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A new religion course teaches about the other half of the restoration story – the women

Rebekah Strain created a new religion course to teach about women’s contributions to the restoration and help them find their eternal potential.

Rebekah Strain holding an open book at her desk.
Rebekah Strain said she created the Women and the Restoration class to provide students with examples of women who have “jumped out of the box” by utilizing their talents and gifts to fulfill their potential, so her students know they can too.

Rebekah Strain, who created a new religion course offered at BYU–Hawaii titled Women and the Restoration, said, “This class is intended to help women in the Church feel they belong and develop faith and hope. I want them to know they have a place. They’re needed.

“They’ve always been important, they always will be important, even if it hasn’t felt like it culturally, even if the voices haven’t been heard in the history. They are so needed. They’re half of the restoration story.”

In this course, Strain, temporary Title IX deputy coordinator and adjunct professor in the Faculty of Religious Education and Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, shares the stories of well-known women and women in the background who played a crucial role in the Church’s restoration. She said many of the women exceeded the expectations of how women were supposed to behave and think in their time, which played a vital role in the restoration.

Strain said the importance of men taking this course is that women’s contributions to the restoration are also part of their history. They should also be aware of the struggles women have and still go through, she said. “When women suffer, men suffer too. We both thrive together. One doesn’t thrive alone. We do have men in the class, and I would love more men to take it because I do want them to hear this other half of the story.”

Sierra Allred, a junior from Oregon majoring in intercultural peacebuilding and a student in Strain’s class, said, “Honestly, before this class, I did not want anything to do with the Church. ... but the readings that Sister Strain assigns are really meaningful and thought-provoking. A lot of it resonates with me a lot more than I thought it would. I don’t think I’ll become active again any time soon, but this class has reminded me why I once was.”

Discovering her box

The idea to create this class had been in Strain’s mind for several years, she said, but only within the last few years it became a reality.

Strain said her interest in women’s history in the Church began while earning her bachelor’s in history at BYU in Provo. She said she was drawn to women’s journals and learned about history by reading about their struggles and daily lives.

While reading Latter-day Saint women’s journals, Strain said she realized the current expectations for what LDS women should look and act like have not always been existent. So, she said she began to wonder why she felt trapped in a box of who she should be.

Strain shared, “It’s okay if you don’t fit in the cultural female box. You may have other gifts that are outside the box that are divine and beautiful that you can develop.”

Some of the current expectations Strain listed included the idea that women are more righteous than men, cry more, are excellent bakers and their sole purpose is to be a mother and a wife. The questions of, ‘How well behaved are your children?’ and ‘How many of your children have served missions?’ also form the box around women in the church, Strain said.“I’ve had enough friends who don’t fit in the box [and] who then feel there’s something wrong with them when they don’t fit in.”

Strain said all these expectations are dangerous because they marginalize people and force them to conform to those boxes or be ostracized from the group. Strain said, “Boxes inhibit our ability to see our eternal potential because if there’s something in us that’s divine and amazing that doesn’t fit in the box, we may suppress it.”

Strain added these expectations are “definitely not God’s box. I don’t think God has a box. Heavenly Father and Mother. Your eternal potential is just this open, wide, vast array of potential.”

Climbing out of her box 

After being a stay-at-home mom with six kids for 12 years, she chose to pursue law school at BYU in Provo, said Strain. As her time divided, she said the stress of law school and the guilt of not being as engaged in her children’s lives set in. She said she started to wonder why she was pursuing her law degree when it was not a necessity.

She said one day a male student pulled her aside and said, “What you’re doing is great and your kids will benefit.” She said he explained how proud and inspired he was when his mother pursued her degree while raising him. Strain said hearing his words “lifted some of the mom guilt” because she realized “what our kids see does shape how they perceive the world.”

While it strengthened them in the end, Strain said the three years of law school were challenging for her entire family, as they often experienced judgment and biases from others. Jeff Strain, Rebekah Strain’s husband and assistant professor in the Faculty of Math & Computing, said they had matching T-shirts from the law school. He said it was shocking the number of times he was congratulated for going to law school, and Rebekah Strain was congratulated for having her husband in law school.

One of the comments Jeff Strain said they received was his wife “‘only got in because you’re a woman.’” He said they heard such comments often.

What encouraged Rebekah Strain to go to law school, she said, was a statement from Dallin H. Oaks in the New Era magazine that encouraged women to get as much education as they could because women are needed in the workplace.

When Rebekah Strain and her husband were dealing with these challenges, Jeff Strain said another statement from Oaks to the BYU law students, reaffirming educated women and female lawyers are needed, helped them push past the judgment.

Strain said she still gets frustrated, feeling left out and marginalized for being outside of the box, which can be painful, but it helps her to remember that “our boxes here are so temporary, and they’re not reality. The reality is so much more open, and better and glorious.”

Strain said she created the Women and the Restoration class to provide students with this same realization, by sharing inspiring examples of women who have “jumped out of the box” and “thrived and done beautifully in the gospel” by utilizing their talents and gifts to fulfill their potential.

Pulling others out of their box 

Charlotte Kennington, a senior from Washington majoring in elementary education a student in Strain’s class, said she often feels defined by so many things, including her parents and boyfriend. She said the Church defines her as needing to be nurturing, a wife, a homemaker and a mother.

Kennington said the class is teaching her how to balance all the things she wants to be, so she can achieve her full potential of being a mother and having a career, instead of being defined by someone else.

When Strain dove into the women’s journals, she said she came out with some of her own questions, which she just let ruminate in her mind. She said she assumed and accepted that was just the way it is, but then said she learned, “that’s not the way it has to be.”

So, she took her questions and became an “observer of the change.” Strain said she observes change in conference talks, policies and teaching curriculum because it illustrates in her mind “that if things don’t make sense now, it’s because we don’t have a fullness of truth and understanding and we’re not living in a perfect world now.”

Strain said she does not just set her questions aside and practice blind faith, because the “restoration is still ongoing, and it’s a progression.”

Kennington said, “It’s so cool to see [how] everything that we’ve learned so far is just showing ... the Church is still being restored. Obviously, we don’t understand everything right now, and we’re not going to understand everything, but in order to understand the whole restoration process, you need to see both perspectives. You need to see the women’s side. You need to see the men’s side as well.”

“You really have to make it equal. But right now, we’re trying to lift women up to where the men were already sitting,” Kennington added.

Strain said, “You can still look, search, question, wonder and push for change, but also have hope that in the eternal scheme of things, women and men stand as equals even if I’m not always seeing it now.”

Through her religion class Strain said she provides her students with what she did not have: resources to discuss and answer their questions. She said people’s questions and struggles should be treated with sincerity because they are legitimate and should never be dismissed.

Allred said, “The classroom environment is open and free of judgment. It’s okay if you don’t know something. We are all learning and growing. Sister Strain welcomes questions and challenges us to think deeply about topics that we are familiar with but maybe haven’t contemplated before.”

Strain said, “[The students] should be able to have a safe space to talk about it, and to bring it up, and have it respected, and listened to and addressed.

“I don’t know how we can help our youth and build faith if we’re not doing that.” •

Listen to Strain talk more about her class and how she broke from her "box" on Ke Alaka'i: The Podcast.