The just-completed General Conference promised a historic schedule shift that would highlight the emerging involvement and gender gains of Latter-day Saint women, yet, in the eyes of some, it wound up diminishing female visibility and voices.
Here’s what happened: Instead of the all-male priesthood meeting, a women’s session was held. Alternating the priesthood and women’s sessions at the twice-yearly gatherings was billed as a way to enhance the prominence and prestige of female leaders — and, by extension, female members — in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where only men can be ordained. But the rhythms and routines of the conference apparently got in the way.
Normally, the women’s session included three female speakers and one leader from the faith’s presiding First Presidency. This time, though, the women’s remarks were followed by speeches by all three top men — a pattern set for priesthood meeting since at least the mid-20th century — and that trio took up more time.
On top of that, only one woman gave an address during the general sessions — making a total of four women who spoke. That meant fewer women spoke than had become the norm in recent decades.
Even so, some Latter-day Saint women were delighted that the whole First Presidency addressed the women’s session, treating that meeting as equivalent to the all-male priesthood session. After all, these members reason, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles deliver essential messages for the faithful.
They are “the most important voices we should hear from,” Latter-day Saint blogger and web editor Emily Jensen says on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast. “‘If we get to hear from them more, [such members say], that’s a good thing.’”
Jensen doesn’t agree with that thinking, she says. “We need to hear much more from women.”
Other women, too, found the session troubling.
“I find it highly ironic that President Nelson would say, ‘We need your voices,’ immediately after taking over half of our meeting,” says Libby Boss, a Boston-based blogger and board member for the Exponent II women’s magazine. “Everybody needs [women’s voices] — the entire church — we need to have equal numbers of men and women speaking. Men talking to men, women talking to women. Period.”
It has always “rubbed [her] the wrong way,” Boss says, that a member of the First Presidency always spoke at the end of the Relief Society or Young Women’s session.”
The church’s male officials don’t realize that “if they really want to hear women’s voices,” she says, “the Relief Society president needs to have the same kind of gravitas and presence they have.”
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, echoes that sentiment.
It is important for women to hear messages “delivered by people they can more closely identify with,” Mason says in that same “Mormon Land" episode. But it is also valuable “for men to hear women’s voices in an authoritative context — and this conference didn’t give them the opportunity to do that.”
The meeting did provide one, well, near miss.
In opening his sermon, Dallin H. Oaks, Nelson’s first counselor, referred to the “sister presidents” who spoke before him. That was encouraging to women, Jensen says, seeing in the term an improved status.
The moniker “sister presidents” was “brand-new,” Jensen adds in an interview, and “in saying it President Oaks seemingly acknowledged the presiding power these women hold in their general leadership callings.”
But “presidents” was changed in the online text to “sister leaders,” she says. “The removal of the term, something the leadership just does not do unless it's an important change, shows once again that women are just considered auxiliary — even in title.”
Many women noted the difference in topics addressed by the women and men who spoke during that Saturday night session.
The women discussed the nature of Jesus Christ, personal journeys of faith, rendering service to others, discipleship and ways of ministering, Boss says, while the three men focused on motherhood.
Rather than consider women as “individual disciples,” she says, “they discussed women as gender roles.”
Though Boss is a mother, she says talks about that role “don’t speak” to her. “I want to hear about Jesus and how I can be a better person.”
Henry B. Eyring, Nelson’s second counselor, said the new “home-centered, church-supported” program of gospel instruction would increase female influence since women have the primary responsibility to “nourish” spirituality in the home.
“I’m a mom and love to be told that that’s important,” Jensen says. “But that leaves out a big section of women.”
And, she adds: “It’s not good enough to say we are all mothers eternally.”
Another item that caused some angst was Nelson’s “invitation” to the women to go on a “10-day social media fast.”
Earlier this year, he issued a similar challenge to Latter-day Saint youths but has not, so far, made the same suggestion to men.
Some wonder whether Nelson told women to take an online break, Jensen says, “because Mormon women were loud in the political world lately.”
In this #MeToo moment, for instance, more and more women are speaking out and sharing their stories on the internet.
Others chafe at Nelson’s call to women, she says, “stereotypically lumping them in with children,” who have different needs regarding social media.
Women use such tools “powerfully,” Jensen says, for employment, for election cycles, for supporting one another.
“I don’t think you should silence women — ever.”
Starting a pattern
The history of Latter-day Saint women preaching at large church gatherings has not followed a single pattern, Janiece Johnson writes on the Juvenile Instructor blog.
In October 1929, church President Heber J. Grant unexpectedly asked three female presidents — Louise Robison, Ruth May Fox and May Anderson — out of the congregation to speak.
Grant then remarked, “We have listened to a great many testimonies from our brethren during this conference. ... We shall now call on some of our sisters.”
According to minutes, Relief Society (RS) President Belle Spafford, Johnson reports, spoke in the priesthood session of General Conference in 1946, “teaching and encouraging bishops to work in a partnership with the RS and utilize the expertise of RS presidents.”
During the Utah-based faith’s 188-year history, though, General Conference mostly has been a men’s show.
Women started to show up on a regular basis in April 1988 when Dwan J. Young, president of the children’s Primary, spoke.
From then until October 1993, there was one female speaker per conference — plus, the three at the previous week’s women’s meeting, which didn’t officially become part of General Conference until a few years ago.
The pattern of two women speaking at each conference took root in 1994, Johnson, the historian, writes. “The schedule further normalized in 1998 with women usually speaking in the Saturday morning and Sunday morning session.”
This routine remained mostly constant until April 2017, which, like the recent session, had one female speaker (or four, counting the women’s session). In October that year, there were two in the general sessions, while April 2018 had three (but no separate women’s meeting).
And, of course, women first offered General Conference prayers in 2013, mostly twice during general sessions, but this time around only once.
Despite high expectations, the rotation this fall returned to one woman — Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president — speaking to the whole body of believers.
That is tough for everyone, Jensen says.
“A lack of women’s voices perpetuates the idea that when they speak at General Conference, it’s time to go to the bathroom or get a snack.”
The wider society is “learning to listen to women,” she says. “Why not my church?”