Mormonism and women
The status of women in Mormonism has been a source of public debate since before the death of Joseph Smith in 1844. Various denominations within the Latter Day Saint movement have taken different paths on the subject of women and their role in the church and in society. Views range from the full equal status and ordination of women to the priesthood, as practiced by the Community of Christ, to a patriarchal system practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), to the ultra-patriarchal plural marriage system practiced by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church) and other Mormon fundamentalist groups.
Women in Church History
Nineteenth and early 20th-century accounts of Mormon history often neglected women's role in founding the religion. The 1872 history The Rise, Progress, and Travels of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not name any women. B.H. Roberts's famous seven-volume history, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only mentions a few women. However, a number of women had significant supporting roles; for example, Joseph Smith's wife, Emma Hale Smith, served as a scribe during translation of the Book of Mormon and was the subject of one of the church's early revelations, which included direction to compile the church's first hymnal. Emma Smith also served as head of the Relief Society, originally a self-governing women's organization within the church, which is one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world.
In the secular sphere, Utah Territory was at the forefront of women's suffrage; in 1870, it became one of the first states or territories in the Union to grant women the vote, though the federal government removed the franchise from women in 1887 via the Edmunds–Tucker Act. Education and scholarship was also a primary concern for Mormon women. Religious missions, like Bathsheba W. Smith's mission to southern Utah to preach "woman's rights", were launched. The Woman's Exponent magazine, the unofficial publication of the Relief Society, published a 1920 editorial in favor of "equal rights before the law, equal pay for equal work, [and] equal political rights", stating that a women's place is not just "in the nursery" but "in the library, the laboratory, the observatory." In 1875, Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells said that women should speak for themselves, and if that is considered manly, that should be a good thing, since if men are superior, becoming more masculine ought to be desirable.:
Late-19th-century Utah also had the most liberal divorce laws in the United States at the time. The laws were advantageous to women: any woman who insisted on a divorce got one. One of Brigham Young's wives divorced him and launched a lucrative career as a public speaker. The divorce rate in late 19th-century Utah came close to 30 percent. This divorce rate was inflated by people from other states seeking an easy divorce in Utah. In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon was the first woman in the nation elected to state senate. She ran against her husband.
Laying on of hands and Priesthood
In the early church, women would sometimes lay hands on another person to give them a special blessing. While en route to the Salt Lake Valley, the diary of a midwife named Patty Bartlett Sessions describes women giving each other blessings:
[W]e had a feast in the afternoon at sister Millers .... there we blessed and got blessed & I blesed [sic] sister Christeen by laying my hands upon her head and the Lord spoke through me to her great and marvelous things.
Relief Society president Eliza Snow believed that women did not need to be "set apart" to officiate in temple ordinances or in administering to the sick:
Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick? It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with almighty power.
Eliza Snow advised that women confide personal issues to the Relief Society president and her counselors, rather than the bishops.
Current LDS Church policy allows the act of giving blessings "by laying on of hands" to be performed by priesthood holders only, and only men may receive the priesthood. A 2015 essay published in The Gospel Topics section of the church's website stated that while neither Joseph Smith nor any other church leader ordained women to the priesthood, women do exercise priesthood authority without ordination.
Women also participated in the Anointed Quorum in the early church.
The status of women in the LDS Church has been a source of public debate beginning in the 19th century, when the church found itself at odds with the United States federal government over its practice of polygamy. Polygamy was introduced into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when Joseph Smith prayed about the plural marriage as practiced in the Old Testament. The practice was established in the church in 1831. It continued until 1890 when Wilford Woodruff received a revelation, known as the "Manifesto", that stopped plural marriage. Following the Manifesto, many groups and individuals left the church in order to continue the practice; however, these groups have no affiliation with the church today.
