How Would Americans Feel if Their Elected Officials Were Picked the Same Way Relief Society Leaders Are?
With all the mayhem in Washington DC happening right after a new senate and congress was seated (and with a new president set to be sworn in next week), I’ve been thinking a lot about how our female representation works in the church. Politics are crazy right now, but at least I know that the people representing my state in the federal government were chosen by the voice of the majority here, and that I was allowed to have a say in that.
On the other hand, when it comes to my church and relief society representation at high levels, I don’t have any contribution or control over that, and the number of leaders who are female like me are not represented equally at any level.
You see, in the United States government, states with larger populations are given considerably more representation in congress, which makes logical sense to me – the more people there are in one place, the more of them you invite to the table to represent their interests in decisions that directly affect them. With two senators per state, they’re also guaranteed a voice in the capitol, regardless of size. Yet do we do that in church councils, with the representation of women?
No, we definitely do not. Women are 50 percent of the population, yet we regularly fill up between 10 and 25 percent of seats at stake and ward councils, and as low as 0 to 15 percent on general councils. Throughout the history of the church, many committees and meetings have been for priesthood holders only (such as the Council on the Disposition of Tithes, or Repentance and Church Membership Councils), and others have recently invited only one single woman on to them (such as the Priesthood and Family Council or Missionary Executive Council). This wouldn’t work well for a fair representative government, and I don’t think it works ideally anywhere, especially not in a church that affects our daily lives so intimately.
Frustratingly, there are also no women in positions of true authority in the church. General authorities are only men. While we do have female leaders and female general officers, nobody actually reports to say, the stake relief society president. The ward relief society president reports to the bishop, who reports to the stake president, who reports on up the chain to exclusively men. The stake relief society president is there to do things such as plan the annual stake relief society luncheon, provide encouragement and moral support to ward relief society presidencies (the selection of which she had no participation in), visit ward conferences, and… I’m not sure exactly what else. With those luncheon planning responsibilities under her belt, she’s literally the most powerful woman in the entire stake. (To be clear, this is not to downplay the amount of work that a stake relief society president does – which is immense – but rather to point out her lack of authority to make exclusive final decisions for the women in her stake without priesthood oversight or veto power.)
Despite these major issues of underrepresentation and lack of authority, what’s really catching my attention in the midst of political unrest is the fact that these few women in leadership roles are not chosen by the women they will (kind of) be in a leadership position over. Rather, they are hand selected by the men that will be in charge of them.
What if the federal government worked this way? Would anyone feel truly represented? What if the president of the United States came to each state, spent some time getting to know the constituents, then picked on his own a couple senators and representatives to take back to Washington D.C. with him? Once back in the Capitol, I don’t think many people would feel satisfied by him saying, “Look, I brought some people from your state that I carefully chose to represent you, and that means I’m getting plenty of input from you guys!”.
I think people would argue back, “Mr. President, you picked a submissive, unopinionated senator who thinks you’re super awesome, will always agree with you, and supports your decisions without exception, so….how does that represent us? Aren’t they just there to come back and report to us what YOU decided to do?”
The president might reply (if he sounds at all like some church members I know), “Uggh, you people are never happy! You could live in North Korea or Afghanistan or somewhere that doesn’t even care what your state thinks! You should be grateful we work so hard to include you at all by flying your representatives all the way out here.”
When it’s organized like this, how is the Relief Society a great “women’s organization” if the men in charge pick all of our leaders for us, then decide unilaterally exactly how much they will/will not seek input from any of them before setting our policies, writing our lesson manuals, visiting teaching messages, and giving the keynote addresses at all of our conferences? How often are lessons on Sunday the teachings of past general relief society presidents (never), compared to past male general authorities (years and years of “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church” comes to mind)? How many conference talks do we study given by female leaders compared to male leaders? How many times are female leaders quoted in lesson manuals compared to prophets and apostles? How are we anything on Sundays but a group of women gathering together to learn about and discuss the great things the men in our church have previously said and done?
It sounds to me like a male run organization with female advisors, that happens to only allow female members.
Beyond not choosing our female leaders ourselves, we have zero input on who the male leaders will be that do the choosing. This is not the case for men, who despite not choosing their own elder’s quorum president, do not suffer equally. When a stake president is choosing a new bishop (for example), my understanding is that he will talk to the current bishop, the high councilman from that ward, maybe bishopric counselors, high priest group leader, or whatever priesthood leadership in the ward he chooses to seek input from. (I actually wrote a whole blog post about it once HERE.) So men ARE involved in the choosing of the next bishop, who then chooses their next elder’s quorum president. Additionally, if a man is uncomfortable with the leadership choices in his ward or stake, there’s at least a possibility that he might have a turn being in charge someday and could run things differently. That will never happen for a woman.
There’s the argument that all callings come from God, so it doesn’t matter who issues them. As a woman who’s never been (and never can be, without priesthood) in a position to extend callings to anyone in the church, I don’t know firsthand how callings are chosen. I did, however, take a popular institute class years ago from a well loved teacher. One day this instructor offered us a glimpse into his experience serving as a bishop. He was open and honest and joked, “You know, I’d say about 10 percent of the time callings were pure inspiration, and the other 90 percent was just pure desperation”. Everyone laughed as he explained having a backup list of callings to offer people if they turned him down for the first one. He taught me that a bishop is often overwhelmed with the constant work of staffing a ward with ever changing volunteers, and he’s usually satisfied to reach a point of basic function, not heavenly perfection.
Because of this, a bishop will generally call reliable ward members that he feels comfortable working with into leadership positions. A relief society president is not chosen by the voice of the women in her organization, she’s chosen by the man in charge of them.
How will women’s concerns ever be directly addressed under this male-only authority structure? And how long will we continue to call the Relief Society a female led organization when it’s clearly not? Can anyone imagine the riots that would occur in the U.S. Capitol if American citizens were treated the way Latter-day Saint women are, underrepresented and unable to select their own representatives?
We’ve got to do better than we are right now, both as Americans and as Latter-day Saints – and I personally think it’s high time to let some women start leading us there.