Round Table: Women in the Church, Round Three

Here’s the transcript from the final round of questions from our little email group. Grasshopper sat out this round, but hopefully will participate via the comments. Thanks again to all the participants for an enjoyable and edifying discussion.

Stay tuned for another Round Table, coming soon!

: Steve Evans Sat, Feb 26, 2005 at 7:11 PM

To: Kris W., Jim F., Grasshopper, Lisa, Claudia, Heather

Some great replies to Rounds 2/2.5, so here’s a final question for y’all:

It seems that some independent women have managed to be published and achieve some measure of success (see our answers to the previous round). Personally, I would like to see an LDS world where women are more widely-read and more widely respected. I think it would be interesting to see more women join the cult of celebrity worship that we already have for the General Authorities and a select few (Covey, Huntsman, etc.). Do women even want such things? If so, how can this happen? Is it useful for us to fantasize about female mormon CEOs and celebrities?

JWL had an interesting comment on BCC about how this all might happen (see the last two comments to the ‘Modern Eve’ thread, here).

What do you think? Where do women fit into the new mormon society of pop personalities and mass media? Is this part of your conception of “great” women?

Give it your best shot, and let me thank you all for being a part of this little experiment!


From: Claudia Sat, Feb 26, 2005 at 9:29 PM

To: Kris W., Jim F., Grasshopper, Lisa, Steve, Heather

I think the best way for women to develop some additional status is to circumvent the usual system.

So, to suggest a different route, I offer three suggestions. The first is publish anywhere but online. Get some paper and ink behind writing. Exponent II is still an option, a good community that has carried on for thirty plus years. Lots of people read every word of every issue. And write lots of other things as well.

The second suggestion is to put together a speakers’ bureau. Say people in twelve localities enlist twenty people each to hear a monthly lecture and pay maybe $100 a year each. A dozen interesting speakers could be recruited to make a monthly trip and speech. Transportation would be paid. This would create a national network that might support any number of activities and relationships.

The third suggestion is to transcend standard church responsibilities. We would still do those jobs, of course, but might also suggest projects to the stake president or the bishop and then run them. For instance, today, I suggested to the sp that we need some projects for the few older people in our stake. We need socials, outings, discussion groups. I know I could get that responsibility if I wanted, and I would be free to do it however I wanted. I do lots of projects which are not on the books which cut across the wards and stakes in new ways. Having done them gives me the chance to do other interesting things that come along.

Adding to that is transcending the church itself. I think we are missing the boat not to run for local (or wider) office. And if not actually campaigning, getting some position in other organizations. This is not only good as an individual platform, but we are put in positions where we can be very useful to the church. Besides, meeting the wider public is entertaining, and LDS women have the administrative and speaking experience to do it very well.

We should think for ourselves, try to do good things and live interesting lives rather than to seek after celebrity.

From: Jim F. Mon, Feb 28, 2005 at 6:24 PM

To: Kris W., Claudia, Grasshopper, Lisa, Steve, Heather

I find the cult of personality in the Church so distasteful that I have a difficult time thinking about where women do or ought to fit in “the new Mormon society of pop personalities and mass media.”

I am sympathetic to Christina Taber-Kewene’s complaint that “the women in the General Relief Society Presidency talk about little birds and precious moments at General Conference and don’t give us much substance” and the fact that “the public images with which we are presented shape how we see ourselves as women and men.” Both men and women in the Church need to see women with substantive views and substantive responsibilities.

I don’t know the General Relief Society Presidency, but I do know several women in other Church-wide positions. They are women with substantive views and responsibilities, so I am willing to assume that the Relief Society Presidency is too, but we seldom see these women or know what they do. And, I would imagine for cultural reasons, when we hear them speak, they seldom stray far from the “little birds and precious moments” mode–even those who otherwise are quite capable of more than that. So what is to be done?

I don’t have any answers, except on a personal level, but I think that JWL’s point that women will need to make their own space looks like a very good point.

