Conference this past weekend was peaceful and calming in the way I remember it being as a kid. The lilts and accents of certain voices felt familiar and a lot like home. Elder Holland’s talk was a sermon to anchor my mormonism in, as so many others have also noted. Many of the talks reminded me of what it is to step away from all other things and find a place where the spirit dictates my thoughts and actions. It made me want to be better. It was a good conference.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice that only one talk out of twenty-seven in the course of eight hours this weekend was given by a woman.
Of course there are arguments to be made, reasons, justifications, but as a 33-year old woman fighting hard to use my voice and find examples to pattern my voice after, particularly within the church, I don’t much care about any of the explanations that might be given. The fact is that this vast oversight is hurtful. But beyond hurtful, which I can work through on my own, it is disempowering. It sends a message, intentional or not, to not only me, but my children who sat in their forts and did their best to watch with us, that women do not have a place, except in the darkened seats of the audience where they can listen.
When the predominantly female choir on Saturday afternoon came on the screen, my daughter who hadn’t been paying much attention turned and said, “Oh! Look at those girls! Are they at our church? A real church, Dad? I love all their colors.” She was fixed on the screen panning across those girls during the song.
Our girls, as young as four-years old, notice both their inclusion and their absence.
In an online correspondence about a book I had just published several months ago, one man posed the challenge to me to convince him why he, as a man, should read a memoir by a woman. I don’t think he was intending to be controversial, but the statement is telling. No man has ever been asked to convince me as a woman to read or listen to something by a man.. The rarity with which we hear female stories, perspectives, and ideas within the church perpetuates this attitude of “convince me why a woman’s experience would matter”.
This weekend three incredible women were called to the General Relief Society Presidency and a new counselor to the Primary Presidency, Cristina B. Franco of Argentina. Jean J. Bingham, President and former Primary counselor, is among other things a mother to both biological and foster children and went back to school to earn multiple degrees in education after her children were older.
Sharon Eubank oversees the Church’s Global Humanitarian Organization, which she will continue to do along with her calling. She was also an aide in the U.S. Senate. She is a single woman certainly not defined by her singleness, a much needed voice in our church. A couple of years ago she received a standing ovation a talk given at a FAIR Mormon conference in which she spoke this incredible paragraph:
I think in our practice we also need more imagination. This is not a very powerful example, but I think that young women may be in danger of learning passive helplessness on their road to adult membership and the temple. Young men are setting up chairs and gathering palm fronds and shoveling walks, and home teaching. And I don’t know that we’ve been as imaginative as we ought to be. To think about what are the parallel paths that young women walk so that they are prepared for their adult roles. I also think we need better and more visible role models of men and women working together with their strong strengths that they each bring. I think we need to be more visible about that, not only in our congregations and in our families, but to the world. I think we are so interesting with this moderate doctrine of this way that men and women bring complimentary powers towards solving a solution. And both halves are needed. We ought to be more articulate and more visible about that.
The second counselor, Reyna I. Aburto is a convert from Mexico. She lived through a period of civil unrest in Nicaragua and a devastating earthquake which killed her brother and ruined her home in Mexico. She studied industrial design and later computer science. She has three children and two grandchildren.
These women are just a few examples of the stories I want to hear. In just looking at their photos on the stand together and reading their biographies I am bolstered and nearly brought to tears when I see the strong women I have to look up to. I want them to have space to tell their stories so I better know how to tell my own. There is no shortage of qualified women that could have been asked to speak this weekend, including both those called and those who were released from callings.
Sometime ago, even a year ago, I would have been reticent to put my disappointment into paragraphs and post them on a public space, but I don’t feel that now. As I watch my little girl grow searching for her place in the world and in the church, the stakes are high.
Listening to the talks this weekend I felt a true love for these men who are doing their best and offering messages of hope. I know these men love women, I’ve heard Elder Nelson say that he wants to hear our voice, but there seems to be a disconnect between these words and what I experienced this weekend.
I write this not simply to voice a complaint, I write this because I look around me and see strong, intelligent women with a diversity of background, experience and insight and I believe so strongly in the value they bring to the church organization. I’ve seen the ways I light up and move to action when I know their stories and ideas.
I wonder how to feel and what to do when I am confronted with the lack of them this conference. I don’t really know.
In many ways I wanted to return to the comfort of childhood conference this weekend where my only job was to fill out a bingo card in exchange for a donut from the Primary president and eat lots of coffee cake, but my imperative is no longer to be passive. I realized not far in to listening that conflicting feelings came from my own deep disappointment of a lack of female speakers. A mention of their wives, however endearing, from the men speaking, an occasional ‘she’ pronoun, a story from a woman in the Bible is not enough.
The oversight is not one I can continue to be silent about, to shuffle around within my heart until it doesn’t matter, because it does matter. It does matter.