Is sweetness next to Goddessliness?

The topic of wet dreams came up with a never-Mormon friend, and I told him, “You’ve just got to check out this ridiculous talk one of the Church leaders gave in the 1970s!” I found the link to Boyd Packer’s “Little Factory” talk and sent it to my friend. I’d read it several years ago, and decided to do so again for the chuckle. I remembered all the asinine counsel for young men not to tamper with their Little Factory’s release valve, but there was one paragraph I hadn’t remembered. After describing the physical changes of puberty, Packer tells the young men:

Your feelings also change. This physical power will influence you emotionally and spiritually as well. It begins to shape and fit you to look, and feel, and to be what you need to be as a father. Ambition, courage, physical and emotional and spiritual strength become part of you because you are a man.

Ambition, courage and strength are all considered an innate part of being male, and essential to a young man’s spiritual development. As a young woman, I really only remember one trait that I was told I should develop to prepare myself for motherhood and womanhood: sweetness. That was it. We were all such “sweet spirits.” We were to be sweet, stay sweet and get sweeter. No ambition or courage for us young women. We would have worthy priesthood holders around us to take care of all those courageous and ambitious tasks in life. Our job was just to be sweet. That was how we would fill the measure of our creation.

From the looks of this recent talk from Elaine Dalton, cited on the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, that message hasn’t changed:

Young women, you will be the ones who will provide the example of virtuous womanhood and motherhood.  You will continue to be virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy and of good report. You will also be the ones to provide an example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights.

I was watching Babe with my boys this last week. There’s that scene, where Rex, the male sheepdog and unofficial chief of animal affairs at Hoggett farm, disapproves of Babe’s un-piglike behavior. He tells the animals: “Each animal must accept what he is and be grateful for it.” No switching roles. No breaking out of the established order. No deciding for yourself who you want to be and what you want to do. You are what we say you are.

Sweet would sum up the image I had of Heavenly Mother. I never imagined her doing much, other than smiling sweetly from behind Heavenly Father’s shoulder, tacitly approving of all he did and sustaining him in his fatherly and godly roles.

How can you truly fill the measure of your creation if only some aspects of the Self are nurtured while others are stymied?

What would happen if young Mormon women were told that traits like strong, ambitious and courageous were part of being a woman? What if they were told that their Heavenly Mother was strong, ambitious and courageous, and that part of their spiritual development was to become more like Her? They might decide that they want roles and responsibilities other than, or in addition to, the ones the Church has defined. They might start lobbying for rights.

They might also develop internal lives that are more whole and complete, making them better mothers and marriage partners, and better able to contribute to the Church and to the world.

Leah blogs at Via Media.


Writer. Poet. Teacher. Journeyer. Living in North Carolina @leahiellio

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14 Responses

  1. Taryn Fox says:

    “But only women can bear children!” Yeah, well, most women can do, but it seems that I’m the only one able to finish writing GNOME’s JavaScript developer documentation. So if unique capability equals a calling, clearly God has called me to do this.

    Just a thought I had while reading this and remembering a lot of “blah” interactions with Mormons. 😛

  2. Leah says:

    Taryn, I remember being the only girl in my high school physics class and being the top student and wondering then, If God just wants me to stay home and have babies, why did he make me smarter than all these boys?

  3. chanson says:

    That quote from a BYU devotional about how “You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights” is pretty astonishing!

    The fMh crowd seems to interpret it as a reference to the recent efforts by “All Enlisted” to question some Mormon cultural practices (women can only wear skirts to church and can’t pray in General Conference) — the hierarchy has to remind the rank-and-file that they have no business criticizing the way things are done or trying to agitate for any kind of change.

    Still it’s surprising they would spell it out so directly — don’t stand up for your own rights. I hope the women who attended that devotional recognize this as the red flag it is.

  4. Leah says:

    Chanson, I agree that it’s pretty outrageous. Unfortunately, I’m dubious about whether those listening will see it as a red flag. I’m imagining myself 12-15 years ago, and I think I would have interpreted that somewhere along the lines of, “Heavenly Father has already decided what’s best for me and has already given me all the rights I need to fill my role, so there’s no need to go outside that designated role or ask for anything more.”

  5. chanson says:

    @4 – I know, and that’s the worst part….

