Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 8
Let Women No Longer Keep Silent in Our Churches: Women’s Voices in Mormonism
Dorice Williams Elliott

[201] “I need to announce that the stake president has instituted a new program for the Relief Societies in the stake,” the woman conducting a Relief Society meeting in my ward announced grudgingly. “It’s called ‘The Bright Spot.’” She held a poster of a smiling woman with her hair tied up in a red polka-dotted kerchief. “Each month there will be a stack of cards here,” she explained, “with a task on it—like washing the windows or cleaning out the attic of our homes. We’re all supposed to take one of the cards and … do what it says.” She sighed, then looked up at the group: “It wasn’t my idea.” A slight groan went around the room before the speaker—a very committed member who would by no means identify herself as a feminist—continued. She explained that the Relief Society presidency was protesting the program and we’d have to wait and see what happened. I didn’t see anyone take a task card. The poster stayed on the wall for a few weeks, and then quietly disappeared.

Quiet and brief as it was, I found this incident rather extraordinary. Few times in my church experience have I seen women openly resist “priesthood authority” in a church meeting. Yet there seemed to be a consensus in the room: this was going too far.

The “Bright Spot” incident is an egregious example of an unsettling phenomenon: the assumption in the LDS church that [202] male priesthood leaders have the right—even the responsibility—to speak for and direct women in every area of their lives. In a similar incident, related to me by an acquaintance, a bishop asked the ward Relief Society president to please instruct the women to wear slips under their dresses at church so that the outline of their legs would not be visible. This bishop, like the stake president who attempted to institute the “Bright Spot” program, evidently felt that he was authorized to superintend women in even the most intimate matters. While many male church leaders would likely dismiss these incidents as dumb mistakes by their peers, they would also likely admit that, structurally, these leaders acted within their rights “if so inspired.”

Though we tend to describe it in more tactful language, priesthood leaders exercise a great deal of power over the lives of both men and women in the church. When male priesthood leaders give counsel to men, however, they speak from a position of shared authority; that is, even though men hold different positions within the priesthood hierarchy, all priesthood holders have authority to lead and direct on some level. When priesthood leaders speak to men, they speak to those who are also authorized to speak. Women, however, are in a quite different position structurally; women may be spoken to, but they do not speak authoritatively to others, men or women. It would be unthinkable, in the current system, for a stake Relief Society president to institute a program for men to clean their offices or to counsel them on how to wear their underwear.

Because of the authority men are granted as priesthood leaders, many men in the church assume—without ever giving it a thought—that they know how women feel, think, and act; hence women are regularly told what they should do, what they should think, what they should want, and how they should feel, even to the extent of the church president telling women that if they do not like housework, they should pray to like it. As women in the church, we are inundated with male voices saying, “Sisters, I have a message for you.”

Language that insists on the relationship of “I” and “you” not only reinforces the supposed inherent difference between men and women, but also suggests that even though men are different from women, they know more about what is appropriate to women than women do themselves. This “I”/“you” relationship sets up a binary [203] opposition—truth/error, presence/absence, mind/matter, master/slave, man/woman, brother/sister—in which one half of the pair is privileged. These contain an implied hierarchy in which “one of the terms governs the other … or has the upper hand.”1 In church discourse the male term is privileged.

For example, in a 1985 Women’s Conference talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency invokes a binary opposition that is central to his talk and to the church attitude toward women in general: “we” (I) the brethren/leaders vs. “you” the women. He said, “in behalf of these, our brethren and leaders, in behalf of the First Presidency of the Church, I thank you, all of you, where you may be, you great Latter-day Saint women.”2 Hinckley uses “you,” “your,” and “yours” so frequently and insistently through this talk that it becomes a refrain reminding women of their Other-ness. Even though Hinckley intends to assert women’s power in the church, his use of such binary oppositions subtly reinforces his own greater power.

