A Woman, but Never a Young One

My United Methodist Confirmation Class. I'm on the right in the front row.

I know this may be tempting the fates, but I have never yet served in the Young Women’s program. When I joined the church in college in Massachusetts, I joined a university ward that only had adult programs. I had all manner of wonderful role models – male and especially female. I had mentors of great wisdom, devotion, intelligence and commitment. Rather than saying I stand on the shoulders of giants, I like to think I was nurtured in the laps of sages.

There’s a gap for me, though. What is it like to grow up in the Young Women’s program? Would I view things differently if I had? What did I miss?

I was a devoted Christian of the Protestant stripe when I became a Mormon. I had been president of the youth group of my congregation. I wasn’t searching for anything new or better. Boys and girls were taught the same thing in the same classes, and those were all good things: how do we become better disciples? What does it mean to forgive and repent and love? What do the scriptures say and mean?

I’m also the youngest of three Midwestern daughters of an accomplished mom and a busy dad. I never knew any boy scouts well. I had friends who were boys and occasionally I had boyfriends, but gender differences weren’t a significant part of my life. I went to a women’s college – Wellesley College, one of the few that still exist – and it didn’t seem strange to me to be surrounded by and compete with competent, sometimes outspoken women. Even in coed classes I was never shy about voicing my opinions or taking the subject matter seriously. That’s just what people did.

These many years later I am bemused by how roles for men and women get parsed or pedestalled in LDS circles. I am surprised to still find myself one of the only female voices piping up in Sunday School class. Is that just because of where I live? While I was delighted to marry my husband, I had already decided that if I were going to live my life single, it would also be full of purpose and joy. When my husband and I married we were still in a singles’ ward which was also where most of our friends were. We chose to stay in the singles ward with them. Why would so many people assume we would want to change to a married ward?

If you went through the Young Women’s program – or have served in it – what are the fundamental messages you received or teach? What were some of your most foundational experiences shaping you as a young woman growing up in the church? (Good or bad, shared in a spirit of good will, of course.) If you, like I, never attended Young Women’s, what’s your take and perspective on the topic?

About Linda

(Prose Board) splits her time between the mountains of Utah and the prairies of Illinois, generally confounding the postal service. She compiles inspiring collections of LDS women talking about topics dear to (or prickly in) LDS women's hearts (visiting teaching, Relief Society, motherhood, etc.) through Cedar Fort Publishing. Her latest is "Muffins & Miracles: Church Service in the Real World." She also writes for children ("Come with Me on Halloween"), illustrates, writes poetry, plays with fabric and can be bribed with dark chocolate.

24 thoughts on “A Woman, but Never a Young One

  1. I had the parallel experience (as a convert at 27) of serving as YW president in an inner-city ward while in grad school. My first counselor was from UT but told me that she didn’t feel like she had fit in the YW program when she was growing up, thought she loved her leaders. So both of us had non-traditional experiences with YW. I don’t think we even cracked the manual open.

  2. When I was a Young Woman, I had the unusual experience of having leaders who married extremely young, one of them at 16, and lived to regret it. I knew that lots of women in the church married young but my leaders were saying “Don’t do what I did.” And I didn’t. I think the attitudes and beliefs of the leaders, doctrinal or not, provided the main messages in YW.

  3. I love the photo, Linda.

    I agree with Nancy R that the attitudes and background of YW leaders can have a big impact on the young women in the ward. Even though I grew up in one of the most conservative parts of Utah, I had only a few YW advisors who had “traditional” marriages. Some had never married, one had married after getting pregnant, one had been divorced many times, several were widowed, and others were divorced and currently single. The only one that I can remember who was in her first marriage gave me a feminist (well, feminist from a Mormon perspective) book about women in the scriptures. None of those women were the type to sit quietly in any situation.

    I came away from YW thinking that temple marriage was important, but definitely not certain. Those women taught me a lot about dealing with what life gives in the best way you can and still holding on to your testimony even if you don’t have the “right” sort of family or situation in life.

