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Julie B. Beck has been the general president of the all-women LDS Relief Society for only six months, but already she has caused a stir among Mormon women not seen since 1987, when President Ezra Taft Benson said unequivocally that mothers should not work outside the home except in emergencies.
In her first LDS General Conference address on Sunday, Beck did not mention the working-versus-stay-at-home issue, but quoted Benson's infamous speech, "To the Mothers in Zion," urging Mormon women not to limit or delay child-bearing.
She then went on to say that Mormon mothers honor their sacred covenants by bringing daughters to church "in clean and ironed dresses with hair brushed to perfection; their sons wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts."
Beck also linked the idea of nurturing with housekeeping and that included "cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly house.'' She suggested that Mormon women cut back on activities outside the home "to conserve their limited strength in order to maximize their influence where it matters most."
Within minutes of Beck's speech before the 21,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City or listening via television, radio or satellite feed, Mormon men and women across the country were furiously responding on Mormon blogs.
"I want to sustain Beck," wrote Lisa Butterworh on feministmormon housewives.org. "I don't want to bash her, but there is no way that I can believe that 'keeping our homes as tidy as the temple' or 'being the best homemakers in the world' are the vital lessons that will bring myself and my family closer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
'Like an outsider'
Single women were even more troubled.
"I'd love to be the best homemaker in the world, but that's not an option for me right now," said Sallee Reynolds, who works for Ascend Alliance, a nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City, addressing poverty issues in South America and Africa. "I have influence on children's lives. They are just not my own children."
The speech made her feel "like an outsider in my own church and inadequate," Reynolds said. "Whatever offering I can give is not enough because I don't have my own kids."
Debate about the speech has continued unabated throughout this week. By now, there have been a half-dozen conversations simultaneously raging on several Mormon sites, generating hundreds of mostly critical comments about the speech, though not about Beck herself.
Beck clearly knows the Mormon landscape, having chosen for her two counselors a woman who was born outside the U.S. and one who has never been married.
So what prompted her to give the speech?
Beck declined to be interviewed, nor would LDS spokesman Scott Trotter comment on whether the speech was proposed or approved by any of the leaders in the church's all-male hierarchy.
To many Mormon women, she seemed to contradict the church's direction since 1987. The church has never taken an official stand against birth control, for example, nor in recent years pushed members to have as many children as possible.
In 2005, Brigham Young University President Cecil O. Samuelson told the school's female science students that the church "is in favor of [children]. This means not only having them, but caring for and rearing them in righteousness."
But LDS scriptures and prophets "have not been explicit about things such as number, timing and so forth," Samuelson said. "This is because not only are these things intensely personal in terms of decisions, they are absolutely unique in terms of our customized, individual circumstances."
Irrevelant to millions
While Beck mentioned childless women, saying they would get their chance at motherhood in heaven, she didn't acknowledge that a growing number of Mormon women have influence outside their families or that some of her discussion was irrelevant to the millions of members who live outside the U.S.
Middle-class American women have the luxury of staying home with children, said BYU sociologist Marie Cornwall, partly because "they can buy a T-shirt at Wal-Mart for $5, because other women somewhere else sat at a sewing machine working for almost nothing."
In today's world, many LDS women work in order to have health insurance, to support children on church missions or to educate them. These women and their husbands often share household responsibilities equally, dividing the labor in unconventional ways.
"I never had the knack of styling my daughters' hair; their hair on Sunday is usually au naturel, which looks beautiful to my eyes," said Valerie Hudson, a BYU political-science professor and mother of eight. "My husband does the cooking in our family and takes great satisfaction in making what he calls 'food for the soul.' He even bakes the treats for our children's class parties. . . . This year I'm teaching my 13-year-old son to sew his own special Halloween costume."
Hudson and her landscape-architect husband, David Cassler, take solace in the words of Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who said in 1989, "There is no task, however menial, connected with the care of babies, the nurturing of children, or with the maintenance of the home that is not the husband's equal obligation. The tasks which come with parenthood, which many consider to be below other tasks, are simply above them."
They also appreciate the teaching of LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, who has spoken repeatedly about women getting the most education they can and not only to be better mothers.
"You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part," Hinckley told the young women of the church in a speech published last month in the New Era, an official church magazine. "Set your priorities in terms of marriage and family, but also pursue educational programs which will lead to satisfying work and productive employment in case you do not marry, or to a sense of security and fulfillment in the event you do marry."
That fits with the general advice given from every Mormon pulpit and prophet in the past few decades. And it corresponds with the views shared by most Mormon women around the country and on the Internet.
"As we wives and husbands prayerfully and unitedly follow the promptings of the [Holy] Spirit, we will be led to fulfill those promises we made before we came to mortality, and we will know joy thereby," Hudson said, "even if our lives are not identical to the lives of our neighbors."