Visible Women

Visible Women August 12, 2014

On June 24, I was at a national gathering of religious leaders and scholars in New York City. At dinner I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me, a Baptist theologian. When he found out that I was a Latter-day Saint, his interest was piqued because of the breaking news that Kate Kelly, Mormon feminist, had been excommunicated. Curious, I asked about his response to this news story.

“Oh, it’s very negative, of course,” he replied. Candidly, he told me that this sort of news reinforces existing notions that women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not respected as the spiritual equals of men.

At this remark my entire life as a Mormon woman flashed before my eyes. I thought about Mormon women I knew, like my mother and aunt and high school piano teacher, who lacked formal administrative power but who possessed tremendous informal cultural power within their local church communities. I thought about how within my marriage and the marriages of friends and family, men and women worked as equal partners changing diapers, earning money, and teaching spiritual lessons. And, of course, I recalled recent church discourse (General Conference talks, Sunday school lessons, etc.) emphasizing the equality of men and women as children of God who need each other for their complementary differences and who are partners in a divine project.

Hey, chump, part of me wanted to say, I’m a woman with a Ph.D. and four kids. I choose to be Mormon, and I get plenty of respect.

And yet I have been thinking about his remark ever since. I can see how someone looking in from the outside could get the impression that women are not respected within Mormonism because the markers of women’s spiritual authority are subtle and often invisible in terms of formal church structure. An investigator who walks in to a Mormon congregation on Sunday sees a row of older men sitting on the stand and a group of younger men administering religious rites. To this outside observer, neither the formal leadership of the Relief Society president nor the informal influence of women within the community are immediately apparent.

And indeed, Mormon women who live in countries and regions where women are assumed to be inferior to men are not respected as spiritually equal to men, even by themselves. Church lessons and talks on marital companionship can only make so much headway against this powerful cultural current. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, the deeply patriarchal culture dictates that women do most of the everyday chores, defer to their husbands on decisions like whether to become pregnant or what to name their child, and generally act as servants to the men of the family.

For this reason, LDS women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo often have a very limited view of their own capability. According to a former “sister mission president” in the DRC who has visited hundreds of Congolese Sunday meetings, more often than not, Young Women’s lessons are taught by men because the women who are called to teach don’t come prepared. The same is true for Primary. (See here for representative videos of sharing time and a singing time from a Primary in the town of Likasi, with the now-retired sister-mission-president translating for her grandchildren on the left). Congolese women members do not see why they can be the ones to fulfill a leadership or teaching responsibility at church. In the view of a former DRC mission president, this lack of respect for women within the Church is one of the major obstacles to functional units and sustainable growth in Africa.

Thus, the wide range of possibilities for interpreting the status of women within contemporary Mormonism is at the heart of divisions that currently exist within the Church and among women members in particular. Whether or not Mormon women are respected as men’s spiritual equals depends largely on individual experience and local culture, both of which vary greatly. This is why some people are incredulous to hear others declare that Mormon women currently inhabit the best of all possible worlds, and some people are baffled to hear that others are dissatisfied.

Where Latter-day Saints are unified is in their desire to sort things out. Some Mormons who self-identify as feminists are moving in the direction of tactful internal conversations, such as bloggers authoring gradualist, pragmatic posts in recent weeks. Others who don’t share Mormon feminists’ sentiments but who want to be kind are reaching out.

I believe that as a church we must address this issue of women’s visibility. “Visibility” might sound like a petty concern, but, on the flip side, “invisibility” is definitely not what we want to come to mind when people think of Mormon women. Is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints an organization where women are valued? [The insider answer is “yes”; the visible answer is “not so much.”] Is it an organization that needs women in order to function? [The insider answer is “yes”; the visible answer is “not so much.”] Is it an organization where women are respected as the spiritual equals of men? [The insider answer is “yes”; the visible answer is “not so much.”]

Visible equality is important, not just for the sake of correcting outsiders’ negative public perceptions, but for the sake of our youth—especially the young women—who are in many ways still “investigators,” looking at the Church in the context of the many life paths that are open to them and trying to decide whether the Church looks like a place where they belong.

