Every talk touched me this conference. There isn’t one I would have done away with.
In the wake of many flurried conversations over there being only a single female speaker last weekend, I give the benefit of the doubt to those planning the conference sessions. There are many more male leaders than female leaders in the church, and some disproportion in General Conference is therefore to be expected (though speakers could also be drawn from the RS, YW, and Primary General Boards). Perhaps the choice to eliminate one female speaker was also impacted by the reorganization of two women-led auxiliaries. I am not offended at the final arrangement, as disorienting as it is that one to two female speakers is our norm when 54% of the church body is women. One month after the Church Historian’s Press released a collection of LDS women’s discourses, At The Pulpit, we are left with mixed messages about who belongs there.
I do wonder if we are living up to our privileges as a church. A single ten-minute female speaker in eight hours of general sessions suggests tokenism. If women are worth hearing from — if their insights, experiences, knowledge, and influence are important for the church as a whole — then they are worth hearing from in greater numbers. If a general session is not the place for women to share and exhort, then why does even one woman speak? I believe it is the place; it is the only time when men, women and children gather in global unity to listen.
I want to interject that equality between men and women is never the end itself. Equality would be an arbitrary goal. Equality is a means toward many good temporal ends, but the ultimate goal — the end goal of our existence — is to become like God (like our Heavenly Parents).
How would hearing from many more women in General Conference help church members to become like God?
It would help women believe in and claim their spiritual privileges. If my daughter grows up hearing and seeing women leaders in balance with men, she will not doubt that her influence, her knowledge, her message, her study and expertise in the Gospel is as needed as her brother’s (her brother won’t doubt it either). One would be right in suggesting that these motivating feelings can be accomplished in other ways. But the dearth of female speakers in conference is not a neutral thing. It is potentially an anti-message to all of the above. It might say that it is more important to listen to men than to women. It might say that women do not need to exhort, to teach, or to know as much as men. It might say to some members that women do not have authority to teach male audiences. It might limit our notion of the female Mormon experience and the female Mormon authority, which is not anywhere else so prominently and officially on display.
Seeing and hearing women at the pulpit sends a message: that women have Authority. When a young woman sets off on her mission, or to a far-away college, or begins her motherhood journey, she will more likely believe in her own authority if the church has held up women as authorities — not just in pictures, but in voice. Elder Nelson recently urged women “to speak up and speak out!” and Elder Christofferson instructed women to “apply our influence without fear or apology.” If we hear only one woman speak in a general session of conference, will we check ourselves before speaking out in our wards and communities? Will we think, “Am I the woman to speak on this issue?”
Seeing and hearing women at the pulpit asserts that women can and should expound the scriptures and exhort the church (as Emma, and “all,” are called to do in D&C 25). If your daughter grows up seeing plentiful examples of women preaching in balance with men, she will not doubt that her call to preach and expound — and her ability to understand — is as real as a man’s. This belief will drive her to study and interpret the scriptures, turning her heart to God and to goodness. This belief will motivate her to preach, purifying her heart through the love, grief, and discipline of discipleship.
Seeing and hearing women at the pulpit teaches us about the women in our congregations. As the number and variety of women speakers increases, we have the opportunity to recognize the diversity of Mormon women: diversity of expertise, diversity of life experience, diversity of gifts and of needs. Hearing from many women authorities (not just one who might be assumed to represent us all) broadens our notion of what a righteous Mormon woman can look like.
Seeing and hearing women at the pulpit, in balance with men, models a cooperative paradigm which we should mirror in our congregations and families, and which I believe is the pattern of heaven. In the cooperative paradigm, men and women work side by side, relying on each other, respecting each other, learning from each other and serving each other. The cooperative paradigm insists that for us to be like Jesus, we must all develop his attributes and gifts, and all be filled with his pure, powerful love. Nevertheless, under the cooperative paradigm it is understood that men and women do have different callings, spheres of influence, stewardships and gifts, but these overlap and intertwine in often surprising ways. Women standing behind the pulpit will not be expected to give the same talks as men — their life experiences, their spiritual intuition, and their approach to teaching are likely to be different. This is precisely why men need to hear from them. This is why women need to hear from each other in addition to men. When we learn how to learn from each other, to reason together, to empathize and mourn with each other, to yield to each other, to strive for each other, then perhaps we will be ready for the counsels of heaven.