The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ending a long-standing tradition that has been a source of controversy and conflict over gender equity during the past few years: the Saturday evening session of the faith’s semiannual General Conference.
The meeting was once for male priesthood holders only, then it seesawed back and forth between women and men, and now will be discontinued altogether. Its elimination raises the question: Will it increase or further diminish the number of women speaking at the four remaining sessions of the male-dominated conferences?
After all, the church’s twice-yearly meeting in April showcased only two female speakers and more than 30 men.
“I really want to believe [this move is] an indicator that there will be more gender parity in the sessions, but the church has shown as of late that even though they say we need to listen to women at all levels of church governance, they don’t actually show it publicly on a general level,” said Emily Jensen, the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “So this is probably more of a logistical change instead of a revelatory one. I’d love to be wrong.”
The two-hour Saturday evening meeting — formerly known as the priesthood session — was added to the General Conference lineup in 1944 and restricted to men and boys who hold the male-only priesthood.
Women weren’t allowed in the building for that session but, beginning in 1986, they had their own Saturday evening meeting a week before conference.
In 2014, those women’s gatherings officially became part of General Conference, bringing the total number of sessions to six.
Then, in 2018, the women’s meeting became part of General Conference weekend, with the Saturday evening session alternating between the genders: in April, for men and boys; in October, for women and girls.
During the October 2021 General Conference, the evening session will be scrapped altogether, the faith’s governing First Presidency announced in a Monday news release. Such gender-restricted meetings are deemed no longer necessary “because all sessions of General Conference are now available to anyone who desires to watch or listen.”
The Utah-based faith is acknowledging publicly, Jensen said, that “the priesthood session shows no discernible difference from a general session that only includes men speakers.”
The Davis County writer and editor added: “I hope they understand that it is horrible to start with [eliminating] the session [this was the women’s turn] that was going to include more women. They need to quickly explain why.”
The equity battle over the session boiled over in April 2013, when a group of protesters under the banner of the Ordain Women movement marched in Sunday clothes to the Tabernacle on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square seeking tickets to attend the all-male priesthood session in the nearby Conference Center. They were turned away at the door even as dozens of boys and men streamed inside to pick up last-minute passes.
Six months later, as Ordain Women members and allies were planning a second march, the church said that its priesthood session would be televised to all for the first time. Thus the women were allowed to see, but not attend the all-male session — though some did gain access to satellite sites in the fall of 2014.
On Monday, the church also announced that the coming Oct. 2-3 sessions will return to the Conference Center auditorium, which seats 21,000 people. It will, however, be closed to the public.
Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, this will mark the fourth straight all-virtual General Conference without an in-person audience.
The first, in April 2020, originated from a small auditorium in the nearby Church Office Building. In October 2020 and April 2021, talks were beamed from a small Conference Center Theater.