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Julie Beck knows a thing or two about powerful women.

In 1958, Beck's parents went to Brazil to preside over its only LDS mission. At the time, there were a few small LDS units but no established congregations, Boy Scouts, youth activities or women's auxiliaries. While her father managed the country's nascent LDS organizations, Beck's mother was responsible for the women - and she didn't really speak the language.

Beck witnessed her mother's quiet courage at the daunting assignment. The young wife shared her faith at the first non-Sabbath meeting of Brazilian LDS women, using the only four Portuguese sentences she knew.

"Out of that has grown a wonderful, vibrant, faith-filled body of women in Brazil," Beck told more than 18,000 women at Brigham Young University's annual Women's Conference last week.

A half century later, Beck is the General Relief Society president, directing instruction for the 5.6 million women in more than 170 countries who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the BYU event, Beck's warm, personal style clearly connected with the audience, many of whom came from across the country to drink from the well of wisdom offered by LDS women leaders and writers. Their apparent approval of her remarks contrasted starkly with reaction to Beck's first presidential speech at the church's General Conference last fall, when her advice to women caused a stir among both liberal and conservative listeners. In the speech, "Mothers Who Know," Beck urged Mormon women not to limit or delay child-bearing, said part of nurturing children was cooking, washing clothes and keeping a tidy house and 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."

To some, Beck's counsel to mothers demeaned working women and left out the role of men in child care; to others, it was a welcome defense of stay-at-home mothers who often feel marginalized by the working class.

Since then, other Mormon leaders, particularly Apostle M. Russell Ballard, have gone out of their way to say that the church sees no perfect approach to motherhood. But the underlying conflicts revealed by reactions to Beck's initial presentation simmer beneath the surface.

LDS women are getting a "cacophony of messages," BYU sociologist Marie Cornwall says. "The critical issue for many of them seems to be: Is there a place for me in the church given my life choices?"

Joining the mainstream

Ever since abandoning polygamy in the early 20th century, Mormonism has been deeply committed to the nuclear family ideal, says Kristine Haglund, who edited a special women's issue of Sunstone magazine, an independent forum for Mormon ideas.

"Our survival and assimilation into the country depended on the adoption of the 'traditional' family, so it's not particularly surprising that questions about families, and women's roles within them, should be especially fraught for Mormons," says Haglund, an LDS single mom in Boston.

In the U.S., however, warm fuzzy rhetoric about the family is complicated by the way such rhetoric has been deployed in the service of various ideologies and political entanglements.

Consider, for example, how the image of such Mormon families factored into Mitt Romney's recent presidential bid. When attacked by Evangelicals for not being Christian, Romney repeatedly held up his happy family life as Exhibit A of his moral values.

"Mormons largely don't understand the theological distinctions Evangelical Protestants find so distressing, and so a common reaction [after pointing out that "Jesus Christ" is right in the name of our church] is to protest that we have such nice families," Haglund says. "Beyond that, we're political allies in the fight against gay marriage, abortion, and other 'values' issues."

Stressing the importance of motherhood also is a link to these other Christians, who often feel threatened by the feminist movement and its push for more choices for women.

Mormon women are caught in the move toward modernity, Cornwall says, and, ironically, the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's suggestion that women become more educated caused more tension than it eased.

"Now that women are educated, what are they supposed to do?" she asks. "Depending on what your major is and what your interests are, that mandate creates real dilemmas for Mormon women."

Where you live

Recently, top Mormon leaders, male and female, have made consistent efforts to acknowledge the various ways women organize their lives and contribute to society, but such sermons play differently in any given LDS congregation or family.

"There are some things that could make some of the women feel more comfortable, but I just don't run into many uncomfortable women," says Juliann Reynolds, a widow in southern California who writes for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). "They are too busy living their lives and trying to be good people. It's all fairly local because that's where you live your lives and that's why our experiences can be so different."

Haglund, too, questions how much general rhetoric about women's roles influences individual choices.

"Mormon women continue to follow national trends in employment, reproductive choices, etc.," she says. "Young Mormon women are making their own choices and composing interesting lives for themselves, whether or not they have [former Relief Society general leaders] Chieko Okazaki or Sheri Dew to tell them it's OK."

Depending on what stories are cited or what framework for judgment is applied, it can be easy to interpret the church's experience and history as misogynistic and oppressive, writes Andrea Radke-Moss, in a recent FAIR essay on the place of Mormon women.

"For every positive story of gendered awareness in the annals of church lore, there are negative stories - bishops who told abused wives to "accept their fate and the authority of their husbands or young women counseled not to go on missions because that's not a woman's place," Radke-Moss writes.

But she is optimistic.

"Our hope lies in the ultimate equalizing doctrine of Christ's love and redemption for all his sons and daughters. If we did not see it that way, then we would not choose to stay. We are not sell-outs," she writes. "Daily and weekly we see so many examples of increased gendered reciprocation within the context of the church and its culture that give us cause to hope."

That is what Beck counts on, too, but she is not naive about what it will take to meet the diverse needs of Mormon women.

In March, Beck met with women in BYU's law and business schools to diffuse concerns born of last fall's speech.

Maria Viramontes, a single 24 year old who'll graduate next year with a master's of business administration degree, was in the audience that day. Unlike some women who'd been troubled by Beck's words last fall, Viramontes heard them as "revelations directly from God."

Beck's duty, Viramontes said, is to "teach us principles," but that does not mean women cannot work or pursue their dreams. Beck, in fact, pointed out at BYU that she works 100 hours a week, Viramontes said, and that she has sisters who work, too.

"Girl, go for broke!" Viramontes recalled Beck telling the women who wanted to know they could have careers. "Whatever your dreams are, go for it. . . Sometimes you don't have control over the Lord's time and plan. . . Go for broke, but don't lose site of the Gospel. When the time comes to marry and have children, re-evaluate."


* Tribune reporter Jessica Ravitz contributed to this report.