Although some church leaders are known to have large polygamous families, two-thirds of the men who practiced polygamy in the church only had two wives. Women were able to divorce their husbands. Among the church population as a whole, at its peak, only 25 to 30 percent of members were part of polygamist families by 1870. Despite the legal and cultural issues related to the Mormon practice of polygamy, 19th-century women played a significant public leadership role in Latter-day Saint culture, politics, and doctrine. Some view the role of women in the 19th-century church as the zenith of women's institutional and leadership participation in the church hierarchy.
When speaking of polygamy, generally only two extremes are considered: "Mormon women were either highly empowered agents or submissive dupes." To note only these extremes, however, is to ignore that Mormon women chose to participate in polygamy and the fact that it was a part of their daily lives. Polygamy caused many women to grapple with their faith, but also allowed them to grow closer to God and to make and keep covenants.
Women in polygamous relationships at the time described the experience as a great trial that taught them self-denial. Many were protestant converts and believed that their suffering helped to purify them.:27 Even when the practice was established, it was not always accepted. Mothers discouraged their daughters from entering into plural relationships. For many, the decision to accept polygamy and practice it was an agonizing and difficult process that brought them closer to God. Some women did not accept polygamy at first and had to pray about, study, and question the practice before receiving an answer from God and accepting it. Elizabeth Graham MacDonald saw polygamy as a form of discipline that taught her subordination to God and her family.:28
For some women, like Hannah Tapfield King, plural marriage was a way for women to obtain the highest blessings of salvation. King's husband was not a member of the church, and although he did convert, the couple was not able to be sealed in the temple. King was sealed to Brigham Young but only for the next life. She remained married to her husband throughout her life and never had relations with Young, but was able to ensure blessings for herself through polygamy that she would not otherwise have received in this life.After accepting polygamy, Edith Turbin declared "I had rather to be the 20th wife of an honorably God-fearing Man, than to be the only wife of any one of two thirds of the Men in the world."
Ezra Taft Benson stated that women have qualities of faithfulness, benevolence, and charity that balance the "more aggressive and competitive nature of man." Speaking of women working in professions equal to men, Howard W. Hunter said, "I hope the time never comes when women will be brought down to the level with men, although they seem to be making these demands in meetings held … all over the world."
Ecclesiastically, the LDS Church is firmly committed to traditional gender roles. Women have a certain degree of authority in some areas, including a number of leadership positions, which include authority over children and other women, although these women leaders receive supervision and guidance by priesthood-holding leaders. Women are "endowed" with priesthood power, but are not ordained to priesthood office. Though not considered clergy, women play a significant part in the operation of local congregations. Women teach classes to adults, teenagers, and children. Women also organize social, educational, and humanitarian activities. Women may also serve as missionaries, and a select few may perform certain ordinances such as washing and anointing on behalf of women in church temples.
A survey conducted in 2012 of 500 Mormons in the United States showed that if they were married to an LDS spouse, men and women had equal levels of church activity. Almost half of the men surveyed agreed that a good Latter-day Saint should obey without knowing why, while only 31 percent of women agreed. About 20 percent of LDS women believe that "women do not have enough say in the church."
In Orson Pratt's 1852 "Celestial Marriage," he wrote that a woman should not marry a man unless she "had fully resolved herself to submit herself wholly to his counsel, and let him govern as the head.":27 In contrast, Spencer W. Kimball said that a man "presides" rather than "rules".:18
Initially, early church members defined polygamy as "celestial" marriage, but "celestial" marriage now refers to marriages sealed in the temple. After the Manifesto prohibiting plural marriage, members felt that there was a lack of available Mormon men for women to marry, even though there were a sufficient number. Fiction from the Young Woman's Journal attempts to make religious marriage attractive by describing it as romantic.
Working and Responsibility to children
The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that "Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children", and an article on women in the church on the official church website states that women have "the greater gift and responsibility for home and children and nurturing there and in other settings." Numerous quotes from General Authorities support the assertion that women are fundamentally different from men, not just in their physical bodies, but in their spiritual makeup as well. Harold B. Lee said that women have a special "mother's intuition."
