The Relief Society: A Women’s Organization?

Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Gender, Policy | 31 comments

In a 2009 speech, General Relief Society President Beck said, “The Relief Society is the largest women’s organization in the world. The fact that it works under priesthood direction makes it completely unique.”

Yes, it certainly is unique to call an organization “a women’s organization” when it works under the direction of a men-only organization.  Can we really call Relief Society a “women’s organization” if it is governed by men, not women? Let’s read more of the speech:
Relief Society

“Each [female] Relief Society president is called to assist one [male] bishop or branch president.”

“In planning meetings, leaders should give priority to topics [that I assume were selected by Beck, a woman] that fulfill Relief Society purposes, such as marriage and family, homemaking, provident living and self-reliance, compassionate service, temple and family history, sharing the gospel, and other subjects requested by the [male] bishop or branch president.”

“The [female] Relief Society presidency makes recommendations about Relief Society meetings to the [male] bishop or branch president for his approval…”

“As approved by the [male] stake president, one or two stake Relief Society meetings may be planned and carried out by the [female] stake Relief Society presidency each year for all Relief Society sisters in the stake.”

When reading this description, I note that in the Relief Society, women are called as assistants to a men; men may request topics for R.S. and women are advised to give these male-selected topics “priority;” women may recommend R.S. topics, but may not implement them unless a man approves (and he is not advised to reciprocate by giving priority to female-suggested topics); and women must seek male approval for their female activities.

Of course, this speech only focused on one aspect of Relief Society, the choice of topics for meetings and activities.  There are other aspects of Relief Society governance.  And even if I am correct in assuming that Relief Society is mostly governed by men, not women, perhaps the fact that its participants happen to be women is reason enough to call it a women’s organization.  So I ask you, readers:

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31 Comments

  1. Great post, April.

    Not only are topics for Relief Society lessons selected by males, the RS presidents are selected by males and all other officers and teachers must have male approval.

    In real women’s organizations, women choose their leaders and their focus of interest. They also raise their own funds and create their own budgets.

    • Under our Savior’s organization of apostles and prophets, yes, it is a leadership of men, which does not minimize the extremely important role and mission these women have and hold. Women hold a key function and role in this ministry, which is clearly evidenced by the sheer size and growth of the Relief Society organization. The Relief Society performs a function that CANNOT be performed by any man. It is nothing less than an inspired organization. Few can say that for any other women’s organization.

      • Patriarchy, bigotry, and misogyny by any other word…

        I love it when a man comes into women’s spaces to explain why he’s not a condescending misogynist, based upon patriarchal religious hubris.

  2. I said yes, though I am troubled by the points you made. I think at the most basic level it is, because you have to be a woman to belong. It isn’t an independent women’s organization, but it is an organization entirely comprised of female members and female leadership (I do recognize the subordinate to men problem).

  3. The points you make are not valid. There is really one man in each ward to whom everybody reports. I am a leader of an organization in my ward and I report to the bishop. The women leaders also report to the bishop. It’s not as if every woman’s organization leader reports to every man in the ward. There is one man who is called and he is the bishop. Everybody else — male and female — is called to support him as he provides direction for the ward.

    • That’s not the point of this post or poll, Chum. The fact that all auxiliary leaders report to the bishop is a separate issue. Can you name one other major “women’s organization” that places women hierarchically below a man. If we are going to label the Relief Society a women’s organization we also have to acknowledge that this is made complex by our current correlated organizational structure.

      • Actually… the point of a female organization is that it is female only. This organization in itself is female only, and males cannot join it. It is also lead by women, and the female women consult with male leaders who direct and coordinate with the female leaders. This is a female organization. There is no mention that women are below men, or that men are better than women, in fact, it isn’t about that at all. You see this organization is about charity and giving through women’s actions. I am appalled that other women would turn this into a war of the sexes when an organization is doing so much good. This has to do with coordination with other auxiliary units within the LDS church that works with the Relief Society… if you cant see that then I would look up your nearest LDS church and check it out for yourself…. just dont turn this into a competition about who is better and who is putting who down, it is above and beyond that point and decisive actions and organization is taking place here.

