Guest Post: Why We Need a Sotomayor in the General Relief Society Presidency

by Bored in Vernal

(Our thanks to BIV for letting us crosspost this timely piece. You can also find this post on her personal blog, Hieing to Kolob.)

United States citizens have lately been regaled with the tale of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina from the South Bronx who got diabetes at age 8, lost her father at 9, and fought her way to Princeton with the encouragement of her strong-willed mother. Her future influence on the Supreme Court remains to be seen. But President Obama believes that Sotomayor’s qualities and qualifications will add empathy to the judicial philosophy of the nation’s highest court. She has “a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live,” he said.

In a 2001 speech at UC Berkeley, Sotomayor expounded her belief that her gender and ethnic identity affect her ability to make fair decisions in the courtroom:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

This statement may rankle some few of those in the higher echelons of authority in the LDS Church. The Presidency of the Church and the Council of the Twelve continue to be dominated by older white males from privileged backgrounds who consider themselves capable of making decisions addressing the needs of a worldwide ethnic Church. Though I do not wish to quibble with the current established order of succession in Church leadership, I strongly believe that an underprivileged woman of color has the potential for making a quantifiable positive difference in decisions coming from the highest councils of the Church.

Since such a situation is moot, however, let us look at the effect of the inclusion of such women at the highest levels of women’s service in the Church. The first champion for diversity in the Relief Society General Presidency of whom I am aware was Chieko Okazaki. Just prior to this time, efforts had been focused upon unity, uniformity and correlation, beginning with the presidencies of Belle S. Spafford and Barbara B. Smith. (Sister Smith spearheaded opposition by LDS women to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1980’s.)

Chieko Nishimura Okazaki served as a counselor in the General RS Presidency from 1990 to 1997. She was born and raised in Hawaii as a Buddhist, the daughter of a Hawaiian-born Japanese plantation laborer. At the age of fifteen she converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was the first non-Caucasian to serve on a general board of the Church. She came from a professional career as an elementary school teacher and principal. Throughout her service in the General RS Presidency she was an advocate for diversity among LDS women. She often told groups of women that cookie cutters are for cookies, not for human beings, and we should not try to live someone else’s life. Her messages were much beloved by LDS women who felt a bit out of place, for they celebrated diversity:

“…look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “‘Rejoice in Every Good Thing’,” Ensign, Nov 1991, 88)

When Sister Okazaki was called into the Relief Society general presidency, President Hinckley counseled her that she represented an outreach across the world to members of the Church in many lands, who would see in her a representation of their oneness with the Church. He then gave her a blessing that her tongue might be loosed as she spoke to the people. When she received assignments to go among the sisters in lands where Korean, Spanish or Tongan was spoken, she spent hours working with the Church Translation Department and coaches who helped her to deliver addresses in those languages. She once gave the following example to show the difference between the doctrines of the Church and the cultural packaging:

“Here is a bottle of Utah peaches, prepared by a Utah homemaker to feed her family during a snowy season. Hawaiian homemakers don’t bottle fruit. They pick enough fruit for a few days and store it in baskets like this for their families. This basket contains a mango, bananas, a pineapple, and a papaya…they might have been picked by a Polynesian homemaker to feed her family in a climate where fruit ripens all year round.

The basket and the bottle are different containers, but the content is the same: fruit for a family. Is the bottle right and the basket wrong? No, they are both right. They are containers appropriate to the culture and the needs of the people. And they are both appropriate for the content they carry, which is the fruit.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Baskets and Bottles,” Ensign, May 1996, 12)

Sister Okazaki, like Sonia Sotomayor, was someone whose gender and ethnic identity, as well as her personality, helped her to understand the world and the ordinary people who live therein. Because of this, she was able to contribute to Church policy accordingly.

Women who have missed the outspoken voice of Chieko Okasaki since her release 13 years ago were heartened to witness the calling of Silvia Henriquez Allred to the General RS Presidency in 2007. She is a native of El Salvador who served as a full-time missionary in the Central American Mission. She and her husband served as public affairs missionaries in Madrid, Spain. She also served with her husband when he presided over the Paraguay Asuncion Mission, and later over the Missionary Training Center in the Dominican Republic.

I am often discouraged by the lack of much of a public presence among our Relief Society Presidencies. What little public attention this new Presidency has been able to garner has centered around President Julie B. Beck’s 2007 General Conference address “Mothers Who Know,” which seemed to be a retrenchment in LDS thought concerning women. Recently I was mollified to hear of a fireside held in Utah for over 1500 Spanish-speaking women by Julie Beck and Silvia Allred. Both women delivered their talks in Spanish, Sister Allred speaking with native fluency, and Sister Beck aided by the fact that she learned as a child to speak Portuguese.