Brigham Young taught that if women "should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large." Many women in Brigham Young's time worked; in 1874, Utah had a respectable class of literate and professional women and a visitor noted that no profession was closed to women.:510 After the church officially ended polygamy, church members adopted a more mainstream Victorian view towards women's work, which confined women's roles to the home. By 1920, the church's ideals for women mirrored society's until the 1960s and 70s, when some Church leaders strongly advised against (presumably married) women working outside the home. Spencer W. Kimball said, "Numerous divorces can be traced directly to the day when the wife left the home and went out into the world into employment." Gordon B. Hinckley made allowances for single mothers and other women in similar circumstances: "I recognize [...] that there are some women (it has become very many, in fact) who have to work to provide for the needs of their families. To you I say, do the very best you can." A 1986 Ensign article emphasized that husband and wife share the responsibility of providing for their children's temporal needs, and that each family would prayerfully decide if a mother would go to work. Mormon women were to reject the secular values of individuality and devote themselves to the eternal women's roles of marriage, motherhood, and submissiveness.
One 1990 study by Laurence Iannaccone found that starting in 1963, statements from church leaders were highly variable on women's topics. After Ezra Taft Benson's 1987 talk "To The Mothers in Zion" exhorting women to not work outside the home, many women quit their jobs and some women BYU students wondered if they should continue their studies. Then-BYU-president Jeffrey R. Holland stated that BYU especially welcomed women, and encouraged personal study and revelation about how to follow church guidelines.:1244 The same study found that as the Church affirmed new sex roles, the number of living endowments increased (a sign of committed new membership) but the number of endowments for the dead decreased (a sign of committed, experienced member activity). It also found the opposite was true; as the Church affirms traditional roles, the number of living endowments increased and the number of endowments for the dead increased.:1244
Modesty in dress
Brigham Young said that women's dress should reflect that they are separate from the world. After Joseph F. Smith complained about the indecency of some LDS women's attire, Amy Brown Lyman led the Relief Society, YLMIA, and Primary in issuing dress guidelines for Mormon women in 1917. These guidelines were not closely followed by members. In 1951, Elder Spencer W. Kimball gave the talk "A Style of Our Own: Modesty in Dress and Its Relationship to the Church," which was reprinted in the Church News and defined modesty for Mormons in the latter half of the 20th century. Kimball said that Latter-day Saint women should have a unique style of their own that did not include strapless dresses, shorts, form-fitting sweaters, or dresses with low necks or backs. Immediately following the talk, many women changed their wardrobes to conform to Kimball's instructions and called their wardrobes "kimballized", but the church issued no formal dress standards. In 1957, the Mutual Improvement Association published a pamphlet on modesty in general. It advised women against "falunt[ing] one's figure," and also emphasized modesty in speech and conduct. A 1959 Improvement Era column counseled teenage girls to keep their clothing clean and ironed.
In the 1960s, the counterculture movement started to influence the dress of Mormon youth. Short skirts, beards and long hair for men, and dirty clothing became popular. Fearing that the counterculture fashions would negatively influence morals, leaders began to advise on dress codes more stringently. Men received instruction to avoid long hair and beards because of their association with counterculture; women's dress standards were created to protect their virtue. The miniskirt in particular was denounced as unfashionable as well as immodest. The church's modesty rhetoric in the 1960s and 70s also encouraged women to dress femininely especially as androgynous styles became more popular. A more feminine dress style was associated with acceptance of traditional feminine gender roles of the 1950s.
In 1965, the first For the Strength of Youth pamphlet was published, and the first presidency encouraged youth and their parents to conform to its regulations. It prescribed skirts that covered the kneecaps and forbade low-cut, strapless, and low-backed attire. It encouraged women to "always try to look feminine" and stated that slacks (rather than skirts or dresses) were appropriate only for hiking and other sports. The 1968 For the Strength of Youth pamphlet denounced soiled and sloppy clothing, and said that women should not be in public with her hair in curlers. In 1972, the pamphlet was changed to state that skirts should be "of modest length." Dallin H. Oaks published a formal dress code for Brigham Young University in 1971, which allowed pant suits but no other pants for women. Jeans were allowed in 1981, and knee-length shorts in 1991. A specific prohibition against tattoos and multiple earrings was added in 2000. Sister missionaries also received special instruction in dressing professionally starting in 1977. The Church published a dress code for its own employees in 1980, which did not allow pant suits.
