Last LDS General Conference, I tallied male and female speakers. Twitter went nuts.

Tally of Talks by Female and Male LDS General Conference Speakers, October 2017

Last October, I did a shocking, scandalous thing: I tallied the number of talks by men and women as I listened to General Conference and tweeted my (totally predictable) results.

My first tweet, with only Women’s Session included in the tally, showed three female speakers and one male. A male always gives the concluding speech at women’s session.  (There is no reciprocity;  women are not invited to participate in the male-only priesthood session.)

By the fourth talk of Saturday morning, there had been an even total number of talks by male and female speakers, echoing the approximate ratio in the Mormon population. This would be the last moment of parity in General Conference–but calling it parity is a stretch, since most male Mormons had only listened to one woman speak so far; three of those talks by women took place at Women’s Session.

As Conference continued, the gap between the number of female and male speakers widened and my counting drew more attention on Twitter. The discussion frequently turned to the math in my simple tally. Over and over again, people reminded me to include Women’s Session. (I already had.) Several argued that I should be looking at the ratio of how many of the nine eligible women spoke, instead of a male-female ratio.

I feel like with 9 called women in the general authorities vs over 90 men called, 5/9 is pretty good,” was a typical comment.

But that raises the question, why should only nine women in the entire church body be considered eligible to speak? Wouldn’t the church benefit from a larger, more diverse a pool of female speakers? What if male speakers were drawn from a pool of only nine eligible men? (Conference would be so much shorter…)

Wouldn’t it be strange if we had a whole session of #LDSconf without a single male speaker?” I  asked Twitter after the Saturday afternoon session, which had included six male speakers and zero female speakers.

Considering that would mean no talks by the priesthood leadership, yes. Yes it would be weird. Or, it’s be Women’s session.” answered one man. He was right on his first point; in our church, it is considered mandatory to hear from the priesthood (i.e., men) but women’s perspectives are thought of as unnecessary or optional. He was wrong on the second point: a man speaks at every Women’s Session. In fact, usually the male speaker at Women’s Session receives more speaking time than any of the female speakers.

Sunday morning began with a talk by a woman. It would be the only talk by a woman all day. While the last speaker was speaking, I tweeted my final tally, without comment. This is when Twitter went nuts. Lots of (male) people were angry–not because so few women had the opportunity to speak, but because I had documented the number:

Some men tweeted scriptures at me…not in an uplifting way. One  of them was more memorable than others because after his passive-aggressive scripture rant (“Way to swat at a gnat and swallow a camel….“), he followed up with an apology tweet: “I’m genuinely sorry for responding in the way I did. It was not Christlike. God bless you in your walk as I need to be blessed in mine.” (Apology accepted.)

While the majority of people who were angry at me for tallying were male, some women shared the sentiment, such as one woman who reposted my final tally (which I remind you, contained no comment from me at all, either positive or negative), with this little jibe: “This is why I hate social media bcuz of people like this” (i.e., people like me).

Why would a simple tally generate such strong reactions? After all, anyone who watches conference, or looks at the conference address Table of Contents, could easily count the number of female speakers themselves. For that matter, they could probably guess the number without bothering to count, since it has been about the same for years without much variation. My tally was no exposé.

I think one woman on Twitter explained best: “It never bothered me before but it does now because others pointed it out. But where does it get me? Just upset and feeling less than.
That is the crux of it: counting the number of female speakers upsets people because the number itself is so very, very, bad. We don’t want to see the number because it is much too low, and that low number means something. When so few women are invited to expound doctrine at our most important and sacred events, implicit messages are sent:

  • Women are not spiritual authorities.
  • Women are not necessary.
  • Women have little to teach the church, especially its male members.
  • Women’s perspectives don’t matter.
  • Female diversity doesn’t matter; all women are about the same.

These messages affect how we see and treat the women around us. As women, these messages affect how we see ourselves.

The next General Conference is coming soon and since last October, there have been some changes in the LDS Church. Priesthood Session and Women’s Session will now take place half as often, on alternating conferences.  This could be an opportunity to hear from more women in General Sessions, where men are more likely to benefit from hearing women’s voices. After all, those nine eligible women will not be needed as often at Women’s Session.  Or, just as likely, the church could continue to limit female participation in General Sessions to only two speakers, resulting in even fewer talks by women each year.