  6. leftofcentre says:

    If the LDS church is worried that the typical family is under attack (as many of the GAs and prophets have proclaimed), their message should be one that young women SHOULD agitate for greater rights, as they will be the heads of single-parent or blended-family households and need to have more opportunities, better pay and greater power in their communities – church included. To me, this would be as sensible as advocating that year’s supply of food. Unless, of course, there is no real interest by the church leadership in fully preparing all members to anticipate hardship and challenges. Staying stuck in tightly-bound roles is a problem for a church that would probably like to move on into the next century, and remain relevant for the majority of its members. The West would like to keep on driving gas-guzzling cars or using up resources in the way we’ve become accustomed to, it’s unlikely that the majority of us will be able to do this, two or three generations into the future.
    I can remember the anger I felt at my TBM mother for a: not preparing me for the ‘real’ world of work and, b: putting an emphasis on small issues that were meant to scare me back into subservience rather than focusing on the real issue at hand.
    Hopefully there will be a few young women who see through the scare tactics and find a way to take the rights that belong to them. Wearing trousers is only a symbol of the wider issues at stake. Elaine Dalton would be ashamed if she knew what she is really helping to prop up.

  7. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    I don’t know whether she’s ashamed or not, but maybe she knows all about propping.
    She is president of an auxiliary(however powerless), which is more than most men.
    And does anyone know or care who the YM president is.

  8. Joseph McKnight says:

    The movie/documentary “Sons of Perdition” has recordings of Warren Jeffs using the word “sweet” and “sweetness” about a million times to describe how women should be. Gives you the heebie-jeebies listening to it, then you realize our own leaders sound just as stupid sometimes. Good movie for reflecting back on ourselves a little bit.

  9. Retief says:

    I’m not a young women but even I know that there are eight YW values and none of them are “sweetness.”

  10. Leah says:

    No, “sweetness” is not an official Young Women’s value. That does not mean that I was not saturated with “sweet” messages at church. I wrote this post as a reflection of my own experience. If you would like to write about your own experience, you are more than welcome to do so, but please do not dismiss mine.

  11. chanson says:

    @9 & @10 Sincerely. If you have some interesting insights and experiences to share, we’re totally willing to offer you a platform.

  12. leftofcentre says:

    @Suzanne: I seriously doubt she’s ashamed. My statement is rhetorical, I guess. As I see it, she is merely a figurehead like all of the children’s, girls’ and women’s auxiliary portions of the church. She writes her speech and delivers it, but it needs to reflect the message of those who disseminate power and control.
    @Retief: “Sweet” was a word that was bandied about at all of the YW activities I ever attended. It is a word that is loaded with meaning in the church, like the phrase “She’s such a sweet spirit,” when used to describe a nice but plain-looking sister. ‘Sweet’ reflects an attitude that does not challenge the status quo, and does not publicly question the doctrine of the church. The more plain-looking you are, in the Church, the more ‘sweet’ you need to be! You are right in saying that the 8 YW values do not directly use the word ‘sweet’, but the outlined values are no more substantial than the word, ‘sweet’. If you take a look at the page that outlines the duties of YM you see that the adolescent boys are required to ‘do’ things within the church (pass sacrament, collect fast offerings, etc.), not ‘be’ things within the church. This gives a lot of leeway to women and men telling young women and girls what they must be like, since it all falls under the umbrella of desired ‘values’ that all women should possess. Sweet is a catch-all word for supplication.

  13. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    And being a figurehead has worked well for her.
    She is a woman delivering the message from a male hierarchy to other woman. In return, she is granted privileges.
    What I’m supposing is that the YM president, because he is not high in the hierarchy, has no useful function. So less privilege.

    I’m also supposing that sweetness is the word for a female with the proper attitude of deference. For instance, my dog is a sweet girl who’s got obeisance down.
    For the general membership, I guess the word is respect. (and I’m not talking about some new definition that might work in an egalitarian society. But the attitude the leaders of a hierarchy expects subordinates to display towards them, which strengthens the control of the hierarchy.)

  14. Chris F. says:

    As a father of a young daughter and two young boys, I can tell you that there is a distinct difference between what boys and girls are taught.

    My older son is in the Boy Scouts, and my younger son will soon be a Cub Scout in the den that I am a leader of. The boys are taught things that are potentially useful in their lives, like how to make an evacuation plan and a bird house. Those may seem mundain on the outside, but if you look closer, you see an introduction to measuring and carpentry skills for building the bird house, and exposure to the planning process, navigation, and situation awareness for making an evacuation plan. The boys rotate through being leaders of the den, which begins their understanding of leadership skills.

    On the other hand, my daughter attends Girls Club, where she learns arts and crafts and how to make quick treats. Though an analysis of the individual activities may reveal exposure to some useful life skills, it is harder for me to see the relevance. Of course, I do have limited exposure to what goes on. I do, however, know that they don’t worry about who, among the girls, is the leader.

    As a Cub Scout leader, all of whom are adults who are set apart for the position by the way, I am required to take little courses and get certifications on a regular basis. The Girls Club leaders are a couple of teenage girls, who, I’m assuming, just had to volunteer for the job.

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