Mixed Messages


“Education is an important part of Heavenly Father’s plan to help you become more like Him. He wants you to educate your mind and to develop your skills and talents, your power to act well in your responsibilities, and your capacity to appreciate life. The education you gain will be valuable to you during mortality and in the life to come.” – For the Strength of Youth

When I was about 15, I remember having a combined lesson for Young Men and Young Women where we discussed education and college. As someone who always enjoyed school, and was already looking forward to college, I was excited to hear about how to achieve my goal of a university education.

We started out the evening with the quote from For the Strength of Youth above. It is something that always resonated with me: knowledge is power, the glory of God is intelligence, the truth will set you free and all those old clichés. I had been reared on words like those in the FSoY and prophets endorsing the importance of learning.

Imagine my surprise then when the Young Men’s president, the only speaker, addressed his remarks almost exclusively to the young men. He advised them to pick a career that would be fulfilling and lucrative, so that they could be consistent and support their wife and children. He told them to work hard now so they could keep their options open for later. He encouraged them to take initiative and network with people in the ward who were in careers they were interested in pursuing.

He only directed two comments to the young women. We should pick a major that would lead to a family friendly career, something like teaching. And we should go to institute because that was a good place to meet temple worthy young men to marry. While I have nothing against teaching, it is unfair and unwise to ask girls to limit themselves like that, and how many great male teachers have we lost because young men hear it described as a feminine pursuit? I also have nothing against institute. It’s just that the motivation for attending in my mind should be to continue to learn about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not to pick up an eternal companion.

Like most of my friends, I ignored the young men president’s advice. Sort of. I ended up in a ‘family friendly’ major, but only after changing twice and because I loved it. I attended institute, but didn’t meet a husband.

President Hinckley said in a 2007 New Era article, “You must get all of the education that you possibly can.”

I was once again shocked, then, when I got pretty negative reactions to my announcement that I would be attending graduate school. People questioned my priorities and my motivations. How would I meet anyone to marry? (I hadn’t realized there were no men in graduate school. Who knew?) Why did I need an advanced degree if I was just going to be a mom? (Which was infuriating in 2 ways: why assume I’m going to be a stay at home mom? AND there is nothing, NOTHING, ‘just’ about being a mother.) Why would I want a career when my husband would provide for me? (Right, my hypothetical future husband who may or may not ever materialize. And what about knowledge for knowledge’s sake?)

My male friend’s and my brother’s decisions to go to graduate school were not met with such resistance, even though they both had wives and children. The argument in favor of the men in my life pursuing post graduate school was that it would allow them to better provide for their families. They are pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities…not exactly guarantee of a high paying job.

These kinds of contradictions between what the Church, capital c, says and what the church, lower case c, does are what often turn women in my stage of life away. The double standard for men and women when it comes to education and career aspirations are not lost on us. It is confusing, and hurtful, and can lead us to feel guilty for our aspirations, even though it was the words of the prophets that inspired those aspirations in the first place. So what can be done to bring what we say and actual expectations in to better alignment? I do not have the answer, but unless we as a church want to lose more of our sisters, this is a conversation that needs to happen.


  1. This could be me. My patriarchal blessing told me to get as much education as I can and I did despite all the mixed messages. My family was surprised but supportive. My mom loved to brag that I was in grad school. However, once I got married and she started to realize that I don’t want to be a stay at home mom she’s started to have much more mixed feelings.

    Towards the beginning of my career I lost my job and was unemployed for about a year and a half. For a long time I struggled and wondered if the reason I couldn’t find a job was because I was supposed to give up wanting a career and have kids and stay home with them. I even wondered that after I found a job. My husband gave me a blessing once where he mentioned something about my career. For the first time I felt like God was okay with me having a career, that my choices and desires were valid, that I didn’t need to feel guilty anymore. It took some time to truly stop feeling guilty and to embrace my desires but I’m glad that I did. Those mixed messages can run pretty deep.

  2. These mixed messages have been hard for me too. I always did want to be a SAHM, but I also wanted to go to grad school and have a career. Even now, after almost a decade of being a SAHM, I am getting grief for wanting to go to grad school when all my kids are in school. People keep saying to me, “You just don’t realize how important your job is. Why do you think you need to do more than that?” Why does aspiring to other things in life equate to not valuing motherhood enough? It’s so frustrating. No one ever told my husband that he just wanted to go to law school because he didn’t understand how important fatherhood is. That sounds ridiculous. It needs to sound ridiculous to tell a women that as well.

    • Exactly. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich went back to school when she was around your stage in life, and it turned out well for her. Those few role models we have are so important.

  3. Mixed messages indeed. I heard them, too, and ignored them just like you did. This reminds me of the issue of birth control. Church leaders preached against it through the 80s and church members ignored it, and eventually they’ve stopped preaching about it. I think this will happen about the issue of women and careers, and last week’s announcement from the CES is a step in that direction. There’s a lot of hurt in the mean time, though, which is really sad and unnecessary.

