Editor’s note: This essay by Carol Rice and Breanne Su’a is part of an ongoing Deseret News series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

Public rhetoric about women of faith often centers around oppression, angst or suffering. This narrative conflicts sharply with the words and experiences of many religious women themselves. 

Describing her choice to participate actively in her religious community, one woman recently told us, “I’ve lived with God in my life and without Him. I know the difference — I haven’t chosen this because I’m brainwashed or enjoy feeling morally superior to others. … I wouldn’t trade this for anything.” Another responded, “I am strong and powerful! I am not forced to believe. I choose faith because it brings peace, strength, and power into my life.”

Such statements contradict portrayals of believing women that can feel cartoonishly at odds with their actual lives. 

What do women of faith wish others knew? We’ve been asking women exactly that. And we keep hearing a desire that others would better understand their depth of commitment — and how characterizations of religious women as naïve victims of oppression simply don’t reflect their own stories.

“True empowerment,” another woman emphasized, comes from a connection to Jesus Christ “as I walk in a covenant relationship with Him.” 

She added, “He is the source of confidence and power to do and become everything that we are called to do as women.” 

Standing shoulder to shoulder

One widely respected indicator of women’s liberation throughout the world is education. Russell M. Nelson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said to young adults in 2013, “For us as Latter-day Saints, getting an education is not just a privilege; it is a religious responsibility.”  

It might surprise some to learn how many religious women today are choosing to pursue education and other meaningful endeavors, alongside their commitment to be wives and mothers. 

One Latter-day Saint woman remarked, “Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies.… Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.” That last quote, in fact, is over 125 years old, from a Utah woman named Elizabeth McCune in 1897 — whose life story provides another powerful lesson.  

Steady steps forward

In the late 1890s, William Jarman traveled around England promoting a book filled with sensational claims about life in Utah, with particularly harsh and unflattering characterizations of Latter-day Saint women. 

McCune, a Utah native and member of the church, was also traveling in Europe at the time — and given an opportunity to speak of these allegations at a semiannual conference filled with “saints and strangers.” 

“With a final prayer,” she recalled, “I arose to address the audience. … I told them I had been raised in Utah and knew almost every foot of the country and most of the people.” Recounting her extensive travels in America and in Europe, McCune went on to remark that “nowhere” had she found “women held in such esteem” as among the Latter-day Saints in Utah. 

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In this event and many others like it, McCune energetically dispelled Jarman’s claims, which contradicted her own experiences and observations of many other Utah women. 

This isn’t to say real oppression and abuse have not been an ugly reality for many women of faith — much like they have been for far too many women throughout the world.

Clearly more needs to be done, and like McCune advocated in her day, we encourage and celebrate the continuing progress in our own faith to elevate women.

Specific to the educational needs of women around the world, the Church Educational System associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken additional steps to provide paths forward for women globally and multiculturally.

One CES institution, BYU-Pathway Worldwide, was specifically designed to provide access to low-cost online education in more than 180 countries. This initiative has been especially helpful for women whose education depends on unique flexibility, due to other responsibilities. (There’s a median student age of 30 with 56% of students female worldwide).

By helping women overcome real barriers — including finances, fear, technology and time — BYU-Pathway makes it possible for them to fit education into their lives and provides them with the affordability, flexibility and added support they need to succeed.

A burning desire to continue education

Victoria Akpan from Nigeria is one of the many women in Africa participating in BYU-Pathway. Although educational access continues to improve in Nigeria, from 2010-2015 the country’s universities were only able to admit 26% of 10 million applicants annually.  

In 2013, after receiving her high school diploma, Akpan applied to a local university — but ultimately opted to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ. After her mission, she married and started to build her family but had not lost sight of her educational goals.

“I had this burning desire to continue my education,” she stated — because “just like the prophets said, there is no shortcut to excellence.” Akpan spoke of wanting to “acquire the necessary knowledge and skills and competence that will enable me to serve my family, my community, and in my calling in the Church.” 

While excited to find a way forward with her education, this woman admitted the real challenges of doing so: “As a wife and a mom, it’s not easy to acquire higher education with family responsibilities and work as well.” On top of that, Akpan began her studies right as the COVID-19 pandemic started to emerge. “My son was still little then, and I was pregnant with my first daughter,” said Akpan. “I didn’t have a personal computer to study with or a stable internet connection. I only had my phone.”

But Akpan wasn’t without support and used whatever resources she could find — completing some assignments with her phone, and once or twice a week, traveling to a church chapel to use a computer, like many others in the program in her area.  

“When they would see my baby and me coming to study, the other students made me a priority. Someone would leave their place and let me use the computer,” said Akpan. 

Crediting the encouragement of others around her and God too, Akpan was successful in completing her foundational courses — reflecting how “The growth mindset that I have developed helped me pass through this difficult time.”

Never too late

Another BYU-Pathway student from Utah, Ann Peterson, is a mother of seven children. In her last year of high school, her school counselor told her, “Ann, maybe you just aren’t college material.” 

Despite this, she soon after enrolled in a basic computer course at a local college, even though she had never used a computer before. When she struggled to turn it on, her professor said to her, “If you don’t know how to do this, maybe you shouldn’t be here.” 

This time the discouragement stuck. Ann gathered her things, cried all the way home, and dropped out of school. When she married two years later, her husband, heartbroken about her story, insisted she could succeed in college. But Ann felt too afraid.

Fifteen years later, Ann and her husband had six children, including several with special needs. After so many hours in meetings with administrators, therapists, doctors, and district officials, she reflects, “I became well-versed in advocating for my children’s needs, but people often saw me as ‘just a mom.’”

The faith that stares through death

Her husband again encouraged her to consider picking up her educational dreams — introducing her to BYU-Pathway. Still hesitant, it took some time for the idea to take hold. But after learning more about the program, Ann rallied her courage to give it a try.   

While her first year was difficult, the relationships she built with her peers, along with her spouse’s continued encouragement, helped her push through and finish — eventually transferring to an online degree program at BYU-Idaho that would prepare her to help families with special needs children. 

“For the first time in decades,” Ann reflected, “I believe in myself. I will achieve my goals!” 

Womanhood as birthright

As evident here, these women evince a quiet strength secured in sacrificing for another season, alongside a hope in ongoing growth grounded in their faith. Reaching for more education becomes a natural reflection of that faith.  

Even so, as one woman clarified, “My identity and worth are not determined or defined by what I’ve accomplished in life, how I look, or even how I feel. I have a divine nature as a daughter of Heavenly Father. … My identity and worth come from God. Womanhood is a birthright.” 

Far from a burden that exacerbates suffering, for these women, this understanding is a clear cause for celebration.  

Adapted from an article that first appeared in Public Square Magazine

Carol Rice is the president of Skyline Research Institute and the director of communications for Public Square Magazine. Breanne Su’a is a communication manager for BYU-Pathway Worldwide — previously working as a writer for Come, Follow Me and the Friend.