A Single Standard (or, Where Motherhood, Modesty, Mormons, and Feminism Meet)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Quick note: I am writing this post as part of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. I'll be writing a few more posts in the coming weeks that bring feminism and fashion into conversation with each other, so be watching for those. And for more information on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network, click here.

If I learned anything as an English major, it's that you've gotsta have an opening paragraph with a thesis, and here's mine:

In religious and political rhetoric, women are often subjected to Single Standards -- codes of behavior that are meant to apply uniformly to all members of a certain group. Single Standards might include regulations of dress, proscribing the length, color, or other characteristics of clothing items. They might also extend to the realms of family and parenting. Plentiful though they may be, Single Standards are often ineffective and unreasonable as they overlook individual diversity and personal biases.

(Man, my opening paragraphs are boring-sauce.)

So there's this county commissioner in Maryland, and he (along with some other elected officials, I assume) voted to reduce the county's Head Start budget by half. His reasoning was that the children who attend Head Start shouldn't be there, because they should be at home with their mothers, because a mother's place is in the home. And I quote: "The mother's role is primarily in the home and my wife happens to agree with me, as do many people, and so do my kids." I'm glad he and his wife (and many other people) are on the same page, and I'm really glad that this setup worked for their family, but not every family is like his.

(Before I go any further, I should note that I'm getting all of my information on this from an article in The Washington Post. I had to do a fair bit of deducing from the article; if you read it and find that I've deduced incorrectly, please accept my sincerest apologies.)

I don't live in Maryland or work for Head Start, so it might seem kind of strange that this minor news story came to my attention at all, until you know that this commissioner, Paul Smith, is Mormon, and I'm Mormon, and I read my fair share of Mormon-run blogs that feature Mormon-related factoids from around the globe.

Sexism annoys me, so insofar as Mr. Smith's vote was motivated by his personal beliefs about gender roles, I'm annoyed. But what further gets my goat (please tell me that's the right expression ...) is that he's using a document from the church - his church and mine and millions of other peoples' - to justify his vote to the media. His interpretation of that document is really different from mine (he seems to think it supports the idea that a mother's place is in the home; I find no such sentiment), so of course I feel like he's representing Mormonism poorly. That said, I make my own mistakes and stupid comments, and I'd hope that no one evaluated my religious community based on my personal failings, so I'll resist the urge to travel down that judgmental road in this case.

What I do want to discuss is this idea of a Single Standard - a standard like "Mothers should stay at home with their children." As I see it, there are two main problems with having a Single Standard: (1) it doesn't acknowledge the diversity of people that are being held to that standard; (2) the person setting the standard might very well be doing so based on his/her own biases.

Does this relate to clothes? Maybe not at first, but give me a minute ...

Applying this Single Standard idea to clothes might illustrate what I'm getting at. I grew up in a church community and in a family that put a big emphasis on modest dressing, i.e. choosing clothes that cover the body to one extent or another. It was a HUGE deal when I was a teenager and continues to be a huge deal for young Mormon women of today. The church's leadership does give guidelines for dress and appearance, mostly broad, and those guidelines seem reasonable to me. It would be very different for a church leader (or other authority figure) to hold up a piece of clothing - a skirt, let's say - and impose a Single Standard. In this case, a Single Standard would boil down to "This skirt is appropriate" or "This skirt is not appropriate." The problems with this kind of labeling are the ones I mentioned earlier:

(1) It doesn't acknowledge diversity. Our bodies aren't identical; that hypothetical skirt might be loose, long, and flowy on a petite person, but put that same skirt on a taller woman, and the "modesty" factor would necessarily change. It's the same story with shirts, shorts, jackets, and all the rest. Personal application: I'm a woman with a very small bustline and very small breasts. Shirts that are "fine" on me would be cleavage-baring for my bosomy friends, which they may or may not be okay with. In this case, applying a Single Standard to me and to curvier women would be ludicrous. The broader guideline is to "Dress modestly," which leaves room for diversity of bodies; the Single Standard interpretation of that guideline assumes sameness, both ignorantly and incorrectly.

