As sisters in Zion, Mormon women are taught to develop feelings of love towards each other. The Relief Society is ideally an organization where “charity never faileth” and close bonds of friendship and sisterhood are cultivated. Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, this doesn’t always happen.
Several years ago I was in a ward in which the Relief Society sisters were divided into two camps: women who participated in the book group and women who participated in the play group. I belonged to the book group. We were a relatively small and diverse group composed of graduate students (married and single) and young moms, some who worked and others who stayed at home. We debated, disagreed and developed ideas together as we discussed what we’d read. Our meetings were a source of strength, and sanity for us. Once a month we’d get together to eat and talk. Over the years we laughed and cried together through the triumphs and tragedies each of us faced.
The other group in the Relief Society was the play group. The play group was composed of young stay at home mothers with toddlers at home. Almost all of these women were supporting husbands in school. They met weekly for lunch and to have their children play together. Although I never attended play group, I know that the women involved discussed and developed solutions to practical problems like how to work out cooperative child care arrangements so that each woman could find some personal time or go out with her husband. For many of these young mothers play group was a source of strength and sanity. Once a week they would get together to eat and talk. I imagine they laughed and cried together too since strong and lasting friendships were forged.
The activities of these two groups were parallel and fulfilled similar needs for the sisters who participated. Nevertheless, these groups turned out to be divisive in our Relief Society because of an unspoken animosity that grew between some of the women in the book group and some of the women in the play group. What was the problem? Here comes the unsurprising part: it turns out that there were women who felt judged and excluded. Some play group women felt judged as mindless, uneducated and uninteresting while some book group women felt judged as self-centered, disobedient, or faithless for pursuing degrees, working, putting off children, or keeping one’s birth name after marriage. The feeling of being judged ultimately led to friction and hostility among some of the sisters and inhibited not only feelings of sisterhood, but also the Spirit in our meetings. Although this situation may be an extreme example, it cannot be considered entirely uncommon since Mormon women often report such feelings (see Janiece Johnson’s article Patriarchy and Contentment) whether or not judgments are actually made.
So, here’s my question: If it is true that Mormon women feel judged, why do they feel so? Here are some possible answers I’ve heard lately:
1.Mormon women, (like all women?) feel judged, because they are judged—especially by other women. Society teaches women to be overly conscious about their appearance, their work, their children and their choices resulting in insecurity which can only be resolved by close and constant competition to assure that you are ahead of the crowd.
2. Mormon women, (like all women?) feel judged not because they are judged by others but because they harshly judge themselves. The feeling of being judged stems from deep insecurity and one’s own judgments which are interpreted as coming from others. (or some other reason why Mormon women feel judged even when they aren’t)
3.Two nights ago at a discussion group a friend (male) suggested that perhaps being judgmental is just part of women’s essential nature. He wasn’t kidding so I had to add this to the list as representing a legitimate possibility to some.