    I haven’t anything to do with YW since I graduated from high school though. I’ve never served in YW (and won’t anytime soon because there are no YW in this country) and I only have boys. It is such a time-consuming calling though and I’m always impressed with the women who do such a good job with it.

  4. I honestly don’t remember a lot of specific lessons or activities from my days in YW. Apparently nothing was either outrageous or significant enough to stand out to me. For my first few years my mom was the YW president, then the woman after her was someone who was very different from my mom. I think most of my leaders were either converts, but I’m not even sure. One of my favorite things that I remember from YW is when we started a tradition of doing a YW program in Sacrament Meeting each year. We would sing songs and have girls give talks, kind of like a primary program. From what I remember we were pretty much in charge of doing it ourselves and it was always a great experience.

    As an adult I’ve never served in YW, and I’m honestly terrified of it. I never understood teenage girls when I was one, and I still don’t really get them. I think it would be hard calling for me.

  5. I was a YW in three different wards. I now have a daughter in YWs. Here are some of my thoughts.
    YW is female only, but Sunday School is combined plus YM/YW activities are combined. Sunday School and the combined YM/YW activities give kids a chance to hang out with the opposite sex, be friends, flirt, show off, feel embarrassed, etc. All of that stuff. Then the YWs program gives girls a chance to bond with just girls, have just female leaders/role models, etc. So to me it actually feels like a very balanced program.
    My daughter has a lot of male friends. Since there are no girls her age I am glad that she has SS to hang out with boys her age. I am glad that she has had some female only opportunities in girls camp and YWs. I am glad for some female role models in the YW leaders, older girls as examples, younger girls to mentor.
    With girl only interactions you have to worry about girl drama (our ward luckily hasn’t had any). With boy-girl interactions you have to worry about boy-girl drama. Like one of the boys texting I love you several times to my daughter at age 13. She feels awkward with him now.

  6. Growing up in Utah I had many great experiences with the YW program. My heart swells when I think of testimony meetings at YW camp…seriously in the top 3 most spirtual experiences of my life.
    The values I learned in YW were with me during inactivity, during the newlywed stage, during the new mom stage and they played a large role in my return to activity and my family sealing just 2 weeks ago!
    Our Church and all it’s programs are TRULY INSPIRED
    I love what Amira said about not being “traditional”. My YW leader, whose husband was bishop, talked (and still does, we are now neighbors!) openly about her husbands longtime inactivity at the beginning of their marriage, her struggles as a mom, her children’s serious struggles…that’s what I learn(ed) the most from- REAL women! I love RS now…it’s so uplifting to talk with women about our lives and how to improve them!
    I guess it may be only in our community but around here, the women run the show ;) WE are the ones who lead discussions in our Sunday School, WE are the ones who fellowship with the members, etc. I really feel the women in my area are stronger in the Gospel than our men (including in our own home), so it would be interesting to see that tipped on it’s head!
    !

  7. Amira–I wish I had your experience in YW. All of my YW advisers were “traditional,” and it was never once suggested to me that I might live my life single. In fact, when I left for BYU at 18 years old, my YW leaders (and other ward members) told me they expected me to be engaged by Christmas.

    It’s an expectation that I still struggle with, because sometimes I feel like a complete failure, even though I have a stellar career and incredible friends. I know that I shouldn’t blame the church or YW for the twisted sense of self-worth I have….i.e. I must not be as righteous as other women who have married…

    Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that Heavenly Father is just as proud of me single as He would be if I was married and mothering. And part of that is because all I ever heard and saw in YW was that the only important thing I would ever be in this life was a wife and a mother.

  8. As a 52 yr old Lutheran Woman, now even married, it amazes me that I still hesitate to speak up in Bible Study. I don’t volunteer to read the scripture outloud when the pastor asks, because there are men there. Altho i notice some other women do. I do offer a “insight” now and again, altho the stares from the men, often make me study my shoes afterwards, even if i’ve been told i’m on target.

