When Louise Paulsen was a child in Denmark, her mother joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A single working mother, Paulsen’s mom didn’t quite fit the mold of womanhood as it was presented in the American-led church, but she was not at all unusual in Denmark.
“Growing up, I only knew working women, working moms,” Paulsen, now 31, told Religion News Service. Her mother was “very strong-willed, very powerful,” and she loved the women’s Relief Society. The problem was less about her mother’s conforming to a particular womanly ideal than about Denmark’s isolation from the rest of the church.
“It was hard for her to access pretty much any of the networks or materials or resources beyond her local ward [congregation],” Paulsen said. Instead, friends from the United States would send over transcripts of the Brigham Young University Women’s Conference or other materials for her mother to enjoy.
Years later, Denmark remains a small outpost of the church, with 4,417 members on the rolls, and far fewer in regular attendance. The landscape has improved in some ways: Church websites, podcasts and downloadable materials provide greater access to inspiration and conversation. In other ways, though, the isolation continues. As in any nation where church members are a tiny percentage of the population, wards and branches, or smaller congregations, can be far apart, making alliances and networking difficult.
Paulsen has made it her mission to do something about it. While in school at BYU and the London School of Economics and Political Science, she recognized the power of Latter-day Saint women gathering together for solidarity and strength.
For her master’s thesis, she interviewed female leaders of the church in Europe and kept hearing the same thing repeatedly: European women lived in a different context than the American church members. Their needs were different, and they needed to be in conversation with one another.
Paulsen was a leader in the church herself. Living in London as a young single professional, she was called to be a stake (regional) Relief Society president at the tender age of 28.
“It was a very unlikely cultural choice; let’s put it that way,” she said with a laugh. “It’s usually the married grandmother who runs the stake Relief Society.” She saw right away that the needs of the women in the stake, representing more than 150 nationalities, were both unique and many.
“I remember just seeing everywhere a range from curiosity to deep pain over the lack of dialogue on certain tricky topics and knew that we had to do something,” Paulsen said. “Perhaps because of my background, I’m not shy of conflict. Danes are pretty straight on. So, with my team in Relief Society, I started mobilizing more women and started holding women’s conferences where we talked about the real and often tough issues.”
Nothing was off the table. “We talked about motherhood and careers, about sexuality and race, and whether to date outside the church when there were so few men to date in the church.”
Now married, Paulsen lives in the British countryside and is no longer a stake Relief Society president. Her efforts at mobilizing Latter-day Saint women have only grown, however, because now she’s organizing conversations with women all across the continent of Europe.
By Women, For Women launched in October 2021. Though officially open to all, it is a virtual community where mostly European Latter-day Saint women share their joys and struggles. They have a book club. They hold dialogue nights on topics important to European women. They hold town hall meetings where they listen to what’s on each other’s minds and determine future topics for discussion or guest speakers.
One recent dialogue night focused on careers and motherhood, with women from a broad spectrum of backgrounds sharing their experiences. Future topics to be tackled include infertility, mixed-faith marriages and Heavenly Mother.
While the dialogues are open only to registered members, other personal stories are publicly available. In March for Women’s History Month, a series of personal stories launched under the hashtag #HearHerStory, building the group’s social media presence on Facebook and Instagram.
“That’s a collection of living women’s stories, based on interviews with women throughout Europe, and also historical stories from many different countries,” Paulsen said. “We are digging records out of attics and journals to try and tell the stories of these women, the ones who didn’t go to Utah — the ones who stayed and built the church here in Europe.”
Another important piece of what the website has to offer is a resource library, with pages and pages of links to materials by, for and about Latter-day Saint women. With such a wealth of material, Paulsen’s mother’s experience of scant resources should be a thing of the past.
Paulsen noted that By Women, For Women is not in competition with Relief Society or any other program of the church. On the contrary: Though officially unaffiliated, the group’s leaders are working supportively alongside the church, happily sharing their findings with church leaders as they go.
One source of these discoveries comes from “inclusion dialogues” in which a volunteer team of therapists sets up “small, confidential spaces around different or marginal experiences of women in the church.” The insights gained from these sessions are then turned into training materials for By Women, For Women’s leaders and interested leaders in the church, to help them gain a better understanding of the lived experiences of women.
The next phase for By Women, For Women is more in-person community gatherings. Now that the pandemic is entering a less acute phase in most of Europe, the organization is dreaming about events and conferences.
“Whether we will do that pan-European or just regional is unclear,” Paulsen said. “There are very large cultural differences between being a woman in England, Spain or Albania.” But whatever they plan, they are sure to be filling a need for Latter-day Saint women in Europe.
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)