LDS women no longer meet separately with a designated apostle ‘liaison’

Yes, they hold high-level positions, but the men call the shots in the patriarchal faith and the systemwide chain of command reinforces that fact.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) High-level women's officers take part in sustaining of church leaders at General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024. Top women's leaders in the church serve on male-dominated executive councils.

No matter how many women belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or how many advances they make in the hierarchy, they are not part of the faith’s top-tier leadership.

And the decision-making and visibility of the female general presidencies in the 17.2 million-member global church may be even less these days than for some of their predecessors.

It remains a hierarchical patriarchy, governed by a 99-year-old prophet-president, Russell Nelson, and his two counselors in the three-member First Presidency, who meet every Thursday with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to discuss church affairs. All 15 men are viewed as “prophets, seers and revelators.”

Unlike in the past, today the general presidencies of the Relief Society for adult women, Young Women for teenage girls, and Primary for children, do not meet regularly on their own with either the First Presidency or with individual apostles.

Instead, they sit on three executive councils, presided over by two apostles and which include up to 10 other men.

The women presidents work, says Relief Society General President Camille Johnson, “in harmony with other leaders to further the mission of the church.”

The Relief Society “reports directly to the senior apostle leading the Priesthood and Family Executive Council, a senior decision-making body, including two [apostles],” Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, says in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “We have standing meetings with [the council] weekly, and at other times as needed or requested.”

The women also “meet with, advise and counsel, with other leaders of the church on matters related to humanitarian efforts, and the general welfare of our brothers and sisters around the world,” Johnson adds. “In this latter responsibility, the Relief Society presidency sits on the Welfare and Self-Reliance Executive Committee, which includes the Presiding Bishopric, to collaborate and make recommendations relative to the global humanitarian efforts of the church.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Relief Society General President Camille Johnson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the European Union Parliament in Brussels on Monday, March 4, 2024, on religious liberty for women.

The women were added to these ruling councils in 2015 in the wake of the Ordain Women movement, a change that was generally viewed as a positive step toward more empowerment.

Still, many presumed that would not eliminate regular exchanges with an apostle or the First Presidency.

Yet, even J. Anette Dennis, in responding to the feedback to her controversial speech about Latter-day Saint women having “priesthood power,” implied a distinction between male and female leaders.

“As a member of the General Relief Society Presidency,” Dennis wrote on Instagram, “I can assure you that we and our church leaders are listening and learning from the things you have shared with us.”

A ‘broken’ hierarchy

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Susan H. Porter speaks at General Conference on Sunday, April 7, 2024. She was one of three women to give a sermon at the two-day gathering.

Upon hearing the news that the faith’s high-level female leaders, in general, don’t meet separately with the top 15 men, some Latter-day Saint feminists say they were “gobsmacked,” “floored” and “shocked.”

Several bloggers for Exponent II, a long-standing magazine for Latter-day Saint women, decried the women’s lack of authority and diminished access.

Though the church has done away with the term “auxiliary” to describe the Relief Society, “that’s still very much how it functions,” says blogger Lindsay Denton. “Neither women nor their organizations are present at all in the church’s vast central hierarchy. The women’s hierarchy is broken, if not nonexistent: The general Relief Society president does not have any direct authority over stake Relief Society presidents, who likewise have no authority over ward [congregational] Relief Society presidents, and there are no regional Relief Society leaders. Compare this to the central male chain of command where there is a clear authoritative hierarchy.”

That means that the female leaders who represent the church’s 8 million-plus women “have even less authority than ward Relief Society presidents, who at least get to pick the hymns for their own meetings and assign teachers for lessons,” she says. “There is no reason there can’t be more than two or three female speakers in five sessions of General Conference and no reason the general female leaders can’t serve longer than five years. No reason, that is, except that the men in charge have no interest in changing things.”

Another Exponent II blogger, Abby Maxwell Hansen, asks what role the general female leaders play in running the church.

“Are they only part-time callings and unpaid, or do they receive a salary like male general authorities do?” she wonders. “Are any women involved in who they call to a new female presidency, or is that a decision made exclusively by men?”

The ‘13th apostle’

(Signature Books) The influential Susa Young Gates was sometimes referred to as the "13th apostle."

These questions are all a huge comedown from the heady days when Susa Young Gates — first editor of The Relief Society Magazine who worked for women’s suffrage and rubbed shoulders with Susan B. Anthony — was sometimes known as the “13th apostle.”

Or when Young Women General President Florence Jacobsen single-handedly saved downtown Salt Lake City’s Beehive House and Lion House from demolition, and was on a first-name basis with church President Thomas (Tom) Monson and late apostles David (“Dave”) Haight and Marvin (“Marv”) Ashton, referring to Latter-day Saint general authorities as “boys.”

Or when Primary General President LaVern Parmley helped finish a hospital for children, Relief Society President Amy Brown Lyman organized welfare and social work for members, and Relief Society President Belle Spafford was at the helm of the National Council of Women.

For much of the 19th and 20th century, women’s organizations had financial autonomy and semi-independent publications, says Latter-day Saint historian Katie Ludlow Rich, along with curriculum control.

They served much longer terms of office — sometimes decades — and were known inside and outside the church as powerhouse women.

After the faith’s mid-1960s “correlation effort” stripped much of that independence, the women were treated more like an afterthought, according to Chieko Okazaki, first counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency from 1990 to 1997. “Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Chieko Okazaki, a member of the General Relief Society Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1990-1997, died in 2011.

Case in point: the 1995 Family Proclamation.