Another example is found in one of the lessons in the 1990 Relief Society Personal Study Guide. Apostle Russell M. Nelson claims to understand women and their concerns, but his language emphasizes his own (and other men’s) privileged position in relation to them. He suggests that “you childless sisters,” and “those without companions,” should remember that the Lord’s timetable is much longer than the “lonely hours” of this life.3 Nelson’s words imply that unmarried women necessarily lack companions and that their lives, as well as those of women without children, are filled with “lonely hours.” Though single or married women may have some lonely hours, the assumptions (not by any means unique to Nelson) that only husbands can provide companionship for women and that only bearing children will keep women from loneliness demonstrate the way male definitions of women’s lives work to separate and demean women.

Attempting to understand and comfort women, Nelson actually emphasizes his own more independent and self-sufficient position. His “you … sisters” underlines his own difference from them. Nelson’s language also constructs a difference between the single or childless woman and those he sees as more fortunate, women with husbands and children.

[204] Nelson also counsels women, “Sisters, be patient. I know something of the pressures you feel. Your kitchens are too small.” Nelson seems to be saying, “I know, better than you,” what you should feel, how you should act in your (already male-defined) role as mother, as childless sister, as a woman whose greatest pressure is a too-small kitchen. Though church doctrine, as it is currently expounded, claims that women and men are different but equal in the sight of God, in practice women are not given autonomy or equality, not even within the separate sphere assigned to them—and they certainly are not allowed to venture outside of it.

Men Preempting Women’s Voices

As women in the church, we are deluged with male voices counselling us, cautioning us, warning us, teaching us; even when they are thanking us, they tend to subtly reinforce our difference and our subordinate status. In the 1989 Relief Society manual, for instance, most of the Spiritual Living lessons were either reprinted general conference talks or lessons based on such talks; only one was from a talk by a woman—and that’s an improvement over previous years. Even though some of the lessons in these manuals may actually have been written by women, they are not credited. Women are rarely even quoted in these lessons; women’s experiences or opinions appear most often in anecdotes supporting quotations from scripture or talks and articles by men. Not surprisingly, there are no talks (and very few quotes) by women in recent priesthood manuals.4

Even when women do speak in meetings, as in ward sacrament meetings, the shorter time usually allowed them and their placement in the order of the meeting stresses their subordinate relation to the male speakers. In a recent ward conference leadership meeting I attended, all of the ward leaders were asked to speak in turn, starting with priesthood leaders; as Relief Society president, I spoke following the Deacon’s quorum president. This speaking order implied (however unintentionally) that the words of the highest ranking woman in the ward organization were less important than those of a twelve-year-old boy. Even in women’s conferences, men are virtually always listed as the main speakers, on both stake and general levels. [205] Women, however, rarely (if ever) speak in meetings for men only.

The most distinctive and authoritative voice that speaks in the church is the general conference talk, delivered by a (male) general authority at the church’s semi-annual general conference, our most public meeting. Such talks frequently include blessings, assurances, and admonitions, commands and promises, giving them the weight and feel of scripture, the most authoritative church discourse of all. Historically, these talks have been an all-male discourse, although in the past few years, one or two of the nine women’s leaders have been invited to speak in some sessions. Not surprisingly, the women’s talks are comparatively brief and are sandwiched between other male speakers, rather than being placed in one of the key positions at the beginning or end of a session.

Perhaps even more significant than the paucity of authoritative women’s voices in public meetings is that decisions which affect Mormon women’s lives are frequently made in meetings with no women present at all. All general authorities of the church are male priesthood holders; therefore, the most influential meetings, deliberations, and decisions for the church as a body are conducted by men. Similarly, on the local level women are excluded from the meetings where most decisions are made; women do not make the final decisions nor are they present when decisions are made for their own organizations.

Because no women are present in the decision-making or policy-setting councils of the church, they have no official voice in the management of the church or in the pronouncements that seek to define their role and determine the quality of their church experience. Thus, the roles and division of labor we hear preached and praised so often in our meetings, our magazines, and our lessons are clearly male-defined. Women, so often admonished to value themselves, are not in positions where they can define their value, worth, or roles. Women have their own, separate sphere assigned to them, but even within it they are subject to male supervision and intervention. In current church practice women are taught correct principles and then are governed.

