The LDS Church announced last week a series of important revisions for employment policies. Among other changes, Women will no longer be forced to wear skirts or dresses, and men can wear colored shirts. (Though still no beards!) More importantly, mothers are assured six weeks of paid maternity leave after the birth of their child, and both parents get another week for “parental leave.” This is the latest in a series of evolutions over the past few decades. Until 2014, mothers were not allowed to teach full-time seminar or institute. Until this year, many women in other full-time positions had to accrue enough weeks of sick leave vacation time in order to recover from giving birth and bond with their new children. The Church is creeping closer toward the standards expected in the twenty-first century workplace environment. For more context, see the SLTrib’s column.
To give some context for how far LDS employment has come, here’s a story from the 1970s Church History Department, when it was under the leadership of Leonard Arrington. The details come from Gregory Prince’s recent biography of Arrington.
For a long time, female Church workers were expected to end their employment once they had their first child. This matched the ideal of women staying at home to raise their children while their husbands remained the primary breadwinners. Maureen Ursenbach (soon-to-be-Beecher), a researcher in the History Division who has since become one of the foremost historians in the field, was worried the policy might apply to her when she became engaged in 1973 and was pregnant two years later. Here is her recollection:
“When I came on board, a lot of married women were working for the Church,” recalls Beecher, “but the policy was that you were asked by your supervisor, on a regular basis, if the policy about children was keeping you from having a family. In order to stay working there, you had to assure the supervisor that you were not preventing having a family just so that you could keep your job.”
Arrington, as her boss, had to fight to keep her job. He pled with Apostles Delbert Stapley and Howard W. Hunter, the designated supervisors of the department, and they eventually promised to carve out “a special exception” for Beecher. But that would not be enough. Several individuals, including Beecher and other women, fought to change the rule in total. Beecher employed a lawyer to write a memo explaining why her termination, were it to occur, would be illegal. The Church’s legal department eventually informed leaders that the policy was likely in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1972. Undeterred, the Church continued to solicit more legal advice in hopes that they could retain their practice of not employing mothers with young children. Eventually they gave in and issued a reversal of the policy.
While Prince highlights Arrington as the hero in this story, it is important to emphasize the role of women—both over the years, as well as in this particular episode—in bringing this change. Their both silent and loud forms of resistance put pressure on male leaders. Here’s Beecher’s memory of the victory:
There were colleagues downstairs in the library part who were so grateful, because they wanted to have children, and they had husbands who were not employed. It was either, “I work and don’t have a baby, or I have a baby and don’t work.” . . . My case changed the whole regulations and the insurance, and the ramifications of this change in policy went down through all the whole Personnel Department positions.
This week’s policy changes were of a similar quality. I wish I could have been there to see female employees not only rush over to City Creek Mall to purchase new dress pants in accord to the new dress standards, but also make future familial plans with the relief that they’ll be assured maternity leave.