From: Steve Mon, Feb 28, 2005 at 6:27 PM

To: Kris W., Claudia, Grasshopper, Lisa, Jim F., Heather

I’ve decided that my next talk will be about birds and precious moments. Thanks, Jim, for being a part of the group — it’s been fun, even if us chickens have little to say at times.

From: Heather Wed, Mar 2, 2005 at 9:19 PM

To: Kris W., Claudia, Grasshopper, Lisa, Jim F., Steve

I’ve often wondered why women can’t be in high-profile, non-priesthood positions in the church. I would love to see a woman conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I would love to hear a woman host a program of “Music and the Spoken Word.” Why can’t the spokesperson (I mean, like Dale Bills, for comments to the media) for the church be a woman? I suppose there are those who would be uncomfortable with, or who would outright oppose, such an arrangement. I, for one, think it would be great.

As far as success outside the church goes, I think there are some who just happen to be successful, and happen to be LDS, and happen to be women. Pulitzer Prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes to mind. JWL mentions Gladys Knight, who certainly has a wider pop appeal. Women like them show that it is possible to make it big (well, even if it’s a big splash in a small pond) and to remain faithful LDS women.

: Lisa Fri, Mar 4, 2005 at 7:32 PM

To: Kris W., Claudia, Grasshopper, Heather, Jim F., Steve

I guess the reason I’ve failed to reply to this up to now is that I lack sufficent imagination to come up with even interesting theoretical solutions. I’m much better at pointing out the problem. And dangit, that’s easier. I don’t know . . . I don’t know.

One ‘out’ I tried to follow is to say I’m not all that interested in having Great Mormon Women, religious pop personalities . . . nah. That perhaps the lack of them as role models isn’t a problem (I can’t think of many Great Mormon Men either). But when I try to imagine the opposite, that a body of Mormon women did exist, women whom I looked up to and admired, I like that picture. It would be nice. I especially like that picture for my daughters, for some reason. But I just can’t imagine how this would come to be. Even if there was a publisher/group/traveling circus so “faithful Mormon women with an edge” could gather and admire each other, I’m not sure it would really touch the vast body of women in the Church. Women who gained fame in non-traditional non-nurturing ways. Not good role models. My mother encouraged us to avoid everything even close to the edge. And I think even the concept of Great Mormon Women to admire (rather than home cooking funeral potatoes) just plain old gets too close to the edge for most Mormon women.

Maybe it will change with a new generation of girls choosing to take more from life. But if so, it’s going to be a slow process, because most of the teenaged girls I know have very little ambition for their own potential “greatness.” I certainly never have (assuming I had any potential to start with).

: Kris W. Tue, Mar 8, 2005 at 5:28 PM

To: Lisa, Claudia, Grasshopper, Heather, Jim F., Steve

I have a view similar to Jim’s in that I find the “Mormon cult of celebrity”, like all other celebrity or idol worship to be distasteful. While many discussions of Mormon culture are interesting to me, the loud clamouring voice that claims the ownership and special status of LDS “celebrities” seems to be a somewhat confused admiration or an ill-used “weapon” in what BCC commenter Hugh Stocks referred to as “the We’re not Weird wars”. Would women like to be part of this “cult of celebrity”? As with every other question we’ve discussed in this round table, it would be easier to answer enigmatically, yes and no. I would imagine yes, some women would find being a Mormon celebrity meaningful, while others would not and all of their intentions and motives are unknown to me.

I find the question of how do women acquire a voice in the Church to be a much more interesting one. For me this is the torch that needs to be picked up by this generation of Mormon women.

In a recent Sunstone article called “Power Hungry”, Lorie Winder Stromberg states that, “… women in the Church will never have a voice until, as in the secular arena, they are seen as colleagues — in this case spiritual colleagues — within the power structure of the church.”

