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Do we really believe that education is just as important for women as it is for men?

January 18, 2008

By Steve M.

Education plays dual roles in Mormondom.

On the one hand, its pursuit is an act of devotion that makes men and women more godly. President Hinckley has instructed members, “You have a mandate from the Lord to educate your minds and your hearts and your hands” (Cite). The Doctrine & Covenants includes an injunction to “[s]eek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), and states that “if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life . . . he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19). Indeed, mortal life is an educative experience, and we often speak of eternity in terms of “learning” and “progression.” The sanctity of education is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the doctrine Joseph Smith enumerated in the King Follet Sermon: “you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves,” he instructed the Saints (emphasis added). From this perspective, it would seem that education is equally vital to both men and women.

On the other hand, the importance of education is often grounded in practical, rather than spiritual, concerns. We don’t talk a whole lot about the intrinsic value of an education, but its practical benefits are always at the forefront of our discourse. As one General Authority said to an audience of BYU students, “It is important that you do something that allows you to earn a good living, because you have to provide for a family; and that is what education is all about, in my opinion” (Cite). Similarly, in encouraging church members to “get all of the education that you possibly can,” President Hinckley reasons that “[l]ife has become so complex and competitive. . . . [The] world will in large measure pay you what it thinks you are worth, and your worth will increase as you gain education and proficiency in your chosen field” (Cite). In light of quasi-scriptural proclamations that “[b]y 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 . . . [and m]others are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” (Cite), one logical conclusion may be that education, the stuff of which lucrative careers are made, is more central to men’s familial role than to women’s.

A few decades ago, that conclusion might not have seemed so far-fetched. In 1979, then-Apostle Ezra Taft Benson delivered the following counsel at a BYU fireside:

And now, so far as [women’s] work is concerned: It is divinely ordained what a woman should do, but a man must seek out his work. The divine work of women involves companionship, homemaking, and motherhood. It is well if skills in these three areas can first be learned in the parents’ home and then be supplemented at school if the need or desire presents itself. The first priority for a woman is to prepare herself for her divine and eternal mission, whether she is married soon or late. It is folly to neglect that preparation for education in unrelated fields just to prepare temporarily to earn money. Women, when you are married it is the husband’s role to provide, not yours. Do not sacrifice your preparation for an eternally ordained mission for the temporary expediency of money-making skills that you may or may not use. I do not think it needs to be an “either/or” choice; but if it does, then choose the divine mission preparation. Some women are well prepared for their mission and want to acquire additional skills in other areas; and that is fine, if they so desire. It is simply a case of putting first things first. To paraphrase the Lord, when He was speaking of those who obeyed the lesser law and neglected the weightier matters: these ye might do, but do not leave the other undone (see Matthew 23:23). Some women acquire money-making skills in areas closely related to their divine missions, and the advantages of that approach are plain.

Brethren, it is your role to be the leader in the home. While the wife may be considered the heart of the home, you are the head. You are the provider, and it takes the edge off your manliness when you have the mother of your children also be a provider. What will you choose for a career? What will your work be? It has been said that no one is born into this world whose work is not born with him or her. We bring from our preexistent state various talents and abilities. We strive to find the right wife, and it is our responsibility to strive to find where we can make a contribution to our fellowman–an area where we have some interest and abilities and where we can, at the same time, provide for our own. (Cite; emphasis added)

These days, however, were I to conclude that education is more important for LDS men than it is for LDS women, General Authorities would be quick to correct me. President Hinckley has counseled, “My dear young brothers and sisters, take advantage of every educational opportunity that you can possibly afford” (Cite; emphasis added). He openly recognizes that “[i]n this day and time, a girl needs an education” (Cite). Referencing Hinckley’s latter pronouncement, a recent New Era article emphatically declares false the notion that “a good education is more important for young men than young women.”

However, as LDS General Authorities have generally taught that women’s place is in the home, exhortations to receive an education that are directed to women tend to be of a different nature than those directed to men. While, for men, education is about preparing for a career, for women it has more to do with mothering and contingency; an education will help make you a good mom, but career prospects are generally limited to those who do not marry (or who lose a spouse through divorce or death). Thus, although President Hinckley tells young women that “[t]here is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it,” he adds that preparation for “satisfying work and productive employment” is important “in case you do not marry” (Cite). Dallin H. Oaks may be technically correct in pointing out that the General Authorities are not “saying that women should not be doctors or lawyers or any particular occupation that fits their circumstances” (Cite), but they aren’t exactly saying that they should be, either. For instance, immediately after making the above assertion, Oaks emphatically declares, “Your destiny is to be a wife and mother in Zion.” Similarly, in the New Era article referred to above, the short section on education for girls does not mention employment, but does address motherhood and wifehood. One young woman cheerfully muses, “I think it would be cool to both be smart and be a mom—to be a smart mom,” and a teenage boy opines, “If my future wife knew how to rear our children well, teach them things that they need to know for school, and help them out, I think that would be great.”