Not only are women not granted autonomy in their own, supposedly “natural” sphere; often they are not even asked for their opinion. The “Bright Spot,” though it was eventually dropped be[206]cause of women’s resistance, was implemented without asking the opinion of the female leaders who were expected to administer it. While some priesthood leaders are now becoming more sensitive to women’s needs and opinions, many still operate in this way: “the sisters need to do this,” or “ought to do that,” but not “what do the sisters have to say about it?

I have mentioned several overt ways that men, in current church practice, preempt women’s voices. There are also more subtle ways of robbing women of their voice. For example, not only the scriptures, but also virtually all modern commandments and official pronouncements tend to use male-gendered pronouns and other group nouns as if they were universal. “Humankind” is almost invariably “mankind,” as in “men are that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Such language could easily be edited out of current lesson materials and general conference talks. Women also need to be written into such materials. A lesson on the practice of “common consent” in the 1989 Relief Society manual, for example, does not use a single female pronoun.5 While presumably women’s consent is as necessary as men’s in sustaining most church leaders and programs, one would not know that from reading this lesson, which is written specifically for and to women.

Another way of subtly robbing women of their own voice is to assume that all women are alike. Stereotyping women (and men) is a common rhetorical device in the church, as a look at the newest Primary songbook will attest. Mothers are gentle, tender, kind, and cheerful; they sing and tell stories; they are “such a joy to look at,” and are associated with “meadows of clover” as well as flowers. Fathers, on the other hand, are noble, brave, and honest; they lead the family “with wisdom’s light,” they watch and protect, guide and direct, and, of course, they come home at the end of the day.6 In countless church publications of all sorts, we are told that women are more compassionate, more humble, more emotional—and nicer to look at. By erasing all individual qualities and erecting an ideal based on a stereotype, women’s real concerns and needs, as well as their potential contributions, are obscured.

Similarly, many church materials and speakers use the words “mother” and “woman” interchangeably, implying both that all women are mothers and that motherhood is what is important about [207] women. For instance, in President Ezra Taft Benson’s talk entitled “The Honored Place of Woman,” he gives this definition of that “honored place”: “since the beginning, a woman’s first and most important role has been ushering into mortality spirit sons and daughters of Father in Heaven.”7 What is most important about women, President Benson asserts, is their bodily capacity to bear children. One recent Relief Society lesson claims that “motherhood” is a quality rather than a physical situation—and thus available to all women, whether they physically give birth to children or not.8 But the 1987 Sunday School Family Relations manual lists bearing children as “woman’s most important role.”9 Similarly, the church’s A Parent’s Guide also stresses that “a woman’s greatest assignment is to give mortal tabernacles to the spirit children of God.” Though this statement (like most in this vein) is followed by “and then nurture and bless them,” it continues by again reducing women to bodies: “While she is pregnant, she nurtures the child with her own body, sacrificing her own comfort, and in some cases even her own health or life, to give life to another.”10 Thus, beneath all the rhetoric about women’s great “worth,” the language often used in the church to describe or discuss women seems to suggest that all women are alike and fit for only one job—stay-at-home mothering—but that ultimately their importance may be reduced to one bodily function—bearing children. Reducing women to a bodily function robs them of their voice in anything unrelated to child-bearing, and effectively erases childless women.

Besides these common language practices that tend to exclude the full range of women’s experience and potential from church discourse, the form of that discourse may also work to silence women. For instance, the conventions of the general conference talk tend to reinforce men’s greater access to power in the church, even when speakers affirm women’s access to spiritual power. The authority conveyed by this form is usually established within the first few words. Such talks typically begin with the speaker’s solidarity with other priesthood leaders, his experiences as a church leader, or his humility at the prospect of filling such a powerful role. An example is Elder Boyd K. Packer’s April 1992 address:

I have been a General Authority for over thirty years, and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for twenty-two. During those [208] years, I have interviewed I don’t know how many, surely thousands, of members of the Church and have talked with them in intimate terms of their worthiness, their sorrow, and their happiness. I only mention that in the hope that the credential of experience may persuade you to consider matters which have us deeply worried.11

Such credentials, however, are unavailable to women speakers; thus, their words cannot have the same force that Packer’s convey. The strong, declarative sentences, reliance on position and official experience, and anecdotes drawn from priesthood interviews are typical of the conference talk and, regardless of the context of any individual speech, work to reinforce the authority and power of the male speakers who utilize the form—and to exclude those, primarily women, who do not and cannot share such authority.