Surely Presidents Beck and Allred are doing much service among the women of the Church of which I am unaware. I simply wish that the few women who have higher echelon positions in the Mormon Church had more of a public voice. Just as Sonia Sotomayor is poised to make a difference in the judicial system of this country, our women leaders can potentially make a difference in the spiritual lives of LDS members. Instead, so many of the Relief Society General Presidents and their counselors fade into obscurity, and when they are released no one remembers their names or what their contributions were.
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Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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22 Responses

  1. ECS says:

    BiV – excellent post and analysis. A quick thought I had is that it wouldn’t matter if Sonia Sotomayor – or someone equally as impressive – served as a R.S. General President because R.S. Presidents have only the power granted to them by the male General Authorities. Women have no independent power absent priesthood approval. So, in effect, the female auxilliary leaders (telling that the woman heading up the entire Relief Society isn’t included as an “authority” as in “General Authority”) reinforce the principles espoused by the male leadership.

    Sonia Sotomayor, on the other hand, may use her independent power as a justice sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court to examine and interpret the current law and past precedents and arrive a fundamentally different conclusion to the other justices on the court. In other words, Sotomayor’s experience as a Latina growing up in the Bronx will influence her legal opinions, and thus, her real world experience and perspective have the potential to shape our laws and policies.

    On the other hand, a female R.S. president – no matter how impressively qualified – doesn’t have similar authority and gravitas to allow her experience as a woman in the Church to shape policies unless the male leadership agrees with her.

    One could argue, however, that Sonia Sotomayor is only one vote in nine, and that her experience and perspective is only influential insofar as she persuades four or five justices to agree with her. While this may be true, a Relief Society president cannot be said to have a “vote” at the table in the same way that male General Authorities have “votes” or the same way that Sotomayor has a vote as equally as powerful as the male justices on the USSC.

  2. ECS says:

    One more thing, even when a U.S. Supreme Court justice is in the minority he or she writes a dissenting opinion that by itself can be influential and shape public policy. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in the Ledbetter pay discrimination case, for example, prompted Congress to amend the federal law and remove burdensome procedural hurdles to allow women to sue their employers for paying them less than male employees.

    What I’m trying to say here is that even when justices “lose” the case (when they are outvoted), we still have a written record of their analysis and interpretation of the law. I’m just thinking that if women in the Church were given the opportunity to
    voice their experience and perspective in the same way as dissenting justices (i.e., even if the male leadership disagreed with them, the women could still communicate independently), perhaps real policy changes improving the lives of women in the Church could be made.

  3. Martin Holden says:

    Relief Society claims to be the largest womans organization but as ECS infers can it be a womans organisation if it is overseen by men. In fact it is very difficult to contact the General Relief Society if you live outside of Utah. A sister with a concern has to take it up with her Stake Relief Society President who then, I believe, passes it on to the Stake President and then the Area Presidency etc not the General RS Presidency. In fact the church does not appear to publish a way of contacting the General RS Presidency. If this is the case I do not think it matters who is on the General RS presidency as they appear to have only limited contact with the general world membership.

  4. Minerva says:

    “R.S. Presidents have only the power granted to them by the male General Authorities. Women have no independent power absent priesthood approval. So, in effect, the female auxilliary leaders (telling that the woman heading up the entire Relief Society isn’t included as an “authority” as in “General Authority”) reinforce the principles espoused by the male leadership.”

    I agree that this is likely true, this idea of no independent power, but there are some things I’ve heard which suggest that this convention is perpetuated heavily by RS leadership themselves. A Jewish friend of my sister leads an interfaith group in Salt Lake. This friend reached out to the General Relief Socity Presidency to set up a meeting to discuss ways for the LDS Church to get involved in the group. She never got a reply, and I think she tried to reach them a few times. Finally, she decided to talk to one of the 12. She got in touch with Ballard, and she expressed her frustration that the RS presidency had ignored her. He said something like “We have a very patriarchal church/culture and a lot of times the RS is afraid to do anything without PH approval. I wish they weren’t.” Basically he was saying he wished the RS presidency would take more initiative and rely less on PH “authority.” I thought that was interesting, but I was a bit disheartened that there hasn’t been a talk or something addressing this.

  5. ECS says:

    Minerva – your comment is probably true, and it makes me sad that LDS women very commonly internalize the patriarchal structure and circumscribe their role to be even more limited that the male leadership may envision for them.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize LDS women (not that you’re doing this, Minerva) for not being more assertive. Women are told from an early age to respect/honor/obey the priesthood, so it’s certainly understandable that they wouldn’t feel comfortable acting independently without explicit permission from a priesthood leader. If the male leadership – like the good Elder Ballard – want women to speak up and act up more, then we need this behavior modeled for us. For example, we need women to speak authoritatively on doctrinal subjects and not almost exclusively on their role in nurturing children.

