“The Gospel Counterculture,” Ensign, Mar. 1977, 22
What does the gospel do for the lives of women around the world? How does it change their traditional roles? What conflicts does it cause? How does it improve their lives?
On the surface Latter-day Saint women in different parts of the world seem to face vastly different challenges. Yet my correspondence with Latter-day Saint women in many cultures makes it clear that while the cultural definitions of women’s roles vary, most Latter-day Saint women are not very different from one another, and the solutions to their varied challenges are commonly founded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a positive force, a culture, and even a counterculture. The Latter-day Saint concept of women is unique, unlike any other existing concept for women, and its appeal is to a universal, yet elite group.
“People who love and who seek for good have lives that are very similar, even though the music is different, the accent in speaking is different, and even the clothing sometimes is different,” says Angela L. Lubomirsky, counselor in the La Plata First Ward Relief Society presidency, Quilmes Argentina Stake. Having lived in four South American countries has given her perspective on the similarities:
“Every one of us needs help to excel, to attain greater heights as women,” she stresses. “We want to love and be loved, to give understanding, to be accepted, to find self-fulfillment, to express ourselves. And we hunger to know the ways of God.”
The reassurance of knowing that Latter-day Saint women are sisters all over the world makes the world smaller and more comfortable. Their stories become our own. But what happens to women when they move into the gospel counterculture? We know that all womanly virtues are magnified when the gospel enters their lives. Friendships fostered in Relief Society with other women who have the same values build a network of social support. Because they know that life is eternal, they perceive the significance of their roles as companions to priesthood bearers, and as mothers and homemakers. And as their own spirituality increases they come to understand their own spiritual worth as daughters of God.
The gospel adds new dimension to women’s lives, says Sister Tohiko Taragida of Shizuoka District, Japan Nagoya Mission: “It provides them with opportunities to study new ideas and learn new skills that aid them in their domestic duties. It teaches a brighter hope for eternal life and that man and wife are one.”
It provides opportunities for companionship to Sister Petra Erdman of the Copenhagen First Ward, Copenhagen Denmark Stake. When she retired, her friends thought she would be bored. “But in fact,” she says, “I could use more time.” Every Monday she and a group of sisters, all over seventy years of age, have “home afternoon.” She explains: “We have a nice time studying the words of God and then go home before it gets dark. We older sisters like to knit, to crochet, and sew for our yearly ward bazaar.”
And the gospel means personal growth to Sister Maria Teresa P. de Paredes, wife of the mission president of the Mexico Veracruz Mission: “When a woman is active in the Church, she develops surprising talents she did not know she had. Through studying the gospel and applying correct principles to her daily life, she changes into a better woman, more capable of fulfilling her stewardship in her home and helping her family and community.”
Sister Henriqueta P. de Gonzales of Miranda, Venezuela, adds: “Several years ago I met a humble sister who hardly knew how to read. She was called to be the cultural refinement teacher in Relief Society. She asked me to help her with her calling. On one occasion I spoke to her about the convenience of using a map to illustrate points in the lesson. My eyes filled with tears and my heart with gratitude when this sister told me that she didn’t know what a map was, but that she was determined to enter night school to study and prepare herself so she could serve the Lord better.”
Sister Isabel McCann, social relations teacher in the Quilmes Ward, Quilmes Argentina Stake, adds another example:
“A sister lived in a hut in my community. Her unclean and unkempt appearance seemed normal to her poverty-stricken state. As one who knew her then said. ‘She came and went like a rodent to its burrow. She had no goal. She had no direction. Hers was a hollow life that led to nowhere.’
“Then she was visited by two missionaries. She accepted their message, joined the Church, became involved in Relief Society, and a great change was effected in her life. Her home has become a beautiful little cottage which she has carefully cared for—cleaned, painted, and furnished.
“To those who knew her as she was, it becomes impossible not to believe the testimony she now bears. She has made a total change from a person without desires to a person impelled by her beliefs to be dynamic, neat, and clean. She now desires to overcome her condition, serve her neighbors, and live as the Lord commands. When a member of the Council of the Twelve came to Argentina, this sister demonstrated her faith by walking to Buenos Aires to listen to him, a distance of forty-five kilometers.”
