The Dilemma of Wanting/Ignoring Women’s Voices at General Conference

woman covering her mouthI am caught between longing and a confession.

The longing:

Ever since I began seriously considering women’s place in God’s plan, I have felt keenly the scarcity of feminine voices in my faith community. I long for more of them.

As I finish writing this post, the next General Conference weekend is just hours away. During eight hours of church-wide instruction, following precedent of recent years, two women will speak. Two.

Many of the male speakers will undoubtedly have good things to say. But this is a church that insists that gender is eternally important, with roles clearly defined for men and women. And against that ideological backdrop, a female perspective on the Gospel will not even be given the floor once per session.

This leaves me knee-deep in melancholy.

My confession:

I lack appreciation for the few female voices I do hear at the pulpit.

I want to appreciate their voices. But in years past, I’ve partially tuned them out, often because of their tone or register: a half-hushed, saccharine voice that suggests I’m four years old and must be spoken to with gentle encouragement.

Even if Mormon Sister Voice does crop up in Conference, I’m embarrassed by this—disregarding a woman’s message because of the sound of her voice. There’s nothing new about picking apart a woman’s tone or verbal tics (in or out of the church). And Sister Voice may not even be female-specific; it may just stand out when the women speak in Conference because we hear from so few of them.

Regardless, I’m stuck between longing for wise female voices in church, while being guilty of not taking seriously the limited voices I do hear.

How to bridge the divide during Conference

When one of the two women speakers stands at the Conference Center pulpit, I won’t get up to grab a snack. I’ll pay attention to her words instead of her tone. A small step.

I’m not dismissing that delivery is a vital component of public speaking. But for me, this time, I’m counteracting my long-standing dismissal of my Mormon sister’s voice by focusing on her words. If I love her talk (or hate it), I’ll let that reaction be based on the merits of what she’s actually saying, not the pitch of the voice she says it in.

Image by Swaraj Tiwari, on Unsplash

Kathy

Kathy is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ.

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23 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    This soon resonated with my experience. Ill work to be better this time around too.

  2. Cathy Cann says:

    Remember Sherri Dew, Elaine Jack, Cheiko Okazaki. These were women who used a strong, direct, professional tone, cadence and volume. They rarely used the “Sad smile”expression that seem a recent requirement, with a soft, high, lisp voice, so ultra feminine. They were straight forward, confident woman, not concerned with being a spokesmodel for a certain “brand” of Mormon woman. I long for those days.

  3. Cruelest Month says:

    I too have struggled to remove myself from the ranks of the tone police. Reading the talks given by women, aloud in my own strong confident voice has helped me to find more value in the few words spoken by women in general conference. I may have read a general conference talk by a man in my squeakiest voice just for the exercise. Tone makes a difference in my perception, but it is starting to shift. Still, I long for more stories of women and after two decades of men’s stories I dream of a Relief Society where we read and learn from the spiritual experiences of women.

  4. Patty says:

    Good point. I had problems with “sister voice” during the Women’s Conference. I appreciated the Exponent discussions of the talks that helped me see past what I had found irritating.

  5. Quimby says:

    A word in defense of sister-speak – As a child, I looked forward to hearing a member of the General Primary Presidency speak because it was the only part of Conference that felt like it was for me. While it bothers me as an adult, I try to remember the child-me who longed to be included and remembered in what wad otherwise several boring hours just for the grown-ups. Primary kids are important too; and they deserve to have at least one talk that is for them.

    • Quimby says:

      Was, not wad. Darn you tiny phone keyboard, darn you to heck!

    • spunky says:

      I agree with you, Quimby. The tone doesn’t bother me as much as the content of the talks. I find many of the content of the women’s talks lacking (and I’ll add Barbara Thompson to those with a strong voice!)

    • Violadiva says:

      You’re onto something here. My kids got really excited when I drew their attention to the Primary president for the whole world giving the opening prayer. “Is she praying for all the kids in the world, mama?”

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks for the added perspective, Quimby. This had honestly never come to mind for me before and I appreciate the invitation to think about it.

  6. Violadiva says:

    I wonder how much of the “tone” we hear from the women is related to being a rookie public speaker for an audience of 20,000+? The lesser-seasoned male leaders have this same agitated feeling to me. Among the male leaders we have tenors and basses, among the females sopranos and mezzos. I think there can be power behind any timbre with a confident delivery.
    I’d be very curious what we would come to expect from a woman’s voice if we heard her every conference for 20+ years.
    That said, listening more and better to their words is an excellent point well-taken.

    • Kathy says:

      YES. When you put it that way, I find their courage remarkable. The women in auxiliary positions only serve for a finite number of years and have fewer opportunities to speak. If they served for life as some of their male counterparts do (which I’m NOT making a case for), and if they had more regular opportunities at the pulpit, I can imagine their voices would find a more settled, confident register.

  7. Sophia says:

    Just a comment on general conference: Because I’ve been following the discussion about women’s voices in the church, I noted today that Elder Nelson quoted Eliza Snow in his talk on joy and spirituality. Judging by some of his earlier talks, I think he is aware of women’s voices not always being heard in the church. I’m glad he cares about this issue.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for this exercise. I have a voice tone that immediately goes saccharine and high when I’m nervous. I hate it and should remember that other women are dealing with the same issue, especially in a setting like General Conference.

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks for that reminder of empathy. I can imagine myself having similar voice changes if I stood in the same shoes.

  9. Allie says:

    I’m embarrassed to have non-members or investigators watch conference. We talk of a world-wide church and inclusion of women. For ONE conference it looked like we were making progress in representing the whole church. Talks given in the native tongue and women, even a black woman, saying prayer. Now, however, we have slipped back to so few women and no native language. Like I sat, incredibly embarrassing. And then to top it off the Mormon Leaks that show a rather uninformed and intolerant group of men. The one woman who was invited into their group sounded very informed and strong.

  10. Allie says:

    I’m embarrassed to have non-members or investigators watch conference. We talk of a world-wide church and inclusion of women. For ONE conference it looked like we were making progress in representing the whole church. Talks given in the native tongue and women, even a black woman, saying prayer. Now, however, we have slipped back to so few women and no native language. Like I said, incredibly embarrassing. And then to top it off the Mormon Leaks that show a rather uninformed and intolerant group of men. The one woman who was invited into their group sounded very informed and strong.

  11. KB says:

    This is a good reminder, as I have the same problem. Thank you. 🙂

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