Women at LDS General Conference: Fewer are called, fewer are chosen, fewer are quoted

Leaders say they want women to speak up and speak out, but that doesn’t happen at the faith’s highest-profile gatherings: General Conference.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Camille N. Johnson, head of the church's global Relief Society, speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023. She was one of two female speakers at the spring General Conference.

If Latter-day Saint leaders really want to hear more women’s voices in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, feminists say, they would invite more of them to speak at the faith’s semiannual General Conferences and quote them in speeches that are given — by men and women.

Yet neither effort seems to be a priority.

At the just-completed 193rd Annual General Conference, for example, of the 33 speakers in the five sessions, two were women.

And in a just-published report of General Conferences from 1971 through 2020, researcher Eliza Wells, a graduate student in philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, documented that Latter-day Saint leaders quote men more than 16 times for every one time they cite a woman.

“Even taking into account the expected effects of the church’s overwhelmingly male scripture and all-­male priesthood hierarchy,” Wells writes in “Quoted at the Pulpit: Male Rhetoric and Female Authority in 50 Years of General Conference,” women “are quoted less, cited less, and acknowledged less.”

Those statistics are deeply troubling to some Latter-day Saint women.

Midway through the latest conference, the podcast “At Last She Said It” posted a graphic on its social media that simply said, “More Talks by Women.”

In nearly 500 comments on that post, “women and men expressed frustration, sadness and disbelief at the lack of women’s voices,” said Susan M. Hinckley, one of the podcasters. “Some reported facing questions from their young daughters about the absence of ‘girls’ in talks and visible leadership on the stand.”

One woman simply said, “I don’t watch anymore. I deserve so much better. We all do,” Hinckley noted. “It is clear to me that this is one place the church could take what would be perceived by members as a huge step forward with very minimal effort. Only two female speakers per session would yield 5 times more talks by women.”

Exponent II blogger April Young-Bennett echoes that sentiment.

“When I express my desire to hear from more women at General Conference, some church members tell me I should focus on the messages of conference instead of the demographics of the speakers,” Young-Bennett says. “But the brethren’s choice to invite so few women to speak at General Conference is sending an implicit message that the speakers themselves are hearing. They aren’t quoting women in their talks because they’ve heard the message, loud and clear, that women’s voices aren’t necessary. If women’s words really mattered, the [governing] First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would give them proportionate speaking time.”

Excluding women “is a choice,” the blogger says. “The brethren in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles choose whom they invite to speak at General Conference. They can ask whomever they please, and they are choosing not to ask many women.”

There is “no scriptural mandate against women speaking at General Conference,” Young-Bennett says. “The brethren are not even limited by the small number of roles they have chosen to allow women to hold as general officers of the church. They can ask anyone they want to speak, even if they do not hold one of those callings, and there is precedent for choosing speakers from outside those ranks.”

Indeed, when “the most powerful leaders in the church use their limited time in the spotlight to highlight someone else’s words, they send a signal about how that source should be perceived,” Wells writes in her piece for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “...Despite increasingly vocal commitments from church leaders to the equal though separate status of women and men, those leaders continue to treat female voices as less authoritative than male ones.”

The data speaks volumes

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Tracy Y. Browning, second counselor in the children's Primary general presidency, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. She became the first Black woman in a general presidency and the first to give a sermon at General Conference.

Initially, Wells was particularly struck “by how, in talks about gender, apostles and prophets rarely used women’s words to talk about women’s lives and roles,” she says in an interview. “So that started me on this path of looking at quotations to see how women’s voices are treated at the pulpit in general.”

For her Dialogue analysis, Wells read every April conference speech given by an apostle or member of the First Presidency from 1971 through 2020 as well as the ones given by a female leader in the same time frame (although women did not become regular speakers at the annual meeting until 1988).

“The sources that appear in General Conference,” she writes, “are deliberately chosen with the spiritual and institutional goals of the church’s highest leaders in mind.”

Here are a few of her conclusions:

• Besides other prophets and scripture, presidents also quote current and past apostles, as well as secular poets and historical figures, including William Wordsworth, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

• The men quoted male sources 3,264 times (not including male-­gendered deities Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, who were quoted 1,968 times), while female sources were quoted 197 times.

• Female church leaders make up 1.9% of conference quotations, while 98% of the leaders whom apostles quote are men. Of the 21 citations of female leaders, 10 are from Eliza Snow, and six of those are her hymns.

(Church History Library) Eliza R. Snow photograph by Edward Martin.

• A current female leader was quoted to an audience that included men once, when apostle Dallin Oaks cited general Relief Society President Linda Burton in the 2014 priesthood session. In 50 years, an apostle never quoted a current female leader in an April general session.

“Not only do women speak less frequently in General Conference because of the restricted leadership roles available to them,” Wells concludes, “but they are heard less frequently because other speakers choose to amplify male voices instead of female ones in their quotation practices.”

Women’s absence and silence in this high-profile space, she writes, “indicates a broader inability to be heard within the church.”

In the end, she says, she was most surprised by how low the numbers actually ended up being.

“When you look at quotations of sources without church authority, the disparity between how often women and men are quoted was both striking and disappointing,” Wells says. “I was particularly surprised by how infrequently women leaders quoted women, and how much more frequently they quoted other male leaders on the stand.”

Will the balance ever change?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russell M. Nelson, 98, leaves the morning session of General Conference with his wife, Wendy, on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

In 2019, President Russell M. Nelson told Latter-day Saint women that they “speak and teach with power and authority from God.”

“Whether by exhortation or conversation,” the president said, “we need your voice teaching the doctrine of Christ. We need your input in family, ward and stake councils. Your participation is essential and never ornamental.”

There have been some recent efforts to elevate Latter-day Saint women’s voices in books and online publications.

A few years ago, the church’s history department produced “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women,” which contains the public prayers, preachings and pronouncements of 54 women, each accompanied by biographical information about the speaker and the context in which the material was given.

Still, Nelson did not mention the need for women’s participation at the general level. And it is unclear when or whether that will change.

“Church is quickly becoming the one place in our girls’ and young women’s lives where they are denied any real voice or authority, and experience representation that is nowhere near equal,” Hinckley, the podcaster, says. “Their mothers and grandmothers may be used to this. Many older women have observed or experienced a systemic lack of value for women in the world outside church, or were raised by women who did. Maybe that’s why we’re willing to celebrate the tiniest progress, no matter how slowly it is meted out, and continue to engage with the organization.”

But for those growing up without the constraints their mothers or grandmothers faced, Hinckley says, “I see little reason to expect a continuation of that willingness, and actually, zero reason to hope for it.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Bonnie H. Cordon, the outgoing leader of the global Young Women organization, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 1, 2023. She was one of two female speakers at the spring General Conference.