They don’t believe women have a lower status than men in Utah. But they want to see more women become leaders in government and business. And they want the state to close its gender wage gap.
These are the views of women who identified as active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a statewide poll on women’s issues.
In early November, The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women, age 18 and older, over cellphones and landlines across Utah through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. It included 143 women who identified as very active Latter-day Saints, 40 somewhat active and 36 not active.
Very active Latter-day Saints were less likely to say they believed that women in Utah had an overall lower status than men. According to the poll, 26% of very active members said women definitely or probably had a lower status, compared with 48% of somewhat active and 78% of not active.
The fact that only a quarter of very active members see a lower status for women is “striking,” said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah Valley University.
“But it is the teaching [of the church] that men and women ... are equal," said Madsen, a Latter-day Saint. “They just have different roles.”
That status question is “complicated” for Christine Clark, who grew up very active in the church in Utah. She sang in the Tabernacle Choir and her father was the late Elder Malcolm S. Jeppsen, who served in the faith’s Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1989 to 1994.
Clark’s husband worked while she stayed home with their children in the 1970s in Illinois. Clark protested there against the Equal Rights Amendment to protect traditional family values, she said.
Decades later, at 67, she is no longer a Latter-day Saint because of her concerns about women’s and LGBTQ issues, she said. Now living in North Salt Lake, Clark has helped efforts to ratify the ERA in Utah. She was at a rally in December at the state Capitol in support of Rep. Karen Kwan’s resolution that would do that.
What changed Clark’s mind about the ERA, she said, was becoming more aware of other women’s experiences. The breadwinner/homemaker model is great when it works for families, she said, but when it doesn’t, women need support. That’s why Clark and a nonprofit she co-founded, Fair Utah, are focusing on women, such as displaced homemakers, who are reentering or entering the workforce for the first time.
“We’re excited to help with these needs that aren’t being addressed," Clark said.
In the poll, very active Latter-day Saint women identified domestic violence and sexual assault as the biggest challenge for women, at 24% Nearly equal percentages cited cultural expectations about gender roles (22%) and low wages (21%).
About 8% chose low access to child care.
But 7% said the biggest hurdle was not included in the survey’s list of major issues, with another 19% undecided or refusing to answer the question. “That’s very high,” said Jana Riess, senior columnist for Religion News Service.
“What it suggests is that some people don’t want to acknowledge that there are any challenges for women in Utah at all. And when faced with a multiple choice question in which some possibilities were offered," Riess said, “it seems as though more than a quarter of very active respondents didn’t quite know what to do with that.”
(Riess clarified that she was cautious about drawing conclusions in her reactions to the poll, though, due to the small Latter-day Saint sample size.)
Somewhat active Latter-day Saint women chose low wages as the biggest challenge (40%), followed by domestic violence and sexual assault (28%). Inactive Latter-day Saints also chose low wages as the top challenge (39%), followed by cultural expectations about gender roles (33%).
An overwhelming number of all Latter-day Saints said they would like to see more women in leadership positions in government and business in Utah. The poll shows 81% of very active, 75% of somewhat active and 86% of inactive members wanted more women leaders in government, with the same or even higher percentages wanting more female leaders in business.
The question is whether these women see themselves filling these roles, Madsen said. “They’re saying we need more women in government. But then they need to say, ‘But it can be me.'”
Most Latter-day Saint women said they thought Utah leaders — in business and government — should take action to close Utah’s gender wage gap. About 70% or more, no matter their activity level, thought government leaders should definitely or probably take action, with slightly higher support for business leaders taking on the task.
Margaret Olsen, editor-in-chief of Exponent II, a magazine for Latter-day Saint women, said, “I was just really pleased to see the sort of across-the-board support for increased women in government, business leadership, closing the pay gap, all stuff that probably a lot of those women who wouldn’t identify as feminists are saying they support."
Most Latter-day Saint women said they had reached, or were reaching, their education goals, including 80% of very active, 73% of somewhat active and 81% of not active. And they overwhelmingly said their support networks, such as family, friends and faith, were supportive of their aspirations for higher education and a career.
Olsen said she found it interesting that very active Latter-day Saint women said they had the highest support for their career aspirations, with 93% feeling strongly or somewhat supported.
“That’s not what I would expect to see, given my own experience as a high schooler in Utah. I would think that [in] the more devout families, you would see less support. So, I’m guessing that that may be a difference in the definition of what support means and what career means, rather than that very active women actually did receive more support from their families."
Becky Poulter, 55, of Woodland Hills, said, “People in my life have looked at more what makes sense, what a person’s aptitude is for their job, as opposed to whether they’re a man or a woman."
Poulter grew up in a family of four girls and two boys, and said her dad “really encouraged education. He encouraged us to go to college. He encouraged us to move out and live away from home.” In high school, one of Poulter’s teachers noticed her aptitude for math, and he encouraged her to pursue it. She studied finance in college and then worked for a development consultant, who “gave me every opportunity." And her husband has been one of her biggest supporters, she said.
As a stake Relief Society president overseeing women in several Latter-day Saint congregations, Poulter and others helped evacuees during a wildfire in 2018 in their area. “There was a point during that time when I was a little frustrated with communication, and I felt like the Relief Society, the women, were not being utilized as well as we could be," she said. Poulter called the stake president, and he “immediately made a change and moved me into a communication chain.”
“That’s been his attitude," Poulter said. “We feel really valued.”
Clark said her husband has been very supportive of her pursuit of higher education. In 2016, Clark earned a doctorate from Utah State University in family and human development, with a focus “on living a more healthy lifestyle in an Alzheimer’s prevention context.”
According to the poll, most Latter-day Saint women have worked for pay outside the home in the past 10 years, including 68% very active, 70% somewhat active and 94% not active members.
Somewhat active (46%) and not active (68%) women were more likely to have worked full time, while very active worked both part time and full time (46%).
The women were split about whether they believed they had ever been paid less than a man who was doing the same job. Of very active women, 44% said they definitely or probably had, while 43% said they had definitely not or probably not.
“If you have only a quarter of very active LDS women saying that they believe that women in Utah have a lower status than men, but then nearly half saying that they themselves have personally been paid less than a man who is doing the same job, that’s a discrepancy," Riess said. “And that’s very interesting.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.