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Young Women programs past and present

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — How Mormon womanhood was constructed through the Young Women program's curriculum, expectations placed upon young women athletes in the LDS Church, and exploring childhood in the church were topics discussed in "Childhood, Youth, and Gender in the Mormon Past and Present," at the 2010 Mormon History Association Conference near Independence, Mo.

Young Women

Kristine Haglund began by explaining that in many ways it was and is LDS women who "define, give shape to, explain Mormonism to a skeptical public and even to Mormons themselves." One of the critical ways principles are distilled into practice for young girls is through the Young Women's Personal Progress Program and its predecessors.

In 1934, to complement the Boy Scout program, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints developed a program for Young Women focused on religion, home, health, domestic art, out-of-doors, business and public service. In 1971, a new program and a Treasures of Truth binder were introduced. A "radical contrast" to the 1934 program, it was less prescriptive and "directed towards helping girls keep a journal and work towards self-determined goals," she said. The ideals of temple marriage and motherhood were some of the important goals among many others.

The first Young Woman program called "Personal Progress" was introduced in 1978 with no remarkable evolution in doctrine. The program included six "Areas of Focus" and centered on homemaking activities as well as spiritual training.

The program now in use by the church includes eight values: faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, integrity and virtue. It provides a "doctrinal foundation (that is) thoroughly articulated" and rooted in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" with temple, Jesus Christ, motherhood and homemaking significant parts of each value.

The intention of today's program is not "merely an attempt to return girls to some idealized past, located somewhere in the imaginary 1950s …," Halgund said. "It represents a substantial reconceptualization of the home and the place of family in the Plan of Salvation."

Home is not just "a physical place but an ideological, even theological construct," where "the righteous homemaker (is) an active, forceful agent — a girl who has spent time thinking about the spiritual values that she wants to inculcate in her family," she added.

Athletes

Laura Taylor's paper examined LDS female athletes and the demands placed upon them. As women took up athletics in the 1960s and 1970s, an unusual paradigm was created in the church. Women were to excel in a man's world, train to be good athletes, be feminine beauties, and have a "feminine attitude on the court." These requirements reflected the emphasis in LDS literature, especially the New Era, on the "idealized female," with beauty more important than athletic prowess, she said.

A look at attitudes at Brigham Young University toward women athletes focused on discourse and representations of women in the student newspaper, the Daily Universe, and how they have changed over time. In the 1970s, the emphasis was on being feminine and athletic, with the requirement to embrace womanly values. Articles on female athletes featured pictures focused on femininity rather than performance in sports.

In the 1980s, perceptions began to shift with less focus on feminine beauty and more photos of women performing in athletic contests, indicating wider acceptance of female athletes. By the end of the 20th century, this shift was also evident in the New Era.

With the shifting focus in the world and its fixation on nude females, the church has begun to shift attention away from the beautiful, sexualized body and the world's obsession with physical appearance. Within the LDS Church there is also a concern over competitiveness, perceiving it as inappropriate for LDS young women. Illustrative of the church's current treatment of female athletes is a recent article in the New Era about a female athlete that described her decision to marry, to learn to crochet, and her choice not to play on the U.S. Soccer team in the Olympics because they play on Sunday.

Childhood

Rebecca de Schweinitz, of the Brigham Young University's Department of History, closed out the session by reviewing historiography, or historical writing, on Mormon childhood. She suggested that as we look at childhood in the Mormon faith "we can get at the Mormon culture."

Social history in the 1970s explored the "bottom up" experience of childhood and told historians a great deal about societies in the past and continues to tell us a great deal about present day society. De Schweinitz encouraged making children the focus of historical attention and thinking about the ways this provides further insight into Mormon culture.

Additionally, she suggested, it provides insight into Mormon women's ideas of childhood. Through such historical investigation not only can we better understand the history of young people in the church but the history of childhood elsewhere.