    One week i had a strong disagreement with one of the men in the discussion. After, when a few other women and I were cleaning up in the kitchen, one of the ladies said – We don’t do that. Lutheran women are quiet in Bible Study, esp in mixed groups. It will make a hard way for you, men don’t like it.

    So, it’s 2011, and………..

  9. I’m so glad to read all your comments here, ladies. It sounds like individuals have a significant impact, maybe more so than manuals and dogma (which can be different and distinct from Gospel truths). “YW-Meh,” you bring up some of the stuff that really puzzles me. (Enormous hugs coming your way right now.)I am jazzed at how “progressive” Jesus was with his female friends. That doesn’t get half as much air time as I think it deserves. And some rhetoric and policies make it quite the tricky balancing act.

    I have sensed through the years that many women get programmed by tradition and outright preaching that marriage and motherhood are indicators of a woman’s (and every woman’s) worthiness. (As though God didn’t know our hearts, circumstances, challenges, preferences and opportunities!) That’s some of the “pedestalling” I alluded to. It’s as though our relational connections are what make us valuable enough to take up space on the planet. It makes me want to tear out my hair.

    I have heard horror stories about bad analogies for repentance; “virtue” being some understood as code for sexual purity instead of the much more full-bodied (so to speak) concept that it is; that females need to depend on, rely on, submit to their various “priesthood leaders” which gets interpreted as being docile which gets used as an excuse for not being as scripturaly literate as the men are expected to be. Oh dear. I seem to be on a high horse.

    And so it is with great joy that I read that there are many strong and committed women out there mentoring us/each other on what godly women should live like. I, for one, always thought of Chieko Okazaki that way. Let there be more “dedicated dynamoes” all over the church!

  10. i knew that looked like a confirmation picture!

    @traci: it actually depends on the lutheran sect and the particular woman. i know women that wouldn’t speak up for anything and women who steamroll over the men. as the pastor’s wife, i strive for a balance between the two. :) (in other words, i let a lot of things go but i am not afraid to be assertive about something if i have to.)

  11. @traci and jen -

    There’s something reassuring about hearing that Mormons aren’t the only ones wrestling with this! Thanks so much for posting.

  12. Linda, since you and I were taught the Gospel together, both in college at the time, I thought I would comment here! Since then, however, unlike you, I have served long and often in YW, at the ward and stake levels and with each age group. I have also raised three daughters who each chose the traditional path of BYU and temple marriage and are now raising their own families. In some ways I identify with the heart of what I am reading here: it frustrates me that more women in the various wards we have lived in are not as well-versed in scripture and doctrine as their male counterparts. However, we do seem to get plenty of female input in Sunday School classes, and I love it that quite often a female is the final speaker in Sacrament Meeting. Relief Society is where the true depth of a woman’s gospel knowledge seems to shine, and you would not be disappointed in the majority of women in our current ward. I have found the various YW programs of which I have been a part to be quite balanced in leadership – some leaders more traditional, some leaning more towards liberal views; and thus the girls get the exposure they need and can make enlightened choices. I have also observed, however, that in the end, when it comes to traditional vs. liberal views of womanhood, most YW will more closely align themselves with the views of their own mothers, rather than with their YW leaders, despite the powerful force for good that a YW leader can be. I am happy to say that all three of our daughters are strong-willed, independent-thinking, faithful women who speak up easily, but who honor their Priesthood leaders and love their traditional roles of wife and mother. They know and study the Gospel and are becoming powerful teachers, and our son honors his sisters as the extraordinary women they are. The bottom line is: if we will concentrate on just living life as strong, independent women, our actions will speak for themselves, and we won’t need to convince anyone that women need to be more respected. That is what we ultimately are teaching the YW of the Church – BE somebody, be accountable for your own happiness and your own successes in life, and know that you are loved by Our Father and His Son.

