It’s the Message, Not the Messenger, That Matters. Or Is It?

I had a conversation recently with an elderly woman who is a dear friend of mine. We were talking about General Conference, and I asked her how she felt about the Church discontinuing the Saturday night session of Conference (which was, most recently, the Priesthood session or the Women’s session). My friend loves General Conference, probably even more than she loves Christmas, so I expected her to be a little bummed that she’d now get less of it. 

But she wasn’t. She said she’d been upset when the Church had moved the women’s meeting to the Saturday night slot (instead of the weekend before Conference) because it felt like Church leaders were “catering to the women who complain” about gender disparity in the Church. “They’re trying to make everything equal to please these insecure women,” she said. “That’s just stupid.”

I said I actually preferred having the Women’s Meeting on its own weekend because once it was moved to replace one of the Priesthood sessions, most of the time was taken up by the three male speakers from the First Presidency, and it felt like there was less time to hear from our female leaders

“Well I don’t care about that,” she said. “I don’t care who says it. I just like the words they say.”

I’ve heard this exact argument many times before, usually when I make a comment that I wish we had more than two female speakers during the general sessions of Conference. “The messenger is irrelevant; it’s the message that matters,” I’ve been lectured. But if it doesn’t matter who says the words, and only the words themselves matter, then why does it matter if a woman says them?

Because that’s the flaw in this argument: it only goes one way. “I care about the message, not the messenger” seems to only apply when the messenger is a man. 

Last Sunday, I looked up at the people sitting on the stand during the sacrament. There were ten males and one female (the chorister). Ten deacons, all male, trooped silently in formation up and down the aisles. All of the five people who spoke at the pulpit during the meeting were male. And the occurrence was so normal, I doubted anyone else even noticed. 

What if it had been ten women and one man who sat on the stand? What if it had been girls walking the aisles during the service? What if the five people who’d stood at the pulpit that day had been female? 

All of the people on the stand, including the men who spoke, were white. What if, instead, they were all people of color?

Or, going back to my friend, what if there were only two men who spoke next General Conference, and the rest of the talks were given by women? What if only two talks were given by white people, and the rest of the speakers were Black?

I don’t pretend to know what the collective response to such a large switch would be, but I’m guessing that at least for my friend, and likely for many others, it would not be “I don’t care who says it. I just like the words they say.” 

Because, by and large, “the message matters and the messenger doesn’t” isn’t a call for more diversity; it’s just an excuse for having overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white messengers.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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14 Responses

  1. Bryn Brody says:

    Love this!

  2. Larry Mann says:

    I think the kind of woman from whom you would hear something substantive is not the mind of woman who would be invited to speak.
    . . . and not that the men actually have much substance either.

    • ElleK says:

      I understand that you’re critiquing the fact that any woman who leads or speaks in the church is selected by a man, and that is completely valid, but I disagree that even that “kind of woman” wouldn’t have anything substantive to say. Have you listened to any of Reyna Aburto’s talks? Or Sharon Eubanks’? The whole General RS Presidency are gangbuster speakers. And even if I don’t agree with all of the talks given by women, they speak with as much substance as any of the men.

  3. Em says:

    This is perceptive – I hadn’t thought about inverting the “message not the messenger”. It’s also disingenuous to act like the messenger has no impact on the message. Male personal anecdotes are not the same as female. American experiences don’t represent other views. BIPOC experience and white are not interchangeable. Only when you see white and male as a default and universal that it works.

  4. I think it is ironic that some traditional church members viewed the move to incorporating General Relief Society Meeting into General Conference weekend as being responsive to feminist concerns, because I was very involved in the Mormon feminist movement at the time and this change was not something we requested or wanted. That same change also incorporated children as young as 8 into the women’s meeting, as if church leaders see women and children as the same. Infantilizing women is not a feminist move.

    • ElleK says:

      I did lean over to my friend and tell her, with a wink, that THIS whiny woman, at least, did not feel catered to one bit by that change.

  5. Anne says:

    If it is the message and not the messenger that matters, why do so many wards resist using the Conference talks from women as the text for their Sunday lessons? My ward (and, I presume, many others) has the RS and EQ presidents choose the talks, and teach from the same talk on the same day. But our EQ president balks at women’s talks, because the women have no church-wide stewardship. So much for the message over the messenger.

    • ElleK says:

      Woof. Once in Sacrament meeting, a bishopric counselor gave a talk (why?? Like we didn’t hear from those three dudes enough already). He started by saying that he was asked to speak on a talk given by a woman in the Women’s Session, and that at first he didn’t understand why since it didn’t have anything to do with him as a man. I very audibly said “nope,” then stood up and walked out. Not super mature of me, but I was so tired of men not even realizing the crazy double standard there is for men vs. women in authority.

  6. Abby Hansen says:

    Totally agree that if it were in reverse, people would notice and think it was out of the ordinary. At first they’d say it was awesome, like when the primary presidency all speaks one day. But if it became week in and week out, they’d start to complain for sure.

    • ElleK says:

      Like my friend, people would complain that women were being “catered to,” as though that’s the only possible justification for having women speak.

  7. Adrienne says:

    Love this! We used to put up pictures of the conference speakers and have my girls move them to the other side of the room when they spoke. It was a huge awakening to see, at the end of conference, all of the men moved to the other side and only one or two women—with all the rest of the auxiliary women on the other side. My 3 girls had many questions and it began a protest that they continued when we read scriptures “where are the stories of the girls?” and also during sacrament “why are there only boys and men up there (sacrament table and podium?” The messenger is SO incredibly vital!

    • ElleK says:

      When my daughter was five, she leaned over during the sacrament and whispered, “I really want to pass the sacrament someday. But only boys get to, huh?” It broke me. They absolutely notice. Women are so tragically underutilized in the church.

  8. Cate says:

    I’m coming late to this particular discussion, but I have to say, it is so the messenger because that affects the message. Over the last year and a half or so we’ve been hearing more about women and the priesthood, based on the talk Pres. Nelson gave in October 2019. Our visiting authority spoke on that topic in stake conference, and that was followed in a subsequent sacrament by a talk on the same thing by an older man. I’d say, at least they tried, but I’m not sure that they did. They left so much unsaid and I don’t even think they were aware of what they were leaving out. Then our female keynote speaker at stake women’s conference talked on how women exercise the priesthood, and the difference between her talk and theirs was like night and day on a different planet. She’d done a lot of research, she knew what would be important for everybody to hear, she debunked a couple of myths – all of this backed up by the appropriate sources – and she pulled it all together in a comprehensive presentation that was really worthwhile. I don’t think a man could have done it. He wouldn’t have known what questions to ask while he was preparing.

    • ElleK says:

      Thanks for weighing in. Lived experience absolutely affects the message, AND, dare I say, it affects inspiration, too. You’re right: how could a man even know what questions to ask? That’s a powerful anecdote.

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