Just when Naomi Watkins thought she was done with school forever, she felt the Lord redirect her path. Now she wants to encourage other women to find that inspiration for themselves. To help with that goal, she founded Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization intended to support and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women. “God does not place limits on us,” Naomi says, “and learning to listen to and follow the Spirit are paramount skills to develop.”
Tell us about your background.
I spent most of my childhood living in a San Diego beach town, the oldest of two girls. I was blessed to grow up in a home where my goals were valued and encouraged. From a young age, I excelled academically, the typical overachiever. I also competitively swam for 11 years and attribute a lot of my life-learning to my participation in competitive sports. Swimming didn’t come as naturally to me as academics did, so the pool was the place where I learned how to deal with disappointment and to persevere through challenges, how to find strength and motivation from teammates, and how to plan for and achieve tangible goals. I am very grateful for the support and encouragement I received at home. I was taught that God does not place limits on us and that learning to listen to and follow the Spirit are paramount skills to develop. From my conversations with other LDS women, I’ve learned that not all women were raised in homes where their educational and professional dreams were fully supported or even discussed, so the support and encouragement that I once believed to be a given for all is not something I take for granted.
One of the most difficult and challenging aspects of life is figuring out one’s path based on the Lord’s guidance. Often we don’t even know the possibilities or opportunities that exist until we actually see them.
What inspired you to create Aspiring Mormon Women?
After graduating from BYU, I was living in the Phoenix area and working as a middle school English teacher. While teaching, I completed a master’s degree in literacy at Arizona State University. A master’s degree had always been a personal goal, and after graduating with this second degree, I had no plans to further my education. I remember uttering the words, “I’m done with school forever!” on graduation day. But the Lord apparently had different plans for me. I was attending a class at a Stake women’s conference with a friend, and I heard a voice tell me that I needed to earn a PhD. This voice was audible to me, but no one else. I remember glancing around the room to see if any one else had heard. I thought it was odd and shrugged it off, but the voice repeated the same message. I told the voice in my mind that I would pursue a PhD later, like after I had children or when I was older. But the voice was adamant; I was to pursue a PhD now because I wouldn’t have the time to do so later. During lunch at the conference, I told my friend about my experience. It’s not every day that someone describes such an experience, so she surprised me by saying that I should just do it then. I went home and began researching PhD programs, and I started the application process even though it was already late into the admissions season. It was in March of 2005 that I learned I had been accepted at the University of Utah and had received a research and teaching assistantship that would pay for all of my schooling.
As I started this process, I knew only a handful of LDS women with PhDs. Most of these women I knew as my professors at BYU. They were great mentors to me; some of them are still mentors to me. However, I really wanted to connect and meet other LDS women who were doing what I was in the process of doing. Even though I felt strongly prompted to pursue a PhD and had supportive family and friends, I still wanted to know that it was okay for a LDS woman to pursue a PhD, that a LDS woman could still want to have a family and an advanced degree and a career. I wanted to be able to ask questions and seek advice and support. Remember that this was 2005, and social networking and technology was not what we have today. But the Lord did provide in-person support for me. If He guided me to a Phd, why wouldn’t He also provide me with support? I visit-taught a woman who was also pursuing a PhD, and I met another LDS woman in my cohort. Both became dear friends who I still consider part of my support network. Despite my own personal support network, however, I still wanted to create a wider, more vast network of LDS women who were pursuing educational and professional goals. So I was inspired to create Aspiring Mormon Women because I wish that I had something like it while in graduate school. Its creation had to sit on the backburner for a few years until I finished my PhD.
Will you explain about the actual creation of Aspiring Mormon Women?
At some point along my PhD journey, I joined a Facebook group of LDS women academics. This group filled many of the needs and support that I had once sought, and I tabled my ideas about creating a broader network. It was in this online setting that a group member commented about how cool it would be to have a group dedicated to providing a network and support to help LDS women educationally and professionally. Such a community did not yet exist, but it was needed. This was Thanksgiving of 2012. I was eating breakfast at a hotel in Cusco, Peru, and I audibly gasped when I read that comment because it mirrored the thoughts I had for many years. That comment was the catalyst for Aspiring Mormon Women. That group member and I had several subsequent conversations, I asked others to join and collaborate, and seven months later, in June 2013, we launched Aspiring Mormon Women.
What is the purpose and focus of Aspiring Mormon Women?
Aspiring Mormon Women [AMW] is an official non-profit with the purpose of encouraging, supporting, and celebrating the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women. We have a website that includes personal essays, career days interviews, Young Women activities, podcasts, and informational articles about mentoring and networking, returning to school or the workforce, how to navigate school or one’s career. We have also have a Facebook discussion group, which is where much of the crowdsourcing and real-time support occurs; when people have a need or a question, or want to discuss an issue, that’s where they can go and receive responses from others in the AMW community. We facilitate networking between like-minded women with similar goals.
