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.

In decision making meetings, there’s often only one or two women in a sea of suits.

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.)

It was only in 2014 that female leaders were first added to the general authority chart, and they remain a very small section at the bottom of the page.

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.”

According to this excerpt from church handbook instructions, the relief society president is recommended, approved, and called by her male bishopric – not the women in her organization.

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.

A quick google search for “Relief Society classroom” yielded many images of male church leaders hanging on the walls. I was unable to find any that had general relief society presidents hanging in them.

Likewise, it’s very easy to find images online of relief society bulletin boards where every image, quote and lesson is from a male church leader.

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.

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11 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    yes, pretty jarring when you put it that way. Some days I feel optimistic but I have to be honest – after years of waiting for bigger changes (some good changes, but still just so very tiny and incremental), this problem has just caused me to disengage significantly from the Church. I am still active and I participate, but I don’t believe the Church really values my skills or leadership. As such, I’ve taken them elsewhere and just don’t feel very invested in the Church as an institution.

    I also think that women need to stop hoping for men to give them power and just take it where they can. Because only men could make these changes (since women are so incredibly disempowered in our Church), I am not holding my breath or asking permission. Carol Lynn Pearon’s excellent poem “Power” comes to mind.

    • Caroline says:

      Elisa, I love it when women seize their power and stop asking for permission. Women blessing or praying to HM are great ways to do that. It’s sad to me that there are so few ways within the institutional church setting for women to claim their power. Men have a chokehold on power within the institution, sadly.

      • Elisa says:

        agree. we haven’t had sacrament access issues during covid in our family (because I have a priesthood-holding husband), but 10/10 would have blessed the sacrament myself if I didn’t have and wanted access. Actually, I sort of did want to, but I thought that would spook my spouse a lot. It was absurd and infuriating to me that the people who were empowered to fix that problem instead just lamely suggested that women read the prayers to themselves. No thanks.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      I hate asking for permission, too – but I am way too scared to go rogue and just do my own thing, ha ha. I was part of Ordain Women in 2013 and 2014, which was so radical at the time but more along my personal style – which was to go to the people in charge and ask permission. (“Please can you pray about women getting the priesthood, President Monson?”) I never dared to just go and act like I had it all along, but I did dare stand up and ask the leaders in charge to consider giving it to us. I’m still that way. Until they officially say women can do certain things, I’d never dare do them on my own. There’d me so much judgment and drama!

      So for the sake of all the women like me who aren’t as brave as you guys, I hope things change! I’m so glad women like you are here who will just go for it. We need all of us pushing for change in different ways, together.

  2. Caroline says:

    Abby, I love your posts so much. Seeing this laid out like this is jarring and upsetting. That chart with the tiny handful of women at the bottom is just gross. It’s really sad to belong to a church that doesn’t want all my gifts, or the gifts of the many talented women around me.

    The General Relief Society presidency being cut off from local and stake Relief Societies is particularly upsetting. They should be able to lead their organizations, as they did in the past.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      What would the original Relief Society leaders even think if they saw how things were organized in 2021? Would they be okay with it? Would they be upset? How can things have gone BACKWARDS for female autonomy and leadership in the church, when it’s expanded everywhere else in the world so astronomically?

  3. Kaylee says:

    Another thing that infuriates me: Men are the ones who decide when the women in leadership callings are done with the calling. So even if a hand-selected woman was willing to go out on a limb, the men can just remove her with no consequences.

    The female general officer’s terms are so much shorter than the lifetime appointment that the men get. Every five years or so there’s a new presidency learning the job, so the women don’t have the benefit of continuity and extended experience that the men get.

    A couple years ago, our stake president asked the bishopric if they had any good suggestions for a new Stake RS president. My comment to my bishopric husband: “Wouldn’t it be novel if they asked the women who should be in charge of the women’s organization? Or better yet, just let the women organize themselves.”

    • Abby Hansen says:

      That is such a good point, and something that drives me just as nuts! I started a girl scout troop 6 1/2 years ago. I just met last night with the 6th graders, some of whom have been with me since I started the troop for them as baby kindergarteners. It has meant everything to have spent years in the “calling” (that I gave myself) as their leader. I am now feeling pretty confident about most things in my volunteer job with them, I feel good about training new leaders in my troop and continually expanding, and I feel so much love for the cool girls that I have known for years (and those who have just joined and I’ve known for months). I started from square one with just me and my daughter, and now we have over 30 girls and 10 leaders, and they range in age from 5 to 12. This project has been my baby. This troop has meant so much to me over the years. I’ve had other leaders join and be with me almost as long. I love it, and I love all of them.

