Being a Kiwi Mormon Girl

As a teenager, my sister and brothers and I would sometimes read out excerpts from’Fascinating Womenhood (Andelin, 1963) to gafaws of laughter.  Amazingly its gone into its 6th print edition and still produces a chuckle (albeit an indignant one) with statements such as:

“Men admire girlishness, tenderness, sweetness of character, vivacity, and the ability to understand men.” (p. 16-17)

My feminist awakening however occurred as a defiant response to the teaching material in the Young Women programme (in the early 80′s).  Divested of any sensitivity toward national, racial, gender diversity, these curriculum materials bespoke a set of cultural assumptions that caused a slew of questions while in my youth.  Looking back, I can see that my leaders worked as best as they could with the lesson manuals by sensitively ignoring some of the material or smiling knowingly and understandingly as a result of our protestations.  With few words to say about how we felt we were at the same time disempowered by the familiar rhetorical devices of our church leaders reminding us that we were obligated to treat ‘Head Office’ edicts, curriculum material, and discourses as manifestations of the ‘truth’ of our religion.

However, there was some discomfit in assuming ‘in-full’ the ideologies of young LDS femininity. Our reading of American femininity was that it was characterized by a kind of helpless immaturity and dependence, an obsession with physical appearance, naivety born out of limited exposure to a world of complexity, an essentialization of the feminine along with an over-emphasis on our future roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers.

New Zealand femininity looks and behaves differently to American/Utah femininity.  New Zealand women were historical products of bush communities whether Māori or settler, where a kind of hardy frontier diva was born who competed successfully at some levels with the colonial masculinities because of the sheer necessity for women to be resourceful, tough minded and physically capable.  Where Victorian femininity and Māori femininity intersected is hard to say but there is no doubt that both informed the other, constituting an interesting cocktail of reserve, practicality, competitiveness, and unassuming confidence in New Zealand woman.    Reading aphorisms and dictums from the metropol about how our femininity was to be constructed and understood was like wearing our bras on backwards.

Mormonism characteristically communicates its maxims through analogy and story so that when those stories (eg. sweet LDS girls finding peace and consolation from homemaker ‘Mom’s cooking’) didn’t light up my spiritual receptors, but left me with deafening questions lingering over my identity, I was frequently angry that I was left to negotiate these ‘spaces in between spaces’.  Something often felt out of sync with my own character, disposition and identity which prayer and scripture study couldn’t wash away, giving place to a deep seated restlessness as a young woman over who I was and what I should be.  So on the one hand my feminine activism is constituted because of these fractured Mormon spaces which didn’t entirely seduce me in light of the disjuncture I felt between what the metropol expected of me and what I could legitimately give up as my offering to LDS womenhood ‘out here’.

  • Nicola Ward Petty (@RogoNic)

    Hey Gina
    Nicely written and articulates what I have vaguely thought for some time. I toyed with “Fascinating womanhood” for a while before discovering “From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib” which provided some balance.
    It is an interesting exercise disentangling the tradition, dare I say “false traditions of the fathers”, from true religion, which is, as James put it, to keep unspotted from the world and visit the afflicted.
    Through all this, I have found the value the church puts on womanhood has been helpful to me, brought up as a tomboy, being told that girls were bad and boys were good. Much of my early life was spent trying to do “male” things to prove that I was as good as them. So to find “joy in womanhood” is a help to me. But the kiwi version of womanhood suits me better than what I perceive to be the Utah version. I like to think we have the best of both worlds.

  • Linda Furness

    What I cannot understand is how those tough women who crossed the plains in terrible conditions, and who had to be tough to do it, morphed into June Cleaver. Those pioneer women in many ways experienced frontiers similar to what Kiwi women faced, but somehow that spirit was lost after a few decades in Utah. Was it because they didn’t have to struggle as long, because they were not quite so isolated as Kiwi women?

    I am now meeting in our Ward in Seattle some wonderful strong young married women who grew up in Utah. Are they different now that they are no longer there, or can a women be herself in Utah these days? My 20-year-old-no-longer-active granddaughter describes herself growing up in Utah as being ‘rainbow sherbet in a vanilla world’. She LOVES Seattle, but I am very sorry she has felt she needs not to be in the church in order to be herself.

