LDS Church working to close ‘gender gap’ in telling of its history, scholar says

(Courtesy photo) Melissa Inouye

As in every faith, women’s voices mostly have been missing or dramatically outnumbered by men in histories of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but now the Utah-based faith is working to correct that imbalance.

So said Melissa Inouye, a historian in the church’s History Department, at this week’s virtual 2020 FairMormon Conference.

“If there had been no women involved in the restoration [of Christ’s church], [founder] Joseph Smith’s movement wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Inouye said in opening her address, titled “Women in Global Church History.” “If anything, there are probably more women members who participate in the church than men.”

But some, especially young people, she said, “don’t see women in our history.”

And that’s no surprise.

Research historian Ardis Parshall took a look at the indexes of popular church histories and counted women. In the 1970 volume “Joseph Smith and the Restoration,” the percentage of named women was 7%. In “The Story of the Latter-day Saints,” it was 8.5%. By 2005′s “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” it was 15% — seven men to each woman.

“If the trend continues, at this rate it will be 2189,” Inouye said, “before we have histories that discuss women and men in normal (50-50) ratios.”

For many centuries and indeed most of recorded history, “this foregrounding of men, men’s activities and men’s words seemed only natural,” she said. “It is kind of crazy, when you really think about it, to think that for centuries people have assumed that ‘history’ included only stories about activities that at the time were mostly limited to males, like being a head of state, or a soldier or a pope.”

Those men and their activities “are not the only things worth understanding and remembering,” she said. “The history of humanity is the history of the children of God, the stories of their lives and contributions.”

Historians working on the church’s ”Global Histories” project — which is collecting stories of male and female members from around the world — are well aware of this “gender gap,” said Inouye, who most recently was a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Auckland, and trying to do better.

Yet, in “Saints: The Standard of Truth,” the first of the church’s planned four-volume official history, 39% of the named individuals are women, while women are just 27% so far in the faith’s Global Histories project, Inouye said, a better average than prominent high school U.S. history textbooks between 1960 and 1990, which had only 9% (a percentage that persisted in one of the books into 2002), but far below what it could be — or should be.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The church has released "Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand" of its four-book history, "Saints."

Part of the dearth of women’s names and perspectives in the worldwide project could be because most of these records are based on correspondence between mission administrators and church headquarters in Salt Lake City, she said, “essentially, men talking to men about male activities... like organizing a new branch, ward, stake or high-ranking leader visit centered around changes in priesthood officeholding.”

To narrow the gender gap in the church’s international history, she said, historians need to “dig deeper.”

Inouye offered three examples of what she meant.

The minutes of the Cologne, Germany, Relief Society during the Great Depression in 1930 described how the branch’s 18 women held “working hours,” Inouye said, “knitting and selling socks to support themselves and each other.” In December of that year, they raised 95 marks, which was around a month’s salary for a working woman at that time.

Later, in the post-World War II years, one Latter-day Saint woman named Ilse Kaden from the Dresden Ward “kept her family from starvation by trading knitted jackets for a sack of flour,” the historian said. “She darned socks for milk, cheese and eggs. The Relief Society culture of handwork on behalf of others had saved their own families as well.”

In Hong Kong, many church members are women from the Philippines or Indonesia who work as live-in domestic helpers, Inouye said. They get one day off a week, which is set by their employer.

“Those whose day off falls on Sunday are never able to attend the temple, because the temple was closed Sundays,” Inouye said. “One day, local leaders thought to ask up the chain whether accommodations could be made for them.”

And they were.

In March 2014, it was announced that the Hong Kong Temple would be opened on Sunday once every quarter to allow these sisters to access temple worship.

Born in Nigeria in 1954, Esohe Ikponmwen was able to study law and eventually became a judge.

In 1992, while Esohe was serving as a magistrate in Edo state, Inouye said, her mother and other family members became interested in Mormonism. After a year or so, she decided to convert and, since then, has served both as president of her stake Relief Society and chief judge of the high court of Edo State in Nigeria.

These gems are there to find, Inouye said, if you keep looking.

She urged FAIR attendees to “find and magnify women’s words and voices in lessons, talks, conversations. ... Notice situations where women’s voices, talents and perspectives are weirdly absent. If you see something, say something.”

It is urgent to “highlight the strength of women in Latter-day Saint theology and history,” as well as church teachings about Eve and Heavenly Mother, Inouye said. “Hammer those points home.”

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