      If this had been a church calling, I would’ve been released years ago. My leaders that I’m working with the plan things would’ve been released from our troop with no warning many times over. I would’ve had to take whoever the bishop gave me in exchange, whether that person really wanted to do the job or not, and we would’ve lacked consistency and stability. Running a girl scout troop compared to running say, Young Women’s groups, is such a profound difference because we are actually in charge of our organization, not a group of men who have never even participated in the program themselves.

  4. Tina says:

    The ward where I moved nine years ago had all of the RS president’s pictures hanging in chronological order above the chalkboard. It took up the width of the room and I loved it. I loved seeing so many women; some of whom I hadn’t known existed. Looking at the photos during lessons enhanced my experience in RS and gave me a connection to a larger group of female leaders. Fast forward a few years and someone in the stake RS presidency had her child’s wedding reception in that RS room. The reception photos were taken in front of that chalkboard and I heard she was pissed that her child’s reception photos included the line up of RS presidents across the top of all the photos. Our ward RS president was instructed to take them all down and put them in a random scattered arrangement on a wall in the back of the room.

    Yes, I totally agree with everything said here. We need more women leaders. It would benefit everyone; not just women. (How crazy is it that the Priesthood and FAMILY council has one woman?!) At the same time, why, why, why are women sometimes such obstacles to other women? Why did that sister use her power as a member of a Stake RS presidency to move pictures of our precious few women leaders to the back of the room?

    As for me, I was sitting in sacrament meeting about two years ago when it hit that there were opportunities for me there. So I stopped expecting to get something at church that wasn’t available to me. Doesn’t me I don’t think it should be available and it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped speaking up about this in my ward; it just means I looked elsewhere for leadership experience. I ran for president of a professional organization and that has been amazing.

    • Elisa says:

      Yes this! I wish more women would do the same. I wish more women would decide they are tired of being second class citizens and doing all the unacknowledged labor of the Church and vote with their feet – not necessarily leaving Church but taking their talents somewhere they are appreciated. Maybe then the brethren would wake up and realize they have to make changes to recruit and retain the best and brightest women.

      As it is, I don’t see that happening. They are still getting the support they need for women so why would they ever cede power?

    • Abby Hansen says:

      It’s so empowering to do something outside of the church and realize what a stark difference it is to be treated as an expert or authority on something. I remember years ago when I was working in sales (before I had kids), and I was really, really good at it. Like, I was obliterating sales records everywhere. Supervisors would have new sales reps listen in on my approach as part of their training. I got spotlighted in corporate meetings. I was making so much money it was insane. People wanted to know what I had to say and treated me as the expert and it felt SO GOOD.

      At the same time, I was in the young women’s presidency, and I went to some meeting in place of the president one day (I think it was ward council? I can’t remember!). Anyway, I was treated so differently there. Suddenly I was just the young women’s leader – who could technically have input if I raised my hand – but nobody was looking to me for answers or suggestions. I felt such a difference in how I was treated (like they expected me to be dumb and not know stuff) at church by my male leaders compared to how I was treated at work by my male bosses.

      There was an experience around the same time when some men in the ward were talking about how much money they made in front of me, and looking for new jobs but not even bothering to interview unless they would offer them a minimum amount because they were so amazing and got paid soooo much, blah blah blah. The funny thing was, I WAS MAKING MORE MONEY THAN ANY OF THEM. Way, way more! I kept thinking, “I’m right here. I am very talented and smart. I am a superstar at work. But at church, I’m just seen as the girl in charge of refreshments.”

      It was weird. I have been a stay at home mom for years, but I am so glad I had that experience as a young woman that let me know in my head forever that I am just as good and capable as those men in charge of everything at church are. As women we are so often encouraged to NOT enter the workplace and to get married and have babies young. I think it keeps us as a group from realizing how great it feels to be the one in charge and to be thoroughly, truly respected and listened to because we don’t experience in a career.

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