Barbara B. Smith and Shirley W. Thomas, “Roles of Women,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 142–5.
Roles of Women
The present role of women in LDS society is singular to the degree that it reflects the teachings and doctrines of the Church. Among the most fundamental of these is individual agency, or the right to choose. Consistent with this doctrine, a woman’s role varies with her circumstances and the choices that she makes within the context of LDS belief; she may fill many roles simultaneously.
One function of women is the consistent attention to the needs of others—not only family but all within reach of their help. Most render care personally in times of illness, death, or other life crises, but often they work in a coordinated effort with other members of the Relief Society. To “share one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8) is a principle and expectation associated with the very essence of a woman’s membership in the Church.
Caring for those in need often leads women to develop better ways of handling problems and to acquire specialized skills. Early in the history of the Church, women became nurses, midwives, and doctors; some established hospitals and baby clinics, while others started schools for young people. They also developed home industries, carried out a thriving silk culture, and established a large grain-storage program.
The Latter-day Saint community in the mountain West, perhaps because of polygamy, perhaps because men were often away on missions, provided an unusual independence for women—and an interdependence among polygamous wives. These conditions offered both the impetus and the practicality for women to acquire education and training uncommon to many women of their day. No less typical, LDS women today continue to take part in helping to “bring forth and establish the cause of my Zion” (D&C 6:6). They care for the poor and sick; serve proselytizing, welfare, and humanitarian missions; and teach children and youth, realizing their contribution to the temporal and spiritual welfare of the Saints.
The companionship role is the one most often identified for women in the Church. Adam “began to till the earth,” and “Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him” (Moses 5:1). President Spencer W. Kimball pointed out that women are “full partners” with men (Kimball, p. 42). This companionship is not limited to the husband and wife partnership but includes women serving cooperatively with men (e.g., Priesthood and Relief Society) to carry out the work of the Church. From the early days, “the women of the Church have voted side by side with the men on all questions submitted to the Church membership for vote, . . . an advanced concept in 1830 when no women and few men voted in any church and few women had political franchise” (History of the Relief Society, p. 102).
Underlying the companionship role is the inherent equality of men and women as suggested by the creation account: “In the image of his own body, male and female, created he them, and blessed them” (Moses 6:9). Spiritual gifts, promises, and blessings of the Lord are given to those who qualify, without regard to gender. The receipt of spiritual gifts is conditional on obedience, not gender (D&C 46:9–25).
Bruce R. McConkie of the Council of the Twelve emphasized the equality of men and women in things of the spirit: “Where spiritual things are concerned, as pertaining to all of the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies, and the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness—in all these things men and women stand in the position of . . . equality before the Lord” (Ensign 9 [June 1979]: 61).
Temple ordinances are further evidence that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). “It is to be noted that the highest blessings therein [the temple] available are only conferred upon a man and woman jointly. Neither can receive them alone. In the Church of Christ woman is not an adjunct to but an equal partner with man” (Widtsoe, p. 373).
Women and men, although equal in status, fulfill some separate and different roles in the work of the Church. To men is given the responsibility of holding the priesthood, with many prescribed duties. The role for women is less precisely defined, though no less real. According to Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve: “We know so little about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood. These were divinely determined in another time and another place. We are accustomed to focusing on the men of God because theirs is the priesthood and leadership line. But paralleling that authority line is a stream of righteous influence reflecting the remarkable women of God who have existed in all ages and dispensations, including our own” (Maxwell, p. 94).
Wielding an influence for good, women fill myriad assignments in the Church: They preside over, direct, and staff the organizations for women (Relief Society), young women (young women), and children (primary) at ward, stake, and general levels; they teach doctrinal study classes for adults, youth, and children; they direct choirs and dramatic productions; they officiate in temple ceremonies; they serve as members of Welfare committees at all levels of the Church; and they organize cultural and recreational events in which all members participate.
LDS women also fulfill societal roles such as physicians, lawyers, professors, homemakers, administrators, teachers, writers, secretaries, artists, and businesswomen. Additionally, many serve in community, political, and volunteer capacities. Consistent with the LDS belief that the greatest good that parents do is in their own home and that no other involvement ought to have precedence over their concern for family, members are encouraged to make pivotal decisions with regard to their effect on the family. This priority of family unavoidably influences the role expectations for women, including that of mother, wife, homemaker, and teacher. Latter-day Saint women are taught from their youth to prepare for marriage and homemaking, as well as for a vocation. Camilla Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball, counseled every girl and woman to: “qualify in two vocations—that of homemaking, and that of preparing a living outside the home, if and when the occasion requires. A married woman may become a widow without warning. . . . Thus a woman may be under the necessity of earning her own living and helping to support her dependent children” (Ensign 7 [Mar. 1977]:59).
Church leaders have long urged women, individually and as a group, to obtain all the education available to them, to “be given to writing, and to learning much” (D&C 25:8). Schooling for women has been encouraged not only for their own fulfillment and achievement but also for its value in helping them make the home a place of learning and refinement and for its importance in the lives of children. Even though training and education may open many career opportunities for women, the role of mother is dominant for those who have young children, and they are urged to use their training to benefit their children.
The Church does not oppose women working outside the home per se, and recognizes the contributions that they make in government, professions, business, and in creative fields. Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve explained that “a woman should feel free to go into the marketplace and into community service on a paid or volunteer basis if she so desires when her home and family circumstances allow her to do so without impairment to them” (Ashton, p. 93). It is understood that some mothers are required to work for the support of their children, but it is hoped that whenever possible, mothers with children in the home will make home their priority career.
All women are daughters of “glorious mother Eve” (D&C 138:39) who, as the “mother of all living” (Moses 4:26), left a legacy that is the inheritance of every woman. This role transcends the care of an immediate family. It describes a nature and attitude that is basic for all women. President Harold B. Lee expressed this when he addressed the women of the Church assembled in the Tabernacle: “Now you mothers over the Church.” Every woman, whatever her family status, calling, or occupation, is involved in the roles of one who nurtures, lifts, consoles; who tenders love; and who protects and preserves families.
Ashton, Marvin J. “Woman’s Role in the Community.” In Woman. Salt Lake City, 1979.
History of the Relief Society, 1842–1966. Salt Lake City, 1966.
Kimball, Spencer W. “Privileges and Responsibilities of Sisters.” New Era 9 (Jan. 1979): 42.
Maxwell, Neal A. “The Women of God.” In Woman. Salt Lake City, 1979.
Widtsoe, John A. “The “Mormon’ Women.” Relief Society Magazine 30 (June–July 1943): 372–75.
BARBARA B. SMITH
SHIRLEY W. THOMAS