    • kiwimormon

      Wow – thanks for that. I have to wonder if the genesis of this ‘June Cleaver’ culture wasn’t grown in the era of Priesthood correlation. When the church disempowered the Relief Society and bought them all under the ‘authority’ of the priesthood they also stamped their ideas of womenhood on the curriculum materials. What we think we should be might be somewhat informed what men think we should be. After all they seem to have the last say. And lets face it – some ‘churched’ blokes can been down right bullies.

  • Linda Furness

    I guess I am not done yet. I have an 8-year-old granddaughter who already struggles with what is offered to girls. The boys have scouts, but the girls have nothing comparable. Girls who want to be out ‘doing’ are being lost early. Primary ‘activity days’ are not enough for these girls who want basically to have access to everything the boys have.

    • kiwimormon

      Totally agree! Jared Anderson has written about this very thing on Feminist Mormon Housewives. I was asked to have an audience with the General YW Presidency when I was a Laurel and I told them I felt there was undue attention give to the boys so much so that I felt spiritually lost and unsure of my worth. They were HUGELY sympathetic and promised to take my concerns back to HQ. You can probably tell how much clout they have by the huge gains we’ve had in the 20+ years????

    • Sarah

      I’ve experienced the same from a young age with my three girls, we have put our girls into the Girl Guides programme. It gives them regular outdoor and ‘doing’ activity similar to Scouts and is very respectful of religion – whenever the girls have gone away on long camps they respect the sabbath. When the Guides programme has occasionally clashed with Faith in God activities – which in our ward can be sporadic anyway – we just give Guides a miss that week.

      • kiwimormon

        Brilliant solution – but wouldn’t it be nice if we had similarly oriented programmes for girls in the church. But I expect there are personnel issues etc. It used to be that the church was a bit of a one stop shop, it was busy, engaging and down right fun for the whole family. I don’t know that I could say that anymore. I see more and more people flagging ward activities, more and more children having extra curricular activities that preclude them from primary events. I wonder how it will continue to pan out?

  • Sarah

    I’m 2/3rds way through my summer read “How to be a woman” by Caitlin Moran. A light hearted and very british feminist rant. It’s reminded me of how far behind the church really is in supporting the rights and needs of women. I even reflected on my reluctance to say out loud amongst churchies “I am a feminist” something I am usually shouting load and proud, why? why should I feel reluctant to proclaim this amongst members? Pretty sure its because I fear people will judge me for being ungrateful for my womanhood and assume I am wanting to rebel against my God given role to bear and raise children. Truth be told I do enjoy ‘rebelling’ against it, I still like to believe I have a bit of free will and actually have a choice about what my role will be.

    As a mum of three young girls I get more and more frustrated with the ideologies my girls are picking up from church, breaks my heart to think they might be feeling they are less than. My eldest is heading into Young Women’s in February and I have to say I’m anxious, not only about the curriculum issues that you talk about in your blog but also by the influence some of the leaders may have on my daughter. Do I really want a sister who’s uneducated, married at 18, dowdy in spirit, mind and body from the three kiddies she’s already had before she hits 24, influencing my daughters life choices – not really.

  • kiwimormon

    So funny Sarah! I don’t think you are alone with these anxieties. I’m picking you might be interested in listening to an amazing podcast on Check out number 43 – it addresses some of issues I’ve heard you discuss before about modesty, and the way that girls are treated in the church. Brilliant stuff!

  • Sarah

    Loved the podcast Gina thanks heaps for that. They talked about loads of the issues I have had problems with for some years now. Has made me do a lot of thinking about how we frame the modesty issue in our home.

  • Petra

    Fascinating! It’s really interesting to hear your perception of some of the cultural assumptions of the church’s models on gender; I’ve always assumed they were mostly cultural (as they didn’t fit me at all either, despite my being American), but it’s nice to find actual real-life evidence for the things I’ve assumed but not known, plus insights I hadn’t thought about before. I’m going to bookmark your blog now for sure.

    • kiwimormon

      Kia ora Petra! Great to hear from you. Yes, its interesting that that construction of Mormon femininity didn’t even resonate with some American girls. I wonder who the model for it was? Where did it come from? Mmmm you have me wondering now!!