  6. ECS says:

    Sorry to hog the comments, but this is the first time in awhile I’ve been able to catch a post before everyone else has already made the same observations in the comments that I have 🙂

    Anyway, one other thought I had is that one may argue that the priesthood leadership knows what is best for women, so a woman’s voice isn’t particularly necessary in the decision making process. I’ve encountered this reasoning a lot in the Church- most notably in defense of why we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother except as a vague abstraction. I guess I don’t buy this argument, because men AND women are bound by their culture and experiences and make decisions accordingly.

    To wit – read Ardis Parshall’s stunning post on racial attitudes and demeaning epithets used to describe blacks in fairly recent Church publications and General Conference talks (!).

    http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2009/06/02/the-ugliest-post-keepa-has-ever-published/

    These racist attitudes held by those in the highest positions of Church leadership most certainly shaped Church policy towards blacks. So what I’m saying is that God speaks to us through a cultural lens, and so using many diverse lenses to experience God will no doubt reduce the risk of a recurrence of something as tragic and damaging as the virulent racism evidenced in the publications featured in Ardis’ post.

  7. Emily U says:

    Ugh, where to begin. BiV, I couldn’t agree more that the church would benefit from more diversity in its leadership. On the other hand ECS is absolutely right that even when there are women from diverse backgrounds in the leadership, the effect they can have is limited in time and scope.

    I think personality and talent matters a lot in whether women’s voices get heard. People quote Cheiko Okazaki because she’s such a good communicator, has written books, and still speaks to women’s groups. People quote male GAs just because they’re GAs. What will it take to make women real players in the leadership of the church? A General RS President with a strong personality who started asking tough questions like why do so few women speak in General Conference, why aren’t women quoted in our Sunday School manuals, and why does women’s feedback have to come through male channels would help. But in our culture, that’s a rare woman. Probably even rarer when you consider the pool from which women leaders are chosen.

  8. Caroline says:

    “so many of the Relief Society General Presidents and their counselors fade into obscurity, and when they are released no one remembers their names or what their contributions were.”

    So true. And I think that the only way for these women to avoid that is to write, write, write. When these women leaders write their own books, they live on. Chieko Okazaki is a great example of that.

    Regarding the topic of diversity in leadership, I would agree that a richness of experience among leaders can only benefit their organizations. Though like ECS mentioned, that benefit might not be very visible or extreme in the general RS Pres., since the men really are the ones with all the final say.

    ECS, love all the comments.
    Minerva, very, very depressing story. I’d like to think that even Mormon women leaders socialized into patriarchy would take a little more initiative.

  9. Oh, how I wish the LDS Church was set up so that we could use our independent power. RS is NOT the same as it was in the past, when women controlled their buildings, their funds, and their curriculum. HOWEVER, I do feel the women in the General RS Presidency could exert much more of an influence if they were willing to push a little bit. I know many stories where they simply backed down to the First Presidency, even when their own instincts told them not to. (One of these incidents happened when the Church went to the new “Prophets” manuals.)
    Also, I have often said that I wish we could restructure women’s hierarchy in the Church so that RS Presidents went to Stake RS Presidents for guidance and leadership, who in turn went to the General RS Presidency. Although in the end, the General RS is under the First Presidency, this is a much more natural chain of command. I agree with Caroline that women Church leaders need to write their stories. This might be comparable to “dissenting opinions” by Supreme Court justices. I don’t ask that they dissent, but merely that they tell us their stories, and disseminate their opinions.

    Lastly, there must be some way the women’s leaders can make their objectives and purposes more well known among the sisters. We all knew that Hilary Clinton stood for Health Care reform, Nancy Reagan fought drug abuse in her “Just Say No” campaign, Laura Bush was known as an advocate for education and literacy. Just as the First Ladies have publicity for the issues they pursue, so should our RS Presidencies. This could be a source of strength and power for women in the LDS Church.

  10. Angie says:

    Many times when ive tried to magnify my church callings or to be innovative at church, I am blocked by my immediate superior in the church hierarchy, whether male or female. When my efforts at “being anxiously engaged in a good cause” are thwarted at church, I turn my energy outside the church. For example, the primary counselor in charge of my primary chorister calling was manipulative and tyrannical about things like the primary program. So i prayed like crazy to love her, and volunyeered more time at my kids’ school. There’s plenty of work to do in this world, I don’t want to waste my efforts where they’ll just lead to unresolvable contentiom. Another example, I started my own community book club, so that I avoided all potential conflict between official church standards and the books we chose for the book club.

