LDS women to church leaders: When did the rules about women working outside the home change?

Thousands take to the church’s Instagram to decry what they describe as mixed messaging regarding mothers pursuing careers.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Speaking on Friday at Brigham Young University’s Women’s Conference, President Camille Johnson, leader of the global Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, explained that, even though she worked outside the home, her priority has always been motherhood.

For the second time in less than two months, Latter-day Saint women have taken to social media to push back against an address delivered by a top female church leader.

Speaking on Friday at Brigham Young University’s Women’s Conference, President Camille Johnson, leader of the global Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, encouraged women to rely on the words of President Russell M. Nelson and emphasized the need for women to prioritize motherhood.

“My primary orientation — that is, my focus, passion and calling as a woman — is toward motherhood,” Johnson, a former corporate lawyer, said. “That is our primary orientation, our sacred calling, as daughters of Heavenly Parents.”

The Salt Lake Tribune submitted questions to a church spokesperson for the 60-year-old Johnson, including how she and her husband managed child care while they both worked and her advice for Latter-day Saint women interested in pursuing a career but who feel guilty for doing so. No responses were provided.

“I had babies, and my husband and I loved and nurtured them while we were both working,” Johnson told her worldwide audience Friday. “It was busy, sometimes hectic. We were stretched and sometimes tired. I supported him, and he supported me. Family was and still is our top priority.”

Senior apostle Dallin Oaks, Nelson’s top counselor in the governing First Presidency and next in line to lead the 17.2 million-member faith, spoke on similar themes in a 2023 devotional. The 91-year-old father of six warned young single adults against delaying marriage and childbearing, even for financial reasons.

He was among the first to comment on the church’s Instagram post quoting Johnson’s talk, calling the Relief Society president a “wonderful role model.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and wife Kristen speak to young adults at a worldwide devotional broadcast in May 2023. The couple urged young adults to stop delaying marriage and parenthood.

Some commenters, however, worried the call to prioritize motherhood could leave women particularly vulnerable to financial insecurity.

“Approaching 40, I have seen enough faithful LDS women abandoned by their husbands and left to care for their children — all with weak educational degrees, starting from scratch and barely scraping by,” wrote @anniemangelson. “Too many women and children end up in absolute crisis having simply ‘followed the prophet.’ We have to quit teaching like this and setting some women up for failure.”

And, as many commenters pointed out, Johnson’s own decision to pursue a career conflicted with previous prophetic counsel discouraging women from work that took them away from their husbands and children.

“I’m grateful for this message and example,” said user @jsmileybug. “However, I’m 25 and this is the very first time I’ve EVER heard a church leader suggest it’s acceptable for [mothers] to work outside the home.”

What Kimball and Benson said

(The Salt Lake Tribune_ President Spencer W Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sits with apostle Ezra Taft Benson. Both leaders urged women to put motherhood ahead of careers.

Some of the more than 2,000 comments pointed to the words of former President Spencer W. Kimball, spoken in 1977 and shared a decade later during a Brigham Young University fireside by then-President Ezra Taft Benson, as the kind of clear direction Johnson would have heard — and not heeded.

“No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother — cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children,” Benson quoted Kimball as saying. “Come home, wives, to your husbands. Make home a heaven for them. Come home, wives, to your children, born and unborn.

Several Instagram commenters cited rhetoric like this as their own reason for forfeiting careers and instead having children sooner than they otherwise would have — decisions some said they now regretted. To have Johnson, who chose otherwise, now lauded as a role model, they said, was painful to watch.

One user, @oils4us, wrote that she was in the audience when Benson delivered his dramatic address. Taking the message to heart, she said, she proceeded to give birth to three children in three years.

“I used to get the BYU alumni magazine and every time I’d cry and feel sad because where was my paragraph?” she wrote. “Where were my accolades for having done what” Benson instructed?

Seeing Johnson praised now, she said, brought back that same ache.

“The women,” she said, “who went against the prophet’s very direct counsel get their paragraphs and fulfillment of becoming something else and a mom.”

Neither was the impact of such rhetoric constrained to a single generation.

“I’m sobbing reading this,” commented the 35-year-old Linda Hamilton, who, in an interview with The Tribune, said she gave up her dream of becoming a writer to devote herself to her family.

These days, she mourns “for younger me. She gave up all her dreams and ambitions because she truly thought God would only accept her if she obeyed the prophets exactly.”

It’s not that Hamilton, who lives in Southern California, doesn’t want the church to celebrate working women. Rather, she wishes Johnson and other church leaders would acknowledge that doing so represents a major break from the past.

Hamilton is hardly alone.

The ‘right thing to do’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Relief Society General President Camille Johnson speaks at the European Union Parliament in Brussels in March 2024 on religious liberty for women.

“This would have been an even more beautiful message if it was coupled with an apology,” wrote @ariabethards, “to all the women who listened to President Benson and other prophets who pressured women into letting go of education and career dreams to stay home as housewives.”

Others, meanwhile, didn’t seem to know what to think in response to the talk.

“I’m starting to feel so confused,” wrote @jameeandelin. “On the one hand, I’m so happy that Camille Johnson listened to her own intuition and authority to make decisions for her life. …But I know someone who was not given a temple recommend because they chose to work instead of stay at home at the time. It’s so unfair. I don’t get it.”

Still others saw in the sermon an opportunity to emphasize the importance of following Johnson’s example and carving one’s own path.

“Let this celebratory post of a woman in the church choosing to go against the brethren,” @edge_of_inside wrote, “stand as a shining example to the rest of us that following our own personal revelation and authority will always be the right thing to do.”

The comments are reminiscent of the more than 13,000 responses engendered by a church Instagram post from late March quoting a sermon by Johnson’s first counselor, J. Anette Dennis.

In her speech and the associated post, Dennis stated, “There is no other religious organization in the world, that I know of, that has so broadly given power and authority to women.”

The women represented in the comments were less convinced, arguing that their experience in the patriarchal faith did not align with Dennis’ description.