If the purpose of an education, as far as women are concerned, is to make them better wives and mothers and to provide a contingency plan in case they find themselves without a husband, then it should come as little surprise that comparatively few LDS women pursue advanced degrees. According to U.S. News & World Report‘s 2007 statistics and rankings, BYU is tied with the University of Alabama for the lowest percentage of female students among the top 50 U.S. law schools. Only 36% of BYU law students are female (most schools in the top 50 fall in the mid-40’s to low-50’s; the school enrolling the highest percentage of female students is Berkeley, with 59%). While these statistics in no way tell the whole story, they’re worth pondering, and I believe they are more or less representative of general trends.

With tuition costs skyrocketing (yearly tuition at top law schools, for instance, is about $40,000), students often have little choice but to take out exorbitant student loans in order to graduate. The increased earning power usually makes it worthwhile, but if the chances of actually working in that field are slim, then the degree is probably a poor investment. Thus, if we believe that bread-winning is the man’s job and that child-rearing is the woman’s job, then earning an advanced degree makes sense for men but is tremendously impractical for women.

So this leads me to wonder: In practice, is education perceived by Mormons as being more relevant to or necessary for men? It may be, at least with respect to graduate or professional education. But should it be?

In his October 2006 General Conference Priesthood Session address, President Hinckley expressed “great concern” about a “troubling trend taking place”–“young women are exceeding young men in pursuing educational programs.” He goes on to say: “Do you wish to marry a girl whose education has been far superior to your own? We speak of being ‘equally yoked.’ That applies, I think, to the matter of education.”

My question is this–Did President Hinckley intend for this counsel to be taken at face value? Did he actually mean that spouses should have approximately the same level of education, or merely that wives should not have more education than their husbands? Put another way, can we reasonably envision President Hinckley asking an audience of young women, “Do you wish to marry a boy whose education has been far superior to your own?” Were young men exceeding young women in education, would he find that trend just as “troubling”?

As Mormons, we have an unlikely precedent in Brigham Young’s time for progressivism in the sphere of women’s education. As Terryl Givens writes:

[W]hen the University of Deseret reopened in 1868 after a hiatus of some years, women comprised almost 50 percent of the class. (At this time, American women received less than 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded; all told, only 0.7 percent of American women eighteen to twenty-one years of age were attending college in 1870.)

Brigham Young was on record as saying, “We believe that women . . . should . . . study law or physics or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house.” He also advised women to attend medical schools; consequently, the women’s relief society supported a number of sisters who went east to obtain training. Romania B. Pratt Penrose, Ellis Shipp, and Margaret Shipp Roberts (sister wives), together with Martha Hughes Cannon and many others returned with degrees in hand to establish practices and to teach classes. Eliza Snow even attempted to establish a female medical college so Utah could train its own women doctors. By the turn of the century, more female American medical students hailed from Utah than from any other state in the union. (People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, pp. 98-99)

It’s not often that I advocate a return to late nineteenth-century Mormonism, but I would be tickled pink if in the twenty-first-century “more female American medical students hailed from Utah than from any other state in the union.” I must beg to differ with Apostle Benson; I don’t think that having a working wife denigrates one’s “manliness” any more than a man nurturing his children denigrates his wife’s femininity. While family-rearing should be a top priority (for both men and women), I would like to see more LDS women in top degree programs and in the workforce. More than that, I would like to see us take the “equally yoked” idea more seriously with respect to education.

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3 comments

  1. I about dropped out of my seat (or bench) when I heard President Hinckley ask “Do you wish to marry a girl whose education has been far superior to your own?” While I find a girl really seeking higher education extremely sexy, I don’t think that’s what President Hinckley had in mind. Rather he seemed to appeal to some sort of mid-20th century machismo where a man should be embarrassed to be with a woman with more education than him.

    If a trend of more men seeking higher education than woman had been true, I seriously doubt an appeal to us being equally yoked would have been made to encourage women to seek more education.


  2. Being that I am a woman, I find President Hinckley’s question both biased and sexist. Both men and women should have from birth, equal rights, no matter what gender. Is he not saying that women being human beings should not excel to the best of their abilities in their own life (one that should not be controlled be any other human being, i.e. another man nor woman)?

    Is it fair to have no choice when born, to be either male or female. Yet, who decides what someone can or cannot do with their own life, be it their own? Education is very much valued in today’s society, since it is crucial to survival.
    I find it fascinating how men assume a woman’s place is at home.

    There is a very good reason why there are more women then men pursing a higher education, and that is because of centuries of oppression toward women.

    Women have found something that they are good at something men knew in the beginning they could do, women are better learners when given a chance to be educated.


  3. Women have found something that they are good at something men knew in the beginning they could do, women are better learners when given a chance to be educated.

    Are you saying that women are better learners when given the chance for education than they would be without that chance? Or that women are better learners than men are when given a chance to obtain an education? If the latter, then I’m afraid that I disagree with you. I don’t think that either sex is inherently better at learning than the other.



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