Ex-Mormon Women and Lasting Financial Disparities

I’ve written before about the on-going problem of structures of Mormonism remaining for those who leave Mormonism, and this is another one that it seems many ex-Mormon women see clearly and ex-Mormon men do not see at all. It is a painful reality of leaving Mormonism that it is difficult to undo the external and internal assumptions of church culture and doctrine that are so deeply embedded that we do not realize they are there. And often do not want to see that they are there because it is so difficult to acknowledge the ways that we cling to them and the reality of what they make us see in ourselves.

Within Mormonism, the assumption was and mostly remains that men will be “providers,” or full-time wage earners and that women will either be fully stay-at-home mothers and homemakers or will only work part-time to fit around their families’ needs. It is complicated when one or both partners in such a marriage leaves Mormonism because the rules about those strict gender roles and division of labor also inevitably change. Men wonder why they should carry the entire weight of the finances of the family on their shoulders (a heavier weight given that many of them now have four to eight children to support). Women, by the same token, wonder why they now have to deal with returning to the workforce after years of being out of it, some of them without a college degree or a college degree that is so woefully out of date as to be useless in any meaningful way.

Children that were born within Mormonism still exist and need to be cared for. They still need to be clothed, fed, and raised by some new set of rules. Decisions about college still have to be made and held by the family structure. And if you are like me, you realize that the assumption that you can go to BYU and get a part or full scholarship and work your way through part-time jobs and summer work are wildly out of sync with the cost of college that is not BYU (and sometimes even if it is BYU).

Even if both spouses leave Mormonism, there is a lot that has to be worked out in terms of parenting roles and other roles that were previously accepted without question. I don’t mean to trivialize, but who takes out the garbage? Who does the laundry? Who mows the lawn? Who does the family shopping? Most importantly of all — who does the emotional work that every family needs to keep going and to keep people from killing each other?

My experience so far has been that many more drastic changes besides leaving Mormonism are hard to work through. As a result, the default tends to be leaving many of the traditional gender roles the same. Of course, in a mixed faith marriage, this often happens because talking about such changes feels threatening to the partner who remains in the church. And I admit, some simply feel that their gender roles feels natural to them on one side or the other. But there is also the very real problem that whenever the Mormon-based assumptions about eternal family and eternal gender roles crumble, it is difficult to go backward.

If, like me, it’s thirty years later and you’re fifty years old, that’s a lot of ground to make up in terms of a career. My husband has a big head start on income, one that I can never make up if I ever expect to retire. I was the higher wage earner when we got married and I have a PhD from Princeton, but it matters diddly squat thirty years later when PhD’s are a dime a dozen and no one is going to hire an old woman when they can get a fresh new face who has a lot more years to offer, not to mention newer publications.

Setting aside my personal angst about my current situation, it is clear that this is a widespread problem in ex-Mormonism. We need to acknowledge it more fully. It’s not an equal distribution of difficulty. Ex-Mormon men are simply at a huge financial advantage when it comes to moving forward past Mormonism. Ex-Mormon women, especially those who leave behind a believing spouse, are at a huge disadvantage. Not only do they not have a stable career to rely on, but they will be blamed for the divorce by the very social structure that could help them move forward with a career — but now won’t because they’ve been taken off the list.

I know that alimony and child support can feel like heavy burdens to ex-Mormon men, but the structure still favors men. Whether the women left behind remain in the church or not, they have lost years of wage-earning capacity, not to mention the very real weight of a lifetime of being told that they aren’t capable of taking care of themselves, that they are supposed to be submissive and not aggressive in the workplace, and the heavier responsibility of shouldering the emotional work in their own and extended families.

This is one reason that I am frustrated when I hear ex-Mormon men (and women) say that the best podcasts, books, media, or other content are being produced by ex-Mormon men. This is in large part a relic of the sexist structure of Mormonism itself. Men are used to being told to lead, to believe in themselves, and to having the society around them support their ambitions. But also — there is a real financial disparity in the resources that most ex-Mormon women have to devote to such speculative projects. Many of us can’t do it full-time. Many still have minor children whose care they are involved in by choice and necessity. Many are suffering from the years-long financial disparity of Mormon marriages.

I don’t know how to solve a problem of this enormity. I’m well aware that it exists because sexism and patriarchy are alive and well outside of Mormonism, too. It’s not as if leaving the Mormon church fixes all of that. But I would encourage those interested in trying to at least acknowledge the problem. We also need to realize that some of the gendered assumptions of Mormonism have cumulative material effects that cannot be reversed simply by changing the assumptions themselves. These problems persist long after the assumptions themselves change. Mormon women do not accumulate wealth, job skills, work experience, and retirement savings at the same rate that Mormon men do, and this has real implications for their post-Mormon lives.

This isn’t about me saying that ex-Mormon men are bad or selfish or stuck in Mormonism. This is about all of us. This is something that has to be stared at in the face and then worked on slowly, donation by donation. Somehow, we have to do better by ex-Mormon women.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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