By Elizabeth Ostler

Last general conference I decided, as my personal scripture study, to read all of the conference talks given by women since 1971. I chose 1971 out of convenience as that’s the start of their availability on the Church’s website. I read one talk almost every day in chronological order. I’m currently reading the 2000 October session.

This has been an edifying and educational experience. I was motivated to start this course of study by the desire to better know our former women leaders and to increase my awareness of the history of female voices at the highest levels. As embarrassing as it is to admit, prior to starting, I was not familiar with many of the women who served our community in the past 29 year such as Barbara B. Smith, Aileen H. Clyde or Ruth H. Funk. I knew the names Ardeth G. Kapp and Chieko N. Okazaki, but not their messages.

Through the messages and word choices of these talks I got a sense of the events and American politics of the time, such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). I’ve had a few conversations with my mom about her experience as a young adult during the ERA era. Admittedly, I first read Barbara B. Smith’s addresses defensively and would feel a pang when I encountered language that was in opposition to the amendment. And yet, as I continued to read, I grew to respect and then admire President Smith. Can you imagine the difficulties and challenges of being the steward of the Relief Society from 1974 to 1984? She advocated for the welfare program and passionately affirmed that the Relief Society is a sisterhood of service. We are to do the errands of angels, be God’s hands and relieve the suffering of others. And the best way to do that was to get to work. President Smith’s words energized me to stay the course.

This experience has also given me insight into what I believe to be a contributing factor to the “A woman is speaking: time to get a sandwich from the kitchen” mentality. I’ve noticed that when speaking to the general assembly the vast majority of female speakers addressed women exclusively. Is it possible that we’ve trained some men to tune out women speakers because they assume that the message isn’t for them?

I also believe at play is the issue that men are not trained to look to women for inspiration and modeling. About this, Neylan McBaine says in Women at Church, “…women are constantly engaged in a process of likening male role models unto themselves, while men rarely have to go through the same process of disassociating their own gender to find inspiration in female [role models].” Thankfully, contemporary women leaders tend to address the entire congregation. Nonetheless, this awareness motivates me in my work to create an environment wherein women and men can cooperatively minister.

Perhaps, though, my biggest take-aways have been in these women’s profound testimonies of a loving Heavenly Father, an advocating Christ, the healing powers of the atonement, the good news of the restoration of the gospel, the gift of revelation and the awesome sisterhood that emboldens the Relief Society.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Elaine_A._CannonReach for Joy, Elaine Cannon (1982)

My dear sisters, the daily work of the Lord involves changing hopeless to hopeful—for all of us. And it is for us to find at last that in the midst of winter we have within us an invincible summer. In a world filled with adversity we can reach for joy.

God’s plan is a plan of ultimate joy for each of us. His principles suffice in any situation. But each one of us, young and old, must rise to her challenges in her own way. Each one of us must reach for her own joy.

Chieko_OkazakiStrength in the Savior, Chieko N. Okazaki (1993)

I want to talk about building stronger families by building a stronger you—strong in your faith of the Savior. That’s where strong families come from—from strong individuals.

There’s not just one right way to be a Mormon woman, either, as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity.

barbra smithA Call to Action, Barbara B. Smith (1977)

May we work together as companions with the priesthood,remembering the principle of partnership; may we teach effectively the fundamentals of welfare services,and implement them by enlarging our vision of this work, particularly as it applies to the art of compassionate services.

 I pray that every Relief Society worker and leader will recognize our great opportunity, our obligation to render assistance to those in need, sympathetically,appropriately, and lovingly—even in the spirit of Jesus Christ when he said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.)

AddieSingeleness: How Relief Society Can Help, Addie Fuhriman (1980)

It is overwhelming to me to know that I have a stewardship of replenishing the earth and seeing that all things reach their fruition and know I may have to do it without a companion. But on the strength of hope, you can personally replenish and touch another by responding to the other’s emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs rather than assuming that you can only replenish and assist in fruition by giving physical birth. In this hope, you will find much support and knowledge within welfare, compassionate service, and visiting teaching concepts.

It is incapacitating to wonder if I can ever contribute to a whole, a unit, or help build parts that make the whole better than it is, when I don’t see myself as originating a family or similar unit. But if stake and ward Relief Society presidents will call and include us, and if we have vision and risk ourselves and extend charity, we will find within the boundaries of our present lives a sisterhood, ward, and community that needs, welcomes, and comes to rely upon us for their completeness.

MaryMotherhood and the Family, Mary F. Foulger (1980)

We stand in awe at Mary’s assignment to be the mother of the Lord, but we, too, have been called to mother gods. Latter-day Saint women understand that the very purpose of creation depends upon our participation as earthly mothers to the spirit children of God.

To mothers raising children alone, remember that you and the Lord constitute a majority.