Women’s Education is Not A Safety Net

January 20, 2008

by Guest Poster fmhJanet

In a 2001 address, President Hinckley counseled girls to:

Choose the things you would like to do, and educate yourselves to be effective in their pursuit. For most it is very difficult to settle on a vocation. You are hopeful that you will marry and that all will be taken care of. In this day and time, a girl needs an education. She needs the means and skills by which to earn a living should she find herself in a situation where it becomes necessary to do so.[1]

The prophet’s chosen title and his subsequent remarks heavily imply that he does not view schooling solely as a safety net for women to fall back upon should tragedy befall them. But his remarks strike a familiar refrain. Most LDS commentary of women and education falls upon its own rhetorical safety net, insisting that girls need education “in case something happens.” Surely our leaders must tire of adding this caveat. I know I tire of hearing it. Maybe my interstitial line-reading has gone awry, but I sense a note of tiredness in the prophet’s observation that girls want to “be taken care of.” Instead, he goes onto say, they should fully develop their talents and be “qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world” regardless of marital status.

So why the consistent qualifier? Surely it has potential weight, considering that many women never marry, that between 13 and 24% of LDS marriages end in divorce, and that 1/3 of widows become such before their 50th birthday.[2] In my own decade of marriage, I’ve watched as 6 friends have been catapulted into the confusing world of widowhood, often without the boon of life insurance or an education. The last friend lost her husband only a week ago, and I’ve wondered how she will support four children with a dearth of marketable skills. Cast into her lot, I’d fare rather poorly—I have an unfinished PhD in a market with 7 applicants for every job. I’d have to trust the marketability of my ability to type 70 words a minute or suddenly compose a Harry Potter-esque hotcake of a novel.  Despite my own paltry safety net, I still feel as though I’ve followed the prophet’s dictum to educate myself, because the contributions that education offers me, and which I can thus offer, far outweigh my earning potential (thank goodness).

So exactly what “significant contributions” might outweigh the panic room existence of education? Are our leaders trying to scare girls who would otherwise wheedle away their time trying on wedding dresses and dreaming of a domestic bliss composed of sponging off a hubby without offering substantial contributions of their own? Let’s be clear: the contributions I see, and which I believe our leaders see, aren’t just greenbacks paying the rent or paving the way to a be-curtained Wizard of Oz where worldly stuff is unveiled as just…stuff. Monetary contributions don’t compose the brunt of education’s utility. Nor does the inarguable fact and oft-repeated mantra that an educated woman has a few extra tools for teaching any kiddos who might pinwheel into the picture, demanding why the sky is not purple and too pigheaded to settle for “God likes it like that.” The contributions education offers an LDS woman, and which an educated woman offers the world, are far bigger than a fat wallet or the embodiment of Baby Einstein.

An educated woman contributes a better self. To herself, for herself. To others, for others. To God, for God. While the “safety net” might be our most common metaphor for education, I like the idea that it is the air, the tightrope, the net, the woman walking the wire. An educated person becomes the embodiment of her learning—education is not just something you “get” or consume the way you buy a new handbag. It is who you are. It frames the way you see the world, offers the ability to distinguish between a disagreement and a fight, to make connections which unify the different components of God’s world. Education makes you independent at the same time it teaches you how utterly dependent you remain upon others within your immediate and extended circles of influence. Grasping such a healthy paradox helps us parse the balancing of responsibilities to self and community, of individual spirituality mitigated by the needs of a Zion-aimed group. It gives you much more than the ability to procure employment, for as Dallin H. Oaks says,

Education is more than vocational. Education should improve our minds, strengthen our bodies, heighten our cultural awareness, and increase our spirituality. It should prepare us for greater service to the human family.[3]

Oh sure, we’ve all encountered (or been) the girl who just “wants to be taken care of.” But despite that, or the outside world’s alarming tendency to envision LDS women as uneducated drones,[4]  things aren’t as dire as we may sometimes think. Yes, educational inequity remains along gender lines: far more Mormon men finish degrees than do Mormon women. Still, that gap narrows when taking into account graduate education,[5] and would narrow further still if sociological research reflected the extra-collegiate education women gain in learning the practical necessities of running a household or caring for kids (and they should count, thank you).[6] And while LDS women do cite the “safety net” and “better mom” arguments for pursuing education, they also identify mind-enriching pursuits as inherently useful for self-edification, a step-up from ages past. [7] And here’s a honey of a tidbit: research reveals not only that LDS women are more likely to seek post-secondary education than are women from other religions which emphasize the primacy of women’s maternal role, but that the education itself may serve as a predictor of continued spiritual growth and activity in the church.[8] Makes sense. We embrace John’s counsel that those who follow God’s laws internalize His doctrine, and LDS doctrine holds that God’s glory lies in intelligence.[9] Learn more, become more, become like God.

