BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK (c) 2002, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
In the lean times of the 1870s, the women of the LDS Relief Society delved into silk production and grain storage. In the 1920s, they tried their hands at improving family-health care and even built several maternity hospitals.
But how should the Relief Society meet LDS women's needs today? To find out, the folks at church headquarters did the 21st-century thing -- they took a poll.
In May 2001, the Research Information Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City sent out a 30-page survey asking its female members about everything from church attendance to belief in divine intervention. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of LDS women across the country were selected at random and promised that their answers would remain confidential.
Though the LDS Church declined to talk about the survey or reveal its cumulative results, the questions alone offer a fascinating glimpse of how the church sees the "women question."
The questionnaire asks married women about their wedding ceremony (temple or not), how many hours they work outside the home, how they and their husbands divide household chores (and whether it feels "fair"), how they solve communication problems and who does the religious tutelage of children.
It asks if respondents felt depressed, lonely or sad in the past week and if they feel comfortable at Relief Society. How has their spirituality and prayer life progressed in the past five years, and why do they want to go to the celestial kingdom (Mormon heaven) -- to be "with their family eternally, be in the presence of Heavenly Father, to experience eternal joy, achieve godhood, be free from sickness and pain, bear spirit children or create worlds?"
What about decisions? Does God oversee the big ones while leaving the little ones alone? Or does God direct most daily choices, but leave big decisions up to individuals? How exactly do women see God's hand in their lives?
These are among the 64 questions in the survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
One question that the survey skirts, however, is whether Mormon women want to be ordained to the all-male priesthood. It asks them if church leaders "understand the challenges of Latter-day Saint women today" or if women should be included more in "making decisions about church programs and policies at all levels."
The survey was done "to provide church leaders with information about the needs and concerns of Latter-day Saint women," says a letter and statement of purpose signed by Elder Ben Banks, then-executive director of the division.
The survey was commissioned by the previous Relief Society presidency -- Mary Ellen Smoot, Virginia Jensen and Sheri Dew. But the new president, Bonnie Parkin, said this week she has not seen it or the results.
"It might be in a drawer somewhere in this office, but I am not aware of it," said Parkin, explaining that she and her two counselors have been too busy getting acclimated to the assignment since taking control in April.
That is a shame, said Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall, who has been studying LDS women for two decades.
The survey is "striking" in the "extent to which the church is trying to understand the experience of Mormon women," she said.
As a group, they have one more child than the national average, are in the labor force at the same rate as other women but more likely to be in low-paying jobs. On top of that, they are likely to have demanding church assignments.
"It's no wonder they are stressed," said Cornwall, editor of Contemporary Mormonism, a volume of essays about current social issues in the church.
Members of the Relief Society are expected to attend the funeral, provide a meal for the deceased's extended family (which can number in the hundreds) and do the cleanup. Since funerals typically happen at midday, working women have trouble participating, which means the work often falls on the stay-at-home crowd.
"Like housework, the work women do with funerals is hidden," Cornwall said. "For two or three women, it can take up to four or five hours."
Such demands make it "worth evaluating Relief Society to see whether or not women have the time to provide sufficient resources to keep it running," she said. "This kind of data can provide invaluable insights."
In the 1980s, LDS Church researchers teamed up with BYU sociologists on large projects to study Mormons and their social habits. Because BYU professors published some results in professional journals, in the 1990s all the research like this women's survey was done exclusively by the church's in-house researchers.
"Along with frequent personal interaction with Latter-day Saints worldwide, senior church leaders occasionally use surveys as a means of listening to and learning from an increasingly diverse membership," said LDS spokesman Dale Bills. "As with most large organizations, the results of such internal studies remain confidential."
In the women's survey, respondents are assured that there are "no right or wrong answers" and that individual responses would be kept confidential.
But Janet Howard, a Wisconsin physician who received it, is dubious.
"My questionnaire had a number and bar code on it," Howard said. It may have been useful as a tracking system, but leaves her nervous about "where information is going."
It is clear the church has her name, she said. "What are they going to do? Call my stake president or bishop?"
Howard found some of the questions intrusive, involving aspects of her life she wasn't willing to share with ecclesiastical leaders.
She is also troubled by the church's unwillingness to publish the results.
"They want me to give full disclosure on a range of issues, yet they won't tell me how other women in the church are feeling," she said.
And, while the survey expressed a neutral, inclusive tone, Howard said her experience in the LDS community does not. "The questions suggest they understand women's issues, but that's not something they show at church," she said.
Indeed, the way women are treated is one reason Howard rarely goes to church.
"Why do they need such a detailed questionnaire about how women are feeling when they are supposed to be receiving divine revelation?" she asked. "If they are unwilling to change on some of these issues, it seems almost pointless to ask the questions."