March 2015 General Women’s Session: Carole M. Stephens

Sister Carole Stephens framed her talk around the children’s song, “The Family is of God,” and she based much of her talk on portions from the Proclamation on the Family. One thing I particularly appreciated about the talk was that she twice referred to Heavenly Parents. I am someone who craves acknowledgment and discussion of our Heavenly Mother, so it was very refreshing to hear Sister Stephens refer to our divine Parents.

Early in her talk, Sister Stephens acknowledged that we “try to create traditional families,” but that belonging to the family of God is not contingent on marital, financial, or social status. I think that message — that there is a place for everyone and that we all should feel a sense of belonging, despite different life circumstances — is expansive and hopeful, and I welcome such messages. I am glad that she chose not to dwell on this idea of trying “to create traditional families,” since that seems potentially alienating to those very many women who don’t belong to such families.

I also appreciated her honesty in acknowledging that she has not been tested and tried in the ways that so many other women have — she hasn’t lived through the death of a child, divorce, single parenthood, same gender attraction, infertility, or abuse. She said that she might not understand other women’s challenges, but that as sister, mother, and friend, she has known women who have experienced these things. I liked this wise and humble acknowledgment that her life and her challenges are clearly different than what many other women in the church experience, and I appreciated that she brought this discussion of challenges back to Jesus and his ability to empathize and love us no matter what we experience in life. She also linked this discussion of challenges back to her theme of unity. We as RS sisters need to unite in our empathy and compassion for others, a sentiment that I heartily endorse.

 

While this talk was centered around the theme of family, Sister Stephens did a good job of extending concepts and themes beyond family. She spoke of how our influence need not be limited to our own families. She mentioned meeting a sister who didn’t know the number of grandchildren she had, because she did not distinguish between her own biological grandchildren and the many children of her community whom she mentored and loved.

There was some rhetoric about our role as women to  “defend the family” and about “attacks on the family,”  phrases which I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. My experience is that traditional heterosexual two parent families get all sorts of affirmation and support from communities– I personally don’t know any such families that have experienced persecution for choosing to get married and have children — so I’m not clear on exactly what needs to be defended or how these families are being attacked. I suspect (though she never explained what she meant by these phrases) that she is talking about the fact that some people want to expand the notion of what a family is, and she objects to that and is thus characterizing that as an attack on the family. This is not language that resonates with me, nor do I find expanded notions of family threatening, so this, for me, was the least uplifting element of the talk.

Throughout her talk, her characterization of women was that of strong and decisive agents, which I liked. She did not emphasize a passive or supportive role for women, but rather an empowered one, able to influence families and communities. Also notable was that despite basing her talk on the Proclamation and the song “The Family is of God,” she never once talked about men presiding. Since that phrase in the Proclamation and the song about fathers presiding is the most difficult for me (I prefer equal partnership emphases), I was very pleased that she chose not to focus on that line and instead focused on other messages in the Proclamation, such as women’s divine nature and identity and God’s love for all of us.

What were your thoughts about Sister Stephens’ talk? How do you understand rhetoric of “defending the family” and “attacks on the family”? 

Caroline

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

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3 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    There were a few moments in this talk (including some of the rhetoric you mention) that didn’t resonate with me, but overall, I loved it. I thought that the portion where she named individual trials that she hasn’t experienced was so powerful, especially with the accompanying admission that some might say that she doesn’t understand, and that they might be right. It was so powerful and beautiful to me.

  2. Heather says:

    I agree Caroline that there is lots to praise here. But I do start to rock in a corner when the “attack on the family” rhetoric starts. So tired of feeling like “The Family” needs to be huddled in a bunker while “the world” bombs it. Tired of the defensive stance. Why can’t we instead talk about what works well in families, what blessings can come from them instead how evil people are trying to take it down. I miss how positive President Hinckley always was. Even when talking about tricky stuff, I came away feeling like the world was an ok place, full of possibilities and promise, not a hostile bed of Satan worshippers trying to kill us in our sleep. Of coutse I’m exaggerating but I never feel motivated or inspired by defensiveness or fear.

  3. Janelle says:

    Actually the “defending the family” rhetoric has usually turned my mind to the experiences of myself and others trying to keep our “traditional families” together and intact. I have been both the recipient of support from women, as well as offered my own ability to both mourn with and comfort my friends and sisters through difficult marital and family dysfunctions. To me it means the influences that seek to separate us from spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and general spiritual support. Although many communities do offer outreach and support for the traditional family, there are also many “voices” that backlash a woman who doesn’t choose divorce for reasons xyz. That is what the “attack” means to me personally.

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