My intent here is not to criticize church leaders or deny the need for authority or power in directing the church or counseling its members. What I am suggesting is that language which emphasizes the power of one, and by implication the powerlessness of another, inevitably makes the powerless group feel vulnerable, excluded, and devalued, however much they are assured of their goodness and value. The underlying problem is that because we all—church leaders and members, men and women—speak in the discourse available to us, we are also trapped or limited by the language forms in which we speak and think. The language practices I have identified—male-gendered pronouns or group nouns, binary oppositions, stereotyping, the “us-and-them” formulations I mentioned earlier, and the formal conventions of our most weighty public discourse—tend either to lump all women together as a group without distinctions, reinforcing the sense that women as a group are different from men as a group, or else simply to write women out of existence.

In any given situation, of course, a woman can edit the language that excludes or demeans her. Several of the teachers in my Relief Society, for instance, have begun to add “and woman” when “man” is used as a universal noun in scripture. I noticed that several of the speakers in the last general women’s meeting I attended were careful to do this every time they quoted a scripture. But the repeated use of such language, though subtle, reinforces women’s sense of powerlessness and inferiority in the church setting. Women’s difference, women’s subordinate position, women’s interchangeability is the [209] subtext of such language. On one of the rare occasions in my experience when that subtext came to the surface, an older black woman in my ward raised her hand during a lesson on woman’s role and said bluntly, “Women really are inferior and it’s our job just to obey.” The saddest thing about her statement is that, in their hearts, many other women believe this, too.

I have heard frustration and dissatisfaction expressed by many different kinds of women in the church. Many are trying earnestly to follow the counsel of their leaders and are intensely loyal to the church; yet they frequently feel discouraged, angry, or depreciated. Of equal concern, I have seen women leave the church because they felt misunderstood and undervalued, which deprives both the church and the women of spiritual benefits. The fact that so many talks and lessons for women focus on self-esteem indicates that there is a pervasive problem among Mormon women: they do not feel respected or valued by the church.

I believe that the most urgent change needed in LDS women’s church experience is simply that men should stop preempting women’s voices—that they stop speaking for and to women, and let women speak for themselves. Although this might (and I hope would) eventually lead to more radical institutional and attitudinal changes, it would not necessarily fundamentally alter the existing priesthood organization nor would it alter church teachings about men and women. It would, however, bring the church’s practice closer to what it preaches—that men and women are equal before God.

Restoring Women’s Voices

How might these changes be instituted? To overcome the nagging and pernicious sense of their own inferiority which still persists among women in the church, whether they acknowledge it openly or exert great emotional energy (individually and collectively) to repress it, it is critical that women speak out. A variety of female voices must be discovered and employed. Women must be heard and listened to if they are ever to achieve full personhood in all church settings, with their capabilities and powers fully recognized, accepted, and utilized. Women will never even be separate but equal, [210] as is currently preached, until their voices—their opinions, their experiences, their needs, their counsel, advice, and wisdom—are, first, acknowledged, then sought and acted upon. I mean here the voices of all women: single women, mothers, educated women, women without education, feminists, conventional women, old and young women—simply women. Women must speak and be listened to just as men speak and are (usually) listened to. This church still holds too closely to Paul’s dictum that women should be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34).

