses sight of the eternal perspective that God elected women to the noble role of mother and that exaltation is eternal fatherhood and eternal motherhood (‘To the Elect Women of the Kingdom of God,’ Nauvoo Illinois Relief Society Dedication, 30 June 1978)” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 548).
Howard W. Hunter, the prophet right after President Benson, said:
“It seems strange that women want to enter into professions and into work and into places in society on an equality with men, wanting to dress like men and carry on men’s work. I don’t deny the fact that women are capable of doing so, but as I read the scriptures, I find it hard to reconcile this with what the Lord has said about women—what he has said about the family, what he has said about children.” (Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 150).
Richard G Scott, an apostle during this time:
“Of course, as a woman you can do exceptionally well in the workplace, but is that the best use of your divinely appointed talents and feminine traits? As a husband, don’t encourage your wife to go to work to help in your divinely appointed responsibility of providing resources for the family, if you can possibly avoid it. As the prophets have counseled, to the extent possible with the help of the Lord, as parents, work together to keep Mother in the home.” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 102; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 74–75).
As far as I can judge from the situation, Michelle Amos (who is awesome) did not follow very direct counsel from the prophet and twelve apostles as she made important life decisions for herself. She looked inside herself, followed her own heart and inspiration, and is a huge success for doing so.
I’m a 39 year old stay at home mom and generally happy with my life, but also a little sad that I didn’t follow my heart like Michelle Amos. My dad went to MIT on a scholarship and had a successful career as an aeronautical engineer. I only have one older sister and no brothers, and I wondered sometimes growing up if he was ever disappointed not to have had a son to pass his talents for science, math and engineering on to. While he never discouraged me from learning about the things he loved, my church lessons very actively taught me not to bother learning them. So I didn’t.
I hope this positive reception of her career in the church is a sign that the next generation of young women can choose to pursue both a family and a career – just like men have always done. I hope my daughters feel like they’ll simply have a choice between being a stay at home mom and working, rather than what I believed was a choice between being obedient to God or following the adversary. At this point it’s probably too late to follow my dad’s footsteps and help launch rockets, but I do hope I can launch some young women in my life into a career that they will love as much as Michelle Amos loved hers.
Post script: After I wrote this blog post a couple weeks ago, I was excited to see Sister Amos and her husband interviewed on the podcast Mormonland. I listened, and Peggy Fletcher Stack asked her the question that made me to write this post. She said, “Sister Amos, did you ever get pushback for working full time and being a church leader, too?” (I think she meant to say “working full time and BEING A MOTHER”, but luckily Michelle answered both questions.)
Sister Amos: “I did. I remember the era of stay at home moms. Members of the church encouraging – members of our leadership, our prophets in the church, would encourage mothers to stay at home. I also remember reading where we were supposed to gain knowledge, and it was to our advantage to gain knowledge, and that knowledge is eternal, it’s celestial. It’s something that will go with us in the next life. And so in my family, we were highly encouraged to go to college, and so it was always a part of my dreams to go to college and become an engineer. I didn’t think I was going to work for NASA, but working for NASA was just like the cherry on top.
“So yeah, there was some pushback, and even in the church, in some of our organizations, I’ve always worked. It has never prevented me from holding any calling. I’ve been relief society president as a full time engineer at Kennedy Space Center. I’ve been stake leaders, I’ve held many positions. I’ve been asked to lead big activities in the community for the church. I believe a lot of the organizational skills – working with people, working in the public eye, has helped me to be a better mother, as well as a better leader in the church. And today, it has not prevented me from being called to serve on a mission. So I highly encourage young women and mothers to gain as much knowledge as they can and to be able to support their families, just in case there is something, some reason where their husband can’t provide, women need to be able to support the family.”
I would add to her comments that young women should be able to support themselves and their families not only in case their husband can’t, but simply because they WANT to. I mean, it’s 2021, we’ve put a motor vehicle on the surface or Mars, found a cure for a global pandemic, and a working mother is now leading an LDS mission – so why not?