Two icons of American womanhood passed away this week, and I miss them both. They were each highly respected and admired in their own field. They both made an impact on my life.
Elizabeth Taylor was already firmly established as a film star by the time I was born. When I was a child, she was at the top of her career. As a young adult, I admired her activism; she spoke out dramatically against the Iraq War and was a spokeswoman for AIDS research. But Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty was what captured the hearts of all Americans, including myself. Her violet eyes were legendary. Whenever she hit the news, as when she married and remarried handsome Richard Burton in her fifth and sixth weddings, I studied what she was wearing, how she had done her hair, and the shape of her eyebrows. I was appalled at her weight gains and losses. They reflected my own struggles with body image as I gained and lost weight over the course of eight pregnancies. Then, just as I was beginning my own encounter with aging, Elizabeth Taylor’s pictures started to show the ravages of time. Though still beautiful, she could not stay young forever.
In contrast, Geraldine Ferraro seemed to burst upon the scene in 1984, when she ran for vice-president — the first woman on a major party ticket. I was a young Mormon mommy, having had my first child that year. She wasn’t popular with most of my demographic. Most of us saw her as strident and brash. We secretly chuckled at Barbara Bush’s description of Ferraro: (she’s a word that rhymes with “rich”). But we couldn’t help admiring her for her intelligence, dignity and hard work; and the way she was blazing a new trail for American women. She inspired us as she continued a career in politics, journalism and business. In many ways she ended up being a perfect role model for Mormon women. Ferraro attended law school, married after completing her education, and mostly stayed at home to raise her children. While they were young she worked only part-time in her husband’s firm and did volunteer work. As an older woman she continued her career and ran for legislative office, breaking barriers of all kinds along the way.
As I reflected on my feelings for these marvelous women this week, I pondered the lack of a spiritual role model for women in America. Recently in our New Testament Sunday School studies we studied the verse in Luke 2:52 where Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” We discussed his example in the intellectual arena, the physical, the spiritual and the social. It seems of all the role models we have among contemporary American women, there is a lack in the area of the spiritual. I am talking here about someone at the level of Elizabeth Taylor or Geraldine Ferraro; I’m looking for a Mother Teresa among American women. We are seeing steps in this direction as women become Episcopal bishops or Church of Christ apostles, but none yet have stepped up to capture our imagination and lead the way for us in the spiritual realm.
Spiritual role models for women are so important. Last night at the Young Women’s broadcast I watched the faces of my daughters as they listened to the talks of the General Young Women’s presidency. I hoped they would find inspiration and comfort from their words. I take heart at the way our local Young Women and Relief Society leaders shepherd the women of this area. And I salute Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro as they move to the next plane of existence. I pay my respects to their accomplishments and the inspiration they have been in my life. I wonder, as we acknowledge their roles in the general consciousness: will we yet see an American Deborah, a female Dalai Lama, someone who can show women in this diverse United States a pattern for female spirituality?
Will we pay attention to people like Suzzette Haden Elgin (author of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense and a number of other books, including some feminist classics)?
We have such people now. It is a matter of whether we pay attention to them.
They have their mothers. Should Young Women need more?
If they don’t have more, at the very least the chain can be broken by a single generation of misfortune or mediocrity.
Just as it takes a “village to raise a child” it can take more than a great mother to provide the spiritual insights needed to children. Especially as children enter adolescence and give greater credence to role models and less on their parents. The more female Dalai Lama’s the better!
“They have their mothers. Should Young Women need more?”
they have their fathers. should young men need more?
“they have their fathers. should young men need more?”
Yes, they should have more.
Not to incite a firestorm here, but we’re relatively unique in history in that we rely solely on two parents for all we need (i.e. they have one father, they have one mother). Yes, I’m all for a spiritual giant in a father, or a spiritual giant in a mother, but everyone needs someone else to lean on, especially in their teenage years. Especially when certain parents can be overly dogmatic or inflexible, though genuine they may be.