Church curricula has also changed since last October. Now, even more of our Sunday meetings revolve around reviewing General Conference talks. If female speakers continue to be severely limited during General Conference, even our weekly meetings will be largely devoid of women’s perspectives.

It is time to increase the number of female speakers at General Conference. I would prefer to see that done by expanding the pool  of eligible female speakers. There is no doctrinal reason for limiting female speakers to a pool of nine women and there are so many practical and spiritual benefits that could be achieved by learning from a larger number of diverse Mormon women. Let’s replace the implicit messages we are sending by excluding women with actual messages delivered by women at the pulpit.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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44 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    April, I hear what you are saying, I am not really sure how it can be addressed, and you don’t really either – except for “expanding the pool of eligible female speakers”.

    How would you expand it?

    You see for me, GC talks either hit me, and make an impact, or they are just nothing. I accept that what is good for me, may not be for others, and vice versa. In some cases I would expect that some of the women’s talks have been like nails on a chalk board to some here.

    You could expand the women to include board members – but I suspect that would also widen the Young Men and Sunday School numbers too. Anyone else would not be someone with a calling giving them General stewardship.

    Women speak with equal measure, or better, in our stake conferences where the presiding officer is the stake president. Not so equal when someone comes to preside. This is because they typically want more of the time to speak themselves.

    Our stake auxilliary presidency members speak (at least two) at every unit conference, along with the Bishop and the Stake President.

    Area Stake Conferences usually have 40:60 female to male.

    It is really only the two general conferences. And the upcoming one will be worse – no women’s session. October will be better – no priesthood session.

    To expand into general membership speaking at General Conference would meet with immediate problems. I’m already miffed that I will never be in a choir singing at General Conference. Nor will I ever be the organist for such a choir.

    • There is no doctrinal reason to limit female speakers to those nine women. Speakers could be drawn from anywhere within the church, as you yourself have noted in your attendance at other conferences. I look forward to the day that women serve as General Authorities at the same level as men, but until then, the church could invite any women of their choice to speak.

      General Conference is the most important meeting of the church. Church doctrine and curricula for local-level meetings is based on general conference, so it is more important that women are represented there. Including women at local levels does not compensate for excluding women from the two most important meetings of the year.

      • Andrew says:

        No there isn’t. However, assume that women are never ordained, and that therefore will not ever be General Authorities.

        Now, draw on women from the General membership to speak at General Conference. The problem is that no matter how great their message, how inspired it is, it would not be considered of the same value as the words from the General Authorities speaking at conference. Please note, I am not saying this for myself. I have evolved to a position where what is said at conference is more of a spring board to allow me to evaluate what I need to do – as I said above, some talks “work”, some don’t.

        Now, suppose what I have said happened. The cry would then be, let’s hear what the general membership men have to say too.

        General Conference is about hearing what the Lord’s “chosen” leaders have to say to the Church. And so, General leaders speak. I fear it will ever be thus.

        As to the use of the talks.

        However, the “new curriculum” isn’t a re-hash of Teaching for Our Times. The discussions we have in our quorums, groups and classes should be about what we will do – not about what we are being told in the talk.

        And, RS, EQ and HP choose independently of each other, and the stake. So RS could use all the female talks and help to balance it up a bit.

        If this works properly that actual lesson time should not require reading from the actual text – it should be much more about what the class members are doing with the message, or having difficulty with, etc.

    • What the heck? “Nails on a chalkboard?” That is an offensive comment, and it should be called out as such. There is a simple answer to this situation, and if I may quote Picard from Star Trek TNG—“Make It So Number One.” This is what we in the forensics (debate) world call inherency (social & structural). We have the power to change it. YES, we do believe in continuing revelation, but I GUARANTEE you if the people in the Church simply stopped coming/viewing conference because of this very thing; all-of-a-sudden the right questions would be asked and the changes would be made. Change is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is the only constant. The Church as an organization in the 21st century, is going to have to accept this. So are we. I propose all women’s speakers at the next general conference. We have never called conference “the men’s session,” time to stop calling it “the women’s session.” And while we’re at it, since “all are alike unto God,” let’s show God we understand that and give the Priesthood to all worthy members regardless of sex.

