Today’s Mormon women balance work, love and family values while defying stereotypes.
It’s Sunday morning at Newberry Elementary Math & Science Academy in Lincoln Park, home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Women walk past a packed auditorium as a hymn swells through its open doors. Kids play along the aisles and strollers are parked against the wall. Up a set of stairs, a man greets members of his congregation as they hurry into classrooms. Women of all ages wade past folded coats and handbags, waving at friends as they take a seat.
Fashion statements abound. A woman reading a book is wearing a hot pink dress; another has a blonde streak swirling through her auburn hair. The class is a microcosm of today’s modern Mormon women. Sophisticated, chic and educated with high-powered careers, they’re media executives, copywriters, attorneys…and together they defy the typical perception of the dowdy Mormon woman.
LIFE UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon pokes fun at this often-misunderstood religion with the lyrics, “I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes.” It’s entertaining and makes for glowing theater reviews. However, for the 14.4 million members in nearly 50 countries, Mormonism is a way of life that filters down to everyday choices from dating to hemlines. Such is the dedication to their faith that, according to a Pew study, 77 percent of Mormons attend church compared to just 39 percent of the rest of the nation. And at any given time, the LDS church has 55,000 missionaries throughout the world.
While the LDS men appear to be the most visible since only men are allowed to be priests, it begs the question: who is the Mormon woman? “You’d be hard-pressed to define a Mormon woman because it means different things to each of us,” explains Emily Reynolds, 30, a Chicago-based PR account executive. “I run into different [view points] but I think there’s a stereotype of a ‘June Cleaver’ Mormon type of woman.”
Indeed, the women are a topic of curiosity due to traditional beliefs that outsiders might perceive to be old-fashioned: they don’t drink, smoke or believe in premarital sex. And with apparel, modesty is key.
Many congregation members attended Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, where 98 percent of students are Mormon. Despite sweeping generalizations that Mormon women at BYU (and beyond) should become mothers, the church does in fact put great emphasis on education.
Joe Kozlarek, 66, converted to the LDS church 40 years ago and is now the bishop of the Chicago ward. Because of the importance of education among women, he sees more and more female members succeeding in their chosen field. “The characterization of Mormon women as subservient or taking a backseat is totally inaccurate,” he insists. “It’s not perpetuated by women in the church – it’s by people who don’t understand the church.”
MORMON IN THE WORKPLACE
Because Mormon women often find themselves dealing with the stereotype that they’re reared to become homemakers, their presence in demanding fields often takes co-workers by surprise. Charlotte Haynie, 27, a copywriter for Leo Burnett Worldwide, can still recall reactions after telling co-workers about her religion. “When I started working here, people were surprised I wasn’t married,” she says. “It wasn’t a negative thing, but they’d ask, ‘Oh, you’re 25, you’re not married yet and don’t have a couple of kids already?’”
Charity Morgan, 31, a church volunteer, can easily be mistaken for a college student with her youthful appearance. But the petite blonde is in fact an assistant public defender for Cook County. “I always intended to marry and have a family, which I still intend to do,” says Ms. Morgan. “But criminal defense lawyers have so much fun.”
Despite preconceived notions, Mormon women have also discovered that familiarity breeds acceptance. “When they get to know us, people realize that we’re just like them,” explains Ms. Haynie. “We’re educated, we want to do well in life and be successful at work.”
BIG LOVE, REAL LOVE AND DATING
As TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives became popular, so have misrepresentations of Mormon women. The shows, which focus on polygamous Mormon families, create distortions that are hard to shake off. “There are crazy stereotypes out there,” laughs Ms. Morgan. “Someone once asked me, ‘Are you the third wife?’”
Although a small percentage of people in Colorado, Arizona and Utah still practice polygamy, they’re not considered members of the LDS church. “It’s in the media because there was a time when we did practice polygamy,” explains Mr. Kozlarek. “Then in 1890, there was a manifesto stating we were no longer allowed to do so. If a member of the church was found practicing polygamy, they’d be excommunicated.”
For most Mormons, dating someone with similar values is important. “I’ve had family members marry people who aren’t Mormon and it led to heartbreak,” says Ms. Haynie. “It’s because religion is such a fundamental part of who you are and how you cope with difficulties and disasters.”
While Ms. Reynolds says she feels she’s accomplished a great deal at 30, it’s hard to ignore the familiar ticking of her biological clock. “When I see pictures of friends with their children, sometimes I feel like someone’s squeezing my heart,” she says. “And then there’s that fear: will there still be time?”
But even if they don’t have a husband and start a family at the age when most Mormon women get married, that’s fine for most of these high-achieving women. “I’m not going to waste away,” affirms Ms. Morgan. “I’m not just waiting for ‘Mr. Right.’”
Above: Emily Reynolds holds the Book of Mormon, the sacred text of the Latter-Day Saints movement.
Kristyna Archer Photograph