Quotation and Gender in General Conference
By Eliza Wells
In her April 2020 General Conference address, Primary General President Joy Jones declared, “President Russell M. Nelson taught, ‘It would be impossible to measure the influence that … women have, not only on families but also on the Lord’s Church, as wives, mothers, and grandmothers; as sisters and aunts; as teachers and leaders; and especially as exemplars and devout defenders of the faith.’”
This October, President Eyring quoted those lines once again in his Women’s session address.
Though it certainly might be impossible to measure the influence of women on families, studying quotation in General Conference allows us to measure the influence that leaders believe women have on the Church. In the talks referenced above, Presidents Jones and Eyring quoted scripture and multiple current and past apostles and prophets, but neither of them quoted a single woman–despite the fact that both of their talks were about women’s roles. My research shows that, even taking into account the expected effects of the Church’s overwhelmingly male scripture and all-male priesthood hierarchy, female sources are quoted less, cited less, and acknowledged less than one might hope from a church whose president recently told women, “[W]e need your voice teaching the doctrine of Christ.”
The quotation patterns in General Conference reveal that, despite increasingly vocal commitments from church leaders to the equal but separate status of women and men, those leaders continue to treat female voices as less valuable than male ones.
Quotation as an Appeal to Authority
Why quotation? In particular, why focus on the source of a quotation?
As every student of high school English intuitively knows, quotation is about authority. We don’t just quote someone because they said something much more eloquently than we could have–we quote them because they’re authorities on whatever we’re talking about, so the fact that they agree with our point gives our argument greater legitimacy. In particular, quotation is about who would be considered authoritative to your audience: a well-known atheist might still be an authoritative source in a business setting, but citing one would decrease one’s persuasiveness in a religious setting. Throughout my research, I saw Conference speakers repeatedly using quotation in this way, carefully selecting and framing their sources to be as authoritative as possible to their audience. Indeed, a look at the data shows that what would presumably be the most authoritative sources in General Conference–the scriptures and the current prophet–have the lowest average word count of all sources. If the prophet were being quoted solely for content rather than source, we would expect quotations from him to be much longer.
Sources can be authoritative in different ways, however. Conference speakers draw upon a huge variety of sources – musicals, poetry, newspapers, anonymous proverbs, friends, other religious leaders, etc. When choosing who to cite, Conference speakers are considering the effectiveness of appeals to revered historic heroes, respected secular intellectuals, relatable rank-and-file church members, or divinely sanctioned church leaders and sacred texts. Ecclesiastical authority is not the only kind of authority in General Conference: sources are also used for their spiritual, cultural, intellectual, historical, or emotional authority. We can draw conclusions about the different sources of authority that Conference leaders believe to be influential in the Church community based on who they quote and how they quote them. The sources cited more in General Conference are likely to be considered more authoritative for members, while the sources cited less frequently are less so.
In order to see who and how church leaders quote, I read every April session talk from members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1971-2020 and documented every quotation they used. I chose April to get a representative but granular sample of Conference talks. I also read every April general session talk by female leaders between 1988 (when women started speaking regularly in the general sessions) and 2020, along with every talk in every April session by any leader in the last five years. This totaled 12,700 quotations over 1,100 talks.
I categorized a quotation as “male” or “female” if a) the footnote attributed the quotation to an individual man or woman or b) the speaker verbally attributed the quotation to a gendered individual. If neither of these conditions were met, I categorized the quotation as “non-gendered.” For example, “Nephi said” counts as a male quotation in my sample, as would “my grandfather once said” or a footnote citing a speech by Ronald Reagan. “1 Nephi 3 reads,” “one writer,” or a footnote citing an uncredited article in the Wall Street Journal would count as non-gendered quotations. I counted church materials like The Family Proclamation, though written by men, as non-gendered because my focus was on individual gendered voices.
Prophets and Apostles Quoting Women: The Big Picture
Given church leaders’ claims about the equal but separate status of women and men in the Church, we might expect a degree of gender parity in Conference quotation. After all, leaders have encouraged women to be “contributing and full partner[s]” with men rather than “silent… or limited partners” (Spencer W. Kimball, 1978); stated that “where spiritual things are concerned… men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord” (Bruce R. McConkie, 1979); and repeatedly emphasized women’s “righteous influence” and “unique moral compass” (Russell M. Nelson, 2019). Despite this, a righteous woman’s influence is rarely the kind of authority Conference speakers are interested in drawing upon.
Looking at gendered quotations, big picture numbers are striking. In April general sessions over the last 50 years, members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have quoted specifically male sources 3,264 times. This does not include the male-gendered Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, who were quoted 1,968 times. In that same period, female sources were quoted 197 times.