      • Andrew says:

        Did you read what I said? My point was that some, not all, but occasionally, there have been talks by sisters at General Conference that have been far from the things I have read here by feminist Mormons. In other words, having more sisters speaking may lead to a greater emphasis on “men presiding”, “following our male leaders” and “priesthood is for men”.

        If, as is sometimes posited here, the male leadership work to continue the Patriarchy in the Church, then it stands to reason the women they have speak at General Conference may be those who will do the same.

        It was not an accusation, it was an observation. I meant no offence.

  2. April says:

    Bring women speakers up from the minor leagues! Board members from all of the auxiliaries could speak: Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, and Sunday School. We hear from 70’s. Why not increase transparency by allowing us to hear from the board members leading our auxiliary organizations?
    Maybe with increased transparency fewer people would experience distress at observed facts being reported accurately.

  3. Jon says:

    Quit your feminist brainwashing. General conference is a time to hear from General Authorities.

    • Andrew says:

      I think that’s a bit uncalled for.

      General Conference should be a time to reflect upon how well we are doing as followers of Christ. How well we are “loving our neighbours”? Including those of a feminist nature!

    • m says:

      You seem to have wandered into this space with some unrealistic expectations of what you would find. And why so defensive and abrupt? Why do you not consider the leaders of the General Auxiliaries General Authorities?

    • Jon, your comment, in spite of its rudeness, is somewhat charming because it nicely illustrates the point that excluding women from our most important annual addresses results in implicit messages that lead gentlemen(?) like yourself to disrespect women.

    • Jon, quit your toxic man-commanding. I agree with you. General conference is a time to hear from General Authorities. Women need to be General Authorities ASAP. “All are alike unto God.” <<——(feminist brainwashing from scripture).

  4. Kristie says:

    Yes! And let’s also ask how many of the speakers are POC’s!

  5. Mike says:

    Great post, April!

    Also, I’ve wondered what the numbers might look like if we actually tallied the gender of the people cited in general conference talks (not the speaker’s gender). In theory, such an exercise could be closer to parity, since both men and women could refer to quotes or stories from either gender so it shouldn’t matter that we have so many more male general authorities than we do female. If this were the case, female voices may still be somewhat evenly represented in content even if the speakers themselves are heavily male (due to priesthood only going to males).

    However, I suspect that such an analysis could actually find the voice balance even worse. Here’s why: let’s categorize outside sources into three groups: Scriptural, Church Leadership (current or past), and Other (authors, public figures, stories from members, etc.). Both Scriptural and Church Leadership categories are going to be heavily male–though I can’t say for certain, I speculate they’re even more male dominated than the current speaker list from general conferences.

    The Other category is really the only one that may hold out the possibility of more gender representation across speakers, though I wouldn’t hold out hope. First, due to implicit biases, we should expect that men tend to look to other male sources for ideas and inspiration, and women look to female sources; consequently, I would predict the gender ratio for this Other category should be pretty close to the gender ratio for conference speakers overall. Also, it’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that women are more likely to cite men than men are to cite women, simply because women are socialized to commonly see men as protagonists–think of the male-heavy gender balance of characters in literature / movies. So this category may very well also skew more male than the speakers themselves.

    In other words, April, your tally of speaker gender may actually be a generous representation of the gender balance of all “voices” heard during general conference. And to me, that’s sad.

  6. Wendy says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the church needing to do more work toward gender balance in all aspects of our worship services.

    The suggestion of inviting female auxiliary board members to speak is a great one. Also, general authorities’ wives apparently speak with their husbands all over the world. Why exclude their voices in GC?

  7. Ziff says:

    Great post, April. I agree with you. I’d love to hear from more women speaking in General Conference. Unfortunately, President Nelson clearly doesn’t think of women as spiritual equals to men, so I’m afraid his time in the top spot will be likely to be marked by fewer women speaking rather than more. I think you make a great point that this is extra unfortunate since so much of the curriculum is now re-hashing of Conference talks.