After “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was written, the Relief Society presidency “was asked to come to a meeting. We did, and they read this proclamation. It was all finished,” she told Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “The only question was whether they should present it at the priesthood meeting or at the Relief Society meeting. It didn’t matter to me where it was presented. What I wanted to know was, ‘How come we weren’t consulted?’”

The apostle who was the women’s “liaison” said, “‘Isn’t it wonderful that he [President Gordon Hinckley] made the choice to present it at the Relief Society meeting?’” Okazaki said. “Well, that was fine, but as I read it, I thought that we could have made a few changes in it.”

Still, these female leaders at least did have an assigned apostle liaison.

Five-year term limits

In a popular 1993 class at church-owned Brigham Young University, “Teachings of the Prophets,” first-year student Cynthia Winward learned that apostle Neal Maxwell had been a pig farmer and eventual church President Howard Hunter was a musician and had even formed his own orchestra.

“Knowing about their lives, coupled with the years of listening to their conference talks, I have always felt I had a real sense of their personalities,” Winward says. “Their teachings seemed more relevant to me as I came to ‘know them’ over the years. I mourn that that is never the case with our women leaders. Before we get more than a hint of their personality and speaking style, they’re released in just five years.”

On top of that, the loss of the women’s sessions of General Conference, Winward says, has been “incalculable.”

When the church held separate general Young Women and Relief Society meetings every six months, “there were more opportunities for women to address women,” says Winward, who hosts the “At Last She Said It” podcast with Susan Hinckley.

(Photo courtesy of BYU Photo) The Relief Society General Presidency speaks at the 2021 BYU Women's Conference. From left are Sharon Eubank, President Jean Bingham and Sister Reyna Aburto. The three were seen as dynamic leaders.

Julie Beck, then Relief Society general president, gave nine General Conference talks from 2007 to 2012 — an average of 1.8 talks per year — Winward notes. Contrast this with Jean Bingham, who gave five General Conference speeches as Relief Society general president from 2017 to 2022.

“At the very least, can we go back to having our women general officers be more visible through General Conference talks?” Winward wonders. “Who has a greater impact on the women of this church, some general authority Seventy or the general Relief Society Presidency?”

Members should be “hearing from the women regularly and consistently,” the podcaster says, “but instead the First Presidency is choosing to emphasize men.”

The most recent General Conference featured three sermons by women and 29 by men.

International female ‘advisers’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) These six women were the first to be appointed as international area organization advisers for Europe. They are (clockwise from top left) Traci De Marco from the United Kingdom; Julia Wondra from Austria; Ghislaine Simonet from France; Letícia dos Santos Rudloff from Spain; Sibylle Fingerle from Germany; and Ann-Mari Lindberg from Denmark.

Three years ago, the Utah-based faith called handfuls of women to serve as international organizational advisers to assist in training and mentoring congregational leaders globally.

There are currently 93 serving around the world, a church spokesperson confirmed, but none “in the United States as the organizations have advisory councils that fulfill this function from headquarters.”

These positions “seem like an important step in having more women in the rooms where decisions are made,” says Rich, the independent historian, yet the church has made clear that “the need for the area advisers will be determined by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Presidency of the Seventy and the Area Presidencies.”

Female presidents “may have no role in determining where women ‘area organization advisers’ are needed,” she says, “and who is called to these positions.”

When male leaders make “all final decisions on finances, communication, curriculum and callings — down to the music selected for ‘women’s sessions’ of General Conference — women’s roles on councils,” Rich says, “are more symbolic than they are any indication of real partnership in the church or the Relief Society’s strength.”

Gender inequality in the church “is not about how any male leader feels about women or women leaders,” she says. “It is systemic.”

Slouching toward equality?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Scholar Melissa Inouye, shown in 2019, died Tuesday, April 23, 2024, at age 44. She called for women's to have heighten roles and responsibilities in the church.

Including a couple of women on a council “is better than banning women altogether, but it’s only barely better,” says April Young Bennett, another Exponent II blogger. “BYU’s own research demonstrates that when women are outnumbered by men, they participate less.”

Proportionate representation of women on executive councils “would be a vital force for good that would elevate the church’s capacity to serve women and men alike,” Bennett says. “But even if women were represented in equal numbers with men, they still wouldn’t have an equal voice because the entire system is designed to elevate men’s voices over women’s.”

A woman is working at a disadvantage “in any church setting because she’s outranked by every priesthood office-holding man present,” she says. “Only men are given the title general authority.”

If Winward, the podcaster, could “wave a magic wand,” she would love to see the women’s presidencies “be fully autonomous. They extend all their callings, they create all the curriculum with zero oversight from men,” she says. “Without full autonomy, the Relief Society is simply a man’s organization for women.”

In an interview five days before she died, Latter-day Saint writer, scholar and essayist Melissa Inouye spoke passionately about how the church could improve gender equity — even if it remains committed to separate roles for women and men.

“We could … preserve some sort of complementarian difference but to make sure that women had significant power, if men were in charge of like the sacerdotal priesthood — you know, call the men for the ordinances type things — and women were in charge of the finances, then we would have a true kind of codependent relationship,” said Inouye, who died of cancer April 23 at age 44. “If you wanted money for the upcoming Young Men’s camp trip, you would go to the Relief Society president and she would check the books. And if you needed someone baptized, you would go to elders.”

Right now that kind of balance does not exist in Mormonism, Inouye said. “If you look at the 25 departments of the church, only the human resources head is female. In a culture like that, it’s just not possible to have normal, respectful relationships between men and women.”

Perhaps giving women more than a minority voice on executive councils and more “general” authority could change all that.

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