Women’s Voices: An April 2016 General Conference Tally

With thanks to Ziff for joining in on the data collection!  

 

In August 2015, the church announced that women would be included in general and local church councils. In a follow up speech broadcast a month later throughout Europe, Elder M. Russell Ballard instructed women to, “let your voices be heard, we cannot, we cannot meet our destiny as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in preparing this world for the 2nd coming of the Saviour of the world without the support and the faith and the strength of the women of this church. We need you. We need your voices. They need to be heard. They need to be heard in your community, in your neighbourhoods, they need to be heard within the ward council or the branch council.”

 

QuoteI was, and am thrilled to know that the church was seeking women’s voices. Long muted by a history of patriarchy-governed Christianity, the church has never seemed to fare especially well in listening, or learning from the voices of women. I was excited and ready to hear from women, so anxiously anticipated the October 2015 General Conference.  Following this conference, however, I didn’t feel this was any more or less female-voiced compared to other recent, previous conferences. Most of the female speakers quoted men and men in the scriptures, though they did provide some personal experiences, as per usual. Of special interest to me was Neill F. Marriott’s General Conference speech pattern; in the three personal experiences she shared, she concluded each with a quote from a male church leader in support of her position. Though I enjoyed her talk very much, I wondered if she felt compelled to conclude each of her personal witnesses with a male voice in order to give value to her experience. If this was the case, was it because Marriott did not feel her experience– he voice– was really wanted? Or did she fear or was she restricted in using her voice? I decided that perhaps as the first conference following the instruction to include women’s voices, that it might be too soon to expect women’s voices being heard and shared as openly as men’s voices.

 

My patience and curiosity turned to frustration in February 2016. It was at this time that I listened to the “region wide stake conference” in Australia and New Zealand. This conference began with a speech offered by the highest ranking local leader- either the District President or Stake President, and then we all tuned into a video relayed from Salt Lake to listen to general church leaders. Cheryl Esplin was the only female, and as such was the symbol of female voice in this conference. Surely she would represent women’s voices! But she began by quoting Elder David A. Bednar’s about his love of Australia and New Zealand (doesn’t she love us, too?). Then she quoted man, after man, after man, after man. She did not recount any quotes from women or about women—not even from her own experience. This meeting utterly excluded the female voice. A physical female voice was heard—but it was not reflective of Mormon women, or women’s experiences. It was not sharing the perspective, testimony or witness of any woman. Each speaker quoted from men, or spoke of men’s experiences. So far as female representation or experience was concerned, she may as well have not have attended the meeting at all.

 

This is not new. It’s old, and it’s a bad habit. But the thought began to fester, so I decided to do a quick study of the October 2015 Women’s General Session to see how often women were quoting men, women or speaking by personal experience:

OctoberWomensSession

To be honest, I was pretty shocked and disappointed with the result. Elder Ballard has instructed us to “let your voices be heard,” and yet—the women were predominantly quoting men. I wondered if Ballard’s follow up comments to the statement, “don’t talk too much in those meetings” had more force than even he intended, or worse, were presumed to be prophetic instruction for women to only be seen and not heard.

 

I further wondered if the male leaders of the church were taking to heart the admonition to include women’s voices in their own talks. Being curious, and with the help from Ziff from Zelophehad’s Daughters, we tracked the entire April 2016 General Conference in the same categories as I created for the October 2015 Women’s Session.

 

The tracking was a bit curious, because sometimes, the gender of the person in the story was obscured (Eyring), or the story involved a joint experience of a husband and wife (Arnold) (Waddell) (Hales) (Richards), wherein we decided to score as one female and one male voice per talk. One story, whist it was started about a husband and wife called as primary teachers, was really the retelling of the husband’s individual conversation with a child (Waddell), absent of his wife- so I labelled that as a male story. Another story, about a girl at Halloween time, was so heavily peppered with the (male) speaker’s dislike of Halloween (historically a harvest festival demonized by Christians), that I felt it was more his story than his daughter’s story (Hallstrom). And whilst some might disagree, any stories or quotes from the Family Proclamation were labelled as male, because the document was written by men.

 

There are further points that could be debated regarding a quote being from a (male) apostle in the scriptures, or Christ, as the gospels are written by others and quote Christ. My intent in segregating the discussion of Christ is because He is the only individual I feel appropriate to reflect both the male and female voice.  The length of the quote (such as the talk being all one story, a common characteristic for Uchtdorf and Monson) would also make this an unscientific analysis. Nonetheless, I believe this simple study is important in showing how often female voice is excluded as a matter of habit.