    I also think it’s so telling that people got so mad at you for making a count. It’s clearly a hot-button issue for people who defend the Church’s sexism: if they were completely comfortable with their reasoning for why so few women speak, they wouldn’t go after you so viciously. They’re clearly suffering through the clash of the sexist values of the Church and the egalitarian values they’ve at least partly absorbed from the broader world.

  8. pijohnso says:

    Thanks for this. The visual every six month is one thing; the stats are just beyond startling. Yes, more women and more people from other cultural backgrounds since we are a world-wide church, right?

  9. Damascene says:

    The next tally I would love to see: Which women speaking at GC talk on any topic other than marriage and motherhood?

    How many times has the importance of marriage and motherhood been ground into me? Too many. How many times are single/never married/widowed/childless women discussed as if they were socially and spiritually handicapped?

    I’m waiting for the talk about the poor single/never married/widowed/childless and sterile or impotent man. For some reason, that talk doesn’t happen.

    I’m still waiting for the call to repentance for all the husbands and fathers who travel extensively for business. If families are supposed to come first, how come there is never a GC talk telling men to get their priorities together and find work that gets them home every night.

    The problem is more than the gender of the speakers. I am no longer unlifted by GC talks. They just annoy me.

  10. Nathan K. says:

    I’m keeping a tally of LGBTQ speakers. *Hint: I’m not even bothering to sharpen my pencil.

  11. Daniela says:

    Well if you are upset that GC is not ~diverse enough, why stop at women speakers? Last i heard, there were 897 genders, so by your logic there should be an equal number of talks by each gender. Then there’s race. We’ll need to have every single race on earth represented at GC. And what about all the different sexualities? Disabilities? Languages?
    Before long, you start to notice that the content of a speech has become less important than the identity of the person giving the speech. This is not how God works. GC is about hearing the word of the Lord, not putting on a diversity virtue-signalling spectacle. You can save that for your gender studies class.

    • Chromosomes brother. Biology. Science. “All are alike unto God.” So let’s allow humans to show it, eh? #KnowledgeisPower (The difference between sex and gender) http://www.med.monash.edu.au/gendermed/sexandgender.html

    • Evangeline Brown says:

      Ah, yes, the old slippery slope argument. The horror!

      • Daniela says:

        Giving my argument a label does not actually refute it but sure.

      • Anon says:

        Exposing your argument as logical fallacy may not refute it, but it correctly places it as an ‘argument’ of little weight, one that will not persuade a rational audience.

      • Andrew says:

        Whether it is a “logical fallacy” must surely depend on whether or not the messages of General Conference come from God, or not.

        If the messages we receive are inspired messages, with an underlying message brought into our hearts and minds by the Spirit, then it should not matter who gives them.

        If, on the other hand, they are just people’s thoughts, it still doesn’t matter – because why should we care about the thoughts of others.

        The messages from Conference are the Messages we “hear” from God. Everything else is gloss.

        If the message coming from a man is not acceptable then the question isn’t “why can’t a hear it from a woman?”

        It’s, “why can’t I accept it from a man”.

        I rarely enjoyed talks by President Monson prior to his becoming the President of the Church. Once he became President his talks were somehow “better” for me.

        I don’t believe this was anything to do with him, or the Spirit. But more about my perception.

      • Anon says:

        Sorry, Andrew, but the crux of Daniela’s argument is, in fact, a slippery slope logical fallacy. Her point that including more female speakers would lead to some kind of pandemonium where the word of God would surely be absent is a slippery slope fallacy. (Last I checked, women can receive inspiration and speak for the Lord, too.)

    • Ziff says:

      “Before long, you start to notice that the content of a speech has become less important than the identity of the person giving the speech.”

      You’ve got it exactly backward. We’re at that point *right* *now*. Speakers are almost entirely male (as well as almost entirely white). So the content (hearing about God from different people’s perspectives) is being sacrificed in the name of keeping the speaker pool homogeneous.