  4. I’m also troubled by the points you make because *they are valid.* Sure it’s a women’s organization, but it’s leaders are so firmly entrenched in patriarchy that.. well, so what? It’s the largest women’s organization in the world that operates narrowly within the prescribed confines of patriarchal theology. In my opinion the fact that it works under priesthood direction invalidates so much of whatever it is they think they are accomplishing for women.

  5. Well, I suppose it used to be a women’s organization…

    • Wouldn’t it be great if Relief Society could more closely resemble the autonomy of Emma Smith’s days- women with the ability to choose their leaders, extend callings, create their own budget. . .

  6. I guess I don’t find it to be so wrong that we should all have an established leader even if I don’t understand all the reasons why the Lord set it up that way. And I do believe He did structure the church that way- that it wasn’t just some thing the men wanted back in the 1800′s. The president of the Relief Society says it’s a women’s organization. I clearly can’t join ’cause I’m a man so it seems like a strong conclusion to me.

    Aside from that, the Church teaches that “the Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right to presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church.” Like Chum wrote, it’s not just the Relief Society that reports to the bishop- so do the Young Men, Young Women, High Priests, Sunday School, etc., etc.

    • I think the critical test of whether RS is a woman’s organization is not to compare it to other organizations within the church, but to compare it to other woman’s organizations outside of the church. The church, as an overall organization, is largely run by men (including the subparts of that organization). There are plenty of women’s organizations throughout the world that are run primarily or exclusively by women.

    • I agree, Beatrice.

      I think it is quite clear that the Relief Society is not a women’s organization, it is an organization for women to support, sustain and be separate from men- and not in a good way. (I wrote about my feelings on the topic here) Jace, this is a strong argument for exactly how “men wanted back in the 1800′s.”

      The parts that bother me most are addressed in this post and in Jace’s comment. It is the claim that the Relief Society is the largest organization for women in the world. Huh. See, I don’t get a choice to join, so positioning me, just because I am Mormon and female, as a member of the relief society does me no favours. There seems no pious benefit in declaring the Relief Society as the largest women’s organization—therefore to me, it must be political. It must be that the church PR committee can claim that the “largest” women’s organization in the world supports X,Y,Z—and I hate, hate, hate feeling like a political pawn.

      Think about it this way: The National Organization for Women has voluntary membership. I support NOW, but I am not a member, so I am not included in its membership numbers. Compare that to Relief Society, where, post-correlation, I am assigned Relief Society membership, so I am included in its numbers, even when I vehemently oppose some of which is taught. My voice is removed, because my vote is counted as one with the church because of my age, sex and church membership, regardless of the last time I attended church. At least the men, no matter how unlikely, have a choice of being ordained. I, however, was never given a choice of membership. I can only quit my Relief Society membership if I quit the church, which makes no sense since I never agreed to join the Relief Society when I was baptised.

      Funny how the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods are never defined as the “largest” men’s organization in the world. (The group that sometimes lays claim to that title is, ironically, the Masons.) Is this because males who go inactive before the age of 12 are unqualified for membership, whereas women who were baptised Mormon but are not active, gain automatic Relief Society membership at the age of 18? I dunno. But it is not equal. And it is not governed by women.

      • “…and it is not governed by women…” end discussion there!

        Cannot be a “women’s organization” at all then, can it.

        Wow.

      • Acutally it is a woman’s organization, it is exclusive to women, and the definition of women’s orgs is changing today, i mean some women’s orgs accept males i.e. the CWA who “accept all like-minded women and men”. So what would you not call that a women’s organization? I just think that pride gets in the way of most women making these negative comments… if you haven’t experienced the RR then you dont know what your talking about. This whole description reeks of bias and lack of facts and experience.