Finding modest dresses, shorts, and swimsuits presents a challenge to some LDS women. The La Canada first ward in California sewed modest swimsuits for themselves in 1976. One group of LDS young women in Kansas worked with Nordstrom to propose modest dress ideas, garnering over 9,000 women's signatures in support of making more modest dresses available.
The current For the Strength of Youth pamphlet for LDS youth defines modest dress standards for young women: "Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back." The pamphlet also counsels women to only wear one pair of earrings. Women who have gone through the temple endowment and wear temple garments, and their clothing must cover their garments, which cover shoulders, midriff, and thighs. Some members feel that when leaders emphasize dressing modestly to young women, they only emphasize the sexualization of women's bodies and encourage women to judge each other by their physical appearance. Other members feel that modest dress is the first defense against immorality, and that dressing modestly will help individuals act modestly.
Factors affecting mental health
Mormon women are no more likely than other women to experience depression, however, Mormon women who experience depression have specific challenges. A 1993 dissertation by Marleen Williams found a few differences in how Mormon women experience depression. Compared to mildly depressed Protestant women, mildly depressed Mormon women felt more guilt and self-blame, took responsibility for others' behavior, and depended on others for approval.:48 Compared to non-depressed Mormon women, mildly depressed Mormon women were more likely to have role conflicts and feel their gender role restricted their behavior.:51 A 1984 study by David Spendlove found that poor health, low income, less education, and less perceived caring from spouse were positively correlated with depression in LDS women in Utah.:491 Spendlove also found that for women in Utah in 1984, women who work "may be at a higher risk of depression" than those who do not.:494
Other studies have examined specific subgroups of Mormon women. A study by Ann Pritt in 1998 found that Mormon women who were sexually abused were more likely to feel distant from God, blame themselves for bad things that happen to them, and be more pessimistic in general compared to Mormon women who were not sexually abused (with both parties having received counseling at some point). Another study by Jacobsen and Wright in 2014 found that Mormon women who experience same-sex attraction feel isolation and worthlessness and need to form a positive self-identity.
In the temple
Some temples in 2012 still did not allow women to perform baptisms for the dead during their menstrual cycle, despite official policy to the contrary. Feminist Mormon Housewives started a project to document which temples did not allow menstruating women to perform baptisms, and after the Salt Lake Tribune reported the story, the LDS church further clarified the policy that menstruating women are allowed to perform baptisms for the dead.
In the temple endowment, a woman is promised that she will be a priestess "unto her husband," while men are promised they will be priests to God. Women promise to "hearken" to their husbands. In Elizabeth Hammond's feminist reading of these differences, "Eve's curse could only be overcome by eternally submitting to Adam's agency, the very agency which she had wounded in Eden when forcing him to break a commandment."
In current Latter-day Saint temple practice, the endowment ritual contains a prayer circle, where some participants stand in a circle and repeat a prayer given by a single person. A year after Joseph Smith established the temple endowment in 1843, he extended the privilege to women, who could then participate in the prayer circle and Anointed Quorum. After 1846, it was uncommon for women to participate in prayer circles without their husbands. Under Eliza R. Snow's guidance, some women made women-only prayer circles. In 1896, the first presidency advised against Relief Society prayer circles, but some Relief Societies continued the practice. In 1978, the First Presidency discontinued all prayer circles except those performed in a temple as part of the endowment. Since members of prayer circles had to be approved by the first presidency, continuing this tradition in a worldwide church made for unwieldy paperwork.