  4. When I applied for grad school, my dad straight up told me that women didn’t need master’s degrees. I ended up not going (for other reasons) and a couple of years ago when my brother and my dad got their degrees, I overheard my dad bragging, “I expect all my sons to get master’s degrees.”


  5. This is so, so true, JessR!

    When I was young, my mother told me that her mother told her to not get a doctorate because if she did, no one would ever want to marry her. So my mother dropped out and didn’t get her doctorate. It was always a thing in my life as a child– my father never finished college, but had this passive-aggressive habit of always positioning himself as smart, and my mother as … well, dumb. I didn’t understand it as a child, but when I became a teen, I remember my mother saying that it didn’t matter what I got a degree in, so long as I had a college degree. Grad school was never mentioned.

    But the issue of my grandmother vs my mother’s advice is powerful. As a young college student, I went on a mini mission. My companion – also a mini-missionary- thought I was weird because I was going to college. When I was thought to be out of earshot, she lamented about me, saying I was misguided because I was even going to school, and how awesome she was because she was going to stay home — “correct principles” and all. One of the women there, old enough to be our mother, ripped into my comp, saying how important it was for women to be prepared to provide for their family. My comp never said a word.

    But this is the thing– men are never questioned about if they will have a career OR a family. Of course they will have both! But women, for antiquated cultural reasons, seem pigeon-holed into choosing one or the other. Lessons, like the one JessR describes, leave women in a lurch– what is right? The counsel of the prophet, or the advice of the teacher? Are we to choose one OR another? Or are we presumed to do both, just like men? In this position, women become divided, even attacking each other, trying to define what they believe is right for them. I don’t think men deal with this to the degree that women do. If we only were able to teach that women should also both– in the same manner that men are taught, then if nothing else, the wars between women might soften, maybe even end.

    It seems to be one of those things– in positioning women to spar for the “this OR that” — which is exactly what happens with these mixed messages, women are further weakened because we become divided. In this, the misogynist agenda wins again, because contention is not of Christ. I wish church leaders understood this, rather than continuing to feed the division of women in the church.

  6. These kind of messages were never too important to me. Maybe because I was a member of the church in another country and our local leaders never spoke like that. The notion of the wife staying home is a very american one. I noticed it in magazines and when missionaries would talk about their ideal future wife but I also knew what I wanted and that my reality was very different from the american one.

    When I came to BYU, I was shocked that many women were passive in their academic pursue and had not clear vision of their professional lives. I heard more talks about gender roles in America than I have ever heard anywhere else. When friends, roommates and random people would be shocked that I was planning on having only two children so I could have a career, I would always tell them the same answer: “I am a beautiful girl, I can have a husband in my own country. I came hear for a career and to make money. I would have not needed to immigrate and leave my loved ones behind just to find a husband”. It definitely shocked them, probably for too long in order to be able to give me a reply.

    I am the kind of person that knows my heart very well. I never allow talks and people to change my mind. I take into consideration the opinion of only those people that are close to me and have done something with their lives – whether by staying home or working or both. But I have realized that not everyone is qualified to give me advice no matter their position in church or in the world. I know my heart, I know what makes me happy and I love my family. These feelings are enough of a foundation for me to make my own decision and create my own life.

    People will always have opinions about what others do. But who cares? That is something no one can escape from so we might as well show them that life can be lived in a variety of ways that lead to happiness for all.

  7. I never had anything as explicit as the presentation described here, but I definitely got an “education for just in case” rhetoric from pretty much everyone except my very traditional parents and no -LDS people. I didn’t want for just in case. And I don’t want my knowledge hungry girls who are bright and motivated to feel like they have to play dumb or not get a PhD to “get” a husband.

  8. I get super stabby whenever the nonsensical “education is important for women only as a back-up plan” rhetoric starts up (and, for what it’s worth, I live way, way outside the Mormon corridor and still hear this regularly.) My graduate degree and career are not “back up plans”. They are enriching my life and my family’s lives right now. Pursuing advanced education and a career has enabled me to develop my God given talents in ways that motherhood alone never could (and motherhood has stretched me in ways education and my career never could). It is incredibly insulting to insinuate that my dreams and goals etc… are somehow unrighteous because they extend beyond motherhood. Yet this happens all the time in Church. It has to stop. So, this particular issue is my personal crusade; at every opportunity I encourage the women and girls around me to further their education, including advanced degrees if that is part of their interest. I talk about how grateful I am for my degrees. I express my love of learning for its own sake. I bring up my dream of completing a doctorate. I talk about how much I love my job and how blessed I am to have it. I express gratitude for my incredibly supportive husband and extended family who have always been 100% behind me, whatever my goals have been and who have never tried to minimize my ambitions or force me into the mold of a “proper” Mormon woman. I mention the spiritual confirmation I have felt every step of the way as I have pursued various educational and career opportunities over the years. There is no one way to be a righteous woman in this church, and so I consciously endeavor to embody an alternate to the traditional narrative.