Across the world in Taiwan, where education is highly competitive and the educated are highly honored, Sister Chen Lin Shu-liang tells us of a sister from her branch who considered herself inferior because of her lack of education. She began neglecting her personal appearance; her husband began neglecting his home responsibilities. Then some sisters from her branch helped her to discover that she is a beautiful daughter of God and had no reason to treat herself badly. Now she has learned new skills and discovered new talents. She takes care of her personal appearance. And now she is happy because her husband no longer stays away from home.
From Finland, Sister Annele Felin tells us how the gospel saved one sister’s life. She writes: “She had been depressed and unhappy for a long period of time, without knowing the specific reason for it. Though she had two small sons, still she felt useless, joyless. Life seemed purposeless. She spent sleepless nights and wept often. One night seemed especially depressing to her. Because of her feelings of inner emptiness and insignificance she considered taking her own life. Finally she knelt, and in her anguish prayed, ‘If there is someone up there, please help me!’ The following day the missionaries came to her home. After listening to their message she felt that she had finally found what she had been longing for. And knowing the truth about God gave her the peace of mind she sought. Now that she has joined the Church and understands the great meaning of life and the importance of her own role as a mother and helpmate, she rejoices in her work and feels herself mentally vigorous and happy, even though her husband does not yet belong to the Church.”
While the gospel’s power to set up its own counterculture is impressive, that achievement becomes even more significant when we appreciate the variety of ways different cultures define women’s roles. In some cultures women have relatively little importance as compared to men. In others, men and women are virtually equal. Still other cultures are in the throes of transition. For a woman from any of these cultures, joining the Church is a change and a challenge because the Latter-day Saint concept of woman is unique, with eternal dimensions and untold personal consequences. That testament of challenges met is exciting.
“Many women in Mexico who have joined the Church have suffered a great deal because of their decision to join. Many times their parents, husbands, or families do not share their conviction,” says Sister Maria Teresa P. de Paredes of the Mexico Veracruz Mission.
“Mexico is a country where families still preserve ancestral customs zealously. There are norms and mores that regulate the conduct of the woman from childhood. Usually the woman marries young and dedicates herself completely and selflessly to her family. Only in rare circumstances does she work outside the home.
“When she joins the Church she divides her time between the Church and her home, and helps her family adjust to this change. When the husband is not a member, there are many obstacles. Sometimes the woman must seemingly choose between obeying her husband and fulfilling her religious obligations. But when the purposes of the gospel are understood, almost always she will decide to obey her husband, having confidence that someday he will understand her gospel beliefs.”
Nam S. Lee, language coordinator for Korea, says that in his country, “many of the rules governing human behavior stem from Confucianism. Because of these strict rules, Koreans have established a marvelous civilization of loyal subjects, faithful women, and sons of filial piety. But the application of the rules also brought unjust treatment of women. In the traditional Confucian home, women are not granted freedom of speech. Before marriage, they are taught to obey their fathers; after marriage, their husbands; and if their husbands die, they should listen to their oldest sons. Actually the practice was designed for the purpose of preserving order and peace at home, but the woman’s identity has been ignored, and she is expected to serve her husband and children with no thought for herself.
“After the introduction of modern Christianity to Korea, women struggled to restore their social status and many have gained advanced educations. Nevertheless, people are reluctant to allow women to engage in activities outside the home. This restriction sometimes prevents Latter-day Saint women from attending meetings.
“Those Korean sisters who are able to participate in Church activities are greatly benefited. Their lives are enriched and they learn that they are persons of self-worth, eligible, for happiness. Sister Hwang Keun-ok of Seoul, Korea, said, ‘I am grateful for the programs of the Church that are made for sisters. These programs help us prepare for eternal life, understand gospel truths, and help sisters be good wives and mothers.’ Sister Hwang has held positions of leadership in Junior Sunday School and Relief Society. And the choir she helped form from among thirty orphan girls in her care, known as the Tender Apples, has done much to promote missionary work in Korea.”
Sister Mariaha Peters, wife of the mission president of the Samoa Apia Mission, was the first Fijian woman to join the Church and also the first to go through the temple with her family. In her unique position she has become close to her Samoan sisters and learned from them about Samoan culture. She made these observations about the gospel’s effects on family life in Samoa:
“In the olden days, family relationships were different. When guests were present, men and women were not allowed to socialize in the same room. Children could not sit with their parents at meals. Children were always served their meals last. A wife dutifully complied with wishes of her husband’s sisters, should they require her services. And there was no discussion of important decisions by either the wife or the children. These decisions were made by the father of the family.