    • The part that bothers me the most is that it appears to me that some Mormon feminists have to avoid and ignore the words of their leaders and scripture in order to perpetuate their personal, or even collective, agenda. Whether you have voluntary membership or not holds no bearing in my mind of whether you can call it a women’s organization.

      Beatrice, I also don’t think it will work to compare it to organizations outside of the church. Pres. Beck said it was unique for that specific reason. What if you put those other organizations in the church? Then they would fall under the same priesthood direction and be unique in that aspect as well.

      Spunky, I read your other post. I am sure your historical presentation of men at that time is sound and accurate. My argument can be summed up this way- When the LDS church was restored, priesthood was given to men and as I stated I don’t know why. It’s not like Joseph and Oliver went out of their to keep it from women. I wasn’t referring to some obscure tribe or colony or civilization of the world and should have clarified that. If you (or any others) would like to answer some hard questions from someone who is interested in these topics, albeit unsympathetic to some, then why has God always issued the responsibilities of the Priesthood to men?

      If the Relief Society isn’t governed by women, how do you explain a woman as the President of the organization? Is she not actually, and clearly, giving instruction and leading her organization with this very talk that is being criticized? And why do you assume her agenda?

      If President Beck reports to an Apostle of the Lord why is that a bad thing if it was structured that way by God?

      How do you respond to scriptures like D&C 107:8 that is quoted above?

      I don’t want to seem overly critical but I don’t understand your points in regard to this background of the church and this talk by Pres. Beck.

  7. “If the Relief Society isn’t governed by women, how do you explain a woman as the President of the organization?”

    Jace, she’s largely a figurehead, I’m sad to say. Her ability to maneuver and carry out big scale projects is highly constrained. For example, she is only in for 5 years now. It’s hard to accomplish anything truly noteworthy in that kind of time frame. She also has no funds of her own. Anything she gets she has to ask the men for. She also has no real ability to reach her organization’s members. No newsletter. No magazine. Just a talk here and there at conferences. If a president can only communicate with her members a couple of times a year, there’s a real constraint on that president’s ability to lead and direct.

    Compare this with earlier RSs: leaders chosen by women (emma’s time), women leaders in charge of own funds, president staying president until death, women leaders directing far-reaching and important projects, women leaders with own newspapers and magazines.

    It’s a different kettle of fish nowadays.

    • Even though I disagree, I appreciate the response. I’ve noticed you are very active on this site. Could you please answer some of the other questions?

      • I think you are misunderstanding the message that the OP is trying to get across. It is not a question of whether it is a bad thing for women to answer to men within the church or whether God was the one that set it up that way. The question is whether the RS can really be called a women’s organization. It certainly fits within the broad definition of women’s organization in that its members are all women and that its president is a woman. However, there are plenty of organizations that would fit a more narrow definition of women’s organization in that they are for women but they are also created and run exclusively by women. The argument isn’t whether it is a good or a bad thing for the RS to need to seek approval from male church leaders, but whether it is misleading to call the RS a women’s organization when most people assume that when you say “women’s organization” you mean an organization that is solely governed by women.

    • I do think those questions apply when it comes to church structure and the Priesthood. If I have to keep it on such a short leash to avoid the assumption that I’ve misunderstood the point then I’ll end it with my opinion that I think it can be called a women’s organization.

      -Sister Beck called it a women’s organization and she is the President (at that time)
      -It has clear leadership structure throughout the Church with specific women leaders
      -The only members are women (even if Spunky so vehemently hates the process of membership)
      -It’s purpose revolves specifically around helping women
      -It’s structure has great autonomy to be able to help women around the world

      • I really appreciate your willingness to continue to engage and to keep the discussion civil. It really means a lot to me. Also, I wanted to add that I don’t want to put words in the OP’s mouth. I want to clarify that what I say is just from my reading of the OP, but I certainly will defer to her in any clarifications of what the original message was.

