Presiding over Promiscuous Company
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) was organized in Fayette, New York in 1830. Only seven miles away, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.
Although Mott and Stanton were two of the most progressive advocates for women of their time, it did not even occur to them that they might preside over the convention they had planned. That honor went to Mott’s husband, James Mott.
In mid-nineteenth century New York, the idea that women should be permitted to speak in “promiscuous company” (a term describing mixed gender public gatherings) was extremely controversial. Women presiding over a mixed gender meeting had not even entered the realm of imagination.
That changed two weeks later when another group of New York women, inspired by the Seneca Falls Convention, decided to hold a Women’s Rights Convention in their own town of Rochester. With unprecedented boldness, they selected Abigail Bush to preside.
Shocked, Mott and Stanton opposed Bush’s appointment but soon after, they adapted to the liberating new idea that a woman could preside over a mixed gender meeting. At the Rochester Convention, Mott hugged Bush and thanked her for presiding. Stanton apologized to the Rochester women for her “foolish conduct.”
In the decades that followed, New York society came to recognize that anyone could preside over a meeting regardless of sex. Mormons, however, were no longer in New York during this shift in cultural norms. While Abigail Bush made history by presiding over the Rochester Women’s Rights Convention, Mormons were busy establishing a new settlement far away in the Rocky Mountains.
Today, the LDS Church continues to limit the privilege of presiding over mixed gender meetings to men. Even General Relief Society Meeting, which is attended by a comparatively small number of men, is presided over by men, not women. Church members may assume that there is a divine, theological reason for this peculiar custom but its roots can be easily and directly traced to the secular culture of the time and place where the church originated.
Which leads to some questions:
- Which other customs, policies and even “doctrines” of the church have secular origins in the patriarchal culture where it all began?
- What could we do differently, if change were within our realm of imagination?
Source: McMillen, Sally G. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. Oxford University Press: 2008.