  13. “most YW will more closely align themselves with the views of their own mothers, rather than with their YW leaders, despite the powerful force for good that a YW leader can be. ”

    Or with their fathers. I’m sure some of my YW experiences weren’t perfect, but I don’t look back and feel that my leaders did anything but just try to teach and love the best they could. (I even had some pretty horrible experiences with the girls in my ward, but my leaders made an effort to reach out and build me up as a person, so the bad social experiences I had aren’t tied to the YW program.

    But I also think that this is in part because of the amazing influence of my dad. As a father of only girls, he was our greatest champion. I never questioned the concept of partnership because that was what I lived with and saw modeled. I never felt less than because I was a girl. In that kind of a family culture, the YW program was truly secondary in my life, and like FoxyJ’s experience, where I don’t really remember much of anything specific about lessons, activities, etc. I just remember being loved and feeling the Spirit (especially through music and camp).

    I also had great priesthood leaders, including my dad as bishop through the hardest year of my growing up years (9th grade).

    So I guess my point is that I think there is probably often more than just the YW program having an influence on the girls. Family culture, social experiences, etc. also have their significant impact.

    p.s. I love working in YW, but haven’t been in the program for 11 years…not once in this area. It was pretty much the only calling I had before that.

  14. I’m pretty much with YW…Meh when it came to my experience. Though I do follow the traditional church role by being a wife and mother, during my time in YW I found it frustrating that there were few leaders who connected with me on a personal level once they heard I didn’t want anything to do with kids or dating (as a teen it was pretty obvious you did not ask me to babysit). So my senior year I skipped out on mutual and went to a neighboring church’s activities with some friends from school. They helped me feel normal during the time I was at lost for commonality.

    But besides the years spent as a Laurel, my Mia Maid and Beehive years were great mainly because I was friends with the other girls and our leaders were funny.

  15. Me too!

    “all three of our daughters are strong-willed, independent-thinking, faithful women who speak up easily, but who honor their Priesthood leaders and love their traditional roles of wife and mother.”

    This is what I hope my 16-year-old is growing toward.

  16. I felt very out of it in my very traditional, all-LDS community ward growing up. I wasn’t really friends with the other girls especially, but I went to church because I believed. I loved and respected my leaders, too.

    As an adult, I was called to be the YW president in a ward we’d just moved into (seriously–two months.)I knew no one. Two of my children had just started into YM/YW & I served for three years.

    I was uncomfortable with teenaged girls. I’d never really “got” them when I was one. But I think it made me more tuned into the girls who may have felt that they didn’t belong to the cool group.I learned to watch out for the loners. I also learned to really love the girls in my ward–For years after I’d get teary when we were reciting the YW theme at events with my daughters.

    My goal was to help every girl feel the Spirit and figure out who she was, and that whoever that person was–she was okay. And that God loved her. Sometimes that was hard to do because, you know, 14 is a really hard age to be.

    I hadn’t been married in the temple, my husband didn’t go to church, I was going to college in order to become a career woman–I was hardly the Very Model of a Mormon Mother. But I worked very hard to preach the gospel and stick to the scriptures. Again, I really believed.

    One thing I wanted them to hear was that sexuality was part of life; our job is to manage it until the appropriate time–marriage. I’d grown up in that “Don’t Bruise Your Rose Petals” era, and the first time I kissed a boy–and realized that it felt AWESOME—I just knew that I must be a really bad person. I didn’t want them to misunderstand like that.

    Anyway, teenager-hood is a hard time. I’m glad the church has provided opportunities for children to have other adults involved in their lives besides parents–people who can reinforce what parents are trying to teach at home–people who will love your teens when sometimes they reject you. That’s why I know it is an inspired program. I still believe.

  17. @jkfrome – Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your sensitivity, candor and compassion radiate, as I’m sure it did among the young women you served.

    What a great goal!:
    “My goal was to help every girl feel the Spirit and figure out who she was, and that whoever that person was–she was okay. And that God loved her. Sometimes that was hard to do because, you know, 14 is a really hard age to be.”

  18. I grew up with my mother being my YW pres. She was YW pres for 9 years! Yikes and I am already balking at 2 years. I loved having my mother with me and her counslers were amazing, we still visit each other and keep in touch.

