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Femme Faithful: Upending the Narrative of Women’s Education

Are women of faith included in the celebration of Women’s Month? We should be. BYU-Pathway Worldwide continues a long tradition of helping educate women of faith.

Let’s celebrate women. It’s a lovely idea. And by presidential proclamation in 1978, Jimmy Carter designated “Women’s History Week,” which ultimately expanded to all of March every year. This month honors our history, acknowledges our contributions as women, and this year, emphasizes those “women who tell our stories.”

As women of faith, what do we most want the world to know about us? We recently reached out to the Women in the Public Square to hear their answer to this question. Far and away, the most common response was reflected in this experience shared by one of the members:

“True empowerment comes from Jesus Christ as I walk in a covenant relationship with Him. He is the source of confidence and power to do and become everything that we are called to do as women. … This eliminates the need for other sources of validation or comparison from the world [or] fellow members of our church.”

But many of them went on to elaborate, by pushing back on a narrative they feel is too often imposed on them. As one member explained, “I’ve lived with God in my life and without Him. I know the difference—I haven’t chosen this because I’m brainwashed or enjoy feeling morally superior to others. … I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”

Many expressed the honor they feel to be a woman.

Another described herself as a “steel fist in a velvet glove,” and many expressed the honor they feel to be a woman, the conscientiousness of choosing family, and the empowerment that comes from conviction and pursuing goals, including earning a degree. Another respondent added, “I am strong and powerful! I am not forced to believe. I choose faith because it brings peace, strength, and power into my life.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder

In short, they want the world to understand their depth of commitment and that mischaracterizations of them as naïve victims of oppression simply don’t reflect their story. For example, education is a key indicator of women’s liberation throughout the world, including for women in the Church. One of the greatest indicators they aren’t oppressed is their choice to be wives and mothers while also pursuing education and other meaningful endeavors.

They neither stand beneath nor reign over others. An example of that point: 

“Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies … Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.”

But wait, that last quote was from 1897 by a woman named Elizabeth McCune. 

Seemingly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Steady steps forward

In the late 1890s, a man named William Jarman traveled around England promoting his anti-Mormon book. It was filled with sensational claims about life in Utah, with particularly harsh and unflattering characterizations of Latter-day Saint women. As a former member of the Church, Jarman held perceived “insider” credibility that created significant public relations concerns for the Church, members, and missionaries. McCune, a Utah native and member of the Church, was also traveling in Europe at the time.

She knew Jarman’s claims to be false and, in unprecedented form, was invited to speak at a semi-annual conference filled with “saints and strangers.” “With a final prayer,” she recalled, “I arose to address the audience. … I told them I had been raised in Utah and knew almost every foot of the country and most of the people. I spoke of my extensive travels in America and in Europe and said that nowhere had I found women held in such esteem as among the Mormons of Utah.” After this event and many others, she energetically dispelled Jarman’s falsehoods.

Mischaracterizations of them as naive victims of oppression are not their story.

This isn’t to say systemic oppression has never been a reality for women and tragically remains a concern for many still today. As ardently as Elizabeth and leaders of the Church advocated then for women’s progress, we claim a steady thread of deliberate steps forward within our own history. In particular, in response to the charge that “for us as Latter-day Saints, getting an education is not just a privilege; it is a religious responsibility,” the Church Educational System (CES) innovatively promotes and provides paths forward for women globally and multi-culturally.

One CES institution, BYU-Pathway Worldwide, was specifically designed to provide access to low-cost online education in more than 180 countries. BYU-Pathway Worldwide has been especially helpful for women who often benefit from the flexibility it allows. The median age of a BYU-Pathway student is 30. By helping them overcome barriers—including finances, fear, technology, and time—BYU-Pathway makes it possible for women to fit education into their lives and provides them with the affordability, flexibility, and added support they need to succeed.

Here are two examples of BYU-Pathway students and women of faith who have been blessed by finding this balance.

A burning desire to continue education

Victoria Akpan from Nigeria is one of the many women in Africa participating in BYU-Pathway. Akpan knows the equal importance of serving God, raising a family, and pursuing higher education. 

In 2013, after receiving her high school diploma, Akpan applied to a local university but missed the enrollment cut-off. Her experience is not unique in Nigeria; while access to education is slowly but continually improving, from 2010–2015, Nigerian universities were only able to admit 26% of 10 million applicants each year. Around 10.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria as a whole—the highest number reported by any country in the world. 

Akpan postponed her education and left to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ. After her mission, she married and started to build her family but had not lost sight of her educational goals.