      If you really think that the content would be no different at all if it came from different people, then you shouldn’t be worried about changing who speaks in Conference. But if, on the other hand, you think that the content *would* be different, which wouldn’t be surprising given that different people probably experience God differently, then isn’t it awful for us to hear only one perspective, over and over?

      • Daniela says:

        I am all for having more female speakers, but only if its because God considers them to be the most eligible people to talk at that particular time. If we add more female speakers because we want the world to think we’re a ~diverse and ~feminist church then that is inapproproate. God has never sought the approval of the world.
        And i personally dont think that we hear “the same perspective over and over”. Not all men are exactly the same. They have all had different upbringings,different careers, different trials throughout their lives, some of them are converts to the gospel, etc. Believe it or not you can have diversity within a gender.

      • Ziff says:

        We could have way more diversity of views than we do. As it is, we have a bunch of old white men with ties to Utah, with the occasional slightly younger maybe nonwhite man who doesn’t have ties to Utah. We could do so much better on both gender and race.

        I’m glad that you only want changes that God wants. I’m not a fan of the idea, though, that whatever the GAs say is necessarily what God wants.

  12. Left Field says:

    As officially used by the church, the term “general authority” includes only members of the FP, Q12, GA70s, and the PB. The presidencies and general boards of the auxiliaries are officially “general officers.” This includes presidencies and boards of the YM and SS, who are are also general officers of their auxiliaries. However, in recent decades, general authorities are usually called to the YM and SS presidencies. In that case, as auxiliary presidencies, they are general officers, and as members of the 70, they are also general authorities.

    • m says:

      Yes, why is it that we only consider men as having “authority”? Painful.

    • Andrew says:

      Nearly. When a General Authority has been called to an Auxilliary Presidency he has been released as a GA.

      Ted Callister was released from the presidency of the Seventy and as a General Authority before being called as Sunday School President.

      So he is no longer a GA.

  13. Maura says:

    Why do you think ward SS presidencies and ward mission leader calling are always men? I know a woman who was a ward mission leader in her ward but that is the only one.
    Might be great to have speakers at GC such as BYU professors (M or F) or historians (M/F) who could actually explain some controversial issues and be experts.
    Q15 say they are historians and don’t know the details as well as the historians. Let hear from someone who does.
    I long for truth from anyone but agree it would be nice to heR from women speaking about more than home and family. I found Sister Eubanks talk inspiring. It stayed w me a long time.

    • Melissa says:

      When I was in law school my YSA Branch President called a woman to the the Sunday School President, the Church software refused to accept the entry and leading to further investigation and the discovery that only men were permitted to be Sunday School Presidents.

    • Tessa says:

      I love the idea of historians speaking.

  14. Andrew says:

    Do you think that General Conference is the right time to be having people “explain some controversial issues and be experts.”?

    I am not convinced that is what GC is for.

    I think Ensign articles by these people would be good though.

  15. Maura says:

    What is the purpose of General Conference? That is a good question. I’m trying to remember how the announcer introduces it.
    My thought is that GC has power to disseminate information. It is a time and place where announcements are made about temples, new leadership, policy changes (but not all changes…changing age of missionaries mentioned but changing policy about not baptizing children on gay parents not mentioned). It is a time when they introduce new programs. I recall talks on the perpetual education fund and other initiatives. Our 3rd hr lessons come from GC talks now often. It might be nice to have a talk about a specific, misunderstood, or challenging topic addressed by a topic expert and that would open the door to more discussion at the ward level.
    I could see a Saturday afternoon session introduced by an apostle explaining that we’re going to do something a little different in this session…. and then introduce the subject, explain why so and so is going to give the next talk and then follow that up w an apostle suggestings ways this information could be further discussed and why it is important. Just thinking out loud.
    The reason I say this is because I just had a conversation w my bishop about some concerns. His response “ Sister X, I only read the scriptures and the GC talks”. He had no information about what I was asking.

    Maybe I’m off tract but looking to reach the most possible people in the most legitimate way.
    I love the church but sometimes I want more of something I can’t quite articulate.

  16. Kristin says:

    In my mission, back in the early 80’s, we had female zone leaders, who were over an all female zone.

  17. Annie says:

    I would love to hear from the Apostles’ or other GA’s Wives.

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