Questions on Mormon Women answered by “Real Live Mormons” in a Religious Studies Classroom

By May 16, 2014

My contribution fits under the Mormonism in the Classroom and Women’s History Month at JI.

During the spring semester, I took a course entitled “American Religious Innovation.” The course examined Mormonism, the Nation of Islam, and Scientology. Each unit covered the history of each religious movement and focused on different aspects of the religion’s beliefs, which encouraged discussion and comparison. The readings for Mormonism addressed American religious culture in the early 19th century, the Book of Mormon, polygamy, Mormon Christianity, the Mormon community, and modern Mormonism.

At the end of the class’s section on Mormonism, a group of “real live Mormons” were invited to answer the class’s questions.[i] The panel was comprised of a PhD student in History, a worker at UVA’s hospital, a local bishop and his wife, and a set of Mormon elders (one from Southern Utah and one from Taiwan). As might be expected, there were many questions about the role of women in Mormonism and Mormon history.[ii] I’ve included the answers given (if any were addressed on the panel) in italics.[iii]

  1. Do you believe the Church has oppressed or silenced women in the church and has it tried to remedy these results, such as they did with Black leaders?

 Women have a wide array of responsibilities in Mormonism. They minister to each other, young women, and children. There were also comments about the belief in Heavenly Mother and the freedom for women to choose what they would like to do in their careers and home.

  1. Do you think women should be encouraged to go on missions?

The male missionaries didn’t comment (which I thought was odd).One female panel member had served a mission and spoke about what she learned and the benefits she had experienced. The bishop was encouraging but reiterated that a woman choosing to serve a mission was not necessary, but was an excellent option.

  1. What is your opinion of the church’s stance on gender roles?

Some panel members expressed the desire that there were more opportunities for leadership in the LDS Church and that women’s voices were heard more prominently. Two of the women on the panel expressed their satisfaction with the Church’s gender roles. One panel member defined herself as a believing feminist who appreciated the opportunities of Mormon women but wished there was a greater attention dedicated to topics important to women on a general scale (not just taught in women’s meetings or bracketed as a “women’s issue.”)

  1. Female members of the panel – how do you define femininity in light of Mormonism and what do you think of the modern feminist movement?

This was not formally addressed in the panel any further than questions 1 and 3 went to answering the questions.

  1. What is your relationship like with other Mormon women? Do you feel especially supported by the Mormon community in your family and career pursuits? Have you ever felt discouraged by others to pursue career interests? What do you consider to be the Mormon ideal for women?

Every woman on the panel said they enjoyed participating in the community of Mormon women. None spoke particularly to career pursuits; those who worked full-time said they had the full support of their families.


The panel of “real live Mormons” did an admirable job representing their faith to others.  The panel, combined with the classroom sessions, was a phenomenal way to understand the questions students have about Mormonism specifically and religion in general.  Has anyone participated in a similar course, such as “Mormonism and the American Experience” or a class on New Religious Movements? If so, what was your experience like?


[i] A representative from Scientology spoke to our class via Skype. The Nation of Islam declined their invitations to attend and answer questions.

[ii] I’m not sure that the panel members gave answers to the class that they would have elsewhere. Several students wondered aloud if this was a “missionary effort” for the speakers, who thereby would not offer their true opinion.

[iii] To be fair, I have very notes from the panel’s meeting. I did not write down each individual’s response to the question. That said, I believe I am representing the panel’s answers as truthfully and completely as I can. Anyone who attended is welcome to correct me.

Article filed under Courses Gender Mormon Studies Courses Women's History


  1. Thanks for sharing, Joey. These are quite thoughtful questions, and it sounds like the panel was diverse enough to provide several points of view in responding.

    Two questions:

    (1) You note in a footnote that “Several students wondered aloud if this was a ‘missionary effort’ for the speakers, who thereby would not offer their true opinion.” I had the same question – can you say anymore about the responses and if you sensed that any of the panel members saw this as such an opportunity?

    (2) When panel members offered divergent perspectives (esp. on a subject as internally heated as ecclesiastical gender roles), was there any contestation between the panelists? That is, did the bishop, or one of the full-time missionaries, object to overt discussion of Heavenly Mother? Was there pushback from a panel member when another expressed her/his “desire that there were more opportunities for leadership in the LDS Church and that women?s voices were heard more prominently”?

    Comment by Christopher — May 16, 2014 @ 9:03 am

  2. Sure, Christopher. I would say that the panel members were forthcoming but were obviously trying to situate their beliefs into terms that non-Mormons would understand. I wouldn’t say they were hedging on any answers, but they were careful to say things in a very measured way that was accessible to the audience. One panel member continually brought up Mormon Christianity, which in my experience is a missionary tactic of the LDS Church. The panel was also invited to attend church services and attend local institute meetings.

    The history PhD student was the most outspoken about feminism, but her exchange with the bishop’s wife were very friendly. There were spots where panelists disagreed, but the class mentioned afterwards that this discussion confirmed what they had learned in class (that Mormons can and do diverge on many aspects of their faith). I believe the bishop mentioned Heavenly Mother and no one expressed being upset. There wasn’t any pushback about there being more opportunities for leadership for women or that their voices should be heard by more people. The panel’s courtesy to each other and the class was exemplary; that could point to this being a “missionary opportunity,” but I think it was more genuine respect for the academic setting.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 16, 2014 @ 9:16 am

  3. Fantastic! I love things like this. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 16, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

  4. Ah, I was wondering whether Mormons were singled out or other groups were represented as well. How did the class respond to the Scientology person?

    Comment by Saskia — May 16, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

  5. I’m curious, Joey. It seems to me that all three of these groups have sometime or another been criticized as pseudo-religious–Mormonism in the C19, Nation of Islam in the C20, and perhaps Scientology today. Did the course address this or raise the issue of religious authenticity?

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 16, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

  6. Saskia: tithe class was much more wary of the Scientologist representative. We had also just learned about the CoS’s past with harassing its critics.

    Ryan: we discussed religious authenticity with Scientology in particular. We discussed Whether Mormonism was Christian and the NOI was Islam, but we discussed whether Scientology was a religion in greater detail. We used an edited collection of essays to study Scientology. My kind professor discussed Hugh Urban’s book with myself and another graduate student; I think it walked rough Scientology’s case for being authentically religious very well.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 18, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

  7. Such a great concept and approach for a class! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Sara Lampert — May 20, 2014 @ 5:01 pm


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here.”