Visible equality is also important for the sake of women in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for whom equal partnership between women and men at church needs to be something that is not merely heard in lessons and talks, but modeled and institutionalized in church leadership structures. When I asked the former mission president of the DRC why existing Conference talks on gender equality and the “Proclamation on the Family” line about “equal partners” weren’t enough to transform church members’ views of women’s inferiority, he said that cultural forces were powerful and complex, but that it would be more effective to show this doctrine through the real-life examples of strong women. He thought that General Young Women President Bonnie Oscarson’s calling of Dorah Mkhabela (a South African woman) to the Young Women’s General Board was a step in the right direction.

What more can we do to more visibly express the full spiritual partnership of Mormon women in doing the work of the Church?

1) “VISIBLE” LANGUAGE. We can expand our language so that it clearly communicates respect for the work done and the authority delegated to women in the Church by addressing women in a way that reflects their calling, as we already do for men.

Think about the terms within Mormonism that currently delineate authority held by males: deacon, teacher, priest, elder, bishop, second counselor, first counselor, branch president, stake president, stake high councilman, area seventy, seventy [of the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth quorums], emeritus seventy, member of the First Presidency, etc.. Also think about the multiple terms of address that are used to show respect for those who hold or who have held these callings (“once a bishop, always a bishop”): Brother, Elder, Bishop, President.

When we think about terms within Mormonism to delineate authority held by females, they are much more sparse, especially in the “middle” areas between the local Relief Society president and the General Relief Society president. In a talk received with a standing ovation at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, UT on August 8, Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities, recently drew attention to these same issues of vocabulary and visibility, advocating, for instance, for new terms for callings such as “mission presidents’ wives” that reflect these women’s vital contributions.

Church vocabulary is even more limited when it comes for terms of address for females who hold callings in the church: Sister. We currently have only one word to address a range of women who serve in callings from the local librarian to the full-time missionary to the Stake Relief Society President to the General Officers of the Church in Young Women, Primary, and Relief Society. One simple way in which we can “visibly” show the full spiritual partnership of women is to expand our language so that it acknowledges women’s spiritual and ecclesiastical authority.

At the churchwide level, it stands to reason that the women who hold callings as General Officers of the Church, who regularly rely on inspiration to teach the entire Church in General Conference, should be referred to with a respectful form of address that reflects the weight of this calling. Similarly, when a General Relief Society President retires, she ought to be known as an Emeritus General Relief Society President, addressed accordingly, and given continued opportunities to teach in the Church in the same manner as Emeritus Seventies.

The arguments might be made that respectful forms of address such as “Bishop,” “Elder,” and “President” are reserved for holders of priesthood keys, so using respectful forms of address for female leaders would diminish the respect for these keys. I agree that respect for priesthood keys is important. It’s our claim to have restored priesthood keys that makes our Church unique. And yet someone like the General Relief Society President who does not hold priesthood keys should still merit general churchwide respect. Unlike the local branch president, who is called “President,” the General Relief Society speaks regularly in General Conference, sits regularly in councils with the First Presidency, and is called to lead seven and a half million people. Respect for spiritual stewardship at a global level is important.

Since she’s a president, why don’t we call her a President? Just as calling a branch president “President” does not diminish the authority of the President of the Church, calling female General Officers of the Church “President” (etc.) will not diminish from other presidents’ existing authority but will simply make these women’s authority visible in the same manner as other general callings for whom distinctive forms of address exist. (An alternative and somewhat more radical solution would be to contract our language so that all women are called “Sister” and all men are called “Brother” despite their church office.)

It is important for women in the Church to receive “visible” respect where respect is due. It’s important not because the purpose of going to church is to reap admiration and respect—it’s not—but because we do not want to be  misunderstood. To paraphrase Thessalonians 5:22, we want to abstain from all appearance of disrespecting women. In Mormonism, men and women are spiritual equals. This is our doctrine and our ideal. Women who are called to lead at the global, churchwide level are not somehow less worthy of respect than male Seventies and Area Seventies who are called to lead at the global, churchwide level. It is great that the photos of general female leaders now appear alongside these male leaders in the Ensign. This is a powerful and welcome early step in the direction of visibility.