    Although my mother had the “traditional” mormon marriage her views on what woman can and should achieve may not have been “traditional” I knew that marriage wasn’t the end of “me”, that I could still grow, be an individual, and voice my opinion.

    As YW Pres I try very hard not to make sure the girls know that marriage is not the only way to be happy in life. That for some it may happen early and for some not at all. When I am seeking for Counslers I look for a broad view of woman not only to bring in our own qualities but also to show the different paths we all can take.

    As for Sunday school we have a good mix of noone answering the questions :) I dislike having sunday school in the chapel because it seem to really reduce the conversation.

    In ward councel it seems that I am the only woman who really speaks up though. Bishop said that they like that I am strong woman and that the girls need that at this time but I don’t think he knew what a spitfire I can be.

    P.S. if anyone want so move into my ward you can have my calling for awhile :)

  19. I really disliked YW while I was in it. Partly because I was the “loner” – everyone else was really sporty – and I am very much not. Also because there were only 2 of us in the same class, and she was a year older – so I ended up being alone 1/2 the time. It didn’t help that our church had tons of cliques. It was hard to get in, and exceptionally hard in YW if you didn’t like sports. So… I have pretty much no good memories of YW – I don’t have many BAD memories either. Just a large impression of loneliness and estrangement when I think about it. So, in my opinion, you didn’t miss much and it sounded like you had a better time in your youth group.

  20. Growing up I had good experiences in YW and bad. The bad memories are related to my misunderstandings about how people should have helped me – looking back I think they were right have healthy boundaries. The good memories that stand out are related to feeling loved – that God loved me, leaders loved me and other YW loved me. Even though my leaders knew I was ‘off the path’ for a time they didn’t treat me differently. Their love made it easier to repent.

    Girls Camp was one of my favorite things because my home life wasn’t great. It was such a joy to feel the spirit daily while in nature. I was so sad to miss it as a leader this year.

    I’ve served in YWs in a fairly traditional ward, in an inner city branch, and in the stake. I love it! To me it is more about connecting with YW and being another source of strength for them to draw on, including example. It is about individual women (young and old) but the manuals, programs, and guidelines that the church administers helped me as a leader provide a well-rounded and focused service. I could go on and on, the YWs program is wonderful, and the YW themselves are beautiful bundles of potential often too blind to their great value. I love them and I enjoy following them on Facebook to see their lives grow and develop!

    At this point I’ll say that I was just called to be Assistant Cub Master and I’m lacking the same joy for Scouting.

  21. I didn’t grow up in YW because I joined the Church when I was 18 and my sister, 16, was baptized on the same date as I was. We were the only YW in our branch (or, more aptly, our “twig”) in rural Alaska. We didn’t have mutual or Girls Camp, or any of the traditional YW experiences. I felt really inadequate when I was recently called to be a Laurel’s adviser. For a long time I felt out of place because I didn’t connect with the other leaders and I couldn’t go to mutual because I taught night classes on Tuesdays as a grad student. It took months for me to realize why I was called to YW: like jkfrome, I watched out for the loners and those were the girls I eventually connected with most. They were the sweetest, nicest girls I’d ever met.

    All the YW in our ward are wonderful girls, but I wish they knew how to connect better with “the loners,” or with less active girls. Reaching out to others with whom you might not share common interests is a skill/responsibility I’ve tried to emphasize in my lessons on mission work and when I’ve shared my testimony. I don’t have daughters yet, but when I do, this is what I want to teach them, because being strong enough to reach out to others was exactly what our Savior did.

  22. I got tired of hearing the same lessons over and over–chastity, modesty, temple marriage, repeat. It got old.

    When I was Laurel president I tried to have some activities where we actually learned life skills, like changing tires and checking the oil in a car, instead of crafts all the time.

    I personally feel that instead of hammering chastity and modesty, we need to help the girls gain a testimony and become women who want to be modest and chaste.

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