How Do You Feel About the Relief Society Manuals?

I was recently reading a Mormon woman’s oral history. This woman was in her seventies, and was nostalgic about the old Relief Society manuals, the ones from the 90s and before that were specifically tailored to women. They told women-centered stories, sometimes quoted from women, etc. This is in contrast to our current Teachings of the Presidents manual series which began around the year 2000. She described our current manuals as having gone through a “unisex sausage grinder.”

That phrase caught my attention. If our manuals really had gone through a unisex sausage grinder (at lease what I consider a unisex sausage grinder), I might be somewhat happy with them. But in my view, our current manuals are entirely male-centered and male-voiced. Throughout the whole manual an authoritative woman’s voice is almost never quoted (I say almost because I vaguely remember one time when a chapter quoted Eliza R. Snow.)

What would a good unisex manual look like? To me, it would quote significantly from women as well as men. It would focus on stories in scriptures that feature women as well as men. It would ask questions and describe situations/stories/ etc. that reflect women’s concerns and experiences as well as men’s.

How do you feel about our current manuals? What can be done to improve them? What do you like about them?


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

You may also like...

24 Responses

  1. Mhana says:

    I do not love our manuals, but I really didn’t like the “back to basics” we had for the last two years. Trying to teach something meaningful to a room full of long-time members out of a book intended for novices was awful. Either you ignore the instruction to stick FAITHFULLY to the manual, or you get the stink-eye and complaints from your resident manual acolyte, who always reads the lesson and reads YOU the riot act if you drift off-message. The Presidents of the Church manual has the advantage of introducing you to human beings who we revere as prophets and letting you know more about what they focused on and taught. I can only assume that once this cycle is over, in another ten years, we will have a twenty-year cycle in which both the men and women exclusively study the teachings of the General Relief Society Presidents, their lives and their experiences. Ha ha ha ha. I agree that this is overwhelmingly, painfully male. I think it would be better if they did a combo, where you also learned about the GRSP(s) who were in at the same time. Unfortunately I came to Relief Society in 2002 so I don’t know anything about the old manuals.

  2. sally says:

    I mourn for our old RS curriculum. We need that type of curriculum back. It was sisterhood teaching sisterhood and male quotes were also in it. I know many sisters who felt it was RS that anchored them as they were new members and I don’t feel that happens as much as it did due to the change in curriulum.

  3. anita says:

    Since we’re studying Daughters of My Kingdom, I wish the men would too! We spend so much time listening to males, reading manuals about male prophets, seems like they could spend a year with DOMK.

    • cindyd says:

      The prophets words are for everyone. I think we can see the point of them and internalize them, whether a woman or a man. They are certainly doctrinally sound.

  4. sartawi says:

    There are many, many reasons I do not like the “presidents of the church” manuals. I taught RS for 2 years from those manuals. I dreaded every lesson. My saving grace is that when I was teaching and desperately searching for some inspiration, that is when I discovered The Exponent. Thank you!

    The number one reason I don’t care for this format is that by studying one president of the church’s teachings, it excludes 99.9% of all great teachings by women. That alone is very frustrating.

    The second reason is that the way the manuals are set up is very disjointed. A person may have had many great quotes about a particular topic throughout their life, but stringing them all together, one after another, into a lesson creates great confusion, redundancy, and is completely disjointed. One quote does not flow into the next. The lessons aren’t really lessons, as much as just many words of wisdom to simply read and repeat. A lesson should be a topic, with a few supporting quotes, and a lot of room for teaching, analyzing, and introspection.

    I wonder how the men would feel about priesthood lessons being taught exclusively from manuals with quotes by previous RS general presidents? I’m guessing there would be a bit of an uproar. I think it’s time we start roaring about this.

  5. Rachel says:

    I appreciate learning about past presidents and what they cared about, but do feel like something is missing when, in an all women’s meeting, we only talk about men, and read sources from men. I would warmly welcome manuals about (or at least including) the General Relief Society Presidents, as well as others with women’s and men’s voices.

    I think the Daughters book was a good beginning, but have sadly not seen it implemented in my ward (to any degree). One other somewhat troubling thing, is that in my particular ward, any time the RS presidency has the opportunity to choose their own topic, they choose a talk from a General Authority, meaning that even on these Sundays when they could include messages explicitly from women, they choose to ignore them.

    • sartawi says:

      I have noticed the same thing. Our fourth Sunday is always from the latest general conference Ensign, but I have yet to hear the teacher spotlight a talk that was given by a woman. I sometimes feel that we, as a RS (speaking generally), often throw ourselves under the bus when we have a great opportunity to rise above the patriarchal tendency and share the wisdom of some truly great women.

      • namakemono says:

        In our ward (stake?) the 4th Sunday Conference issue talk is chosen by the Stake President, and PH study the same one as RS as far as I know.