“Today, the Church teaches families to do many things together. As missionaries teach families about family home evening and parents learn how to lead their children, these ideas are being readily accepted. It is wonderful to participate in decision-making and self-expression. Latter-day Saint families care for the old people and help each other.
“The most important thing in the home is the priesthood. Families sustain the bearer of that authority and have great faith in the power he holds.
“And women love Relief Society and especially the activities they have in homemaking classes to better their homes and the health of their children.”
For one sister in Germany, the gospel saved her marriage. “I was nineteen years old when I first became acquainted with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though I immediately knew that this Church was teaching the truth, I lost contact with it until my husband and I had been married for about four years. By the time the missionaries came to our village again, I had decided to leave my husband. He had become an alcoholic and was suffering greatly because of it but was unable to change. The missionaries fasted and prayed with us: My husband began to live one day at a time without alcohol. When he told me he would never drink alcohol again, I knew it was the truth. I wondered why I was so sure this time when I had been disappointed so many times by similar promises. It was indeed unusual.
“This assurance strengthened me and I was determined to keep our marriage going. It appeared that the biggest problem, overcoming alcohol, was taken care of.
“Soon after our baptism, we learned we were expecting a child. We now had even more reason to improve our way of life. Six months after the birth of our son we were sealed in the temple. Since then the atmosphere in our home has changed considerably.
“We have two additional sons and have been members for almost twelve years.
“Even though I have always loved my husband, if it were not for the Church we would no longer be together. I love him so much now that I never want to be parted from him or the children.”
Sister Ursula von Selchow, counselor in the Relief Society presidency of the Frankfurt Darmstadt District; Germany Frankfurt Mission; describes the challenges of coming from an “anti-family” environment into the Church:
“Women in West Germany face an environment that is hostile to family solidarity. Only about half of the adult citizens are married and the number of marriages has been declining since the mid-1960s. The divorce rate is continually rising. Because of the existing divorce rate, it is assumed that the real number of broken marriages is considerably higher. Contributing factors to many divorces are to be found in drunkenness and immorality. There are only one or two children living in approximately 40 percent of the households, while families with three or more children reach only 10 percent. The number of births is declining.
“A woman feels more and more pressured by her environment to compete for a place in the working world beside the man and to become independent of the financial provision of her husband. She also feels the demand for a higher standard of living, which oftentimes cannot be reached with the income of the husband alone.
“A newly converted sister coming from such an environment into the Church must gain a testimony of the priesthood’s right and responsibility to preside. Up to now people have tried to make her see a patriarchal home as something outdated. Suddenly she finds her new place beside the man—to accept and support him as her guide and responsible partner.”
Sisters of the Stockholm Sweden Stake, directed by Sister Anna Lindback, stake Relief Society president, discuss the challenges they face: “In modern Sweden, a woman is told that if she wants to realize her potential, she should obtain a job outside the home. This idea of fulfillment outside the home is emphasized to young people through schools and universities, radio and television. Day nurseries are built for the children, and marriages often suffer the onslaught of a wife’s insistence in her newly won equal authority with the man.
“If you ask new sisters what the greatest change was for them when they became members, they reply that it was the new way of looking at their home, their husband, and their children. In some cases they have had difficulty in changing their attitudes, but all have emphasized the importance of learning to respect each other and support the man as the patriarch of the home.
“It is also a great adjustment for a woman to quit her job and stay at home with the children.”
One of the greatest blessings of a woman’s life in the Church is the effect priesthood principles have on her husband. He learns to treat her with kindness and respect. For him there is no double standard of morality. He learns to govern his home with “persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41.)
Sister Britt Louse Lindblom of the Stockholm Second Branch talks about the importance of the priesthood to her family. “I am thankful that my husband honors his priesthood and takes care of his family. Our children really love their father and look up to him. He is their best friend and they trust him.
“Michael, our eleven-year-old son, said to me the other day, ‘Mother, now I am beginning to understand that I can really trust Dad, and if I do as he says, everything will turn out fine for me.’
“Many people wonder how we modern, independent women can stand living in a marriage where the husband presides. They are referring to all the unhappy women in different parts of the world where such homes are run in an unrighteous manner.
“To follow your husband is not an indication of inferiority. On the contrary the much-talked-about equality, a much misused word, does not mean that we should struggle to occupy as many masculine positions as possible. This is an evil concept. As women in the Church we are the most free of any women on earth. Paul said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’” (Gal. 3:28.)