I had mine – and my father both was and still is a force of dogmatism – but if we only focus on parents then our children miss out. I’m glad I had the father and mother I did, but that doesn’t detract from the benefit of extended families helping out – be they relatives or not. To that point, I’m glad to hire teenage neighbors if only to be another figure in their life.
I’m sure Justin will probably chime in here in time, but I can’t say that we should limit our children in who they interact with.
As a young man, I needed a lot more than just my father. My wife, as a young woman, needed a lot more than just her mother. Even today, as a father of my own children, I still need a lot more than just my father and I won’t begrudge my sons or daughters looking elsewhere for positive influences.
While I understand the desire to look to parents for guidance, it seems to me that there are plenty of role models (Pres Monson, or Emma Smith, for example) that we can look up to for guidance and inspiration for both men and women, sons and daughters.
On KSL radio this morning, Carole Makita interviewed BYU professor Susan Easton Black and Mary Jane Woodger on their recent book Women of Character: Profiles of 100 prominent Latter-day Saint Women. Click here to download a podcast: http://pandora.bonnint.net/audio/2011_03_27_people_of_faith.mp3
“it is a matter of whether we pay attention to them” AMEN! ;o)
However, role models also have to have enough of a public image that people know they exist and they need to be relatable. Without those two things the likelihood that adolescents will pay attention is probably reduced. Society may need a continuous “new crop” of positive female role models for each successive generation.
Emma Lou Thayne and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich come to mind as contemporary women role models.
I want to mention that susan easton black pointed out juanita brooks as a wonderful role model in the ksl interview.
It was common for Alaska Native girls to be raised by their aunts and boys to be raised by their uncles. I certainly want my children to be exposed to a wide range of male and female models – from hard working cowboys, excellent coaches and teachers, and uncles and aunts in the medical professions. With these people they know, they can experience their characters as well as their accomplishments. I would have a hard time looking to Hollywood for their role models.
#13, you missed the point of the post.
#12 #11 and #1, I agree with the women you mention, but as #10 states, the role models have to be public enough that the general Mormon population both knows who they are and what their spiritual contribution is. Though I consider myself well-versed in Mormon history, and I recognize the names and can tell you what they wrote, I’m not sure even I can decipher their contributions as spiritual role models.
#2 and #5, see #3, 4, 6 and 8!
It is you that have missed the point of the post. Yes, you missed the post of your own post. From your last line “will we yet see an American Deborah, a female Dalai Lama, someone who can show women in this diverse United States a pattern for female spirituality?”
That figure is, or should be, a Mother. There is no greater calling – not an Apostle, not a Prophet, Senator, CEO or Commander in Chief. The main reason our society is crumbling is because that role is crumbling. It is no coincidence that our society took a dive south when Women entered the work force in droves. Like the Jews, and those in this post (including you), you are looking beyond the mark. They had the Savior and they were looking for something more grand and vogue. You are not looking for a spiritual female hero; rather, you are looking to change the role of Women God has defined. Changing that Devine role will weaken spirituality in our Young People and our society as a whole.
I’m afraid you’re also missing the point.
No matter how great a woman is, the vast majority of kids need outside influences of good in order to flourish. A mother can be the greatest agent for good in her own house – whether she chooses to work, or not – but even then her children will still need other, positive influences.
It is no coincidence that our [church] society took a dive south when [people] commenced full-fledged idolatry of church leaders. Hence, that is one of the reasons I’d disagree with MH above: more adulation of church leadership will do little to actually benefit our children.
At varying stages of life we will all have different “role models”. Each of them are more than like a mere road mark on our journey until we find the next one. Parents are always there, true, but there are times when parents clash in troublesome ways with their children because they refuse to allow their children to journey through life as they [the children] see fit.
We have a serious problem in the church in that we all think that our path [or the mainstream path] is the only way to live, refusing to allow agency and individuality to flourish. Then when [for example] a mother decides it’s time to work or feels impressed [for example] to become a teacher or writer or something else, people like Will lambaste them for “looking beyond the mark,” or for causing the crumbling of our society’s foundations.
