The men and women Puritans who settled America worked side by side in small family farms. There was, to be sure, a division of labor, but husbands and wives normally saw each other often during the day. The Calvinist theology they held preached that both men and women were depraved sinners desperately in need of Christ’s grace. If anything, women were viewed as snares to men, as Eve was a snare to Adam, so that husbands needed to carefully watch and manage their wives as heads of their house. It was women in these times who were the sexual beings needed managing, not men. If that surprises you, it’s no doubt because you too have been indoctrinated into the cult of Motherhood. In the cult of Motherhood, women, mothers in particular, are creatures close to the angels, pure and spiritual, and through their very presence in the household civilize their men. How did women go from being sexual temptress to asexual angel? And, considering this is a blog about Mormonism, what does any of this have to do with Mormonism?
The change happened primarily with the Industrial Revolution. Men and women no longer labored side by side on their small family farms or running their small businesses from their homes, now men went to the factory or the office and the wife stayed home to tend to the children. The doctrine of the spheres came into being: the proper sphere of men is the public one, the world of business and industry, the proper sphere of women is the private one, home and family. Men began to imagine that Industry and Business were cruel and harsh worlds, that they had to become uncivilized warriors of sorts to go and tame it. Yes, perhaps they put on a suit and did paper work all day, but it was a world of rough morality and cutthroat action nonetheless, suited to their rugged masculinity. The home became envisioned as a place of rest from the rough and tumblel work place, a place with the calming influence of a loving wife. Women now were portrayed as naturally more spiritual than men, more moral and less sexual. The less that men had interactions with women, the more women were put on a pedestal because the more that men could erect fantasies about their wives’ purity. The private sphere became exalted as the cornerstone of societal morality, and wives as the guardians of morality. If men were to succeed in business, they would have to dirty their hands, their wives on the other hands, would keep their homes clean physically and spiritually. This began to backfire when women, encouraged by slogans promoting their moral and spiritual superiority to men, began to take over their churches and enter the public sphere in order to purify society as a whole. There was a backlash against this as the nascent fundamentalist movement reemphasized the masculinity of Christianity, but mainline Protestantism never did get women out of the church committees. The cult of Motherhood survives and flourishes in many corners of conservative Christianity.
So, how was Mormonism affected by these changes? As Mormons began to seek greater respectability with the larger American culture at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th C they began to embrace these trends. The most obvious example is the Manifesto of 1890 officially ending the practice of polygamy, and the actual suppression of polygamy by the LDS church within a decade of the 20th C. Interestingly, the practice of polygamy (plural marriage) initially had an insulating affect against the Victorian ethos of putting women at home. Mormon women were already flaunting Victorian morality in the first place, and were excluded from respectable society for even accepting polygamy even if they didn’t personally practice it. As a result, Mormon women fashioned their own culture, including one that gave their organization within the LDS church, the Relief Society, great autonomy. Many polygamous wives used the freedom they had through having helping sister wives to campaign for women’s suffrage (Utah was the first to grant women the right to vote) or to go to college. Women gave each other blessings and learned to look after one another. That’s not to say that polygamy wasn’t a hard way of life, but a result of the way of life had unexpected benefits too.
When Mormonism began to embrace the larger culture, suppress polygamy and accept the larger standards of morality, the advances that Mormon women had also crumbled. Mormon women were encouraged to stay at home, and the Relief Society lost more and more autonomy with time. In short, Mormonism embraced with special vigor the cult of Motherhood. This is partly why Mormonism is not in a position at this time to grant women the priesthood: the priesthood has to do with the nitty gritty running of the ecclesiastical organization, women have a more lofty position that shouldn’t get itself distracted with the operations of power. The majority of Mormon men want to continue to be able to experience their wives as selfless angels doing the direct work of heaven rather than face the reality that perhaps their wives might enjoy the same kind of base pleasures such as public power that they do.
The cult of Motherhood may seem on the surface to be a boon to women. Who doesn’t want to be seen as nearly supernaturally good by nature? But the result has been reduced autonomy of women’s organizations and increased sequestering of women away from the public sphere. Women who ascribe to the cult of Motherhood soon find that they have to live up to these expectations of angelic proportions, or at least make an appearance of it, and suppress whatever human urges they have for public power and increased recognition. The cult of Motherhood does serve them in a practical sense, encouraging their men to provide for them and their children, and to protect them, in a way that perhaps would not happen if the cult did not exist. So, women find themselves in a bind, to continue to suppress that part of them for serious respect and public recognition, or to deal with the possibility of less security, financial and otherwise, that is found with their men who especially ascribe to the cult. This is a very real dilemma, and many rational, intelligent women have decided to opt for the security for themselves and their children in a world in which men no longer feel bond by societal constraints to stay with their ‘first’ wives and provide fully financially and temporally for their children.