Last LDS General Conference, I tallied male and female speakers. Twitter went nuts.
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:
- “And this is helpful in what way?“
- “Who gives a #RatsAss“
- “So either God is sexist, or the leaders are not truly inspired?“
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.