This is a personal look at the role of Mormon women and Mormon marriages.
Mormon women are somewhat traditional in their views of marriage, but this traditional view of Mormon marriage has a very modern aspect to it, even as it did in the early days of Mormonism. Mormonism is a nickname for the religion practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon women believe that in a Mormon marriage, the husband is the head of the household, but not the boss. There is a difference in these terms from a spiritual sense. Brigham Young, in the 1800s, made it clear that Mormon women did not have to obey husbands who ask them to do something immoral.
“Let the husband and father learn to bend his will to the will of his God, and then instruct his wives and children in this lesson of self-government by his example as well as by his precept.” (Discourses of Brigham Young [Deseret Book Co., 1925], pp. 306–307.) In other words, a man is to lead by example, placing a higher level of responsibility, and therefore consequence on him than on anyone else in the home. His responsibility is to learn God’s law and then set the example for his family to follow. This is what being the head of the household really means in a Mormon marriage—leading by example. However, Mormon women are not expected to “obey” husbands who are asking them to do something wrong. If the example is poor, they are free to choose their own path.
Mormonism places a high degree of emphasis on agency. Mormons believe agency, the right to choose for ourselves, is an essential part of God’s plan. We had it before we were born, when we lived with God, and we have it today during our life on earth. A Mormon woman is responsible for gaining and maintaining her own testimony of the Mormon religion and will be held accountable for the choices she makes in her lifetime. A husband who doesn’t set the proper example may be held accountable for failing to do so, but that will not free the wife from her own responsibility, just as the wife’s failure to be a good example will not excuse the husband from his obligation to keep the commandments.
When a husband and wife have a decision to make, they are taught to first study the issue, discussing, researching, and evaluating both sides of the issue. Then they would make a decision and pray, individually and together, for a confirmation of the decision. If they haven’t made the same decision, they can pray about their own and then about their spouse’s choice. This normally resolves the issue for them. If it does not, they can return to their study of the issue, since it may be God feels they haven’t sufficiently researched enough. There may be information they didn’t have when they made their decision that they need in order to complete it.
As the head of the household, the husband in a Mormon marriage can’t automatically choose his choice over that of his wife’s. Most men will take into consideration a variety of factors. They will first, with their spouse, evaluate what the Church has taught on the subject. Next, they might take into consideration stewardship and knowledge. If the decision involves how to educate their children, for instance, the father might decide his wife, who has spent more time directly teaching the children, is better qualified to know what educational method is best for each child and will defer to her. Finally, they will evaluate all the issues involved before going to God in prayer.
In the end, if they don’t come to an agreement, in many Mormon marriages, the husband will make the final decision, but again, his moral obligation is to make it responsibly, and not just on what he himself prefers. My husband often decided in my favor simply because I was more qualified to make the decision or it mattered more to me than to him—or because it impacted me more than it did him. I chose homeschooling when he wasn’t sure it was a good idea because I was the one who had to handle the school issues. He deferred to my judgment.
If I want to do something, I don’t need his permission. I ask how he feels about it as a courtesy, but the choice is mine, just as his choices are his, even though he also asks me as a courtesy. For instance, he might say, “I’m thinking about taking a class at the college this semester. What do you think?” We might follow that up with some discussion about cost, time, and scheduling, but in the end, I would consider that to be his choice because it is really about him and he would take into consideration my feelings as he made a final choice. His reaction would be the same if I were the one who decided to take a class. Neither of us has ever “forbidden” the other to do something that really mattered to us. There have, of course, been times when one of us wanted to do something, and the other pointed out some problems with the idea. Then we might change our mind because we now have new information and a new perspective.
In addition, because we have respect for each other, we might back out of something our spouse has real concerns about. For instance, I am a klutz and I’m accident-prone. If I suddenly announced a desire to join a football team, my husband would have natural concerns about the wisdom of that decision, knowing I’d probably get killed in the first scrimmage. His concern for me would cause him to speak out on the subject and my recognition of the wisdom of his concern would cause me to decide not to join the team. When two people operate on a basis of love and respect, no force is necessary.
Mormon men lead not because they are men but because they hold the priesthood. While it is true only men hold the priesthood, priesthood is not about gender. It’s simply an effective way to divide duties. It says nothing about the value of women in God’s eyes, any more than it says something about the value of men that they can’t give birth. They are just assignments God has given us and the roles of men and women are complimentary. Neither is superior to the other, although one church leader, Boyd K. Packer suggested that in reality, the woman’s role is superior because God only allows them to give birth. Few Mormon women would trade that privilege for the priesthood. A Mormon marriage has a much lower than average risk of divorce in part because they are based on complimentary roles which ensure each person has a rewarding area of expertise in which he can exercise his intelligence and authority and because it is focused on eternal goals, not temporary power struggles.
Mormons value children and home, so they don’t find anything unfulfilling about parenting when it’s done correctly. It is one of the most challenging jobs a person can have. The roles are also not firm and unmovable. While in general, women are encouraged to be at home with their children if at all possible while men are encouraged to earn the money, Mormons are taught not to judge families who are not following that pattern, since we can’t know what led to the decision.
In addition, men are taught:
“It was not meant that the woman alone accommodate herself to the priesthood duties of her husband or her sons. She is of course to sustain and support and encourage them.
Holders of the Mormon priesthood, in turn, must accommodate themselves to the needs and responsibilities of the wife and mother. Her physical and emotional and intellectual and cultural well-being and her spiritual development must stand first among his priesthood duties.
There is no task, however menial, connected with the care of babies, the nurturing of children, or with the maintenance of the home that is not his equal obligation. The tasks which come with parenthood, which many consider to be below other tasks, are simply above them.” (Boyd K. Packer, “A Tribute to Women,”Ensign, July 1989, 75).
I once sat in on a meeting in which a group of men were given a responsibility to help the teen boys in our congregation learn what it meant to be a man. Most of the boys did not have fathers and were new to our religion. In response, the men were often seen bringing their children with them to the classes and activities they oversaw for the boys. The boys saw the fathers slip to the back of the room while another adult taught. There the boys saw them changing diapers, playing with their children, and soothing crying babies as a matter of course. The men modeled the respectful treatment of women as the boys saw them interact with their wives and learned how Mormon marriage works. These men understood that children were not the sole responsibility of the mother and that women were to be treated as daughters of God.
“Head of the household” does not have the same connotation in Mormon marriage as it did in general society, even in the earliest days of the church. It is one based on a God-defined relationship in which men and women have complimentary and equally important roles and in which the marriage is a full-partnership. While there may be some who abuse the term, they are acting outside of church teachings and risk losing their priesthood as a result.