I think this is true. While many men and women in the Church think of themselves as equals, particularly in their marriage relationships, I am not sure that we really see each other as spiritual colleagues in broader terms — which would be the basis of moving the work forward together. This is quite different from the men doing it while the women support or sustain them. The notion of our “separate spheres” combined with cautions about working relationships with the opposite sex allow for very little collegiality at church and in building the kingdom.

So, what are my predictions for how women will acquire a voice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? It will come from the daughters of Zion choosing to put on their strength. I don’t think that this will be an imperative that will come down from the top. It will need to be invented by Mormon women themselves — they will need to “imagine the possibilities of their inclusion as full human persons” within their faith. It will require moving beyond the binary of the motherhood and priesthood debate. It will need to be grounded in scripture, not in the world of business or entertainment. For me, women’s voices will be heard when instead of “trying to get a piece of the pie, we bake a brand new cake.”


  1. I too find the cult of personality to be quite off-putting. I think that our daughters, of course speaking in a general sense, will be much more personally affected by seeing successful forthright women in their home wards. When I think of “famous” personalities that affect me, both inside and outside the church, I don’t dwell too much on gender–I think that I look more for attributes. However, when I think of personal relationships and role models that touch me, I think almost exclusively of women.

    The good news is that I think we as women have a much better chance of “making a splash” in our home wards. Personal relationships negate the unfortunate stereotypes that women deal with. Further, your accomplishments don’t have to be so grand to be inspiring. I look at my YW teachers who were for the most part all college educated. That seemed to be the norm to me growing up. I don’t want to be famous, but I want to help others. I can do that in my ward.

  2. Unfortunately most of the YW leaders, at least in every ward I have been a part of (and I will point out that they were all VERY large wards), consist of the cute/hip/young married set. These women may by chance, also happen to be strong women, college educated, or accomplished women in other ways – true role models – but more often they tend to be newly married, around 20-23, and rather inexperienced in life. They relate to the girls, instead of leading them. Strength of character does not seem to be a requirement of the position.

    I’ve also often found that YW callings are, in some measure, a popularity contest. Bishop calls cute young thing as president, she calls all of her friends, and people forever jockey for position in the “club.” Silly, sad, and not good for our young women. Maybe the wards I’ve been in are an anomoly. I hope so.

  3. Christina says:

    Sue’s point is a good one, although I don’t agree that the fluffy women are always the ones called to YW. YW leaders can be excellent role models for youth. Full disclosure: I HATED YW growing up (anyone surprised?) so served in the Primary, but as an adult have had multiple callings working with youth in the church, although not through the official YW program. In our ward the YW leaders are substantial, educated women who are real beacons for the girls. I admire them.

    Claudia makes the best case for how to make change in our church communities: propose a project to the priesthood leadership. It is unfortunate that women are forced to go through the men, but if we can bow to the sexist structure, we can actually find a lot of freedom to pursue independent projects through our stakes and wards. I have had both success and failure in this regard, and it can be extremely frustrating to hit one’s head on the stake high council ceiling, but it is successful sometimes.

  4. Rosalynde says:

    Setting aside for the moment the desirability of fostering visible Mormon women, I think the most effective measure to achieve that visibility is to create a market for visible Mormon women. Buy books written by Mormon women, attend Deseret Book’s “Time Out for Women” conference, sponsor a lecture series, subscribe to Exponent II, buy recordings of female Mormon musicians, encourage stake youth leadership to invite female speakers to youth conferences. As I’ve argued before, when there’s a demand, visible Mormon women will surface.

  5. HL Rogers says:

    As a follow-up to Rosalynde and Claudia’s comments. Does Exponent II suffer from a reputation of being unorthodox or on the edge? If it does, is this reputation at all deserved? Is there a way to avoid such a reputation or does it automatically come along with an all female LDS publication (becuase of views re feminism that we have previously discussed)?

  6. Rosalynde, it’s interesting that you frame the solution is somewhat economic terms (creating a market), because my view is slightly different: not only must there be an economic market for such visibility (and I think there is one already, for the right kind of woman like Sheri Dew) — but there must also IMHO exist an institutionally level playing field. I’m not saying that we need to give women the priesthood in order for women to be popular, but I would think that in order to create a market, producing more works isn’t the answer by itself — there must also be a mindset of respect towards women, mustn’t there?

