Guest Post—Calling More Women to Speak at General Conference: A Response to the Office of the First Presidency
By Katie Rich
It was a typical evening in November 2019: I was calling my children to the table for dinner as my husband arrived home, carrying the mail. He kissed me and handed me a letter, his eyebrows raised. Immediately, my hands began shaking as I opened a letter from The Office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I knew the letter would be in response to one I had sent to President Nelson expressing my desire for more women to speak in General Conference.
For the past three years, I have written one letter a year to the president of the Church on this topic. My letters have each been a bit different, but they express my hope that in our largest mixed-gender meetings, members can have the opportunity to hear from the experiences, teachings, and testimonies of our female leaders in numbers that reflect and encourage a true partnership between women and men in the Church. I believe that when members fail to see women speaking in every session of conference, they more readily fail to see women as spiritual leaders. While it is nice to hear our leaders proclaim that the Church needs women and their voices, it is insufficient without setting the example of actually listening to women’s voices in our largest meetings.
In 2017, I received a short response to my letter letting me know that my concerns had been noted. In 2018, I received no response. On that evening in 2019, however, I received a longer, more detailed letter from a secretary to the First Presidency. I have included his letter here with his name removed to protect his privacy. I will call him Brother Secretary.
My hands did not stop shaking as I read the letter from Brother Secretary. I was grateful to have received a response at all. Surely the Office of the First Presidency receives vast amounts of mail and responding to each letter is prohibitive. I was touched to receive word that my letter had been read, my topic discussed by the First Presidency, and that the First Presidency had asked Brother Secretary to respond.
I’m responding publicly to Brother Secretary’s letter because the reasons he gives as to why more women aren’t asked to speak at conference is of public interest. Brother Secretary does not refute any of my arguments about the need and value of hearing from more women in conference, but instead focuses on issues of policy and procedure that make increasing women’s representation difficult. His letter is a clear distillation of why, under current practices, the Brethren’s hands are tied. But it is also clear that the Brethren hold the keys (pun intended) to open the door to more women speaking.
Brother Secretary’s explanation for why more women are not invited to speak focuses on three key areas: First, with rare exception, speakers at General Conference are leaders who have “authority to function throughout the entire Church,” and significantly more men serve in these positions. Second, he says it is not “practical or advisable” for the nine female General Officers to speak at every conference because they are intended to serve on a part-time basis, some while maintaining full-time employment. Third, while some suggest that the wives of General Authorities or other sisters be invited to speak, they are “not called or authorized to address the general Church.” I will address each issue in turn.
The Leadership Gender Gap
There is a clear and significant gender gap between men and women who are called as General Authorities or Officers of the Church. There are approximately 116 men who may be called to speak in General Conference when drawing from the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Presidency of the Seventy, General Authority Seventies, Presiding Bishopric, Sunday School Presidency, and Young Men’s Presidency. Compare that to the nine women who comprise the Relief Society General Presidency, Young Women General Presidency, and Primary General Presidency, and it is clear why, as Brother Secretary states, the “simple mathematics” indeed “reveal the realities of the ratios involved.”
The gender gap is stark, but in 2018, President Nelson told the sisters, “We need you! We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices.” I believe this is true and that more women speaking in General Conference is an important way to address this need. Each of the female-led organizations has a board consisting of seven women from a variety of backgrounds across the United States and around the world—women of faith who dedicate time and talent to these organizations and have testimonies of the Savior. We could expand our practice to sustain these women as general leaders of the Church under the presidencies of their respective organizations. This alone would increase the number of women formally authorized to speak from nine to thirty. The gender gap in leadership would still be significant, but the Church would immediately be able to draw from more women with a greater diversity of experience, and particularly more women of color.
A Part-Time Calling
That the female General Officers of the Church are intended to serve on a part-time basis is an interesting conundrum. The women are called to lead multi-million member, world-wide organizations without being offered the resources to allow them to do so full-time. The male General Authorities cannot really be considered the women’s counterparts, as the men are called to serve full-time and receive financial support. Local leaders serve as part-time lay ministers without pay, but this is not the case for General Authorities. Because of the Church’s lack of financial transparency, I can’t say for sure if all of the 116 men authorized to speak in General Conference receive a financial stipend, but I can extrapolate that none of the women do. Female leaders who were supporting themselves financially before their call are expected to continue to do so as they serve.
This is not a question of whether the Church has the means to financially compensate the female general officers of the Church, it is a matter of whether the church values the women’s leadership enough to do so. It is past time to extend financial resources that would allow our female leaders to serve full-time, regardless of their marital status.
Beyond the issue of withholding financial support from our female leaders, who decides whether it is “practical or advisable” for the female leaders to speak at every conference? Are the women turning down requests to speak? It is one thing for the women themselves to declare that they are stretched too thin and desire not to speak more frequently, but it is quite another for the men alone to decide it is inadvisable for the women to speak more frequently based on their part-time status. We need women’s voices. If the women are willing, then they ought to speak.
(Un)authorized to Speak
Brother Secretary dismisses the suggestion that women who are not currently called as general officers of the Church be allowed to speak in conference because they, under current policy, are “not authorized to address the general Church.”
While I would welcome the opportunity to hear from the wives of General Authorities, I understand the concern that they are not called, and suspect some would prefer not to speak in that setting. More importantly, it would be unnecessarily limiting to increase the pool of available female speakers to only the wives of male leaders, as it would exclude women who are single or whose husbands are not General Authorities. There are certainly traditions in place dictating who speaks in General Conference, but the model for Stake Conference offers some extended possibilities. For Stake Conference, some of the speakers consist of stake, regional, or general leaders, while others are spouses of leaders or are simply called from the membership of the stake. This allows for a greater range of ages and experiences to be shared in Stake Conference. These non-leadership speakers become “authorized” to speak to the stake by being asked to do so. Following the Stake Conference model at the general level brings an incredible opportunity to hear from more women (and men) from diverse backgrounds teach doctrine and share testimonies that can touch the hearts of more people.
April 2020 Session and Beyond
I was interested to hear that in the April 2020 General Conference, instead of the traditional Saturday evening Priesthood Session for men, that session will be held for all members ages 11 and up. Perhaps women are already lined up to speak in this atypical session celebrating the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. Perhaps Brother Secretary was asked to respond to my letter but was instructed not to share details of certain changes already in store that include more women speaking. President Nelson is, after all, not afraid of change. But whether it happens in April 2020 or at a later conference, I hope that we may soon never go a session without hearing from women at the pulpit.
My letter focused on the absence of women at the pulpit, but it is not only cis-gendered, heterosexual women whose voices we are missing. To paraphrase the writer Glennon Doyle, we can measure the values held by a church not by seeing who they invite to sit in the pews, but in who they invite to lead them. If we truly value women, people of color, disabled individuals, and queer individuals, we need to invite them to lead and speak and teach us what they know of the goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Like President Nelson, I believe in the power of revelation in the continuing restoration of the gospel. I believe that many great and important things are yet to be revealed. I believe that some of this will pertain to changes in the Church to move towards true partnership between all genders and a greater diversity in the leadership of the Church. I pray that policies and practices preventing women from speaking more frequently at General Conference will change so that we can all benefit from women’s leadership and testimonies of Jesus Christ.
Katie Rich is a former university writing instructor and a mom of four, based in Utah County. After several years at home with her kids, she is dipping her toes back into academia and enjoys researching the history of female ritual healings and the ways that polygamy shaped the Mormon Trail.