  11. RG says:

    As there have been no comments of a dissenting voice here, I feel I must speak up. I can understand that having a court/church/community made up of people of diverse backgrounds can be a very positive thing. We all have things that we can learn from each other. However, when Sotomayor says that she can reach a better conclusion than a white male, doesn’t that seem unfair or equally racist/sexist to you than someone who says that a white male reaches a better conclusion than a Latina woman? To me, it seems hypocritical for us to complain of a patriarchal church where men seem to think they are better able to make decisions and then praise a woman who thinks that she can reach a better decision because of her race/gender.

  12. Amazon Woman says:

    You know what I’d like to see!? Someone in the RS presidency who is single! Or divorced! Someone raising kids on her own! That would be truly representative of many many sisters in our church who do not feel they have an advocate!

  13. ECS says:

    RG – I think the spirit of Sotomayor’s comment and the idea of having women’s voices and experience valued on par with men’s voices and experience in the LDS Church is that most (any?) decision/policy that incorporates the diverse needs and perspectives of everyone is better than any decision that serves the interests of a dominant group.

  14. X2 Dora says:

    I agree that women need to write their stories. Right now I’ve been on a trip to the east coast, and am reveling in the stories and histories (herstories?) of L. Maud Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, while reveling in the writings of Gaskill and remembering the little journal book of Carol Lynn Pearson. Most women’s writings have been preserved through journals and letters, which half the time have been destroyed, and are not chronicled like the lives of of famous men. We need to write our stories and share them … part of why I value this community here at X2.

    In regards to RJ’s comment, I think that while it is possible for inspired men to lead well, the pattern is for prophets to ask, then receive a reply from deity. However, if prophets are circumscribed by their experience as not having a clear understanding of women in the church and in the world, it stands that they (and the church) would benefit from hearing the voice of those equal to them in power and authority, who come from diverse backgrounds. Just as I think the Quorum of the 12 Apostles (and the church) is enlivened by President Uchtdorf’s experiences as a person of who has lived the majority of his life outside of the US, I think that the church would be reinvigorated by others of diverse backgrounds, especially one that represents half of the human race.

  15. Minerva says:

    Amazon Woman,

    The current 2nd Counselor is single (never been married).

  16. jaguar says:

    Why would Sonia Sotomayor or any woman who is a leader in society or business or government want to be a member of a church that would not allow them to make any decision without first getting a man’s approval? I’m not trying to be snarky here. I just think it is a very pertinent question.

  17. Jana says:

    jaguar:
    It is a pertinent question, but is probably unanswerable (I’d even suggest that that question underlies just about everything we do here at The Exponent). But just imagine that Sotomayer was born into this religion and wanted to help it evolve to be a more affirmative place for women or other marginalized peoples. Organizations and societies don’t just change spontaneously, right?

  18. Kaimi says:

    “Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”

    -Elder Wirthlin

  19. Dora says:

    Thanks for the Wirthlin quote. It resonates strongly with my ideal of Big Tent church.

  20. Kiri Close says:

    How about a woman prophet?

    Makes sense to me.

  21. deb says:

    I am grateful for how our church is set up. I have never felt inferior and have felt a strong testimony of our leaders. I appreciate the service of our RS, YW, and Primary presidents and don’t feel like they have to stand out on a particular issue to have made an impact in my life. I appreciate diversity, but know that everyone, no matter what culture or background they come from can play an important role in helping others in the church and throughout our communities.

  22. *Camille says:

    I think everyone makes very interesting, unique points…diversity right ladies? The only additional comment I would like to add that is wherever there is a good man leading, there is a better woman at his side 🙂 I say this (slightly) joking but I do believe it is true…how many of us have had awesome male leadership & then you look to the right and see his awesome wife, mother, or sister. Although we may not like to verbalize it, we all know SHE plays a HUGE part in the way things get done, the way things are run, and the way these men fulfill their roles.

    Additionally I would like to add, that I do beleive the reason women sometimes are not heard or remembered is because we don’t CHEER them on like we should. I am a nurse and work with obviously, mostly women. There can be so much back biting, slighting, jealously, etc you know what I am talking about. I say why don’t we start to come together more, cheer each other on more, build each other up more, COMPLIMENT each other more, remember each other’s names, and SPEAK UP! Let’s take some of this advice we get on a regular basis and quit judging, quit comparing and start celebrating the uniqueness of each other on a daily basis, regardless of race, martial situation, financial situation, age, and political point of view.

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