      • Again… its not about the short leash… its not about feminist, or chauvinist, its about women and service and as I described earlier, the definition of female orgs is changing, some female orgs accept males into their organization…

  8. I think Relief Society suffered some serious losses through correlation, but in my mind the budgetary thing is maybe a gain. Without being funded out of tithing dollars, wouldn’t Relief Society have to do their own fundraising? I loathe fundraising and am very glad not to have to make trinkets or pies for a bazaar in order to raise money.

    That said, I think RS is an organization composed of women, but it is not a women’s organization because it can’t be when it’s directed by men.

    • I would have maybe felt the same way you felt about the fundraising issue, but with that responsibility came power, simply meaning that because the women raised the money themselves, they had full authority over where that money was spent. That has also been taken away. Laurel Ulrich guest-taught a class I was in last year called “Gendering Mormonism” (http://www.the-exponent.com/i-know-that-gendering-mormonism-is-true/) in which she shared a marvelous story about how women in her ward were tired of making trinkets and pies too, so they decided to use their intellectual skills instead, and wrote a Guide to Boston, that became a best seller and raised thousands upon thousands of dollars–enough to fund the whole ward, let alone the whole Relief Society. It was really inspiring.

  9. One of the things that breaks my heart the very most is the story of Emmeline B. Wells being released as General Relief Society President, when Joseph Smith had taught that women in that role would serve in that capacity until they died (making the calling very paralel to the calling of a prophet). Smith said that the only reason a woman in that postion would be released before the time of death would be because of apostasy. Wells was the first one to be released from her calling, while still very much alive. She was old, and possibly frail, which may help to understand the thinking of the brethren who chose to release her, but at the same time, old, frail prophets have not historically been released when they are no longer able to actively fulfill their role… Wells was so distraught, believing that they thought she had apostatized, that she had a stroke very shortly thereafter, and died very shortly thereafter that. While it is impossible to know if those things would have happened otherwise, most believed that the releasing did act as catalyst.

    The original posts raised some very interesting (and I believe important) questions that I don’t have the answers to: What does it mean to be a specifically “women’s” organization? Does it merely require that women be In the organization, or does it more strongly require that they, and only they, lead it?

    • These stories about how the role of women was originally envisioned by Joseph Smith are rather powerful tools. Are there some books that are good sources of them? I’ve just ordered ‘Women and Authority’, are there any more?

      • Trinco, the minutes of the first few Relief Society meetings, which JS spoke at, are pretty revolutionary. There you’ll find his vision of this society as a “kingdom of priests.” Here’s the exact quote from the minutes book, quoting JS ” the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day — that it is the privilege of each member to live long.”

        http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book#1

        Besides that, the Women of Covenant book on the Relief Society by Derr and a couple of others is a great resource. It (gently) tells the story of poor Emmeline B. Wells’s release and other conflicts between RS and Priesthood channels, as the RS became less and less autonomous.

  10. I think calling the RS a “women’s organization” betrays a depressing, if unsurprising, assumption. The assumption is that of course men will be at the top of all hierarchies. An organization is a women’s organization if its membership consists of women. Never mind that men preside over it. That’s just the way organizations are: men are meant to lead, women to follow. The very idea of an autonomous women’s organization isn’t even worth considering.

  11. I voted “yes” because I believe that RS still can be run and organized by women in ideal conditions, and I think that those ideal conditions exist in some wards today. But, I admit that the language used in the handbook is disheartening.

  12. If you go on this same vein, the United states of America is male, he governs the United states and provides regulations for any organizations, so all would be governed by males. You can spin anything in your direction, this was a very poor article as it does nothing to show how wonderful this organization is and shows no real examples of the leaders interaction with the rest of the church.

    • The president of the USA happens to be male, but it is not a requirement of the position. In contrast, it is required that all bishops and stake presidents be male. Women are not allowed to hold these positions at all.

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