Dr. Margaret Toscano is a Department Chair at the University of Utah, but she got 2 degrees from BYU and taught there as well. In our next conversation, we’ll learn more about her time at BYU, and see her perspective on male privilege for scholars at the university.
Margaret: I started out from BYU, but I’ve always loved literature. That was sort of my first love, being an English major. Then when I was at BYU, I got interested in language, studying Latin and Greek, because I became very interested in Biblical studies and I wanted to be able to read the Bible in the original languages. So I first took Latin and I like to tell my Latin students, this little story. I was an English major and a History minor. I had a boyfriend who I met in a history class, and he persuaded me to take Latin, and I did. Well, that boyfriend is long since gone, but Latin lasts forever. I still teach Latin. I love teaching. I teach both Latin and Ancient Greek and all kinds of courses dealing with religious topics and literary and cultural topics. I teach a big Introductory to Classical Mythology. Sometimes I’ll have 250 students.
I did my masters at BYU in Classical Languages. I started out with literature and then I got really interested in the ancient world in doing Biblical Studies. I did some work with Hebrew, too. I finished my master’s there. Then I got married. In that time period, I became really interested in Mormon theology and history. So it was while I was at BYU in the early 70s, that I began to meet people who were really digging up documents.
I have to say that, for me, the two things that really made me feel like I was a feminist during that period was I began to see these gaps between men’s–what would I say? Not just, in large, about the sort of gender gaps between how men were privileged over womenut , bwithin the context of the church. I began to ask questions about gender equality. For me, it really came very much, at that time, from a place of believing, where I felt like, “Here I am, a Mormon woman. I believe in God, I believe in the idea of the restoration. But I feel like that there are these inequities that strike me, not just wrong, but somehow go against my own feelings of God’s love and what I want as somebody who is committed to spirituality, and to the sort of basic ideals of the gospel.” So, maybe I could just give a couple of examples. So, for me, it didn’t start out with the idea of kind of focusing on priesthood or even the Heavenly Mother, which are two things I’ve written about. I think for me, it started out from the idea of–and maybe this was in a sense connected with priesthood, but I think it was at BYU, that I saw so much male privilege, that as a woman, I felt like I wasn’t taken as seriously as my male counterparts. I was working on my Masters in Classical Languages. I was obviously smart and did a good job. But, it was the idea that my professors were encouraging all of my male colleagues to go off and get PhDs, so they can come back and be these great scholars. But I was seen as somebody where, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to get married, you’re going to have children. We’re not going to take you seriously as a scholar.” So I think that was the first area where I felt it, was the difference in expectations or the way in which I was valued. I began to see that I didn’t feel like I was valued as much as men at BYU, that I was not encouraged to write or to be a scholar or to do anything… “Oh, yeah, we are happy to have you as a teacher, you’re a great teacher, but you’re going to fill this little spot in teaching until one of our male stars comes back from a big PhD program, and then, oh, yeah, then they’ll take your role, and, of course, you’ll be having kids, so you won’t care.”
Following her time as a student and teacher at BYU, Dr. Margaret Toscano had a bit of a feminist awakening. What was it about BYU that led her to seek more about female spirituality?
Margaret: I’m working like crazy to finish this master’s thesis. Then right about the same time that I finished the master’s thesis is when I found the Ehat book with the Joseph Smith material and I’ll come back to that. I want to finish the professional trajectory, which really connects to this tension I felt between, what is it to be a good Mormon woman, and do my desires and ambitions conflict with that? What does God want of me? How does God view women in this bigger scheme of things? So really, that question is just kind of building up in me over the years, starting in the 70s, and feeling marginalized and ignored and invisible at BYU no matter what I did, and then getting married, and I’m having my kids, and then I’m starting to get interested in Mormon History and also in biblical studies and thinking about women within the biblical narratives. Then I do my thesis, and then I start really looking at these documents about the church. [The year] 1984 was when I did my first public speech on women and priesthood. I’ll come back to that. So that’s happening, but to go to my professional life, I’m really involved in Mormon studies and Mormon things from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s. I started my PhD in 1988, after I’d already published some things in Mormon Studies, because I realize and here it goes back to these tensions, that I really love teaching on the university level. I had been an adjunct teacher, already. So in 1988 I’d already been an adjunct teacher for like 10 years, with my master’s degree and I’m thinking I can never move beyond the adjunct position, if I don’t have a PhD.
I wanted to do that Ph.D., but it took me a lot of years, it actually took me 12 years to finish my Ph.D., for two reasons, well, three reasons. I was raising my family at the same time. Here again, I’ll sound really defensive. I actually never worked full time until my youngest was 12. Why do I feel like I have to say that? I’m a dedicated mother, right? But again, that’s what you’re put into–this kind of defensiveness. I’m taking my kids to school, going to a class, going home and pick them up, make them dinner, 11 to 2, work on my papers for my classes, trying to do this Ph.D. So it took me 12 years [because I was] raising my family. I was also still involved in Mormon Studies and my Ph.D. here at the University of Utah.
I know some people have mentioned that BYU culture can be so oppressive that some people will naturally rebel against it and become feminists. Do you agree? Or is it just a vocal minority that find the culture oppressive? Is BYU more supportive of male scholars than female scholars?