Religiously significant women
Along with the promotion of women's rights in the secular sphere, women in Utah, like renowned poet Eliza R. Snow, spoke of women's equality in sacred matters. This included the development of a Heavenly Mother theology. Joseph Smith discussed the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother as early as the 1840s. The idea of a Heavenly Mother expanded to a loving mother who sent each of us off on our journey to this earth and who will welcome us back to her again after death. As written in poems by Mormon authors, "[Heavenly Mother] oversees key moments for individual souls in the Mormon progressive plan of salvation." These ideas were expressed throughout the early 1800s. Today, church leaders continue to mention Heavenly Mother, although less frequently and embellished than in early church history. Neal A. Maxwell affirmed the ideas or a homecoming expressed in Snow's poetry about Heavenly Mother by saying, "Could such a regal homecoming be possible without the anticipatory arrangements of a Heavenly Mother?"
In the 1970s and 1980s church members began to write speculations about a Heavenly Mother and even to pray to her in meetings. In the 1980s and 1990s the church stopped these practices. There were publications made in Dialogue during this time period that suggested that Heavenly Mother is the Holy Ghost. In 2015 an essay was published in The Gospel Topics section of the church's website, which surveyed 171 years of statements about a Mother in Heaven.
Mormonism rejected the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, which held that humanity inherits the sin of Adam and Eve in which they ate the forbidden fruit. This sin was historically blamed on Eve, and was thought to be the source of women's submissive and dependent state. The movement's second Article of Faith states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression."
Within and outside the church mainstream, there is a minority of LDS women who raise concerns regarding church policy and doctrine. However, any members who are viewed as publicly oppositional toward the church's current structure are subject to ecclesiastical discipline, including excommunication for apostasy.
20th and 21st centuries changes in church policies about women
The First Presidency made the Relief Society an auxiliary to the church, removing their independent financial status in 1970. In 1977, First Presidency member N. Eldon Tanner told a meeting of church leaders that presidency of the Relief Society should be considered a partner with the Melchizedek priesthood.
Other developments during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball included having young women class advancements recognized in sacrament meeting and, in 1978, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a policy which approved of women praying in sacrament meeting. In 1980, the general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary were invited to sit on the stand with the male general authorities during general conference. In 1984, a woman spoke in general conference for the first time since 1930. Since then, women have spoken in every general conference. In 1978, a conference session specifically for women was added, initially two weeks before the October general conference, which was later changed to one week beforehand. In the April 2013 general conference, women gave prayers for the first time.
In 1978, a policy that a woman was not allowed to be a Sunday School president was clarified to a bishop in a Boston suburb. Also in 1978, Alice Colton Smith, a member of the Relief Society General Board, remarked in a letter to Leonard J. Arrington that women were once permitted to join in or stand as an observer at the blessing of her baby, but now were rarely permitted to do so. In 1975, the LDS church allowed Maureen Ursenbach Beecher to continue to work in the History Division after the birth of her daughter. Previously, the church's policy was to terminate new mothers' employment; after consulting with their legal counsel, the church changed their policy to allow women employees to continue working after several weeks of maternity leave.:243–244
Brigham Young University (BYU), the LDS Church's flagship educational institution, has made several changes in its policy towards women. In 1975, the four-year, full tuition and boarding expenses presidential scholarship was changed from only being available to men to being available to an equal number of men and women. BYU established a Women's Research Institute in 1978. Among its directors over its 21 years of existence was Marie Cornwall. At the end of 2009, BYU restructured its Women's Studies Programs, freeing more money for research on women's issues by ending an institute staff, placing the Women's Studies Minor in the Sociology Department and thus putting all the money that had been split between research and staff directly into research expenditures.