 

The spreadsheet of our tallies is here (quotes in conference2), but to cut to the chase, the end result for all speakers for the entire conference (inclusive of the General Women’s Session, and the Priesthood session) was this:

graph2

I am aware that some might argue that it is unfair to include the voices of women from the scriptures because women in the scriptures are comparatively scarce. However, because so few women’s stories have weathered the biblical historiography of patriarchal annihilation, I choose to believe that Elohim’s hands personally directed and ensured those few stories of women survived in our scriptures today for a special purpose. Thus, I find these stories, as protected by God, are imperative points of study for all church members and should be better recognized as tenacious miracles.

 

The speakers who discussed Christ the most often were Eyring (here and here) and Renlund (here). I’ve long been a fan of Eyring, and often hold out just for his words. He did not fail me in this conference, and I’m thinking that this might be the reason. Very much to his credit, although he did not mention her by name, he shared the story of Mary, who anointed Christ. Thus, my appreciation for his inclusion of women was solidified. Disappointingly, not a single female speaker referenced women in the scriptures. Eyring was the only speaker to include a quote referencing a woman in the scriptures.

 

Because the General Women’s session reflected 11 stories about men, and 5 stories about men in the scriptures (compared to 8 stories about women and 1 story about a woman in the scriptures in that same session), I found no problem with expecting the Priesthood session to reflect a degree of the female voice.  So whilst I was delighted that both Eyring and Uchtdorf  included women’s experiences in the General Priesthood session, I was disappointed that the percentage of included women’s voices was so very low in comparison to the number of times a male voice is included in the General women’s session:

menandwomen

Interestingly, the only time female speakers shared personal stories was in the General Women’s session, compared to men who shared 7 personal experiences in the Priesthood session, and 21 personal experiences in the general (non-Women’s session, non-Priesthood) sessions of conference. With only two women speaking in the General Conference (Durham and Oscarson), compared to 24 male speakers, I was saddened but not surprised to think that these women did not feel, or were not allowed to share personal stories in the general sessions.

 

In the end, it is clear that women’s voices are in the minority. This is not a surprise. BUT WE NEED TO CHANGE THIS. In future, I look forward to improved inclusion and witness of the testimony of women—not just women quoting men, or women tagged on as companions to men in a men’s story or as the guides of children in a story about raising men. I look forward to women and men  quoting and sharing the testimony of women as intelligent, spiritual speakers with testimonies worthy of canonization.

 

SPEAK UP, SISTERS!

 

What is it like in your home ward and in your own speaking habits? Do you quote Mormon women as much as you quote Mormon men? How can you improve at your local and ward levels to share the voice of women?

P.S. The working title for this post was “Gagged.” Do you agree or disagree with the sense of Mormon women being “gagged” in public speaking within the church?

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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33 Responses

  1. jes says:

    If women are criticized when they do give talks and do speak out b/c they didn’t do it “right” or well enough, then that’s not very encouraging. Perhaps if we’re patient, and encouraging, then more and more women will speak out, which will gradually give us more women to quote from.

    • spunky says:

      This isn’t a criticism of women’s talks. It is an observation of the habit of excluding women’s voices. Looking at history, we have been patient for centuries waiting for the opportunity to speak. I agree that we need to be more encouraging. I also think we need to lay out facts for men to understand how much more the male voice is heard in comparison to the female voice.

  2. Pleiades says:

    I just want to share my friend’s blog gcsisters.wordpress.com. She and a couple other people went through a ton of Conference talks and made quotes by sisters searchable for easier use in talks. We might not be able to affect the general level, but this is an invaluable resource for effecting change on a local level.

  3. Ziff says:

    Great post, Spunky! This is a sad pattern, especially as you point out, in light of talks like Russell M. Nelson’s in October where he says women need to be heard from more. Also, I think the specific pattern you noted in Neill F. Marriott’s talk is so common: even when women give talks in Conference, they spend a lot of time quoting men. This is from last year, but when I looked at which Conference speakers used the most words on quotes, I found that women used more than men did (although I didn’t track who they were quoting). See here: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2015/06/03/quote-close-quote/.

    Also, thanks for letting me contribute to this project!

    • spunky says:

      Classic, Ziff! Your posts are always brilliant- thanks for highlighting that post here, and thanks again for your help!

  4. jes says:

    I’ve been thinking about the terrible irony of me criticizing a woman’s voice (the blog post). I was thinking in terms of Pleiades, looking at all the woman we can quote and what are the great things they’re saying (especially, and including, the women who just spoke in conference).

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, jes. Just for fun, what was your favourite women’s quote from conference?

