Ann Romney was already fully immersed in stay-at-home motherhood — raising five sons, ages six to 16, in her Belmont home — when Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson took to a pulpit on February 22, 1987 and delivered a definitive sermon on gender roles in the church titled, “To the Mothers of Zion.”
His message to working moms: “Come home.”
The religious dynamic of the Romneys’ Leave It To Beaver lifestyle has been largely lost on the partisans making hay out of the latest flare-up in the mommy wars, which was sparked by a Democratic strategist charging that Ann “has never actually worked a day in her life.” But while much of the debate has centered on class — with liberals casting full-time motherhood as a luxury for the rich, and conservatives hoping working-class women will identify with her — the fact is that even if Mitt were a middle-class schoolteacher, there’s a good chance Ann still would have foregone a career.
That’s because for many Latter-day Saint women, staying at home to raise children is less a lifestyle choice than religious one — a divinely-appreciated sacrifice that brings with it blessings, empowerment, and spiritual prestige.
These doctrinally-defined gender roles aren’t entirely unique — they’ve been preached by various sects for centuries — but Mormons have proven uniquely unwilling to bend them to fit modern times. The Church took heat in the ’70s for waging a high-profile campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment; and even today, Mormon women remain twice as likely to be homemakers as non-Mormons, regardless of income levels.
Benson’s talk, which was distributed church-wide and is still quoted in Mormon Sunday School classes today, crystalized decades of LDS teachings on the divinely-declared role of women, and made little effort to bow to political correctness.
"Mothers are to conceive, to nourish, to love, and to train," Benson said. "So declare the revelations."
He went on to warn against placing materialism ahead of child-rearing:
Do not use the reasoning of the world, such as, “We’ll wait until we can better afford having children, until we are more secure, until John has completed his education, until he has a better paying job, until we have a larger home, until we’ve obtained a few of the material conveniences,” and on and on.
This is the reasoning of the world and is not pleasing in the sight of God… Do not curtail the number of your children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity. In the eternal perspective, children—not possessions, not position, not prestige—are our greatest jewels.
This wasn’t the first time Mormon women had heard such counsel from their church leaders, but the timing made it noteworthy.
"The strong prescription that women should not work seemed more jarring in a social context in which women’s right to participate more fully in the economy was starting to seem well-established," said Kristine Haglund, a feminist and editor at liberal Mormon journal Dialogue.
It also served as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for decades of Mormon sermons on motherhood. For example, Benson quoted a talk given 10 years earlier by then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball, which included an impassioned plea for women to forfeit careers, and a claim that “numerous divorces” had resulted from the trend of mothers leaving home to work:
I beg of you, you who could and should be bearing and rearing a family: Wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the cafe. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother—cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children. Come home, wives, to your husbands. Make home a heaven for them. Come home, wives, to your children, born and unborn. Wrap the motherly cloak about you and, unembarrassed, help in a major role to create the bodies for the immortal souls who anxiously await.
The language may seem antiquated or even oppressive — and certainly, Mormonism’s vocal feminist community has pushed back against such teachings — but many LDS women find their faith’s emphasis on motherhood empowering. Mormonism holds that families sealed in temples will be bound together “for time and all eternity” — a doctrine that places parenting in higher esteem than any secular accomplishments.
"There really is no greater career than that of a mother," said Kathryn Skaggs, whose blog is called "A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman." “For me, knowing that, the work I’ve been engaged with as a stay-at-home mom over the last 30 plus years, has given me the greatest joy and fulfillment I could ever imagine. I can’t think of any career outside of the home that could ever have compared.”
Haglund said this determined focus on motherhood has built within Mormonism a mom-friendly infrastructure that allows families without the Romneys’ car-elevator-level wealth to manage to survive on a single income.
"In many places, very few women are at home during the day and even fewer women in their 20s have kids, so the Mormon ward becomes the hub of playgroups, babysitting co-ops, and other kinds of social interaction for young mothers," said Haglund. "The shared sense that what they are doing is righteous, as well as unpopular, gives meaning to long and tedious days with infants and toddlers, and provides company in what can be an excruciatingly lonely endeavor."
In recent years, the church has doubled down on its prescribed gender roles. In 1995, the church published “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which included this passage:
By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.
And in 2007, Julie B. Beck, who presided over the church’s women’s organization, delivered a much-debated sermon titled, "Mothers Who Know." In it, she outlined what many viewed as the archetype of the righteous Mormon woman: faithful, determined, nurturing — and, perhaps most importantly, home:
Mothers who know are willing to live on less and consume less of the world’s goods in order to spend more time with their children—more time eating together, more time working together, more time reading together, more time talking, laughing, singing, and exemplifying.
Church leaders have made efforts lately to acknowledge the economic reality that working moms are sometimes essential to keep families above water. And the church has long distinguished its belief in gender roles from the belief among some Evangelical Christians that wives should be “submissive” to their husbands. In 2007, for example, Bruce C. Hafen, of the church’s Quorum of the Seventy, described a hypothetical marital spat to claim that the Mormon approach to marriage offers a third way between feminist ideals and chauvinistic expectations of generations past:
Our young husband’s parents believe the old idea that women are fully dependent on their husbands. Our young wife’s parents believe the new idea that women are independent of their husbands. But the restored gospel teaches the eternal idea that husbands and wives are interdependent with each other. They are equal. They are partners.
But even as church leaders’ rhetoric has modernized, the Mormon ideal continues to hold that women should, whenever possible, stay home to raise their children. And in the Romneys’ ardent defense of their chosen lifestyle, Haglund sees shades of their church’s doctrine.
"I think one might see Mormon-ness… in their seeming assurance that this is the way things should be," said Haglund. "That in an ideal world, all women would stay home with their children, and, perhaps, that it is anomalous or somehow wrong for women to want to maintain careers after they become mothers."
Indeed, more than few Mormon ears perked up when Ann described her family dynamic to Fox News last week:
"Mitt said to me more times than you would imagine, ‘Ann, your job is more important than mine… your job is a forever job that is going to bring forever happiness.’ "