(2) The person setting the Single Standard is doing so with bias. The accusation of "bias" is not meant as an insult. We've all got biases, and they don't make us bad people; they just mean that we grew up in a specific world and that we perceive everything in a specific way because of it. The problem comes when we don't recognize our biases and when we rudely, unapologetically try to impose them on others. In the example of the person holding up a skirt and proclaiming its level of appropriateness, that claim comes from a very specific background. That background wouldn't account for people from other cultures (cultures where the ideas of dress are completely different), and it therefore doesn't work across the board. Look, I am not going to adhere to a Saudi Arabian standard, an Orthodox Jewish standard, a Brazilian standard, a French standard of modesty, because those standards don't match my perceptions; it would be similarly ludicrous to expect that people in those cultures would adhere to my standards. Setting a Single Standard is simply ineffective and inapplicable to so many people.

Now that we've covered clothes, let's migrate back to the afore-mentioned situation in Maryland ...

The church document that I mentioned and linked to earlier is called "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," and it's a staple of modern Mormonism. One of the things I love about this document is that it follows the pattern of setting out guidelines and acknowledging the need for adaptation, and I see this pattern as vastly superior to proclaiming a Single Standard.

Among the guidelines set forth in the proclamation is that, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."

That's the guideline, like it or lump it. I've certainly got my issues with the sentiments expressed and the wording used (what does it mean to "preside" in a relationship of "equal partners"? Still trying to sort that one out ...). I'm not here to defend the guideline, even though I do believe in it to an extent. What I am here to celebrate is the sentence that immediately follows: "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation." There. This acknowledgment is humongous. It says that diversity exists, and it supports the ways that families respond to their own uniqueness. It combats a Single Standard by saying, "Hey, this method is preferable, but it doesn't always work out, and we get that." (And by the way, "disability, death, or other circumstances" are often the motivation for seeking out daycare and Head Start enrollment for one's children. So it's odd to me that this county official is using the proclamation to disparage Head Start, when the proclamation seems to leave sufficient room for just such an organization, tax-funded or otherwise.)

And so, Mr. Paul Smith, county commissioner in Frederick, Maryland, please stop making unwavering statements and setting forth a Single Standard about what women should do and how mothers should behave. I will wear the clothes that are modest by my standards, and I will care for my future children in the way that is best according to my understanding, and I will not bow to someone telling me I'm wrong on either count.

It's certainly within your rights to believe and say what you wish, and I support those rights, but dude, I was bothered by what you said. Blanket statements -- "Women should _______" and "Mothers should ________" -- ignore the diversity that's out there, as though all women are the same and come with an identical set of needs, opportunities, interests, obstacles, and experiences. Vote to decrease Head Start funding if you wish, but as a personal favor to me, please stop evaluating mothers' choices based on your own biases and ignorance. Contrary to what you imply, children are not attending Head Start because their parents are materialistic and seeking an unreasonably-high standard of living, because they're trying to "move into a mansion." Come on, dude -- get real. And a last request: stop misrepresenting the proclamation and, by extension, the church we both belong to. Pretty please.


  1. This is a really great post. So good work.
    I have a couple thoughts...

    1. I think you're describing the Mormonism you'd like to see, rather than the Mormonism that actually exists. That's fine, though. I can see that you're struggling with the difference between what you believe and what the Church says you should believe. I get it. I've been there. I'm still there.

    2. While the Proclamation doesn't specifically state it, I think it still pretty strongly suggests that women should be stay-at-home moms, especially if this document is read in-context with everything else the church has been saying in the Ensign and Conference Talks for the past 20 years.

    3. I think it's a stretch to suggest that the sentence "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation" is intended to include the type of diversity I think you're referring to. The document does not, in my opinion, suggest that women may deviate from the guideline because, for example, they just feel like it.

    4. I can tell you're a smart woman, and you're aware of sexism in the church. If I can offer any advice, I would suggest that you simply accept the idea that the institutional church is inherently sexist, rather than accept other ideas about why your personal beliefs differ from what the church teaches.

  2. Reuben, thanks for your feedback. I decided to respond to all of the comments I get on this post, and I love that you've really engaged and responded - THANK YOU.