“I had this burning desire to continue my education because it’s really important for women. Just like the prophets said, there is no shortcut to excellence and competence. ‘Education is the difference between wishing you could help other people and being able to help them.’ That’s why I had the great desire to join BYU-Pathway,” said Akpan. “So that I could acquire the necessary knowledge and skills and competence that will enable me to serve my family, my community, and in my calling in the Church.” 

Akpan was excited to find a way forward with her education, but her experience was not exempt from difficulty. She said, “BYU-Pathway has been a great blessing to me and has helped me to accomplish things that I at first thought were difficult to accomplish. As a wife and a mom, it’s not easy to acquire higher education with family responsibilities and work as well.” On top of that, Akpan began her studies right as the COVID-19 pandemic started to emerge. “My son was still little then, and I was pregnant with my first daughter,” said Akpan. “I didn’t have a personal computer to study with or a stable internet connection. I only had my phone.”

But Akpan used what resources she could and wasn’t without support. She would complete some assignments using her phone; other times, she would travel to a church chapel. “Once or twice a week, I would go to the chapel to use the computer. There were other BYU-Pathway students there as well. We are many. When they would see my baby and me coming to study, the other students made me a priority. Someone would leave their place and let me use the computer,” said Akpan. Through her diligent effort and the support of her community, Akpan successfully completed her foundational courses. 

She said, “The growth mindset that I have developed helped me pass through this difficult time. … Along the way, people helped me. People encouraged me. And this really helped me to understand that Heavenly Father really wants me to do this at this particular time. If it weren’t His will, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

Never too late

Ann Peterson is another BYU-Pathway student from Utah, USA, and a mother of seven children who shared the personal challenges she had to overcome to meet her educational goals.

In her last year of high school, when she brought her ACT score to her school counselor, the counselor told her, “Well, Ann, maybe you just aren’t college material.” Despite this, she enrolled at a local college. She enrolled in a basic computer course but had never used a computer before. When she struggled to turn it on, her professor said to her, “If you don’t know how to do this, maybe you shouldn’t be here.” 

This time the discouragement stuck. Ann gathered her things, cried all the way home, and dropped out of school. When she married two years later, her husband, heartbroken about her story, insisted she could succeed in college. But Ann felt too afraid.

Fifteen years later, Ann and her husband had six children, several with special needs. She explains that “I spent hours in meetings with administrators, therapists, doctors, and district officials; I became well-versed in advocating for my children’s needs, but people often saw me as ‘just a mom.’”

So her husband encouraged her again. He introduced her to BYU-Pathway. And while she shied away from the idea at first, the idea took hold, and eventually, she went online to learn more about the program. It took courage, but she finally decided to “Just do it!” 

Her first year in the program was difficult, but the relationships she built with her peers, as well as her husband’s encouragement, helped her push through. And when she was finished, she decided to transfer to an online degree program at BYU-Idaho. And for a degree? She decided she wanted to help other families with special needs children. 

But Ann’s struggles were far from over, she explained:

My first semester at BYU-Idaho included a math class. I went in with the confidence built by my BYU‑Pathway family, even though I knew I would hit hurdles. One day, I tried to create a formula in Excel but couldn’t figure it out. I thought about how the Lord helps in times of despair and began to pray. My doubts began to creep back in, but I pushed them away and worked with renewed vigor. I was going to figure it out! 

It took a long time, but I did it. When I finally made the formula pop out the correct answer, I burst into tears. I had done it myself! I knelt and thanked Heavenly Father for teaching me to have faith in myself.

That success felt like a turning point for Ann. When asked what BYU-Pathway did for her, Ann said, “For the first time in decades, I believe in myself. I will achieve my goals!” 

If it weren’t His will, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Today, Ann is a behavioral health aide at an elementary school and a passionate advocate for students with special needs. “It’s never too late to get an education, and I know I can do it!”

Womanhood is a birthright

Consistent in these historical and contemporary profiles is a quiet strength secured in sacrificing for another season and hope in endless opportunities of eternity. Many of these opportunities are enhanced through education. As one survey respondent said,

“My identity and worth are not determined or defined by what I’ve accomplished in life, how I look, or even how I feel. I have a divine nature as a daughter of Heavenly Father. … My identity and worth come from God. Womanhood is a birthright.” 

And one worth celebrating, indeed.

About the authors

Carol Rice

Carol Rice is the president of Skyline Research Institute and the Director of Communications for Public Square Magazine, a joint project of the Elizabeth McCune and the John A. Widstoe Foundation. She earned a BA in marriage and family relations with an emphasis in family advocacy from BYU-I. Carol and her husband Scott live in Alpine, Utah.

Breanne Su'a

Breanne Su’a lives in South Jordan, Utah, and is a communication manager for BYU-Pathway Worldwide. She previously worked as a writer for the Come, Follow Me curriculum and the Friend.
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