It is also important for men in the Church to give “visible” respect where respect is due. In deeply patriarchal places like the DRC, where even LDS men are accustomed to treating women like servants, the challenge lies in cultivating what Elder Oaks has called “the gospel culture.” (Tellingly, Elder Oaks first delivered this address in broadcasts to units in Africa, where he specifically identified unequal marital relationships as being incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.) So far, it appears that rhetoric (talks and lessons) has had little discernible effect in terms of creating new gender norms that reflect gospel teachings. Perhaps emphasizing more visible tools such as new respectful vocabulary for female leaders and the calling of additional strong, visible regional and general female leaders with a mandate to exhort the entire Church, not just the women and children, would create new linguistic and relational pathways that would more fully form an alternative “gospel culture.”

2) VISIBLE RESPONSIBILITIES. Like young men, young women need to be given church responsibilities whose significance for the functioning of the local congregation is readily apparent and universally acknowledged.

In 1997 the President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, memorably declared that every convert needed three things: “a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God.’” We currently do a wonderful job of providing these three things for our young men, who because of their age are as much like new converts as anybody. In our ward in New Zealand, the young men pass the sacrament bread and water with decorum. They control access to the chapel doors while the sacrament is being passed to maintain reverence. They walk up and down the aisles twice during the course of the meeting to count the number of attendees. If they didn’t come to church to do their jobs, the ward could not function. This is a great motivation for them to come to church. But where are the responsibilities to encourage our young women, who are also new or tentative converts? True, young women currently fulfill many duties within their own organization and do so with aplomb. But how can we make space for young women to share in performing the essential functions of the congregation?

When I imagine possible answers to this question, I see young women called to serve as ushers, musicians, local missionaries, visiting teaching companions, and Primary and Young Women’s teachers (or team-teachers). I see young women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo called to learn and eventually to teach French (the language of education and the language of church materials in that country), or young women in Newport Beach, California, called to learn and eventually to teach Spanish (for local service as a stake missionary working in humanitarian services). I see Laurels trained to be doulas, supporting women physically and spiritually through long hours of labor in the tradition of generations of Mormon women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who ministered to laboring sisters through the laying on of hands. I see “family callings” in which mother, father, sister, and brother are all called to provide regular service at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter with which the local church unit has a standing relationship.

There is a profusion of concrete, actionable ideas in Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. This book, which has so far received glowing reviews, articulates why so many women feel pain at church, proposes solutions that uphold existing church policies, and shares many real-world examples of how local units and leaders are already thinking and acting creatively. (Like Sharon Eubank, McBaine also argues for new vocabulary and visibility.) Other long lists of brainstorming can be found here and here.

All of these suggestions operate within the paradigm of male priesthood ordination. Most of them are completely within the bounds of policy laid out in Handbook 2, but some would require changes in policy. Such changes are in the hands of leaders whose callings authorize them to receive revelation on behalf of the entire church, but there are certainly ample precedents in church history for changing policies to fit evolving needs.

For example, a BYU Studies article from 1976 shows how the church duties currently performed by young men were first assigned in 1908. (See William Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers in the Lesser Priesthood, 1851-1883,” BYU Studies vol. 16 (1976), no. 3, on which the following paragraphs are based).

From 1851-1877, the general Church policy was that only adult men (ideally, married men) were allowed to serve in the priesthood offices of “Deacon,” “Teacher,” and “Priest.” For instance, the duties of a “Teacher” during this time ranged from reporting families’ failed parenting to bringing charges against adulterers to settling disputes over property. And yet, the problem with this policy was that local units had trouble filling “lesser” Aaronic Priesthood quorums because their members were always being recruited by Melchezidek Priesthood quorums. In 1877, this need spurred a change in policy whereby boys were permitted to serve alongside men in the Aaronic Priesthood quorums as apprentices. These changes were implemented unevenly until a General Priesthood Committee was established in 1908 to reevaluate and reorganize priesthood operations. Within a few years, the Committee had set formal Aaronic Priesthood age groupings at 12, 15, and 18 and drawn up a new list of duties “geared to the youthful capabilities of the Aaronic boys,” including the following:

assist in ward teaching                    help renovate meetinghouses

assist with the sacrament               care for meetinghouse grounds

be instructors for boy scouts         cut wood for the poor

collect ward funds                            be auxiliary officers

speak and sing at meetings            be clerks of branches

notify quorums of meetings          be choir members (Hartley, 395)