  7. Rosalynde says:

    HL, I’m sure others could answer more fully, but it’s my impression that because Exponent II has (unfortunately, in my opinion) never risen to the profile of Dialogue and Sunstone, it has escaped official censure. But because of its origins in seventies feminism (with its tinges of ERA bitterness), it may retain a whiff of danger for some. As for whether gender studies are necessarily dangerous… After my experience on Sunday in the general conference thread, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conceivable way in which gender concerns can be framed–bold assertion, sincere question, personal observation, critical analysis–that will be at all acceptable to a certain segment of church members. Fortunately I think this segment is small and dwindling, but it can still be discouraging.

  8. Rosalynde says:

    Steve, what I’m saying is that we should focus on demanding the work, and the production will follow naturally. In all honesty, while I would certainly like to see some structural changes, I don’t know whether or how that would play into popular visibility.

  9. I loved, loved Rosalynde’s comment on how we should all support women, economically or otherwise, whenever possible. I think a huge problem is a lack of solidarity among women in the church. Supporting women who are faithfully pursuing meaningful objectives, whether it’s in writing a book, running a day care or a marathon, whatever – would go a long way to promoting a healthy feeling of sisterhood.

    As an aside, just think of all the changes in the last ten years or so in advertising – now women are viewed as having just as much independence and purchasing power as men – so women are seen purchasing cars, houses, businesses all by themselves (my favorite is the ads for single women to purchase expensive diamond rings for themselves). Once it is in the establishment’s interest to notice and care about a woman’s needs and perspective, the establishment usually responds accordingly.

  10. Kristine says:

    HL, I think ExII does seem “dangerous” to some people, but mostly to those who have never read it. It is a bold project, but most of what ends up in print is quite tame.

  11. As repulsive as I find cults of personality in a church setting to be, a part of me can also see the benefits of strong female role models and public approval/appreciation of women by men. That seems to be a tricky path to negotiate, but it sure would be nice for us to have women to look up to outside of our mothers/seminary teachers.

  12. HL Rogers says:

    Unfortunately Kristine the group of people who think it is dangerous but have never read it and would enjoy it if they did (which I would assume to be a fairly large group) will probably never read it. It is unfortunate that so many of us can’t seem to get used to feminism, even in the post-70s, very pluralistic feminist environment.

  13. Women’s Exponent II has been mentioned. Let me also put a plug in for Irreantum, the Association for Mormon Letters’ literary and culture magazine. It certainly has provided a friendly venue for women writers of fiction, poetry, reviews and personal and critical essay. What’s more because Irreantum isn’t snobbishly-literary, it features work by or about romance and young adult novelists — an important area of participation (in terms of readers and writers) for LDS women.

    Unfortunately, it too has a very low circulation. Please subscribe to it if you don’t already. Details here.

    It’s funny that you should mention Time Out for Women, Rosalynde. I’ve been monitoring the book club (yes, I receive the purple and mauve e-mails) for fiction, but I haven’t looked intensively at the authors selected. It seems like a good mix of men and women authors — although if I remember correctly the heavy doctrinal works that it has emphasized in many months have all been by men.

  14. Steve, these would be great as podcasts! Look into it. I would love to hear voice inflection in the answers and discussions.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    good idea coop — tough to implement with a bunch of luddites like us, but good idea.

  16. Steve, it isn’t all that hard to do. You just use a conference call to get everyone on the phone at the same time. Then the person hosting – that would be you – records the conversation on a simple cassette player using a mic attached to the telephone earpiece. Then once the call is over, do a bit of editing, if needed, and drop it into Audacity and make your .wav file. It’s pretty simple. (I’ll have my first podcast, up in a couple of days). If you have technical questions, I might be able to help. Let me know.