    1. I think you're totally right: I'm describing the Mormonism I'd like to see moreso than the one that actually exists. I've definitely been in spots previously where I struggled a-mightily with the difference between those two, and that struggle is still present at times, I'm largely settled with it now. I'm fine with being an oddball in the church and straying from the party line a bit. However, I feel like my interpretation of faith is every bit as legitimate as the more mainstream-Mormon interpretation, so I try to treat my views like they're normal and unremarkable.

    2. I think the stay-at-home bit is a totally reasonable interpretation, especially, as you mention, when evaluated in context. But I do think it's noteworthy that it's still an INTERPRETATION and not an explicit part of the proclamation. The proclamation is THE touchstone document on this topic in the Mormon church, and it's a big deal to me that there's no spelled-out directive for mothers to keep their butts at home, particularly in light of how free-wheelin' church leaders have historically been with that bit of counsel. I happen to be both an optimist and a feminist, so little signs of improvement make me ridiculously happy. =)

    3. The type of diversity I'm referring to is totally about disability, death, divorce, layoffs, financial hardship, etc., and it also includes the "they just feel like it" set. Thing is, I feel like the proclamation leaves room for all of that. It seems to me that the personal strengths of both partners/the needs of children could make it preferable for a mother to work for pay and a father to stay home, for example, and that fits under "other circumstances" to me. That's how I read it.

    4. Thanks. That's totally my approach (i.e. accepting that the institutional church has flaws rather than hating it or myself), and I sincerely appreciate your encouragement.

  3. Love your post. I interpret the Family Proclamation similarly. I have three kids and am a professor--the oldest is 14 and the youngest is 8. I have always worked or been in school, with the exception of one terrible summer at home with the kids that I vowed to never repeat.

    At the same time, I acknowledge that my interpretation of the Family Proclamation stretches the limits of what was intended--a lot.

  4. hkobeal, we might both be pushing the limits of what was intended, but I imagine that's okay.

    I'm not a mom yet, but when my husband and I are eventually blessed with a child, I see myself leaving paid work in favor of parenting from home. People could easily insult that decision (I'm sacrificing my talents, I'm reinforcing harmful stereotypes, whatever), and if they do, I'll be hurt by that. People could similarly frown on your decision to simultaneously be a mom AND work for pay, and I don't see how that reaction is any more righteous than guilting women for choosing to stop "working" and to "stay at home" (PS: hate the language we have to talk about these issues). If a life where you're out of the workforce isn't right for you or your family, then it's not. Case closed.

  5. Hi Sara. Thank you for this. I'm very sorry not to have the time to read this very long and thorough post properly now. So I won't respond to things you say in particular. But I think it's great that you are discussing your faith in this way. I don't know much about Mormonism, since it barely exists in the UK, and it certainly has a very hardline reputation here, but I am glad that there are people like you who are questioning it from within and moving it forward.

  6. A really great post, Sara. As a Mormon I'm super embarrassed and disturbed by his justifications for putting many children at a disadvatantage. What a pig-headed git.

    I agree that you expressing the Mormonism that you'd like to see is totally valid, especially since we both know that other people, women in particular, who share our hope and vision for the future. The church has and will continue to change to better serve its worldwide membership. Why pretend otherwise?

  7. This is a great, insightful article. I love reading about these issues from a perspective that is at the same time feminist and rooted in a religious community which, to the outsider, may appear to be utterly patriarchal, and which as it turns out need not be that way... Do continue to speak up!

  8. I have a lot of thoughts about this and very little time, so I think I will just say this one: I don't find that you are talking so much about a wishful thinking sort of Mormonism -- I think we tend to ascribe too much homogeneity to Mormons/Mormonism/LDS Church. As Jen mentioned, there are obviously a lot of like-minded LDS people out there. When I look around my BYU married student ward at each of the moms, I think that many of them are very traditional and conservative in their ideas about gender roles. However, almost every single one has at some time or another been a variation on "just" a stay-at-home mom -- going to school part-time/full-time, working part-time outside of the home, working from home, starting a small side business like photography, etc. Then I look at my mom and her sisters -- they all have kids and they have all tried some of those configurations mentioned above. And then I look at my two grandmothers, and same thing, they both worked at different times while raising their kids, sometimes outside the home, sometimes taking piano students or doing sewing projects from home for pay. And then I look at my great grandmother who was a librarian and my grandpa was actually born in the library while she was working (no doubt she paused for the delivery). These are all active LDS women who forged their own paths, sometimes out of financial necessity and sometimes out of desire. This has existed within the LDS Church for a long time (my great-grandma was working and having a child in the 1920s). I love and appreciate conference talks, but there is a lot more to the Church than what is said over the pulpit. There is a lot of lived experience that fits very nicely with what you describe here, Sara.

