Guest Post: Not an Addendum
Like many, I read with anticipation about the dedication of the Rome Italy temple. The many pictures and headlines in the news focused on the historic trip with all the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles together outside the state of Utah since 2002 and outside the United States for the first time. Seeing so many males in the iconic pictures, I could not help but wonder: Where was the female leadership of the church? The lack of female leadership of the church in attendance at the historic event portrays to the world that women are an addendum in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On International Women’s Day, two days before the Rome temple dedication, Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, and Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, finally made a headline; these female leaders were meeting with the First Lady of Ghana on an eleven day tour of West Africa. Sister Bingham and Sister Cordon were making important humanitarian connections, but two of the highest female leaders of the church were not included in the historic dedication of the Rome temple and the meeting with the Pope. On March 11, the church newsroom Facebook account posted another historic photo of the wives of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in front of the temple. Yes, the wives are women who sacrifice time and work incredibly hard with their husbands, but these women are not seen as spiritual leaders based on their own merits; rather, they are addenda to their husbands who are the spiritual leaders of the church. The post stated: “These women accompanied their husbands, members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for the Rome Italy Temple dedication events.” I appreciate the wives of the leaders; however, the lack of female leaders based on their own merits in attendance at the historic Rome temple dedication and the meeting with the Pope was a lost opportunity.
This lack of female leadership in the global spotlight reminded me of when I attended a regional leadership meeting with Elder Neil L. Andersen at the end of February in Utah County; the discrepancy between male and female leadership opportunities was glaringly obvious. Below is a discussion of some of the nuanced slights and unintended disrespect that concerned me.
Like most leadership conferences, there were short remarks by local leadership, all male. Each of the speakers welcomed the women and expressed joy that women were able to join in the conference. The stake presidents, bishops, and elders quorum presidents had been in a previous two-hour meeting—making the current meeting with the women an addendum. Of the seven people on the stand, only two people were women; they were only there because of a calling they received as a couple (mission president and his wife, temple president and temple matron) with their husband seen as the head of these leadership positions. Having no women on the stand without a husband portrays that women only can reach limited local leadership positions if we have a husband who is a spiritual leader.
There was a wide disparity between the platitudes and actions coming from the speakers. The leaders at this meeting continually told the women that we are strong and good examples, but, in spite of their words, we women do not have as many opportunities to be leaders. Among these platitudes, Elder Andersen remarked, “Sisters: Nothing really happens unless you are involved.” The congregation laughed; I did not find this statement funny. The question must be asked: Why are the sisters needed to get callings done? If responsibilities are left incomplete, we need to consider ways to share the workload, motivate the people responsible with clearer purpose, or find more suited positions for them. If more leadership callings were created for women, the load on the male leadership could be lightened, and men could fulfill more responsibilities of the divine calling of fatherhood.
The opening remarks were followed by an hour-long question and answer period. An equal number of males and females asked the questions, but answers came from mostly male leaders. The mission president and his wife and the temple president and temple matron all answered questions, but in both cases the husband spoke first and commented about their wives having the best ideas. These compliments were brushed off by the sisters themselves—shaking their heads and denying it. The wives did not own up to their own spiritual strength and leadership abilities. They acted as if they were only an addendum to their husbands, not a spiritual leader of their own standing. Elder Andersen directly asked the other male leaders to answer specific questions, but the women gave brief answers as an addendum to answers already given. Women, we need to acknowledge our own spiritual leadership abilities, our own power, if we hope to see more opportunities open to us.
Twice during the question period, Elder Andersen opened the discussion to the congregation asking for our thoughts as local leaders. One Relief Society president of a Spanish ward gave a beautiful answer, but that was the last time a woman from the congregation was given the opportunity to give counsel. Elder Andersen specifically asked to hear twice from a bishop and twice from a stake president—allowing any man to raise his hand regardless of his calling, since the speakers did not know all the local bishops and stake presidents. By asking for people from these specific callings, Elder Andersen cut women out of the discussion and implied that women were merely addenda. With half the audience censored due to gender, Elder Andersen limited the perspectives shared.
When it came to the end of the hour, the leaders asked for one final question which came from a young women’s president. She asked how to better support young women in her ward whose families were going through divorce. The mission president’s wife (even that title is an addendum) jumped up to answer the question, having grown up in a family whose parents were divorced. Before she could talk, a member of the seventy said: “Oh yes, sister, take thirty seconds, then we will turn the time over to Elder Andersen.” It was disheartening that the mission president’s wife only had such a short time to express her insight that the “young women can be leaders in and a strength to their families during difficult times.” She gave a beautiful answer about young women being spiritual leaders. It was powerful; it was heartfelt; it was inspired.
After the sister’s comments, Elder Andersen asked another member of the seventy to give an additional answer. This leader also had parents who divorced, and he talked about his mother’s faith in Christ that their family of six would be able to provide for themselves. Elder Andersen asked him to add more, after the women was given only thirty seconds. The member of the seventy fumbled around to add more; then the last thirty minutes of the meeting were turned over to Elder Andersen. I was shocked that with so much time remaining in the meeting, a leader had put a time limit of thirty seconds when a woman got up to speak on her own. To add to my disbelief, Elder Andersen talked about how great the male leader’s perspective was on helping youth deal with divorce. Elder Andersen did not once mention the mission president’s wife’s answer about building young women to be spiritual leaders in their homes. Elder Andersen, again, expressed gratitude for the women for joining the conference—mere platitudes when time limits were given and a women’s inspired words were ignored.
Elder Andersen proudly declared, “If the church was turned over to the women, the church would do great, but the men would not. The men need to be in these roles to be forced to think about the things the women do naturally.” I was aghast at the narrow thinking that allowing women to thrive hurts men. Having women in leadership positions teaches young girls and boys that every person is a child of God, who has value for who she or he is as a person. Women should be valued as individuals not just for their roles as wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters. The church as a whole would instead be raised up if women held more leadership positions.
Women, we are not an addenda to our husbands. We are spiritual leaders, and we need to start acting like it. We need to build each other up and help each other reach our full potential.
Men, stop just telling women how valuable they are, but truly give women opportunities to showcase their leadership abilities. Give women more opportunities to speak without preface and on their own merits. Truly hear, acknowledge, and then apply ideas given by women.
I hope that through this discussion, women will own up to their own spiritual power and knowledge. Women will have more opportunities to speak and lead based on their own merits, not because of their husbands’ callings. Leaders will be more conscious to make words and phrases inclusive, not exclusive. We must stop perpetuating ideas that women are the only ones who get things done or that men are hurt by more women having leadership opportunities and start empowering men to embrace their divine calling of fatherhood. Women are more than an addendum: We are separate individuals who make valuable contributions. Women should not be an addendum, anymore.
Birdie is a mother of two boys, teacher, and beginning ballet student.