Performing Mormon womanhood
LuLaRoe, Judith Butler, the Family Proclamation, and our invisible Heavenly Mother
In the 1990 book Gender Trouble, queer philosopher Judith Butler proposed that gender is not a fixed trait but one that must be constantly performed. Now she’s an academic superstar.
But decades earlier, Mormons made a pretty penny perfecting that performance.
In the 1970s, LDS couple Maurine and Elbert Startup offered 12-week, $250 training programs called “Fascinating Femininity,” an outgrowth from their book, The Secret Power of Femininity: The Art of Attracting, Winning, and Keeping the Right Man for You. Their daughter, DeAnne Stidham, and her husband, Mark Stidham, swapped out explicit instruction for multilevel marketing based on super-colorful leggings and fueled by stay-at-home moms. Their company, LuLaRoe, is now subject to multiple lawsuits and a four-part Amazon Prime documentary, LuLaRich. Jana Reiss engagingly analyzes the series to show just how much the company relies on DeAnne’s background and what Reiss calls “a particular kind of postwar U.S. Mormonism.”
That emphasis is anything but peculiar among peculiar people. Some fifty years after World War II (and 26 years ago this week), President Gordon B. Hinckley read the ~600-word Family Proclamation in the General Relief Society meeting to bring the force of modern prophecy down on traditional marriage and and gender roles. Fathers preside and provide. Mothers nurture.
The Family Proclamation is also good marketing. Today, for $50, Deseret Books will sell you a 10×20 framed copy with a space to insert a picture of your own family or the temple where you were married. For $8, on Etsy, you can buy one as tall as a young child.
In his 2020 book, Tabernacles of Clay, scholar Taylor Petrey explains how Mormonism accomplishes the nifty trick of combining gender essentialism (the idea that gender is innate and fixed) and the idea that performing gender roles is a duty to be perfected and practiced. Homosexuality is the most obvious example of ‘gender failure’ in this paradigm, he says, but the failures of a woman to have children or keep a clean house presumably also apply.
In an interview this year, Butler said that gender might be first assigned at birth but is then continuously re-assigned (and policed) by “a slew of expectations.”
This got me thinking about Heavenly Mother. Growing up as a Mormon girl, I learned that God was not just my Creator, but my example of what I could and should be. When I noticed that a hymn (O My Father, ironically) invoked Heavenly Mother, I asked my earthly father to tell me more. (Only decades later did I realize I never thought to ask my mother.) He warned that Heavenly Father doesn’t want us to talk about Her so she won’t be disrespected. Last year, author Carol Lynn Pearson published a book of poetry called Finding Mother God, which was reviewed favorably by faithful members. But other Mormon thinkers (including Janice Allred, Margaret Toscano and Lynn Whitesides) have been excommunicated largely for their attentions to Her. The example I took from Heavenly Mother in my youth was that exalted womanhood meant being invisible.
It makes sense, then, that the Family Proclamation was drafted without input from women, as made clear in a fascinating interview in Dialogue magazine with Chieko Okazaki, then part of the Relief Society Presidency. She also states that no women were included on temple planning or Church building committees, despite having spaces dedicated for women, and describes how she had outlined a manual for Sunday lessons tailored to women’s needs, only to learn that another manual, about Harold B. Lee (Church President from 1973-1974) had already been written by an all-male curriculum committee for use by both priesthood and Relief Society.
Butler advocates that people can “take over the power of assignment [of gender], make it into self-assignment.” But I wonder what she’d make of doing so in a Mormon context. Though Okazaki had been called by a prophet, some women objected to her position in the Relief Society Presidency because she had worked outside the home (as an elementary school teacher) and had only two children.
In an anthology of Mormon women’s ‘candid talk’ on marriage , editor Holly Welker describes a 2013 survey about what Mormon women recall being taught as teens. Three-quarters said their main objective was to marry in the temple, an answer that ranked higher than living the Gospel or having a testimony of the Savior. In one of the book’s essays, one mother describes her own decision to attend college once her own children start school. One perceived necessity was making and freezing homemade bread and desserts “so as not to deny” her family. Even decades out of the Church, I rarely fail to bring something homemade to a potluck. Is that my pride as a baker, or the inheritance of my Mormon upbringing?
At least I decide for myself whether to pop buns in the oven. In Mormonism, the performance of gender depends on one’s children as well as oneself. (Butler’s self-assignment only goes so far!) Conventional Mormon introductions run something like this: “Sister So-and-so is the mother of 4 sons, all of whom served honorable missions, and 2 daughters. All are married in the temple.”
My own grandmother often told me, her oldest grandchild, that I would miss out on joy for not having children. Besides, she’d opine, she was the only one of her friends, all Mormon, who was not yet a great-grandmother. I think she really wanted what she thought would make us both happiest as women.
I also think she would have been really good at selling super-colorful leggings.
Correction: The original post stated that Okazaki was writing a Sunday School manual, which are co-ed lessons.