Open letter to Bonnie Parkin, General Relief Society President
I love the rich history of Relief Society and am inspired by accounts of its previous powerful presidents. Emma Smith, Eliza Snow, Emmeline Wells. These were strong, outspoken women who were widely known and loved by their fellow sisters.
I can’t help but sometimes wonder at the disparity between the visibility of the General Relief Society Presidency now and a hundred years ago. Of course, I realize that the RS Presidency’s opportunities to communicate with the women were different then. Snow and Wells were dealing with a much smaller group of Saints, and they ran the Women’s Exponent newspaper that reached and touched so many of their fellow sisters. Today, however, we have a much larger membership and have only the Ensign for adults, which we know is heavily weighted towards the voices of male authorities.
While I understand that these powerful Relief Society presidents of the past were dealing with an entirely different, un-correlated Church structure, I am still bothered by the fact that I feel I don’t know you at all. I don’t feel your power, your influence. Yes, you’ve given some talks at the Women’s Conferences and even a few in General Conference. (I particularly liked the one about Relief Society being an inclusive organization for every sister in the church.) I’m sure you do other things besides give conference talks occasionally, but I doubt I’m the only one who has little idea of what those other things are. While you are said to be in charge of what is frequently touted as the largest women’s organization on earth, I just don’t feel your leadership or your presence. You are not in the slightest a part of our Sunday meetings. I don’t think your name has even been mentioned in my Relief Society in the last year. This contrasts sharply with the fact that not a Sunday goes by without dozens of references in talks and lessons to President Hinckley or General Authorities.
I as a woman need your woman’s leadership. I need your voice, your ideas, your insights. I need to know that women are important general leaders in this church and that what you have to say is critical. I need others (the men) to know that too. Because if you, the most powerful woman in our church, receive no mention and have little visibility, then what is that telling us all about women’s status in the Church? What are we teaching our daughters and sons about women’s potential and place?
I often ask myself what can be done to ameliorate this problem of your lack of visibility and voice. Is there any way you might be able to start a quarterly newsletter, just a few pages, in which you and your counselors recount experiences from which you’ve gained insight, and in which you give us the latest news and developments in the Relief Society? I can’t think of a single LDS woman who wouldn’t love to read such a newsletter and get to know you better.
Also, is there any way you and your counselors might begin to think of ways to incorporate women’s voices into the Relief Society manuals? I feel very alienated from these Presidents of the Church manuals, since they are so unceasingly male voiced. Perhaps at the end of each chapter, there could be a few quotes from the corresponding Relief Society President of the time. Or perhaps you and your counselors could start compiling a manual of talks by Relief Society Presidents of the past, from which both women and men could be enlightened for a year. After all, if we women are being taught for years on end from manuals that feature only male voices, it seems like it would be very invigorating and inspiring for both men and woman to have at least one year to learn from our female leaders.
President Parkin, thank you for all you do. I realize that you are working under constraints that are not of your making. But anything – anything – you can do to increase the visibility of our female leaders and to highlight the importance of female voices in the Church would be immeasurably meaningful to the women and men of this Church.
Harbor Hills Ward