Ann Romney was already fully immersed in stay-at-home motherhood — raising five sons, — when Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson took to a pulpit on February 22, 1987 and delivered a definitive sermon on gender roles in the church titled, "To the Mothers of Zion."
His message to working moms: "Come home."
For many Latter-day Saint women, staying at home to raise children is less a lifestyle choice than religious one — a divinely-appreciated sacrifice that brings with it blessings, empowerment, and spiritual prestige.
These doctrinally-defined gender roles aren't entirely unique — they've been preached by various sects for centuries — but Mormons have proven uniquely unwilling to bend them to fit modern times. The Church took heat in the '70s for waging a high-profile campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment; and even today, Mormon women remain twice as likely to be homemakers as non-Mormons, regardless of income levels.
Benson's talk, which was distributed church-wide and is still quoted in Mormon Sunday School classes today, crystalized decades of LDS teachings on the divinely-declared role of women, and made little effort to bow to political correctness.
"Mothers are to conceive, to nourish, to love, and to train," Benson said. "So declare the revelations."
He went on to warn against placing materialism ahead of child-rearing:
This wasn't the first time Mormon women had heard such counsel from their church leaders, but the timing made it noteworthy.
"The strong prescription that women should not work seemed more jarring in a social context in which women's right to participate more fully in the economy was starting to seem well-established," said Kristine Haglund, a feminist and editor at liberal Mormon journal Dialogue.
It also served as a sort of Cliff's Notes for decades of Mormon sermons on motherhood. For example, Benson quoted a talk given 10 years earlier by then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball, which included an impassioned plea for women to forfeit careers, and a claim that "numerous divorces" had resulted from the trend of mothers leaving home to work:
Mothers who know are willing to live on less and consume less of the world's goods in order to spend more time with their children—more time eating together, more time working together, more time reading together, more time talking, laughing, singing, and exemplifying.
Church leaders have made efforts lately to acknowledge the economic reality that working moms are sometimes essential to keep families above water. And the church has long distinguished its belief in gender roles from the belief among some Evangelical Christians that wives should be "submissive" to their husbands. In 2007, for example, Bruce C. Hafen, of the church's Quorum of the Seventy, described a hypothetical marital spat to claim that the Mormon approach to marriage offers a third way between feminist ideals and chauvinistic expectations of generations past:
Our young husband's parents believe the old idea that women are fully dependent on their husbands. Our young wife's parents believe the new idea that women are independent of their husbands. But the restored gospel teaches the eternal idea that husbands and wives areinterdependent with each other. They are equal. They are partners.
But even as church leaders' rhetoric has modernized, the Mormon ideal continues to hold that women should, whenever possible, stay home to raise their children. And in the Romneys' ardent defense of their chosen lifestyle, Haglund sees shades of their church's doctrine.
"I think one might see Mormon-ness... in their seeming assurance that this is the way things should be," said Haglund. "That in an ideal world, all women would stay home with their children, and, perhaps, that it is anomalous or somehow wrong for women to want to maintain careers after they become mothers."
Indeed, more than few Mormon ears perked up when Ann described her family dynamic to Fox News last week:
"Mitt said to me more times than you would imagine, 'Ann, your job is more important than mine… your job is a forever job that is going to bring forever happiness.' "