      • sartawi says:

        Ours is actually chosen by the RS president on the 4th Sunday, so I guess each stake/ward does it differently. But it always has to be from the latest general conference edition.

      • cindyd says:

        The Daughter’s in my Kingdom is to be used as a reference no matter what the manual is that week. The 4th Sunday lesson is supposed to be chosen by the stake or the Bishopric. That’s according to the handbook of instruction.
        We have had SEVERAL Lessons from women leaders included in the 4th Sunday.
        Our Stake council listens to the women leaders that sit on that council.

  6. EM says:

    I don’t like them for RS, I think the men should have the prophet manuals. I loved and taught from the RS books from the 70’s. As a side note. The TFOT lessons – 4th Sunday, has always been chosen by the bishopric, which irritated me. I made up my own schedule from July to December and handed it to the bishop and told him these are the talks we’d be teaching from; he said “fantastic, the Priesthood will too”. I then said – pushing the envelope a little further – that we don’t need men to choose our topics and as women were quite capable of choosing our own lessons and will be doing so from now on.

    I’ve found the older women have a tendency to “read teach” from the manual, which drives me insane, so now I’ve instructed them to choose a couple of items from the lesson material and open the topic for general discussion. Gradually it’s becoming a huge success, and we’re noticing our RS attendance has increased. Women have a lot to say and they need to be heard.

    • Denise Flower says:

      I miss the old type RS manuals too. They were wonderful. However, being on our RS presidency and having to teach quite a lot – we are short of teachers at the moment – I always use the basis of the lesson and expand it to suit my class, which is primarily of older sisters and long-term members too. As they’ve been through the cycle of RS lessons over decades some of them, me included, it’s really necessary to put a new and fresh slant on the lessons. As I said, I take the basic message bones and then work outwards, I never just read from the manual large swathes of text, a really quick way to lose your audience!! I also teach a lot from Daughter in my Kingdom. This is a great source of material.

  7. April says:

    The old lesson books were formatted like actual lessons. The current ones are more like quote books. I like that a skilled teacher can do any lesson activity she would like and since there are so many quotes to choose from, she can largely choose the focus of her own lesson, excluding those not relevant for her class. I dislike that since the manual offers no guidance about teaching activities, these lessons can be downright painful when presented by an unskilled teacher.
    As you point out, since the manual only quotes church presidents by design, there are no female voices in the manual. This is sadly ironic for an all -women class like RS, and also bothersome for priesthood, since it reinforces to both men and women that real doctrine only comes from male mouthpieces.

  8. April says:

    Since all quotes come from a now deceased prophet, but offer no comparisons to more recent teachings and very little historical context, they encourage reintroduction of outdated ideas. For example, the current manual has a 1930s quote about how men and not women are created in the image of God, with no mention that more recent teachings are that both genders are in the image of God.

  9. I have to disagree. I was never so grateful as when they changed the format. In the old format, there were at least 2 weeks a month that I ran crying from the Relief Society room. I have never been married, I have no children, I can count the dates I’ve had on one hand. The old manuals were designed for those that had children and husbands and had probably gotten married before they were 20!

    Thanks to whoever designed these manuals which are designed to teach the values of the Church and not so much tell women to define themselves by their family situation.

    • sartawi says:

      I agree with the change to focus on values and doctrine in the church, but having only male perspectives on those topics is disheartening for me.

      I also agree with April that a skilled teacher can do great things with the quotes in the lesson. Unfortunately, many teachers called, including myself, are not skilled teachers, so a book of disjointed quotes is very difficult to work with. That’s why I landed here at The Exponent. Thanks for helping me seem like a skilled teacher, and put into words the thoughts that are in my head!

      I think a manual could be made to be more cohesive, apply to issues we face today, regardless of our family and personal life stages, incorporate teachings and words of wisdom throughout church history from both men and women, and also offer a little more guidance toward lesson preparation.

      That sounds like a tall order, but I think it would really be quite simple, if those things were kept in mind during the development of the manual. We have had some great prophets, for sure, and their words are important, but they are not the only important teachings that have been given on these topics by great leaders, both female and male.

  10. Caroline says:

    Thank you for the comments, everyone.

    I think some great pros and cons have been voiced. I particularly appreciate Kirsten’s comment that the previous women centered lessons had the potential of alienating women whose lives haven’t followed the stereotypical Mormon woman path. And I love April’s point about how these lessons do give skilled teachers the freedom to be creative and focus on empowering and uplifting parts of the lessons and ignore parts that are troubling.

    However, some great cons have been voiced as well. I too think it’s problematic that these lessons are a mishmash of statements, taken totally out of context. And of course, the absence of women’s voices drives me nuts.

    I would love it if the men and women used DOMK for a year! And Sartawi, I’m so glad these lessons helped you find Exponent.

  11. Meagan says:

    I just want to say I am so disappointed in the content of this discussion. I think that the open ridicule of the priesthood authority and the teachings in the manuals we receive from prophets of God is sad is disheartening.