There are many ways, besides those I have already mentioned, that women could gain more voice in the church. Some, such as having women pray and speak in meetings at every level, including general conference, have already been instituted. I would like to see more women speaking in all these meetings, but they also deserve equal time and equal importance when they speak. Women could be featured more often as the main speakers in meetings. It is especially important for women to have equal importance as speakers in the church general conference, where members receive current images of authority and instruction. Women might speak in priesthood meetings, as men already do in women’s meetings. Women should be heard in ward, stake, and regional decision-making councils, as advisors and as full-vote members.

Currently, for instance, women are represented in correlation and welfare meetings, but not in bishopric or Priesthood Executive Committee meetings. Why couldn’t Relief Society presidents attend these meetings where most of the real decisions are made for the ward level? Why couldn’t female auxiliary heads attend high council meetings, as do male auxiliary heads? Why couldn’t female leaders participate in calling members to positions in the organizations they head? These are all changes that could have far-reaching effects for women and for the church.

Another way that women’s voices could be heard in the church would be to have more lessons in church manuals written by and attributed to women, especially in those for the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations, where female role models are so essential. More women should be quoted in manuals, talks, and church magazines, addressed to men as well as women. We should all be careful to mentally and orally add the word “women” as we [211] read scriptures, instead of accepting male-gendered words as universal. We cannot allow our sacred texts to make women feel as if they don’t exist or that they don’t matter to God or the church. And certainly, all current printed materials should be carefully screened for sexist language and for stereotyping.

Women should also have a more prominent voice in the church’s dealings with the public. We could send more women on missions, and call women to more visible positions. For instance, more women are now being called as Public Communications directors, and some have taken a very prominent role in church public relations and diplomacy. Several women also fill important positions in the Public Affairs department of the church.

In addition, the practice of women giving blessings to other women should be reinstituted, and the priesthood powers that are bestowed on both men and women in the endowment ceremony could be further defined and practiced. And, of course, the church could authorize women to hold offices in the priesthood—the simplest and most effective way of ensuring that women are given equal voice and equal weight in God’s kingdom. But, and I want to stress this, even short of priesthood for women, which seems to be threatening to many men and women alike, many major changes could be made within the existing church structure which would work toward women’s increased spiritual growth and their sense of worth.

If women are heard more in church settings, they will develop more confidence in their right and their ability to speak. This will be good not only for them, but also for the organization. If women spoke with more confidence, men would begin to listen—and to realize that they do not always know what is best for women. Men might begin asking more questions, of women, of themselves, and of God. And then we might see a lot of other changes—who knows what God has in store for his daughters, when he is finally asked?

And what would women say, if they had an acknowledged voice to say it in? I suspect it wouldn’t be all that threatening. I suspect that the first thing many women would say is that they’d like fathers and husbands to be more engaged with their families. I sat in a meeting recently where fathers were urged to help their wives out by babysitting the children sometimes. A woman sitting next to me [212] whispered angrily, “A father doesn’t ‘babysit.’ He’s their father.” Women say this to each other and to their husbands, and it is even occasionally preached from the pulpit, but it still doesn’t seem to be heard.

I think many women would also like to tell their leaders that they don’t like to cook, sew, do crafts, and make homemade marshmallows out of their food storage—nor do they all have a special sensitivity to the arts. Women are as different in their talents, interests, needs, and emotional qualities as are men. Women are not all suited to exactly the same job—staying at home full-time with a (preferably large) family of children. In fact, recent studies indicate that insistence on mandatory full-time mothering may hurt families. A growing volume of research, reports one medical institution, “indicates that in simple terms, a happy mother—whether she is employed or not—enjoys better health and a more well-adjusted family than a woman who feels overwhelmed by pressure to either stay home or return to work.”12 Mormon women are victims of this pressure, and, increasingly, many do feel “overwhelmed” by it. That message especially needs to be heard, in women’s own voices.

As things currently stand in the LDS church, however, the question Freud once raised—“What do women want?”—is still asked as a rhetorical question. The question is not phrased “what do women want?” but “what should women want?” The question of what women want needs to become a real question, asked of women and answered by women, without having the words taken out of their mouths by men.

