Here at Segullah we were excited to hear about Aspiring Mormon Women, a new project for working Mormon women of all ages and career paths. We got the chance to talk with Naomi Watkins, who founded the website along with Dianne Orcutt, about the goals and objectives of the group.
What inspired you to create Aspiring Mormon Women?
Aspiring Mormon Women has been a while in the making. I received a strong impression that I needed to obtain a Ph.D. when I was in my mid twenties. At the time, I was teaching middle school English, and I had finished a master’s degree a year prior. While I didn’t see myself teaching middle school for the next thirty years, I was content at the time and wasn’t searching for a next step in my life or career. I actually figured that if a next step were to happen in my life, it would be marriage. Instead, the Lord told me to get a Ph.D. and to not waste any time doing it. But, I moved forward—taking the GRE, writing admissions essays, filling out applications. And during that whole process, I honestly had no idea what I was really doing or what I was getting myself into. And even though I knew that this path was what the Lord wanted me to do, I also really wanted some additional validation and direction. Outside of how-to’s, I really wanted to know that there were other LDS women who were pursuing PhDs or who had already done so. I wanted to know that this path was “acceptable.” In hindsight, I hate that I even had these thoughts, but I did. Outside of the few female BYU professors I had as an undergraduate, I knew one LDS woman with a PhD, and she had received a lot of flack from ward members for doing it. So I really wanted support and validation from people outside of my immediate family and close friends for taking a path that I then viewed as so radically different from the path taken by the LDS women I knew personally. I remember searching on the Internet for an organization or group or something that supported LDS women academics, but given that the Internet was very different in 2005 than it is today, I came up with nothing. And while I often said to friends that I really wanted to provide a way for educated LDS women with careers to meet and come together, I was too busy with my own academic classes, and then writing a dissertation and figuring things out for myself, to also have time to start such a group.
But now, the Internet obviously allows for all kinds of connecting and sharing and networking. And from my in-person and virtual interactions and conversations with LDS women, and from my observations of the recent activism of Mormon feminists, there is a definite need and desire for LDS women to connect and share and network with each other about their educational goals and paths and about their occupations and careers. I’m also now at a place where I’ve trod the path of PhD land, and I have many women, LDS and not, who ask me for advice, wanting mentoring and support, so Aspiring Mormon Women is really a natural extension of the conversations I’ve had with many of my LDS women friends. We’re now just extending that conversation and support on a much larger scale.
I am incredibly lucky to know and work with such smart, accomplished, and ambitious women. I gave a lot of thought to the strengths and talents of the LDS women I knew, striving to form a diverse team in regards to geography, marital status, education levels, and career paths. So some of the team I know personally as they were friends from various wards or universities I’ve attended. For example, I met Dianne, my co-founder, when I lived in Salt Lake City while attending graduate school. She and I would regularly have conversations about women’s education, roles, and issues. And since we think similarly about these topics and we work well together, she was an obvious choice. Others joined the team through word-of-mouth when Aspiring Mormon Women was in its very early stages of inception. It takes a great deal of faith for a stranger to write and say, “I heard you were forming this organization. I believe in what you are doing, and I want to help.” I am amazed that they volunteered when they did not know me and when we had absolutely nothing to show or share! So I owe the formation of this team to a lot of luck and prayers.
How is AMW different from other places for LDS women online? And what role do you see for AMW?
There are already many great online venues for LDS women to discuss feminist issues or topics related to mothering or homemaking or design, photography, infertility, etc. Many LDS women also write personal blogs about their families and faith. And while many of the topics we do and will discuss on Aspiring Mormon Women may appear in these venues, our main objective at AMW is to support the educational and career goals of LDS women. We strive to appeal to LDS women across a wide spectrum by targeting four main groups: 1) high school age young women who desire higher education, 2) women who are attending school, 3) women who are working, and 4) women who want to return to school or work. We are not interested in whether our readers label themselves as “feminists” or if they decide to be full-time stay-at-home mothers or if they really want to pursue a full-time career. Aspiring Mormon Women is a place of support and encouragement, where LDS women can feel safe voicing their desires and goals related to their education and their professions—even if these aspirations might be perceived by some as ambitious or lofty or unconventional. It is time that we as women supported the goals of other women, even when these goals do not mirror our own.
Thus, in addition to offering standard web site content such as personal essays, career day features, articles on LDS pioneer women, informational articles, and podcasts, we will soon roll out forums for women to pose questions and seek and offer advice related to their current life stage. Additionally, in the fall, we will offer informal and formal mentoring and networking opportunities, which will really be the heart of what the Aspiring Mormon Women organization will offer. Our goal is to make AMW the meeting place for LDS women professionals and those interested in improving themselves through education and work. Eventually, we hope to have webinars and online hangouts, in addition to providing opportunities for women who live near each other to gather in-person.
4) How has the project been received so far?
While we were in the planning stages of Aspiring Mormon Women, we watched the eruption of responses to “Wear Pants to Church” and “Let Women Pray.” I admit that we were a bit nervous that we’d receive negative responses from people who assumed that we were advocating for LDS women to abandon their children and enter the workforce full time. For one, we are not advocating that all women work outside-of-the-home full time. And two, I do not believe that mothers who work full time are abandoning their children. I feel strongly that women should (and do) weigh their options carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. If anything, Aspiring Mormon Women exists to illustrate that there are a variety of options for LDS women. And while there may be a few naysayers, we have received very positive responses, feedback, and encouragement from both LDS women and men. We receive emails from women who share that they’ve been looking for an online community such as Aspiring Mormon Women, who are so excited to find other LDS women who have similar interests and aspirations, or who want a forum to discuss topics and pose questions they feel are unwelcome in their branches, wards, or stakes. These types of responses affirm to me that there is a definite need for what Aspiring Mormon Women has to offer.