Does an LDS young woman need to build herself a safety net? Sure she does. But more than that she needs to embrace the notion that “our sacred regard for each human intellect, [requires that] we consider the obtaining of an education to be a religious responsibility. … Our Creator expects His children everywhere to educate themselves.”[10] She needs to know that education bolsters rather than impairs spirituality. (I’m betting Laurels and Mia Maids are not deaf to the implications of the phrase “so-called intellectual” or to some of the cultural scuttlebutt that paints educated women as snobs who do not love their children.) She needs to know that God’s command to fulfill the measure of her creation includes more than maximizing her reproductive capacity. She needs to know that the more education a woman accrues, the more she has to offer her community, her family, and herself. But especially, she needs to know that refusing to approach the world expecting or desiring “to be taken care of” means that when she gives all she has as an offering to God, she will offer a more substantial self.

So here are my questions: do we need to drop the “safety net” rhetoric in order to get our YW to focus on the weightier stuff of education? Or does the potential apathy of YW require the refrain’s emphasis? Will our YW respond to inspiration rather than fear?

[1] “How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream,” Ensign May 2001, 93.
[2] “Divorce and the LDS Church.” http://www.religioustolerance.org/lds_divo.htm; Holden, Karen: Tabulations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), 1984-1997. University of Wisconsin, 2002.

[3] Women and Education,” Ensign, March 1975, 57.

[4] At the close of their article “Higher Education and the Negotiated Process of Hegemony: Embedded Resistance among Mormon Women,” John Mihelich and Debbie Storrs admit their own preconceived biases and, in light of their findings, suggest other sociologists view LDS women as more than “mere dupes.” (Gender & Sociology 17.3: 404-422)

[5] Stephen J. Bahr. “Mormon Statistics.” http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/social_eom.htm

[6] Please note that this post does not refer only about formal education. The gospel preaches unification of body and spirit, so while conversance in Sarte and DeCarte (or Derrida and Boethius) it isn’t the whole of education. You need to know how to care for the other half of the soul. Which means you need to know how to cook more than refried beans from a can.

[7] Mihelich and Storrs, 416. 

[8] Keysar, Ariela and Barry A. Kosmin. “The Impact of Religious Identification on Differences in Educational Attainment among American Women in 1990.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.1: 49-62.

[9] John 7:17

[10] Ensign, Nov. 1992, 6.


  1. Janet,
    to answer your last three questions: yes, no, and absolutely. The safety net concept has always grated on me. I see it grating on my teenage sisters. We have no desire to be the anti status quo or challenge our callings as faithful LDS women. Nor do we want to limit our intellectual development and capacity. My church leaders spoke of safety nets. My mother and father were too busy showing us the beauty of physics theorems and pointing out types of trees and bugs while hiking, and reading to us from Chaucer and Dickens each night. With all they taught us, they never ever put things in terms of safety nets. I am sure it never occured to them. It had nothing to do with market skills or profitability, useful though those are. It was a taught passion for knowledge. If we enabled our girls this way more often, talks like these from President Hinckley would become obsolete.

    thanks for this essay. This is the second time you’ve helped me clarify and redefine an important issue. The first was your liminality post. And now this. I owe you so much.

  2. Sarah–

    Glad I could be of some use! Honestly, I owe you as well. I often wonder if my prose has any use besides vanity, and it means as great deal to me to hear that someone finds it helpful.

    And it’s always lovely to hear about families who instilled their children with the idea that knowledge is enjoyable, that it provides myriad ways to enter and enjoy the world rather than just pay for worldly necessities.

  3. Janet–
    Excellent post.

  4. Every year I teach the Y.W. and Y.M. in my ward a lesson about the importance of education. I am disappointed to report that most of the Y.W. in my upper-middle class Utah ward still believe that and education is only for the girls that can’t get married. Mother’s perpetuate this by explaining to me that their daughters need to go to BYU in order to find a high quality man to marry. Often their daughters chose to make themselves unable to attend BYU or other 4 year institutions by refusing to focus on academic achievement. One mother actually raised her hand and told the girls that if they did not find a spouse before they were 21 their chances of marrying were slim. Go figure.

  5. I remember seeing a stat when I was at BYU that said that 85% of LDS women are employed full time for an average of 35 years of their life. Who knows how accurate that is but it seemed official at the time and it’s a sobering thought.
    I think it’s unrealistic to expect to be provided for. Not only do spouses suffer illness, job loss and death, if they do decide to become big time earners that usually means lots of school which takes money. It helps to be able to financially support one another through the different times.
    Besides, work can be really fulfilling. It’s made me learn and grow in so many ways. It makes me sad that so many women turn up their nose at it.

  6. […] Janet: Women’s Education is not a safety net […]

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