  9. Jess R,
    Your experiences with Church and church teachings on educational paths that vary by gender were too familiar. I grew up in ward chock full of men with PhD’s and Master’s degrees in STEM fields. There were some brilliant women too. They wrote articles for the Ensign and won poetry contests, but they would never consider working outside of the home.
    The cognitive dissonance was over whelming. Go to college and dream big were the messages directed at the drug using academic slackers that made up the Mormon male youth in my class. In contrast, me and my BFF definitely had academic aspirations. But we both received a lot of criticism for wanting to go to excellent schools that were not BYU. The parents of BFF refused to pay for any school other than BYU (How would she marry in the temple?). My PhD father at least saw the value of attending a top school in my field (outranking BYU by alot!) but my ward family did their best to try to convince me to attend BYU instead.
    I wish I could say none of this impacted me, but it did. I turned down offers from “Big” graduate programs and focused on low paying helping professions that could easily be flexed into part time work compatible with the schedule of a SAHM.
    In a Church that preaches perfection and progress it is sad to me that the roles preached for women are so very limited.

  10. I think you’re spot on about the mixed messages, Jess R. I think that they’re mixed from the very top, though. The stories of women that are told in Conference and in Church magazines are (it’s my impression) overwhelmingly still about SAHMs. And they’re much less likely to mention what education women got than similar stories about men do. I think this pattern contributes to (and reflects) the “education just in case” attitude that is still so strong in the Church.

    (One day I’ll get motivated and systematically study something like this, but until then I’m obviously just speculating about the patterns in the stories.)

  11. I feel ambivalent and mixed about this, as a professional who has been employed full-time only a for a few years of my career (including 20+ years of part-time appointments). I feel that the counseling I received at BYU to pursue a career that would mesh with motherhood only helped rather than hurting.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we should encourage our young women to get an education and plan for a career. I am grateful that my own girls’ young women leaders encouraged them, by arranging enough volunteer opportunities to qualify for a scholarship, and by example (one YW leader was a doctoral student who had her first baby during her dissertation).

    And I loved the advice in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE about having a “life plan” and working towards a career even if you are home with babies for a season. I took distance learning classes from BYU and wrote academic articles while I was at the playground with the kids, and nowadays of course that is even easier with Coursera and other web-based opportunities for learning new marketable skills.

    I have found that the choice of a career and a plan to pursue part-time employment can make a huge difference. Moms I know who are occupational therapists, registered nurses, pharmacists and accountants had no problem earning a good wage while being mostly home with their kids during the child-rearing years, and then had the credentials to move into a fulltime position down the road as needed. They could do work with kids underfoot (triage nurse for a health insurance company; she wore a headphone and went about her housework in between calls) or a physical therapist who kept her license and earned some extra money by doing just one 4-hour shift every other Saturday morning while dad made pancakes (the weekend differential boosted the hourly rate).

    On the other hand, people who assumed they would always be employed fulltime or had huge loans for law school were not so well off. If they were in a high-powered business career where long days were the norm and the physical demands of pregnancy impaired their ability to keep up or whatever. They often found themselves in an all-or-nothing spot.

    At my daughter’s public university, advisors are not allowed to consider the impact of future parenthood on career advice. The assumption is that everyone will work fulltime their entire life, irregardless of gender or parenthood plans. They are producing more people who have fewer choices, IMO.

    I agree that some of the judgmental comments reported above have been outrageous, but don’t think for a minute that those comments from others don’t come, no matter what choice you make. When I chose to have a fourth child and stay home for a bit, my mother informed me that I was “ruining my life.” At a party, I overhead a dental student being brought to tears: She said that she was interested in Oral Surgery but wasn’t going to pursue it because she wanted to have children and thought that work as a general dentist was more compatible with family life than the specialty. Another woman told her she was wimping out and that her children would be ashamed that she had not pursued her dreams. (And she was gong to be a dentist, but that wasn’t good enough….)

    At some point we have to learn to stand on our own two feet, listen to the Spirit as to what the Lord wants from us individually, and do what we have prayerfully decided is best, no matter what anyone else says. It is our life, our stewardship.

    Yes, the messages are mixed, but that doesn’t mean it is confusing or irrational. To me, it means that there are many paths that each of us might take. For me, a graduate degree was a prerequisite to be a wife and mother to my particular family; it was not either/or. Because of my husband’s travel, I had to homeschool the kids in stuff like Algebra II and AP Eurohistory, and taught a graduate seminar as a way to thank the local university for giving my husband lab space.

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