Challenging the Internalized Sexism of “Primary Voice”

This weekend’s General Conference is rumored to be “historic.”

One thing will be quite historic: it is the first time that the General Women’s session replaces the Priesthood session on Saturday night of conference weekend.  If we still get 1-2 women speakers in the other general sessions, minus the additional men that would usually speak at the Priesthood session, this conference may be the most equitable and record-breaking ratio of men to women speakers we’ve ever had over a conference weekend.

With the likelihood to hear from more women than usual, how do you plan to receive their words? With eagerness and gratitude? By using their 10 minutes of talk time to get a snack and use the bathroom? Half-listen while checking messages?

Have you ever tuned out a female speaker at General Conference due to the timbre, pitch, delivery style, tone, cadence, or emotionality of her voice, regardless of the content of her message? Have you ever criticized a woman’s speaking style by calling it “Primary Voice?”

“Primary Voice” is a uniquely Mormon insult to a woman’s voice type, timbre, tone quality, cadence or delivery pattern meant as a critique that she is addressing an audience of adults as though she were teaching a primary class full of children.  Though the insult is sometimes directed at male speakers, it’s almost always hurled at female speakers in general conference or other church meetings.  This type of sexist insult stems from the same place as other female speakers who are criticized as being “too shrill, too harsh, too monotone” too, too, too, too….

Discriminatory preferences and biases for the voice types and styles of female public speakers, and discounting their message as a result, is a symptom of internalized sexism. Women and men who seek to amplify and support the voices of women in leadership must stop using “Primary Voice” as an insult to our female general auxiliary leaders.

Delivery style, cadence pattern and level of emotionality in a public speech, such as an address in General Conference, could be changed or adapted with instruction from a vocal coach, whereas timbre quality or the pitch range of a woman’s speaking voice register is not something that can be adjusted without doing damage to her vocal folds.

Here is a diagram of the average pitch ranges according to vocal type:


A quick sampling (not scientific) of a few female general authorities suggests the following women fitting into vocal categories with naturally occurring spoken pitch at the bottom of their vocal ranges:

Sister Jean Bingham, current RS General President: Soprano/Mezzo Soprano, spoken range B3-E4

Jean Stevens, first woman to pray in General Conference: Soprano, spoken range C4-E4

Elaine Dalton, former YW General President: Soprano/Mezzo Soprano, spoken range C4-D4

Cheiko Okasaki, former RS General Presidency: Soprano/Mezzo Soprano, spoken range C4-D4

Ann Dibb, former YW general presidency: Soprano/Mezzo Soprano, spoken range B3-E4

Mary Ellen Smoot, former RS General President: Mezzo-Soprano, spoken range A3-Bb3

Sharon Eubank, Current RS Presidency: Alto, spoken range G3-A3

Bonnie Oscarson, former YW General President: Alto, spoken range F3-A3

Julie Beck, former RS General President: Alto, spoken range E3-F3


The average woman’s voice is a second soprano, not an alto.

Expecting a woman with a naturally Soprano voice type to speak in the register of a Alto is not only unrealistic, but ultimately harmful to her voice overall.  Preference for lower pitched voices may be an aesthetic inclination, or it may be indicative of lingering sexist patterns about what features make a voice authoritative or respectable.  A woman should not have to modulate the naturally phonating pitch of her voice in order to be seen as knowledgeable or wise. Some women are born with naturally high voices, others with naturally lower pitched voices. We should not require a woman to change her voice in order to be heard as more credible.

From this article on sexism in public speaking: “Our culture has for so long presented us with leaders as men—with masculine qualities like dominance, lower vocal registers, and size—and we have internalized these leadership theories. We associate certain behaviors, personality characteristics, and physical traits with leaders that are stereotypically male. The qualities we expect of women—being caring, nurturing, accommodating—are at odds with those we associate with leadership. We expect women to be congruent with their gender, and when they are not, we respond negatively.”

As seen with using “Primary Voice” as an insult, could it be that our associations of women as nurturers is affecting how we discredit them in the public sphere as theologians and leaders?

For male and female speakers alike, expressing preferences for delivery style, timing, cadence patterns and content should be critiqued as such, without casting unfair dispersions on a vocal type, pitch or timbre quality.  In critiquing the delivery style of men versus women, we should keep in mind that none of our general leaders are trained rhetoricians, and that the male speakers typically have decades more experience speaking in general conference than the female speakers.

If our female speakers had as many opportunities to speak in general conference year after year as the men do, and their abilities to address a global church in front of a massive live audience improved each year, would we still be tuning them out because of “Primary Voice?”

Supporting women in leadership means listening to their voices and hearing their ideas with credibility and respect. It means programming their speeches in your lessons, quoting from them in your own talks.

This weekend as you listen to a more-than-ever-before number of female speakers, challenge yourself to put aside sexist tendencies to prefer certain vocal types, styles or ranges, and listen to the content of their messages, the clarity of their ideas, and the insights into the wisdom of their character.  And please, strike the sexist insult “Primary Voice” from your vocabulary altogether.


Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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7 Responses

  1. Olivia says:

    Yessssssss! Thank you! This is SO fascinating and so needed!

    I also want to shout out the wonderful podcast The Vocal Fries who have been rocking my world every week as I learn about forms of linguistic discrimination I had never thought about, from accents to grammar to, of course, “vocal fry.”

  2. Wondering Why says:

    I have never minded their pitch. They speak fast sometimes, but who can blame them – they get a shorter time than most of the men.

  3. Niklas says:

    I have never equated “primary voice” solely with the timbre or pitch. I see it more as an issue of rhythm and style. I think Alison Moore Smith got it best in her blog post at Times and Seasons:

    “While thinking about it again this morning, it occurred to me for the first time (I know, I’m slow—and thus probably do need the Primary voice…) that the women aren’t using a “Primary voice” at all. They are, generally speaking, emulating the male “General Conference authority voice.” We are accustomed to hearing men speak in the old-style oratory voice, with the odd, mid-sentence pauses, and the plodding emphasis. But hearing the same speaking style in a higher range is far less common. Being so unfamiliar, it puts us back in a place of openly evaluating the style—and noting the awkwardness of it in contrast to the typical, modern, conversational style.”

  4. marcella says:

    Yes, I agree with Niklas – to me Primary Voice is that sing song rhythm, not the pitch. Some of the men are so monotone with pauses in odd places that I struggle to focus on them too because that is hard for me to listen to. Again, not the pitch but the cadence.

  5. MDearest says:

    Thank you for calling out this form of disrespect. Regardless of how we identify it, we know it when we hear it — and I know it well, and looked down my snobbish nose at women who spoke that way. Until I worked closely with a RSP who spoke with classic Primary voice, and was a formidable combination of brains and charity. (Also a model of efficiency, which I loved.) She singlehandedly revised my erroneous attitude about this vocal affect, and helped me see the humanity of people more clearly. Especially the humans for whom this is their natural voice.

    • Liz L says:

      I totally agree that we should not downplay the messages of women by focusing on their voices, but if this is a natural vocal affect, isn’t it strange that nearly all the women who speak at conference have it? The fact that we can observe a noticable pattern in the speakers and that there is a lack of diversity in women’s vocal affect at conference suggests this vocalization is more than just “natural” and represents some strong socialization (and this expectations) about what Mormon women should sound like and the patriarchal structures in place that favor certain women’s voices over others.

  1. October 5, 2018

    […] have so few opportunities, we should be attentive to every woman that speaks at General Conference. Belittling the voices of female General Authorities (literally or symbolically) tells women we don’t value their experiences and […]

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