Sister Irma de MacKenna, Relief Society president of the Viña del Mar Chile Stake, adds: “When the husband is faithful in the Church and succeeds in receiving the priesthood, the woman’s life is enriched to such a degree that it is better than she dreamed possible. Both support each other in their callings. The husband becomes polite and courteous. He makes adjustments so his wife will have time to attend Relief Society, to do her visiting teaching, and even go to social and recreative get-togethers. Many times he consents to watch the children at home and help with the housework. There is nothing more touching or more beautiful than to see these families growing in the gospel, joined with their children, attending Church meetings.”
“What joy Marcel and I have to have been sealed for eternity!” says Paulette Kahne of the Huy Branch, Belgium Brussels Mission. “There are so many women that live in constant fear of losing their husbands for one reason or another. Such a thought has never crossed my mind. Our love is deep, and it has been sealed in the house of the Lord for time and all eternity, and devotion to the temple covenants is the best assurance one could ask for. I feel with every fiber of my soul that my husband will always be faithful to that sacred alliance.”
Not every Latter-day Saint woman is fortunate enough to have this type of ideal home life. An ever-present problem in all cultures is the situation where a married woman joins the Church and her husband does not. She faces great conflicts. Should she attend sacrament meeting and dispute with her husband or should she obey him and remain at home? Should she take from her family the time her Sunday meetings demand? The nonmembers within her family find it hard to understand how important these meetings are to her. Her husband, accustomed to her complete attention, may become displeased. And it is difficult for her to have a clear conscience and be able to profit by the teachings of the gospel if she feels she is neglecting the desires of her family. There are many sisters in this situation who struggle daily to exercise their faith on one hand and have good family relationships on the other.
Clery Bentim, curriculum specialist for Church translation and distribution services, reports that a woman in São Paulo, Brazil, attended Church for twelve years before obtaining her husband’s permission to be baptized. “That sister wept every time the sacrament was passed because she could not partake of it. Finally, after much pleading, fasting, and prayer and working with priesthood leaders on her part, her husband decided to grant permission for her baptism. However, he added that he did not want to know the date of her baptism nor that it had been performed. He also refused permission for the children to be baptized in spite of the fact that they wanted it as much as their mother.”
There are also a few sisters who, through years of perseverance and example, have brought their husbands into the Church. For instance, Sister Angela L. de Lubomirsky, Relief Society counselor in LaPlata First Ward, Quilmes Argentina Stake, writes:
“Marilyz de Dolder of LaPlata Second Ward has been a member of the Church since she was nine years old. She has always been active in the Church and has held many Church positions. She married an excellent young man who was not a member of the Church, but she sought for the wisdom to apply all the counsels and teachings of the gospel in her home. She said of this experience, ‘You have to look for a balance.’ She dedicated herself with interest and love to her home, her husband, and her children. After Church meetings she didn’t stay to entertain herself in conversation with her friends, but quickly returned home to attend to her obligations.
“Her husband has been a member of the Church for two years now and is serving as bishop of the LaPlata Second Ward.”
Perhaps the most significant thing a woman can gain from the gospel of Jesus Christ is summarized by Paulette Kahne of Belgium: “I have had the great blessing of having a marvelous mother who, while she was not a member of the Church at the time, instilled in me noble principles and made my life up to my marriage a golden period. But the gospel has added new dimension to my life.
“It has permitted me to better appreciate each hour of the day the fact that I am a daughter of God and have been called to a glorious destiny. Knowing that I am literally a daughter of God helps me to serenely face the harshest problems of life. Knowing that my conduct here on earth will determine my place in the hereafter encourages me to become a better wife and mother.”
In addition to those mentioned in the article, the author wishes to thank the following for their contributions to the article:
Argentina: Mabel Amanda Taddei de Preizz, president of Relief Society, Quilmes Ward, Quilmes Argentina Stake; Herminia Bonino de Avila, wife of mission president, Argentina Buenos Aires Sur Mission; Denmark: Gerda Benthin, Copenhagen Denmark Stake; France: Yvonne Ardite, Paris, France; Hong Kong: Su Shu-ch’ing; Netherlands: J. H. Kirsch-baum; Peru: Sara Gonzales Souza, wife of seminaries and institutes coordinator, Lima, Peru; Samoa: Mary Theresa ah Ching, Pesega First Ward, Apia Samoa West Stake; Tahiti: Maeva Tahaavi; Tonga: Sione Latu, Tongan language coordinator.