    I personally have been teaching in RS for around a year now. The lack of women voices has never even occurred to me, because that is not what is important. What our current Prophet wants us to do is focus on teachings of the Prophets who are the only ordained mouthpieces of God. How can anyone say that every single one of these principles can not be applied to the lives of women? Our lessons have been full of learning and the spirit and that is because of the beautiful and profound messages the sisters in our ward have shared through their own experiences with gospel principles.

    Any time we choose to ridicule a principle/method of the gospel we miss an opportunity to grow in the way the Lord wants us to grow.

  12. Marciea says:

    @Meagan……I totally agree. If you choose to look at it negatively your lesson and the way you approach it will be negative, and the spirit cannot teach that way. If you choose to look at it positively your lesson and the way you approach it will be positive, and that opens the door for the spirit to minister and tell you what to say and what to include or exclude. This isnt about women against men and not getting enough representation. I personally have never even thought of it, or cared for that matter. If I trust that people are called of God then I go with the flow and sustain. I am a Relief Society teacher, and have been through 3 manuals now. And when my Bishop asked me for 2 months in a row talk to the women in RS about 2 General Conference talks this past conference that was spoken in the Priesthood Session, I was floored b/c I didnt understand where it was relevant to us. But I put my pride aside and humbled my self and trusted him that there was a reason to his requests. I pulled him aside and asked for guidance and his reasons behind wanting us to hear not only 1 but 2 lessons from priesthood session back to back. And he told me what his reason were behind it, and that he was thankful that I trusted him, and that he was thankful that I asked. He had never had ANYONE ask him before why he choose a particular talk for a lesson. But the bigger picture that I didnt see at the time that he instructed me to teach it was opened to my vision when I asked. I have to remember that these men have the keys and with that they lead and guide. I do not get revelation for the church. So I have to trust when instructed b/c they can see the Masterpiece whereas I’m only able to see the postcard picture.

  13. Ziff says:

    Megan and Marciea, I find it disheartening that you all are so devoted to the principle of in the infallibility of the curriculum department that they can’t stand a frank (but really pretty mild) discussion of strengths and weaknesses of different manuals.

  14. Sheila says:

    I have to admit that I can see both sides. But I miss the old lessons that gave us a different focus each week, cultural, spiritual, homemaking, etc. I understand that we don’t want to alienate any sister but we don’t want to become like our society had, afraid to say anything for fear of being political incorrect.
    Not every lesson will be personally geared toward every sister. As far as using quotes from mostly men, that doesn’t bother me. I think that almost all of our priesthood leaders understand that they are in their positions because they had great mothers and respect their wives. I have never heard any leader say anything but great praises for his wife, mother, sister or daughter.
    For me the manuals need some adjusting but I am only one person. They have millions to think about.

  15. Sophie BOIXEL (from France) says:

    I feel like the manuals are not adapted to all women in RS…especially to single women….in our branch we can’t have a class for single adults and my sister and I really don’t feel good in RS classes….also, the lessons are not adapted to europeans….it’s always based on families from utah but it’s not adapted to us in europe ….some things that people do in america are not possible in europe….
    The lessons are good but not adapted to everyone and it’s can be very boring when you’re not concerned by a subject!
    also, I hated this book we had back to the basics….it was aweful! probably the most boring lessons I had in RS!!!

  16. KK says:

    I think Meagan and Marciea are right that you can find ways to apply the lessons by men to anyone. It’s a skill you kind of have to develop, being a woman in the church, and even more so if you’re not “typical”. So yes, you can get something from it. I don’t think they’re irrelevant. You can learn empathetically by imagining yourself in another person’s shoes.

    But let’s apply that idea to both sexes. If the church is constantly learning from and about men, when do men get the opportunity to learn empathetically about women? When do they get to hear about women’s experiences and try to imagine how they would feel if they were in that situation? Rarely. They might hear two women’s voices during all of conference. Do they pay attention to what those two women say or do they think they can get up and get a sandwich because the women don’t have any prophetic authority?

    We hear often that women are so spiritual or so great at getting things done or so patient or so nurturing or what have you. So wouldn’t it be beneficial to men to hear how women’s experiences taught them those qualities? Wouldn’t hearing about the blessings of motherhood help men be better fathers? Wouldn’t hearing about the ways the Relief Society serves help men better serve in their priesthood quorums?

    And for women, though they can certainly gain from hearing about men’s experiences, how much could it help them to know that a woman went through a very similar experience and came through it without bitterness and hate? That another woman held the same calling she did and was transformed by it?
    I’m not saying we should only teach about the RS presidents, ever. I’m saying we should mix it up more, so everyone can learn from each other.

  1. March 30, 2015

    […] to specialize this way, but if you already feel satiated on stories of Mormon masculinity from Sunday meetings, Freetown may not be the best way to spend your entertainment […]

Leave a Reply to Kirsten Crippen Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.