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The allure of companies like LuLaRoe to Latter-day Saint women

The hidden link between the history of Mormon women and colorful leggings

Attendees take pictures of self-help guru and best-selling author Rachel Hollis at an event for the multilevel-marketing company LuLaRoe in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)

The cover image for the new Amazon Prime documentary series “LuLaRich” features a woman with her hands raised up as though she is praying or giving praise. The series’ subject matter isn’t overtly religious, however. It’s about leggings.

Or, to be more specific, the sale of leggings. “LuLaRich” documents the conception and meteoric rise of LuLaRoe, a direct-sales or multilevel marketing (MLM) company that generated massive profits for its owners and brought many thousands of people, mostly women, onboard to sell colorful leggings and other clothing to women in their own social networks.

At the heart of the story are attitudes about work, gender and the American Dream. But another, less remarked upon part of the saga of LuLaRoe and other MLMs is their place in recent American religious history and, in particular, the way this company has tapped into the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to build its own power.

Very early on we learn that LuLaRoe’s founders, Mark and DeAnne Stidham, are LDS members. Although the company was secular, the founders’ religious identity was also central to its operation. One sales person describes a company retreat where “Mark began quoting the Book of Mormon.” Both Stidhams grew up in Utah and later moved to Southern California. Utah is seeding ground for MLMs, with more per capita than any other state. Understanding the history of Mormons in America is essential for understanding the appeal of MLMs to Mormon women today.

In the mid-19th century, Latter-day Saints traveled west to escape religious persecution and gain independence. Converts gathered together and built communities — often insular communities, sometimes growing at an alarming rate in the eyes of others nearby. Sometimes they chose to leave their homes in the east, while other times they were pushed out by state-sponsored expulsion. Cloistered spiritually and economically, a fear of difference led some to question whether Mormonism was a religion at all, while others feared Mormons’ economic and political power. Those fears converged violently. After their prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed in 1844 in Illinois, the Saints chose to leave the area and colonize Native American land in the West, in what became Utah territory. Forged in a kind of exile, Latter-day Saints were always community builders.

LDS women of the 19th century were often required to care for their families alone while husbands were away on missions. Some were in polygamous marriages with absentee husbands or husbands with attentions stretched thin, and so women did a lot for themselves. Some LDS women, especially those with absentee husbands, managed farms and families alone. Home industry — selling straw hats, oil cloths and homespun material — became a significant part of the economy in Utah, helping the LDS community become independent from outside influences in the latter half of the 19th century. LDS women found community together and supported one another economically.

After the Mormon practice of polygamy ended, the emphasis on family endured. While women were encouraged to get an education, it was never supposed to come at the expense of family.

For example, future LDS president David O. McKay first invoked a phrase from the essayist J.E. McCulloch in 1935: “No other success will ever compensate for failure in the home.” While this clearly meant fealty to the domestic sphere and one’s children, prioritizing family could take a variety of forms — including work outside the home under certain circumstances. In the late 1930s, prioritizing family for my grandmother meant leaving an alcoholic husband, attending her aunt’s beauty school and moving to a different state to work at a salon while her children were in school.

McKay repeated the phrase in 1965 as church president, as did many other LDS leaders in the 1960s. It became nearly ubiquitous in Mormon culture by century’s end, creating an ideal that endures today. While the gap between Mormon women and other American women working outside the home disappeared by 1970, LDS culture still tended to center women’s domestic roles. For some LDS women, even if they did work outside the home, they felt the impulse to present themselves as wives and mothers first.

By the late 20th century, the single-income, two-parent household had become increasingly untenable for most Americans, as wages stagnated and the cost of living skyrocketed. This made seeking additional income increasingly necessary — but put LDS women in a complex situation. Women like DeAnne Stidham grew up with elements of LDS culture combined with particular familial ideas that taught them that work outside the home was what men do — women’s roles were to support men. They wanted to, and were expected to, stay home with children and remain in the domestic sphere. But there were new pressures to contribute to the family income.

Founded in 2013, LuLaRoe was built on these ideas and has emphasized the centrality of family to its identity in its public materials. In the documentary, Mark Stidham says, “If you want to create incredible wealth, identify an underutilized resource. And you know what, there is an underutilized resource of stay-at-home moms, and they have chosen to be a mother. And if you make that choice, you are penalized in the country right now.” The company appeared to offer a way to do both, promising full-time income on part-time work that could be done from home.

It was also work that was done in community, tapping into well-established strains in LDS culture. MLMs ask participants to sell to their communities, at house parties or via social media. To make money as part of an MLM, a person must recruit new salespeople, typically from one’s own social network. Friends and family felt an impulse to help. Participants commented that LuLaRoe initially felt communal rather than competitive. If any of these young mothers felt the angst that Betty Friedan described of being alone with children, LuLaRoe gave them community. Weekly calls to incentivize sales ensured salespeople knew they were not alone, and they had responsibilities to the community.

Companies like LuLaRoe also tapped into a religious emphasis on self-reliance. The LDS church has long focused on both spiritual and economic independence, believing that one can better serve others when their own needs are met. Today, the church publishes handbooks to help individuals become more self-reliant and often offers local classes focusing on topics such as avoiding debt, increasing education and tracking family finances.

Materialism, though, may be “a seductive distortion of self-reliance,” in the words of the current first counselor in the LDS First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, who recently published pointed remarks condemning “speculative proposals of various get-rich-quick artists.” For Oaks, taking the virtue of “providing for one’s own” can be corrupted with excessive focus on “accumulating treasures of the earth.”

While almost no one who participates in an MLM makes any money, the allure of being able to make money while fulfilling one’s familial role as a wife and mother, in an age when few families can enjoy middle-class status with just one income, has enduring appeal for LDS women and women nationwide. But while many have noted the elements of Mormon culture that seem to enable and encourage some of these companies for different reasons, LuLaRoe is at once totally steeped in Mormon culture and the very thing that current LDS leaders warn against.