One of the goals of AMW is to empower women to action in their educational and professional spheres. Women receive many mixed messages about what they should be or do. LDS culture adds an additional layer to these mixed messages and expectations, and it’s difficult to wade through these layers alone, even when one feels guided to higher education or a career. We don’t want cultural assumptions to limit women. There is so much yet to be accomplished and achieved, so much more room for growth and experience. I think one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of life is figuring out one’s path based on the Lord’s guidance. I’m still wrestling with and figuring that out myself. Often we don’t even know the possibilities or opportunities that exist until we actually see them, and we’re doing that work at Aspiring Mormon Women. We’re showing LDS women mirrors of themselves and offering them windows into what they can become.
I have met LDS women who don’t feel that their educational and professional stories are worth sharing because they don’t feel that they’re interesting or successful enough. There’s a real need to encourage LDS women to share these aspects of their lives.
You’ve mentioned how you feel that AMW gives voice to a group of women that isn’t always represented. Will you explain that?
There is a wide variety of experiences of Mormon women, and with the growth of the Internet, there has been more discussion and support for these wide experiences. Many of the women we meet and talk to at AMW are those who do paid work or who want to pursue more education, but they may feel isolated in their individual wards or stakes. They may be the only mothers in their wards with a career, for example. And while there is a lot of support for mothering, from the pulpit and in local congregations, mothering is not the only thing in life that Mormon women do. I am not saying that family is of lesser importance, but there are also other areas for development. Additionally, there are many Mormon women who are not wives or mothers, who work and have fulfilling careers, and we are working to provide support and a voice to this demographic, too. This group is a significant piece given that a lot of the conversation about working women focuses on working mothers. As Mormon women, many of us may not have been taught skills related to navigating the workplace. I recall that the majority of my Young Women’s activities focused on homemaking skills, and while I do use these skills, working full-time is my reality and the reality of many LDS women. We are simply trying to foster respect for and dialogue about a wide spectrum of life choices. Family and education and career do not have to be either/or propositions. This combination will look different for every woman and will change over time. And that’s okay. Education should be an integral part of a LDS woman’s life plan. The idea that education for women is simply a back-up plan in case of a worst-case scenario needs to be extinguished.
How do you want your group to be perceived?
I have been asked if Aspiring Mormon Women is a Mormon feminist website. Those asking usually want to know if AMW is a website advocating for women’s ordination or if it’s full of “angry Mormon women.” It’s unfortunate to me that many in the Church associate “feminism” in these ways, since supporting, encouraging, and empowering women to make choices and take advantage of opportunities–the types of things that we do at AMW–are to me what “feminism” is about. But from AMW’s inception, we have strived to make it a place where LDS women who do not identify as “feminists” and those who do can come together and support each other in their educational and professional endeavors regardless of their ideological stances. We also have women representing a spectrum of church activity. It’s incredibly important to me that those who identify with our mission are able to find support and means to accomplish their goals. We have women involved who want to return to school or who are trying to re-enter the workforce. We have women who have thriving careers and young women who are in the midst of their undergraduate educations. I think it’s this diversity of ages and experiences and viewpoints that makes mentoring and networking a success.
We’re showing LDS women mirrors of themselves and offering them windows into what they can become.
What have been some of your proudest moments working with Aspiring Mormon Women?
It’s especially gratifying to hear from women who share that they’ve decided to return to school or who are excited to find other women who are pursuing goals like them. Women share their successes and milestones from the workplace, and it’s great to watch women congratulate each other and really find joy in the success of other women. It’s a bit scary to put something out on the Internet and wonder how people will respond, but we’ve received a lot of positive responses. I also love watching women support women and make connections with women they may not have otherwise met.
What’s the future of Aspiring Mormon Women?
We’re hosting our first in-real life networking and mentoring event in the Salt Lake area, and we hope to offer similar, smaller opportunities for women in other geographic areas soon. We’re also in the process of getting our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the IRS, and we would love to offer a scholarship. Expanding our network of LDS women is also really important to our success. We’re always on the hunt for women to share their stories about their educational and professional paths or assist with informal mentoring. Unfortunately, I have met LDS women who don’t feel that their educational and professional stories are worth sharing because they don’t feel that they’re interesting or successful enough. This self-censoring is incredibly unfortunate to me; it shows that there’s also a real need to encourage LDS women to share these aspects of their lives.
At A Glance
Location: Los Angeles, California
Marital status: Single
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University (B.A.), Arizona State University (M.Ed.), University of Utah (Ph.D.)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Now Let Us Rejoice”
On The Web: aspiringmormonwomen.org
Interview by Katherine Wilkinson. Photos used with permission.