This Christmas, my mother-in-law mentioned in passing how much she liked the books and other writings of Chieko Okazaki. Now that I have read her book, Aloha!, I share her positive opinion. But at the time, my first question was, “Who is Chieko Okazaki?”
Despite the fact that Sister Okazaki was the first non-Caucasian to serve on a general board and called to be a member of the Relief Society General Presidency in 1990, I do not remember learning about her before or after I graduated from high school in 2000 and entered Relief Society. The fact that I grew up with little-to-no knowledge of this remarkable sister merits scrutiny.
Throughout the course of Sunday School, Priesthood/Relief Society, and General meetings, we customarily hear works by General Authorities, many from much earlier periods than the 1990’s, quoted again and again. However, we rarely hear quoted works from women other than those currently serving on general boards. Although we have extensive access to teachings from the prophets, our access to the writings of leading women are far more limited. As a consequence, leading women tend to be quickly forgotten in our collective memories, and their teachings vanish away.
At least three factors perhaps explain the fact that we do little to recognize the teachings of past women leaders. One, of course, is that our church still gives far more authority to teachings by priesthood leaders by virtue of the (mere) fact that they hold the priesthood. Another, perhaps, is that while apostles are appointed for life, women leaders are typically only appointed until their release. This means that we have the ability to become far more familiar with the apostles than we do with female leaders. And, finally, because women are appointed to positions with jurisdiction over only sub-groups of the membership (children, young women, or women), their talks often focus on these sub-groups and, in the eyes of some members, lack general applicability.
Some might consider it a blessing to have leaders who are treated as less than authoritative and can be quickly forgotten upon their release, especially if those leaders are not well liked. However, on the whole, I am inclined to consider it a serious problem for our history, culture, and daughters that teachings by male leaders are given such disproportionate weight in comparison to female leaders. Many people like to argue that women are as powerful as men despite their exclusion from the priesthood (often using the very problematic claim that their “motherhood” or womanly nature is the equivalent of priesthood), but our failure to include women in priesthood leadership or to recognize their teachings as equally authoritative to that of priesthood-holding men, appears to at least take a toll on the inclusion of women’s voices and women leaders within our history. If our forgotten record of leading women is any evidence, then it appears that holding the priesthood is still largely a prerequisite for being part of institutional memory and exercising authority outside local spheres as a gospel teacher.