In 2013, the church adjusted the leadership council in its missions to include a greater role for the wife of the mission president and by creating a new role, called "sister training leader". The new Mission Leadership Council expands the use of councils to govern the church at every level. Also in 2013, the organization Ordain Women was established by LDS women who supported the extension of priesthood ordinations to women. On November 1, 2013, the church announced that beginning in 2014, a general women's meeting, conducted by the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations, would be held in connection with its bi-annual general conferences. In 2015, the church appointed women to its executive councils for the first time. The church appointed Linda K. Burton, president of the Relief Society, Rosemary Wixom, president of the Primary, and Bonnie L. Oscarson, president of the Young Women's organization, to three high-level church councils (one woman to each).
Mormon feminism is a feminist movement concerned with the role of women within Mormonism. Mormon feminists advocate for a more significant recognition of Heavenly Mother, the ordination of women, gender equality, and social justice grounded in Mormon theology and history., The modern form of the movement has roots that go back to the founding of Mormonism, including the largely independent operation of the female Relief Society, priesthood blessings by women in early church history, and the women's suffrage movement in the western United States.
Mormon fundamentalists are groups or individuals who have broken from the dominant form of Mormonism practiced by the LDS Church. Since the mid-19th century, numerous fundamentalist sects have been established, many of which are located in small, cohesive, and isolated communities in areas of the Western United States, western Canada, and Mexico. Mormon fundamentalists advocate a return to Mormon doctrines and practices which, they believe, were wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the law of consecration, the Adam–God doctrine, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon endowment ritual, and often the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.
Plural marriage is generally considered the most central and significant doctrine separating fundamentalists from mainstream Mormonism. In Mormon fundamentalist groups, women are typically expected or encouraged to adhere to a strongly patriarchal perspective on women's roles and activities and, in many cases, participate in plural marriage.
Even though women in fundamentalist groups are often expected to rear children and other domestic tasks, it is not accurate to assume that all women in polygamous relationships in Mormon fundamentalist groups are powerless. Mormon women in fundamentalist groups experience their gender roles differently than women in the LDS church. In fundamentalists sects, sex is viewed as a necessary evil for reproduction. Women who are menstruating, lactating, or pregnant are not expected to have sex with their husbands.:20 One fundamentalist women said that because her husband had other wives, she didn't feel pressured to sexually satisfy her husband. Fundamentalist women help their husbands seek other wives, and many say that for their husbands to look for a wife without consulting existing wives would be akin to infidelity.:21 Some wives in polygamous marriages feel closer to their sister wives than to their husbands. In some polygamous relationships, a wife nurtures her husband's relationship with his other wives by encouraging her husband to spend time with them. Sister wives help each other with childrearing, cooking, and other domestic tasks. Women in polygamous relationships have their own bedrooms, while their husbands are treated as visitors. Sister wives also often control the household's finances.:22–24 The studies that examined the experience of fundamentalist women did not examine underage marriage, which the authors felt was a separate issue.:22–25 The 2008 police raid of the FLDS Texas compound found that 12 girls were married before age 16 and sexually abused.
- Criticism of Mormonism
- Mormon feminism
- The Mormon Women Project
- Heavenly Mother (Mormonism)
- Adam and Eve (LDS Church)
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- Smith, Joseph (July 1830), "Revelation, July 1830–C [D&C 25]", The Joseph Smith Papers, Church Historian's Press
- Snow 1884, p. 61
- Bradley, Martha Sonntag (2005), Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights, Signature Books.
- Hanks 1992, p. 318.
- cited in Bennion, Sherilyn Cox (1990). Equal to the occasion: women editors of the nineteenth-century West. Reno: University of Nevada Press. ISBN 9780874171631.
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- Gordon, Sarah Barringer (2002), Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-century America, University of North Carolina Press, p. 842 (supra note 203), ISBN 9780807875261, JSTOR 4141683
- Young, Neil (September 2007). ""The ERA Is a Moral Issue": The Mormon Church, LDS Women, and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment". Religion and Politics in the Contemporary United States. 59 (3): 623–644. JSTOR 40068443.
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- e.g. Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1862), Edmunds–Tucker Act (1887).
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- Jorgensen 2001, p. 105
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