      Mine was when Sister Esplin quoted another woman:

      ‘Speaking at a BYU devotional, Sister Sondra D. Heaston asked: “What if we could really see into each other’s hearts? Would we understand each other better? By feeling what others feel, seeing what others see, and hearing what others hear, would we make, and take, the time to serve others, and would we treat them differently? Would we treat them with more patience, more kindness, and more tolerance?”’

  5. Moss says:

    Whenever I give a talk or a lesson I make an effort to include three things: (at least) one quote from a latter-day female general officer, (at least) one scripture story about a woman, and I try to tie- whatever my topic may be- the whole thing back to our Savior.

    These patterns are tough to change- we’re all so familiar with stories about men and quotes from men because it dominates our culture. Representation matters, so it is crucial to talk about these things because they just are not going to improve without effort.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, Moss!

    • Bitherwack says:

      True. The nice thing is that the internet is on our side. It makes this kind of digging a lot easier. Now it is possible to make sure this kind of content becomes more easily accessible.

      • Bitherwack says:

        I stand corrected. There it is! I’m just noticing Pleiades’ comment above… and am bowled away! Thank you so much for making it ‘exponentially’ easier to find sister generated content for talks.

        gcsisters.wordpress.com

        What a treasure house! This is going to be my first go to place before preparing a talk.
        More people definitely need to know about this. I hope GCsisters gets so much traffic
        they can’t handle it all.

  6. Emily says:

    Thanks for the shout out for General Conference Sisters, Pleiades! Our frustration with the lack of women’s voices (and the difficulty in finding talks by women to quote in our lessons and talks) is what led us to create that website, to hopefully make it easier for people to find and access applicable gospel quotes by women and thus increase women’s voices. We just finished updating it to include this most recent conference.

    The only quotes by men that we include are when they are quoting women, speaking about a specific woman in the scriptures or in Church history, or telling a story about a specific woman. We also included a brief history of women speaking in General Conference.

    Immersing myself in the words of women speaking about the gospel has been a great spiritual and learning experience for me.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you Emily, and thank you for creating that site! I know one of your challenges is in the parameters that you have set up- which is to quote from female General Conference speakers.

      I think there are a great variety of LDS women’s resources- the BYU Education week speeches, BYU devotionals, the Exponent magazine and books, books, books! Hopefully more LDS women from these sources will be quoted in general conference by men and women so that the wisdom of our sisters can be better shared throughout the church.

      • Emily says:

        Thanks, Spunky! We debated for a while on setting those parameters but ended up limiting it to General Conference talks because we wanted to reach the widest possible audience and we figured even the most conservative, TBM members couldn’t object to quotes from General Conference!

        And you’re absolutely right that there are so many other great sources – just Chieko Okazaki’s books alone are worth their weight in gold.

    • Bitherwack says:

      Is there some way for us to look up by speaker’s name as well as by topic? I was looking for something that I heard in Stake Conference quoting Sis. Okazaki, and thought it might have been easier to find using her name instead of through the topics.

  7. Em says:

    A couple of years ago I gave a talk in which I included the long quote by sister OKazaki about the atonement in which she lists the many female experiences that the Savior understands, four instance miscarriage PMS and so on. After I gave the talk I had multiple women come up to me and express how they felt hearing that. That at first It Jolted and shocked to hear so many female specific examples without any that were tailored to men. Then they expressed that it was OK and they really liked it. I think that that is telling that when we focus on the experience of Women without throwing a bone to men it is shocking and noticeable, but no one thinks twice about a talk that is entirely about and geared toward men and women are just supposed imagine themselves into the doctrine.

    My unscientific feeling was that male leaders have been crocheting female examples more than in the past although still clearly not in an equitable way. The fact that it is noticeable any time a woman is used as a voice of authority also tells us quite a bit about the patterns we are used to. I am hopeful that overtime with conscious effort this pattern will continue to change for the better .

    • Em says:

      I am sorry about so many silly typos. I meant quoting not crocheting. I am dictating while a baby crawls all over me that’s my excuse

      • spunky says:

        I love that you shared that quote from Sister Okazaki and it had such an impact, Em. I have a habit of searching for quote by LDS women regarding infertility and birth control. Those are few are far between, and from what I have found- have never been addressed at General Conference.

        Your “unscientific feeling” is probably more accurate than this post can express. Thank you!!

  8. Bitherwack says:

    I think we men can and should fix this imbalance by consciously and purposefully quoting women, relating experiences that happened to women, and using scriptures about women as often as possible.