Overall, this means that women have made up 2.1% of prophets’ and apostles’ quotations in the general sessions of Conference in the last fifty years. By contrast, men have made up 35.5% of their quotations in those decades. (The other 60% of quotations are from sources that, though generally written by men, are not obviously gendered: the dictionary, Readers’ Digest, plays and musicals, newspapers, church publications, non-gendered scriptures, etc. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, though male, are also included in that 60%.) Women’s representation has risen slightly over time: in the last ten years, women have made up 2.7% of all quotations. For fifty years, prophets and apostles have consistently quoted men 16 times for every one time they quoted a woman.
Women In and Outside of Scripture and Church Leadership
Looking only at gendered sources, women make up 5.7% of quotations while men make up 94.3%. You might think that, while perhaps regrettable, this imbalance is understandable. After all, many quotations in General Conference come from scriptures and church leadership, which are almost entirely composed of men. Of the over 250 named individuals in the Book of Mormon, for example, only six are female, and only two women actually speak in the text. Similarly, women occupy only twelve of the more than 100 roles at the church’s highest level.
Women’s representation in quotations from scripture and church leadership are indeed low. Women make up a mere 1.3% of quotations from scripture and 1.9% of quotations from high-level church leaders. Where prophets and apostles have quoted current male church leaders (i.e. each other) more than 250 times in the last fifty years, they have not quoted a female leader of the Church a single time in an April general session. Quotations of the current prophet have quintupled since 1971, and quotations of current apostles have more than doubled. In fact, members of the First Presidency quote the current prophet nearly six times more frequently when talking about gender (14.9%) than they do on average (2.5%), without quoting female leaders at all–even when speaking at the Women’s session. This is only increasing in the Nelson era.
If we take out quotations from scriptures and church leadership, however, the gender ratio still does not look like “absolute equality before the Lord.” When quoting sources who are neither in the scriptures nor in the church hierarchy, prophets and apostles quote women 22.5% of the time and men 77.5% of the time. Who remains in this sample? Ralph Waldo Emerson, C.S. Lewis, U.S. presidents (who have been quoted more often in General Conference than female leaders of the Church), William Shakespeare, and other historical figures, as well as speakers’ relatives and friends, and ordinary church members of every walk of life. These are the sources with spiritual, intellectual, cultural, historical, or emotional authority–and almost eight out of ten of them are men.
Though it might seem that the gender imbalance in General Conference is just the result of women’s limited presence in scripture and church hierarchy, apostles and even prophets consistently draw on many other sources of authority–just think of President Monson’s love of poetry. Surely, especially given church leaders’ frequent assertions of women’s spiritual equality and superior moral sensitivity, women should be just as entitled to authority in a Conference setting as any one of these figures outside the Church. My data indicates that as of the October 2020 Conference, however, New York Times commentator David Brooks has been quoted by more speakers than any woman except for Eliza R. Snow and Emma Smith. Rather than being contributing and full partners, women are silent in General Conference, limited by prophets’ and apostles’ choice of authorities.
Acknowledging and Anonymizing Women
Even when women are quoted, Conference speakers engage in rhetorical techniques that further minimize their presence and curtail their influence. Of the non-ecclesiastical sources discussed above, prophets and apostles only name women 51% of the time. This is much less than similar male sources, who are named 62% of the time. These trends occur side-by-side, often in the same talks. In his 2015 address, for example, Quentin L. Cook quoted a woman, Carla Carlisle, and described her as “one of my favorite writers” without naming her or revealing her gender through pronouns in the talk itself–while naming and quoting several men in the same talk. Even though Elder Cook seems to personally admire Carlisle, his reluctance to reveal her name or gender compared with his willingness to name and gender male sources suggests that her gender might even decrease her legitimacy as a source.
When discussing these anonymous sources, prophets and apostles are more likely to mention men’s careers (41.7% of the time) than women’s (6.2%) when they quote them; women’s relationship or family status is more frequently discussed (36% of the time) than men’s (8%, all in their capacity as fathers). Men’s church callings are mentioned 5 times more frequently than women’s. Women are frequently described with diminutives such as “beautiful,” “sweet,” “lovely,” “dear,” and “precious,” while no comparable adjectives are regularly applied to men (who are more likely to be described with adjectives like “wise”). Women are three times more likely than men to be described as “young,” minimizing their authority by depriving them of the value of life experience. Even though prophets and apostles frequently encourage men to be good family members and women to step up as community leaders, the way they frame men’s and women’s contributions limits their value and their possibilities. Rhetorically, women remain confined to the home even as church leaders profess their importance in the broader LDS community.
