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”?