  9. Katharine says:

    this reflects the idea of men seeing themselves as “a generic person” but women and their experiences as something “other”. it will take conscious effort to get past that as a church culture.
    i would be interested to see how this has changed in the last 20 years or so, as I do believe we have made progress; particularly this year compared to last. or maybe that is in my hopeful imaginings.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment,Katharine. As a student of Masculinity Studies, I agree with the conceptualization of men (not just church men) perceiving their experience to be more universal than individual. I think this is one of many reasons why feminism is so important– we are really teaching everyone that their voice is important, including men. The 20 year change concept is of interest to me, too!

  10. Lily says:

    We are extra hard on the women that speak. We make fun of the “primary voice”, the subject matter they choose, and how they look. I am not sure this helps. Although I was not a fan of Sister Beck’s Mothers Who Know, I must say, I would be hard pressed to find a man’s talk that was as subject to as much scorn.

    • spunky says:

      I agree that we are critical of the women who speak– possibly because so few women speak, so we want them to be the best women to represent and teach us.

      However, this post is not trying to critique women who speak, but rather to address the limited times women are quoted by *men* or women. The Mothers Who Know talk was hard- and I think that is the reason why– as General Relief Society president, the talk dismissed childless women as unknowing and inessential. My only way to explain that doozie of a talk was to presume that she thought that the women of the church took Sheri Dew’s earlier “Are We Not All Mothers,” as the epitome of an female inclusive recipe for womanhood. I honestly felt bad for Beck at the time, but I also did not feel impressed to ever take any advice from her, as she seemed to think so little of me as a childless woman. In the end, I am not sure there is a comparative male talk that so swiftly excluded so many of it’s intended audience.

  11. Mike R. says:

    I would love to hear more women speak, and more women quoted, and more women’s experiences shared. But it seems incredibly reductive and depersonalizing to say that Esplin’s talk “utterly excluded the female voice” and “was not sharing the perspective, testimony or witness of any woman” because she only quoted men. I wasn’t there, so maybe I’ve got this wrong, but didn’t she choose what words to say? As she spoke those words, didn’t they become her perspective, her testimony, and her witness, even if her mode of expression primarily involved quoting men? Didn’t her talk reflect her prayers for spiritual guidance, her priorities, and her own thoughtful preparation? Again, I would love it if she had quoted women, or referred more to her own experience, but I have to disagree with the idea that “she may as well have not have attended the meeting at all” — as if she didn’t use her own intellect or agency, but was just a pipe that someone else stuffed quotes in for them to fall out the other end indiscriminately.

    • spunky says:

      It’s hard to specify the details of Esplin’s talk because (so far as I know) it is not available for replay, so I am sorry for the poor choice of example.

      That being said, there is some speak that the women of the church have to have their talks “approved” by male leaders for General Conference and other general presentations. Because of this, I am wary about the talk being wholly reflective of her. And to be honest, she seemed more nervous than I have ever seen her in other speeches.

      But presuming she did write the talk independently, I compare her speaking style to President Monson. Monson quoted a bit from Alice in Wonderland’s Chesire Cat in last conference– but he followed Lewis Carroll’s quote with his own admonition to : “Unlike Alice, we know where we want to go, and it does matter which way we go, for the path we follow in this life leads to our destination in the next life. May we choose to build up within ourselves a great and powerful faith which will be our most effective defense against the designs of the adversary—a real faith, the kind of faith which will sustain us and will bolster our desire to choose the right. Without such faith, we go nowhere. With it, we can accomplish our goals.”

      Esplin’s words contained little to none of her own thesis or follow up. I don’t disregard her testimony- but as the only female in the line-up for speaking, I sought her as a source of female voice. Was that not why she was asked to speak– to add a female voice to the conference? In the end, I want to quote her– not her quoting Bednar — as the token voice for women. It didn’t happen.

      It was a bloke’s BBQ, not a group potluck.

  12. Kmd says:

    I have been making an effort the past few years to quote women when I speak or teach. It’s hard to find quotes on some topics. I appreciate any effort to make these quotes and ideas more accessible.

    • Emily says:

      Thank you for your efforts, Kmd! Check out our website, General Conference Sisters, at gcsisters.wordpress.com – hopefully, it will make the job easier for you. If there are any particular topics you are having a hard time finding quotes for, let us know and we’ll do our best to dig some up.

  13. Darwin says:

    Doctrine and Covenants Section 28 verses 1,2,3 and 7 explain the necessity of “quoting men”:

    1 Behold, I say unto thee, Oliver, that it shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given.

    2 But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.

    3 And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church.

    7 For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead.

    Women do not have that. Thus men will and must always be quoted.

    “‘Brother Brigham I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.’ Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘… those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. …’ When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation, ‘Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.” Conference Report, October 1897, p. 22.

    Even when women speak by the Spirit, they are speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost, a MALE member of the Godhead.

  1. May 14, 2016

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