At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Makena Bauss was laid off from her job and began working as a caretaker for her grandfather who was in his 80s and recovering from intense cancer surgery.
Bauss graduated from BYU in 2017 with a double major in Public Relations and Chinese, a feat which left her burnt out from school. She used the time caring for her grandfather to complete her applications to law school —a dream she had since she was a kid.
Bauss discovered a passion she had for disability rights while taking care of her grandfather and decided to pursue a career in disability rights law. After her first year of law school at American University, she began searching for internships in the niche field but kept hitting dead ends.
She had joined the Facebook group Aspiring Mormon Women years before after hearing about the forum from a friend. She lurked on the page for several months before ever making a post of her own.
“I was able to see how unbelievably eager the women on that page were to help people out,” Bauss said. “They would go on any kind of limb to lift each other up.”
Bauss appreciated this eagerness as she often struggles with social anxiety when asking for help or promoting herself, which made her job search much more difficult.
“I found a lot of comfort and confidence in the page because people were so willing to help one another out even when they were complete strangers,” she said.
Bauss finally worked up the courage to ask for help. She drafted a short blurb introducing herself and explaining her need for an internship in disability rights law. The post received a small amount of responses, two simply encouraging Bauss in her law school journey, but one from a woman who worked in the field and told her to send her a private message.
The two talked and the woman connected Bauss with several people in the field until she eventually landed an internship with the Office of General Counsel at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The opportunity was created specifically for Bauss, after she networked with several people the woman on Facebook had put her in contact with.
“They pulled this internship together for me tailored very specifically to my interests and with a lot of flexibility to make it exactly what I wanted,” Bauss said. “It’s an intenship that I quite literally wouldn’t have been able to get if it hadn’t been for that Facebook page, because it’s not one that existed. There was no posting for this, there was never going to be a posting for it. It was only because of the networking that women on this page were willing to do on my behalf.”
According to Bauss, the group quite literally changed the trajectory of her life.
The Facebook group was originally created by two Latter-day Saint women, Naomi Watkins and Dianne Orcutt, along with Ryan Hammond in 2013. The group was created after they noticed a lack of career assistance and encouragement for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There can be a lot of guilt and sort of negative self talk from women who have chosen to work either because they need to, or because they find that it’s a rewarding thing that they need in their life,” Bauss said. “Even when they feel very confident in ‘Yes, I should be working and pursuing advanced degrees’ you hear a lot of things like ‘oh but I feel so bad that I’m not with my kids.'”
Orcutt said the founders noticed the lack of networks and meaningful cultural and practical support for Latter-day Saint women’s educational and professional pursuits.
“They noticed whenever a new 30 something-year-old man moves into a ward and is in the Elder’s Quorum and doesn’t have a job, the Elder’s Quorum just activates to help him find good jobs. It’s just instinctive networking,” said Carolyn Homer, who has been involved with the group for eight years.
The founders realized this same enthusiasm and assistance did not exist for women in their wards.
Campbell, Orcutt and Hammond wanted to create a space where Latter-day Saint women could job search and network without shame. Aspiring Mormon Women was originally a non-profit with a website and blog featuring personal essays, career exploration interviews, Young Women activity plans and articles discussing finances, mentoring and returning to school or workforce. The group’s Facebook forum has become the main resource where women from all over the world can connect and ask questions.
Four years ago there were 4,000 women in the group and today there are nearly 12,000 members.
“This is very much a place to have ambition as part of who you are as a woman with interests and hobbies and skills without any shame,” Homer said. “The quickest thing we shut down as administrators is anyone who starts commenting with any sort of shame towards women.”
Members ask questions ranging from serious job inquiries to what sort of professional pants other women in the group would recommend. Many members are reentering the workforce or beginning careers or education after years of being a stay-at-home moms.
“It was important to us to create a space where women feel safe expressing their professional and educational goals and desires,” Orcutt said.
Homer found her own inspiration from the group and is now an administrator for the group. She grew up in an extremely conservative home and assumed she would get married in college and never pursue a career. During her undergrad, Homer believed the only thing she should or could aspire to was motherhood.
“I literally thought it was impossible to do both based on church rhetoric,” Homer said. “It had to be one or the other. It could not be both.”
After graduating with no dating prospects, Homer decided to go to law school. She soon got married, but divorced within two years.
“The process of going through that divorce caused this radical shift in what I thought about working mothers and working women generally,” she said.
Homer realized the importance of having a career and discovered a passion for pursing a higher education. She is now remarried, recently gave birth to her first child and plans to work while being a mother.
“I’m going to work and I’m sure it’s going to be hard but it doesn’t seem impossible anymore to do both,” Homer said.
The group inspires women to pursue their professional goals amidst the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where homemaking and motherhood is often stressed to women before building a career.
Sarah Roberts said the group has been both inspiring and helpful after deciding to go to law school after years of being a stay-at-home mom to her six children. Roberts graduated from BYU 20 years ago with a degree in French, but never pursued a career after getting married and having kids as a young woman.
“It’s such a great exposure to a diversity of opinions,” Roberts said. “I think a lot of times people think they are alone in what they think and that they are the only ones who have a particular problem. When people post those problems on the page, you’ll get fifty answers showing you that you’re not alone.”
Bauss says the group is a resource for Latter-day Saint women everywhere, giving resources, support, job opportunities, advice and a community.
“I think this community that is formed on this page goes so far in helping women realize they are not alone and that their life path is valid,” she said. “I think that is so important in helping to sort of weather the stresses that come with working or pursuing an education because there is this community that is backing you.”
The group hosted in-person events throughout the United States before the pandemic and Orcutt said the group hopes to continue these events in the near future.
“This organization, and the community that has grown up and around it, is special. We know women are multifaceted individuals and we celebrate the wide spectrum of life choices women are making for themselves,” Orcutt said. “Education and career are important and rewarding pursuits. At Aspiring Mormon Women, women empower and support each other as they share their talents, skills, and perspectives with the world.”