Patterns and Cultural Norms
There are two important caveats about these patterns. First, these statistics are the product of hundreds of talks by almost forty different apostles over fifty years. They are not the product of any one person’s conscious decision, and certainly no speaker selects their quotations with these broad patterns in mind. The average apostle quotes eleven times in a single talk, not nearly enough to cover all the categories of sources presented here. (Some apostles quote far more often than others: Neal Maxwell averaged 24 quotations per talk, almost all scripture, while Richard G. Scott averaged 4.5.) These patterns are also the structural default, the rhetorical norm for Conference addresses, and individual speakers are unlikely to choose to deviate widely from them. However, this makes it even more necessary to examine and bring them to light. General Conference talks form the basis for much of our local meetings, so their treatment of women impacts women’s authority across the Church.
Second, the consistent overrepresentation of male quotations in General Conference can be explained in part by the overrepresentation of men in the worlds of ecclesiastical, scriptural, and cultural authority that Conference speakers inhabit. the Church’s all-male priesthood, male-focused scriptural canon, and patriarchal cultural context all play a role in muting women. The non-ecclesiastical sources cited by speakers include a greater number of well-known male writers and historical figures than female ones because many more men have historically been given the opportunity to become famous. However, this is only an explanation for these patterns, not a justification of them. The Church consistently emphasizes our responsibility to choose the right even when “the world” and those around us push in opposing directions. Leaning on excuses about cultural norms is unfair to leaders by refusing them the agency to choose differently.
Women Quoting Men
You might think that female leaders would do things differently, and they do quote women more than male leaders do: 5.7% of the time in the general session. However, female leaders actually quote men more than any of the male leaders quote men. In the last decade, female speakers quoted men 46.6% of the time in the general sessions–fully fifteen percentage points higher than the frequency with which apostles quoted men during that same time period (31.7%). Even in the women’s session, where female leaders quote women the most (13.2% of the time in the last five years), they still quote men more than twice as frequently as they quote women (30.9%). Female leaders consistently treat female voices as less authoritative than male ones. They name 68.4% of their non-ecclesiastical male sources, but only 47.8% of their non-ecclesiastical female sources, an even greater disparity than we see from male leaders; they, too, frequently describe women as “beautiful,” “sweet,” “precious,” and “young.”
If we think about quotation as an appeal to authority, female leaders make that appeal most often, spending over 20% of their already limited time at the pulpit quoting (more than any other group of leaders, including Sunday School presidents, Seventies, etc.). Just as male speakers do not treat female voices as authoritative, female speakers do not treat their own voices as authoritative. However, if Conference quotation is about drawing upon the authority of quoted sources, it might be surprising to see female leaders quoting male sources so often instead of even more authoritative sources like God or the scriptures. Indeed, female leaders tend to quote Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ less frequently (12.3% of the time) than apostles do (19.7% between 1988-2020). Women are not just quoting any male source, however: they are overwhelmingly quoting male church leaders. This is increasing over time: between 1988-2010, 19.8% of female leaders’ quotations came from male leaders, but between 2011-2020, that number went up to 37.5%–22 times more than the percent of their quotations that come from female leaders. Of these citations, women are quoting living male leaders also sitting on the stand fully two out of three times, the most of any group of leaders. In this way, at least, women’s access to authority in the Church is mediated by male priesthood holders rather than coming directly from God.
Press Forward, Saints
These quotation patterns should trouble us, especially given church leaders’ repeated commitments to the equal contributions, value, and importance of women and men in the Church. (They should trouble us on other dimensions as well: setting aside questions of race in the scriptures, people of color are quoted in Conference even less frequently than women.) In 2015, then-apostle Russell Nelson quoted Boyd K. Packer’s 1978 encouragement to women, saying, “We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.” As prophet in 2019, President Nelson reaffirmed, “As a righteous, endowed Latter-day Saint woman, you speak and teach with power and authority from God. Whether by exhortation or conversation, we need your voice teaching the doctrine of Christ. We need your input in family, ward, and stake councils. Your participation is essential and never ornamental!”
President Nelson, however, quotes women only 1.2% of the time – less frequently than his predecessors, Presidents Monson and Hinckley, who both quoted women about 3% of the time. Intentionally or not, church leaders consistently engage in rhetorical practices that undermine their stated commitments to women’s importance in the Church and the world. Both male and female leaders fail to include women’s voices in the same talks that declare who women are and how much they matter. Rather than encouraging women to teach and speak out in their quotation practices, leaders exclude and anonymize women while prioritizing male voices across the board. Even when women have the rare opportunity to speak in Conference, they rely on male authority in order to be taken seriously by their audience rather than teaching the doctrine of Christ with their own voices.
General Conference quotation matters because General Conference matters: it is the most important event on the institutional church calendar, with millions of members viewing the talks live and many more engaging with them repeatedly in church magazines and Sunday curricula over several years. Short of small and large changes to the leadership structure of the Church, General Conference is one key avenue through which church leaders could demonstrate that women’s participation in the Church really is essential. Right now, their quotations might make us doubt whether it is even ornamental.
Eliza Wells has an MA in Religious Studies from Stanford University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at MIT.