  9. Franca - thanks for taking the time to comment, even if you couldn't read through every word of the post. I get a little verbose at times.

    Jen - I agree that his justifications are very poor, not only because (I believe) they're based in a very narrow definition of how families work, but because it assumes some flat-out wrong things about the families who make use of Head Start and what its purpose is! This isn't a neighborhood daycare for materialistic moms! Get with it, man! (PS - thank you for your encouragement and hopeful outlook.)

    poet - Make no mistake about it: the Mormon church IS patriarchal, in structure and in much of its tradition. But it's also home to plenty of egalitarian men and women who simply want to serve and improve. Anyhow, I just didn't want to give the wrong impression about the church's setup. I will definitely continue to speak up, and I so appreciate your encouragement!

    Lindsay - You're basically my favorite. And it's so true: the reality of members' experiences is not the same as the hardline approach that the church leadership has sometimes taken on this matter, and I think it's important to remember that. My mom got a lot of fulfillment from working with other adults and missed that part of life when she left the workforce (after the birth of her third baby). We may as well acknowledge those realities alongside the quotes from over the pulpit. Joanna Brooks recently brought up the example of pioneer women. If ever there were women who "worked outside of the home," they were it. =) Thank you for your plentiful, thoughtful comments.

  10. I’m unsure if you even post on this blog anymore, but I figured I would give my two cents on the subject.

    To start I would like to say that being a fellow member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints I strongly disagree with your opinion on feminism and motherhood, and would like to explain to you why.

    I will start by bringing up two things which being members of this church we should both believe in.
    1.God is the same yesterday, today and forever (as found in Mormon 9:9, 1 Nephi 10:18 and many other places)
    2.Prophets (currently Thomas S. Monson) receive revelation from God (as found in Amos 3:7)

    Now those two things are fairly straightforward right, nothing you have not heard before or don’t believe in?

    So if you do believe that God does speak to his prophets then you would believe that what they say are the words of God. Correct?

    The following is an excerpt from the words of David O. McKay prophet of the church from 1951-1970:
    “Motherhood is the greatest potential influence either for good or ill in human life. The mother’s image is the first that stamps itself on the unwritten page of the young child's mind. It is her caress that first awakens a sense of security, her kiss, the first realization of affection; her sympathy and tenderness, the first assurance that there is love in the world."

    President McKay continues: "Motherhood consists of three principal attributes or qualities: namely, (1) the power to bear, (2) the ability to rear, (3) the gift to love. . . This ability and willingness properly to rear children, the gift to love, and eagerness, yes, longing to express it in soul development, make motherhood the noblest office or calling in the world. She who can paint a masterpiece or write a book that will influence millions deserves the admiration and the plaudits of mankind; but she who rears successfully a family of healthy, beautiful sons and daughters, whose influence will be felt through generations to come, . . . deserves the highest honor that man can give, and the choicest blessings of God."

    President Ezra Taft Benson (prophet from 1985-1992) spoke of David O. McKay’s words and said:
    “With all my heart I endorse the words of President McKay” He then continues to say, “In the eternal family, God established that fathers are to preside in the home. Fathers are to provide, to love, to teach, and to direct. But a mother’s role is also God-ordained. Mothers are to conceive, to nourish, to love, and to train.” He then ends by saying and I suggest you listen to this part, “We realize that some of our choice sisters are widowed and divorced and that others find themselves in unusual circumstances where, out of necessity, they are required to work for a period of time. But these instances are the exception not the rule.”

    Now I know what you are going to say and I’m sure it is something along the lines of, “Yeah, well times have changed those prophets said those things years ago.” Which brings me back to the first point that God is the same yesterday, today and forever.


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