Funny thing about this is that it only highlights the “control freak” in all of us – that we’re right, that our path is right, and that everyone has to follow what we surely know to be true [Romans 14 + 15 fit here].
There is an interesting podcast on this very subject that I might recommend. It takes a couple of minutes to get rolling, but I’d highly recommend it and would love to hear what others think of it:
Control Freaks – they “end up in a discussion about the nature of freedom and the propensity that we have as humans to gain enough power that we are able impose their will on others. It is true not only of governments but interpersonal relationships where we think getting others to do what we want is critical to our own well-being. However, the desire to get others to agree with us, even for their own good, is the opposite of what it means to live in love and freedom. Any attempt to force your way with others or manipulate them to do what you think best destroys relationship. That’s what God knew when he sent his Son into the world to invite us into his life.”
Moderators: my comment got lost in oblivion… can you check on it? [I had 2 get lost…the 2nd was a rehash of the 1st one, so post either/or and feel free to delete this one when found].
I added one since they are about the same.
“the role models have to be public enough that the general Mormon population both knows who they are and what their spiritual contribution is.”
I understand the point and I am all for the idea of role models outside of the family.
But the idea that they have to be “famous” Mormon role models is a bit much. Most young Women and Young Men are influenced by those closest in proximity to them.
I would like to see more emphasis and encouragement toward looking first to parents and extended family, next to those local church leaders, teachers, coaches, etc are role models rather than the famous.
I would not be quite as dogmatic as Will is, but the role of parents in the new society has taken a hit lately. The least of which is because some parents aren’t very good role models.
I notice you are looking for an American woman. In places where there are women in top positions it becomes less of an issue- it becomes commonplace-unexceptional.
Suppose you had a woman president, a woman governor and a woman mayor.
Being an Australian I have a woman governor general, a woman Prime Minister, a woman State Premier, and a woman Mayor. Depending on your taste in women who are achieving, there is something for every girl to admire and believe she is not limited by a mans world.
Geoff, that’s fantastic! But I notice these were all political figures. Were any of the women you mention also spiritual role models?
I would love to see a start in General Conference. There are a number of amazing women within our Church, but their role as “role models” is limited. Currently in General Conference, we have a few token women talks with generally softball, feel-good topics.
– I would like to see half of the talks given by women in general conference.
– I would like to see “hard” topics addressed as well. They are entitled to just as much inspiration as men. I would like to see a woman talk on pornography or drug abuse or any topic traditionally reserved for men.
– We hear talks about how important education is and being able to provide for a family. I would like to hear a woman get up and say – “You are going to be married for a long, long time. Take a few extra years now before you have kids. Finish your degree. Get a background. You never know if you’re going to end up widowed or divorced or for some other reason are going to need to provide. Plus it will be good for your self-esteem. You can do it. You are amazing.”
I think some ideas like this can go MUCH FURTHER toward promoting women role models than hearing yet another man in a white shirt and tie talk about how important the role of mothers is in God’s plan.
Nice post BIV. I really like the thoughtful way that you analyze figures and find qualities worth emulating and ignoring or de-emphasizing the human frailties that capture negative attention. So many tend to latch on to these as a justification for passing judgment. If only all of us could do what you are doing with those we encounter.
I have worked with so many intelligent, dignified and hard working women in the medical field that I lost count long ago. I hope that my daughters can have these types of qualities in their academic careers. When my oldest daughter says that she wants to be a teacher and a mother, I sometimes wish that she had exposure to more women in the work-force. But given the great models of womanhood she has had with her mother and elementary school teachers, I am upbeat and optimistic.
Wow. I thought Will’s first post was sarcastic.
I think Mother Theresa leaves a pretty big mark in the history of female spiritual leaders – she was/is iconic.
Currently, on the spiritual? None come to mind. Although, there are some very brave women rising up politically.
I agree that if the Mormon church wants their “divine role” stance to have any teeth to it at all, the leaders need to embrace matriarchy in a big way. Leaders like Julie Beck and Elaine Dalton seem to be taking us in a sad and backwards direction…