Mormon women, however, need not wait to be asked. They should assert their questions, feelings, opinions, desires, and answers in all the various bodies and texts of the church. Otherwise, women’s perspectives may never find equal footing in the church. After all, if Emma Smith had not questioned and complained, but instead remained silent, women would have no revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants instead of one (D&C 25). If women keep asking, who knows? There may be more revelations to women.

I have faith that progress will be made. All around me, I see women, in and out of the church, gaining confidence in their right to speak, write and be heard. I also see the changes the church is gradually making: women pray in meetings, women speak more [243] often, the temple ceremony is evolving, there is more sensitivity to single women’s concerns from some leaders (though not by any means all).13 These changes are not enough, but they are positive signs. The scriptures urge us: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (James 1:5). As we ask and seek, speak and knock, God will listen, eventually God’s church will listen, and doors will open to God’s daughters.

Notes:

Dorice Williams Elliot is a writer, mother, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Johns Hopkins University with an emphasis in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British culture. She is the graduate assistant to the Director of Women’s Studies at Johns Hopkins and has authored several articles on women in Mormonism. An earlier version of this paper was delivered in a panel discussion at the 1989 Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, Utah.

1. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), in G. Douglas Atkins, Reading Deconstruction/Deconstructive Reading (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 20. Deconstruction (or post-structuralism) is an influential philosophical and literary movement which critiques the foundation of Western thought and puts language itself into question. Initiated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is intended to undo either/or thinking and explore the paradoxes inherent in all use of language. By locating the imbedded binary opposition, hidden premises, and key exclusions on which text and thought systems are built, it is theoretically possible to deconstruct discourse.

2. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Ten Gifts from the Lord,” Ensign 15 (Nov. 1985): 86-89.

3. Russell M. Nelson, “Lessons from Eve,” Ensign 17 (Nov. 1987): 87, in Remember Me: Relief Society Personal Study Guide 1 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989): 105.

4. See Pam Bookstaber, “Patriarch, Presider, Protector, Provider: A Look at the Notion of Presiding and Its Impact on Family Dynamics and Church Structure, Including a New Definition of Patriarchal Order.” This analysis of church lesson manuals’ treatment of men’s and women’s roles was presented at a 1989 Exponent II reunion in Hillsboro, New Hampshire.

5. “By Common Consent,” in Follow Me: Relief Society Personal Study Guide 1989, (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989): 43-49.

6. See the collection of songs about mothers and fathers on pages 203-11 in Children’s Songbook (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989). I am also indebted to Sharon Swenson, who gave an unforgettable rendition of some of these songs as part of a presentation for a panel on which we sat together for the 1986 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City entitled “Feminist Approaches to Mormon Culture.” Her talk first called my attention to the gender stereotyping in Mormon children’s songs.

7. Benson, “The Honored Place of Women.”

8. “Mothers in Israel,” Remember Me, 119-20.

9. Quoted from Ensign 11 (Nov. 1981): 105, in Teach Them Correct Principles: A Study in Family Relations (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987): 59.

10. Quoted from A Parent’s Guide, 8, in Teach Them Correct Principles, 60.

11. Boyd K. Packer, General Conference Address, in Ensign 22 (May 1992).

12. “A Mother’s Dilemma,” in Women and Healthcare, Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Women’s Resource Center Newsletter (Summer 1989): 6.

13. The difference in sensitivity to women’s issues and concerns can be seen by comparing two talks, both addressed to women, printed in a recent conference report. “Woman of Infinite Worth,” by Russell M. Nelson, outraged a number of women in the church because of condescending statements or examples such as the one in which he suggests that a woman does not need to study astronomy because all she needs to know is how to answer the question posed “when she sings ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are’”—which can be found in the scriptures (Ensign 19 [Nov. 1989]: 22). Gordon B. Hinckley’s speech, on the other hand, cites two women’s important professional accomplishments and urges women to “train yourselves to make a contribution to the society in which you live … Almost the entire field of human endeavor is now open to women, in contrast with difficult restrictions that were felt only a few years ago” (96). Though he of course does go on to stress that marriage and family are what is most important for women, he at least seriously recognizes women’s wider potential as well.