Navigating the balance between family life, education, career, culture and faith has often been difficult for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but a relatively new organization now exists to help educate and support them.
Naomi Watkins is the co-founder of Aspiring Mormon Women (AMW) with Diane Orcutt, another BYU alum. Watkins received an undergraduate English degree from BYU in 2001, received her master’s degree from ASU and holds a doctorate in literacy at the University of Utah.
Watkins was attending a women’s conference when she received a distinct impression to return to school and get her Ph.D.
“Over lunch at the conference, I told my friend, ‘I think I need to get a Ph.D,’” Watkins said. “She told me, ‘Okay, go do it!’ That really struck me, because she could have responded in so many different ways, but she was supportive of me.”
She said she found herself questioning whether this was something she was allowed to do.
“I didn’t know any Mormon women with PhDs, except female professors in my English department,” Watkins said.
The BYU alumna said Aspiring Mormon Women was born from her desire for Mormon women to not experience that same self-doubt.
“It started with women that I knew,” Watkins said. “It was all about gathering women who brought different things to the table.”
Aspiring Mormon Women launched in 2013, at the tail end of an explosive and controversial time for Mormon feminism.
“We also deal with navigating our culture,” Watkins said. “We just say, ‘these are all the options, and there are different ways to do things.’ It’s important to let people sort through their ideas.”
In addition to a website and a presence on several social networks, the organization has a Facebook discussion forum with over 2500 members worldwide. Women post job openings, ask the group for career advice and share stories of overcoming personal and cultural obstacles as a Mormon woman.
“Our goal is to provide models of women: single, married, divorced, living wherever, leading their own lives,” Watkins said.
Watkins discussed Aspiring Mormon Women’s latest campaign, #EmbraceYourAnd. The campaign encourages women to not let themselves be limited by their own fears or cultural limitations.
“There’s a reason why it’s not ‘Embrace THE and,’” Watkins said. “It’s totally personal, and it applies to the ebb and flow of each woman’s life.”
Watkins said in a post on the group’s website, “This campaign is not about telling women they can ‘have it all.’ There’s a significant difference between ‘#EmbracetheAND’ vs ‘#EmbraceYourAND.’ Changing out ‘the’ for ‘your’ places emphasis on the fact that the specifics of a woman’s multifaceted and integrated life–the pursuits she seeks, the roles she fills—will all depend on that individual woman.”
Watkins addressed the tendency for some LDS female college students or graduates to pass up educational or career opportunities because they think it will impede their marriage prospects.
“Hope for marriage, but don’t curtail your opportunities. We eliminate the option before we even explore it, and I don’t think that’s how God works. Just live.”
Aspiring Mormon Women hosts meet-ups across the country that allow women to connect in person. Meet-ups are hosted in Austin, Washington, D.C., Portland, Las Vegas, Tempe, Denver, Boston, Seattle, the Bay Area and several Utah cities.
“The meet-ups allow Mormon women to make community where they are,” Watkins said. “It’s a safe space.”
The meet-ups are open to everyone: full- and part-time moms, full- and part-time workers, students, young women, and women balancing family and career. At these events, women network, mentor and share ideas.
“AMW is all about finding your own path and not relying on cultural norms,” Watkins said. “It’s hard work to figure out who you are, and sometimes it seems easier to rely on expectations. We all ultimately want the same things, and we should surround ourselves with people who support our goals.”
Margaret Ebeling is enrolled in the MBA program at BYU and is engaged to be married. She attended a recent Provo Aspiring Mormon Women meet-up.
“Groups like this give me hope,” Ebeling said. “They let me see that I’m not the only one trying to make it all work.”
Cristina Cole works at Orem Health & Rehab. Cole is working while her husband attends Utah Valley University, and she wants to continue working after he graduates. She brought her 18-month-old son to the Provo meet-up.
“We need to realize that people do things in different ways,” Cole said. “Why would we as women not support each other in whatever we choose to do?”
The organization’s website highlights real Mormon women making progress in their education and careers. The site also spotlights current students and Young Women to “show the entire progression as a Mormon woman,” Watkins said.
Watkins recently gave a presentation at a BYU career exploration class for women. She said the university is making strides in supporting women who want to break the traditional mold.
“Women’s Services and Resources did a whole series about education and women,” Watkins said. “It’s great to see that being visibly talked about on campus. Take advantage of those resources.”
Watkins mentioned her favorite part of interacting with women through AMW.
“When women share successes where they really sought out opportunities and they report back, that’s totally inspiring,” Watkins said. “You see the influence we have and contributions that we as women can make.”