Hartley notes, “[E]xcept for the priests’ duty to baptize and bless the sacrament, and the priests’ and teachers’ duties to visit teach and to ordain, most assignments given to Aaronic boys in this century require no priesthood authority to perform. During World War II, for example, girls collected fast offerings. Women have also prepared the sacrament tables. President Heber J. Grant once authorized boys with no priesthood to pass the sacrament when ordained boys were unavailable.” (Hartley, 395)

In sum, in looking for ways to share the wealth of responsibilities with our young women, there are many things that can easily be accomplished within the bounds of official policy and in keeping with historical precedents.


I began this train of thought about the visibility of Mormon women’s church roles in response to the sting that I felt when a Baptist theologian told me that his observations of women in Mormonism left him with a “very negative” impression. And yet, when it comes to the question of whether women are respected as the spiritual equals of men within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baptist theologians are the kind of people we least need to impress.

The people who most need to see girls and women working as spiritual equals alongside boys and men at church are our daughters.

Since young women comprise half the rising generation of the Church, thinking and acting in ways that protect their ability to feel like they belong here is not a fringe issue, but a mainstream concern. Appearances [i.e. visibilities] aren’t everything, but appearances do matter because they express our internal values—the values that we are trying to transmit to our daughters.

In the developed world, our daughters are growing up in a culture where they will expect to be treated as the full equals of men. If they go to university and find out that at this university, male professors are addressed as “Dr.” and female professors are addressed as “Ma’am,” they will switch universities. If they go to work at a law firm and discover that female junior associates are asked to make copies and compile binders while male junior associates are asked to write memos and go to court, they will switch law firms.

When they go to church, members of the rising generation will be [and already are] much more sensitive to apparent gendered asymmetries in language and responsibility than my own generation, or my mother’s generation. Appeals to fulfillment in future wifehood and motherhood will not [and already do not] solve the problem for them because for their generation, being a sensitive spouse and an attentive parent are roles to which both men and women aspire. More than any generation heretofore, our daughters will want to know how they can serve in the institution of the Church itself. They will recognize that the Church is not like just any institution (that it is a sacred institution led by divine revelation), but they will also see that it has an institutional life ranging from leadership to budgets to classes to social events to vacuuming. And if they perceive that women’s contributions are not needed and women’s spiritual authority is not respected in Church institutions, they will be inclined to switch churches.

I’m no statistician, but among my own acquaintances I have seen this scenario frequently. It seems apparent that retention of young women of university age is dropping. This pains me because in the course of my life in the Church I have seen many ways in which Mormon women exercise critical leadership, wield real authority, and are prepared to encounter God in unique and transformative ways. I can see it, and it’s enough for me to stay. But if our daughters, who will grow up with different ways of looking at the world, can’t see it and leave, then in some sense we will have failed them.

In the developing world, many of our daughters are growing up in cultures in which women’s inferiority is widely presumed. If we cannot think of ways in which to transform our global church language and structure in a way that proclaims women’s worth to both men and women, then we have failed them too.

I believe that leaders with the authority to direct the Church are absolutely committed to exploring this question of how to connect LDS women’s desire to serve with existing needs and I welcome ongoing direction and revelation. I will also remember to do my part, in the spirit of trying to be someone who is “anxiously engaged” in good causes and not a “slothful” person who waits to be commanded or compelled in all things (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27). I think it’s important to remember that, as I’ve said elsewhere recently, change in the Church is both a bottom-up and top-down process. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect Church leaders to be telepathic and omnipresent. We can sustain our leaders with their heavy burden of stewardship by volunteering eyes, ears, voices, and helping hands.

When it comes to women, we Mormons ought to do a better job of expressing outwardly what we inwardly believe (another name for this is “testimony”). In our own conversations, we can use language that reflects respect for stewardship regardless of gender. In our own congregations, we can find ways to share the wealth of critical responsibilities so that young women as well as young men understand that the Church needs them. These things may seem trifling to some, but to others they might make the difference between being at church and an empty chair. As Elder Uchtdorf has reminded us, the Restoration is an ongoing process. By thoughtful attention to small and simple things, together we can build a Zion whose beauty and power are plain for all to see.

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