Women’s Voices: An April 2016 General Conference Tally
With thanks to Ziff for joining in on the data collection!
In August 2015, the church announced that women would be included in general and local church councils. In a follow up speech broadcast a month later throughout Europe, Elder M. Russell Ballard instructed women to, “let your voices be heard, we cannot, we cannot meet our destiny as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in preparing this world for the 2nd coming of the Saviour of the world without the support and the faith and the strength of the women of this church. We need you. We need your voices. They need to be heard. They need to be heard in your community, in your neighbourhoods, they need to be heard within the ward council or the branch council.”
I was, and am thrilled to know that the church was seeking women’s voices. Long muted by a history of patriarchy-governed Christianity, the church has never seemed to fare especially well in listening, or learning from the voices of women. I was excited and ready to hear from women, so anxiously anticipated the October 2015 General Conference. Following this conference, however, I didn’t feel this was any more or less female-voiced compared to other recent, previous conferences. Most of the female speakers quoted men and men in the scriptures, though they did provide some personal experiences, as per usual. Of special interest to me was Neill F. Marriott’s General Conference speech pattern; in the three personal experiences she shared, she concluded each with a quote from a male church leader in support of her position. Though I enjoyed her talk very much, I wondered if she felt compelled to conclude each of her personal witnesses with a male voice in order to give value to her experience. If this was the case, was it because Marriott did not feel her experience– he voice– was really wanted? Or did she fear or was she restricted in using her voice? I decided that perhaps as the first conference following the instruction to include women’s voices, that it might be too soon to expect women’s voices being heard and shared as openly as men’s voices.
My patience and curiosity turned to frustration in February 2016. It was at this time that I listened to the “region wide stake conference” in Australia and New Zealand. This conference began with a speech offered by the highest ranking local leader- either the District President or Stake President, and then we all tuned into a video relayed from Salt Lake to listen to general church leaders. Cheryl Esplin was the only female, and as such was the symbol of female voice in this conference. Surely she would represent women’s voices! But she began by quoting Elder David A. Bednar’s about his love of Australia and New Zealand (doesn’t she love us, too?). Then she quoted man, after man, after man, after man. She did not recount any quotes from women or about women—not even from her own experience. This meeting utterly excluded the female voice. A physical female voice was heard—but it was not reflective of Mormon women, or women’s experiences. It was not sharing the perspective, testimony or witness of any woman. Each speaker quoted from men, or spoke of men’s experiences. So far as female representation or experience was concerned, she may as well have not have attended the meeting at all.
This is not new. It’s old, and it’s a bad habit. But the thought began to fester, so I decided to do a quick study of the October 2015 Women’s General Session to see how often women were quoting men, women or speaking by personal experience:
To be honest, I was pretty shocked and disappointed with the result. Elder Ballard has instructed us to “let your voices be heard,” and yet—the women were predominantly quoting men. I wondered if Ballard’s follow up comments to the statement, “don’t talk too much in those meetings” had more force than even he intended, or worse, were presumed to be prophetic instruction for women to only be seen and not heard.
I further wondered if the male leaders of the church were taking to heart the admonition to include women’s voices in their own talks. Being curious, and with the help from Ziff from Zelophehad’s Daughters, we tracked the entire April 2016 General Conference in the same categories as I created for the October 2015 Women’s Session.
The tracking was a bit curious, because sometimes, the gender of the person in the story was obscured (Eyring), or the story involved a joint experience of a husband and wife (Arnold) (Waddell) (Hales) (Richards), wherein we decided to score as one female and one male voice per talk. One story, whist it was started about a husband and wife called as primary teachers, was really the retelling of the husband’s individual conversation with a child (Waddell), absent of his wife- so I labelled that as a male story. Another story, about a girl at Halloween time, was so heavily peppered with the (male) speaker’s dislike of Halloween (historically a harvest festival demonized by Christians), that I felt it was more his story than his daughter’s story (Hallstrom). And whilst some might disagree, any stories or quotes from the Family Proclamation were labelled as male, because the document was written by men.
There are further points that could be debated regarding a quote being from a (male) apostle in the scriptures, or Christ, as the gospels are written by others and quote Christ. My intent in segregating the discussion of Christ is because He is the only individual I feel appropriate to reflect both the male and female voice. The length of the quote (such as the talk being all one story, a common characteristic for Uchtdorf and Monson) would also make this an unscientific analysis. Nonetheless, I believe this simple study is important in showing how often female voice is excluded as a matter of habit.
The spreadsheet of our tallies is here (quotes in conference2), but to cut to the chase, the end result for all speakers for the entire conference (inclusive of the General Women’s Session, and the Priesthood session) was this:
I am aware that some might argue that it is unfair to include the voices of women from the scriptures because women in the scriptures are comparatively scarce. However, because so few women’s stories have weathered the biblical historiography of patriarchal annihilation, I choose to believe that Elohim’s hands personally directed and ensured those few stories of women survived in our scriptures today for a special purpose. Thus, I find these stories, as protected by God, are imperative points of study for all church members and should be better recognized as tenacious miracles.
The speakers who discussed Christ the most often were Eyring (here and here) and Renlund (here). I’ve long been a fan of Eyring, and often hold out just for his words. He did not fail me in this conference, and I’m thinking that this might be the reason. Very much to his credit, although he did not mention her by name, he shared the story of Mary, who anointed Christ. Thus, my appreciation for his inclusion of women was solidified. Disappointingly, not a single female speaker referenced women in the scriptures. Eyring was the only speaker to include a quote referencing a woman in the scriptures.
Because the General Women’s session reflected 11 stories about men, and 5 stories about men in the scriptures (compared to 8 stories about women and 1 story about a woman in the scriptures in that same session), I found no problem with expecting the Priesthood session to reflect a degree of the female voice. So whilst I was delighted that both Eyring and Uchtdorf included women’s experiences in the General Priesthood session, I was disappointed that the percentage of included women’s voices was so very low in comparison to the number of times a male voice is included in the General women’s session:
Interestingly, the only time female speakers shared personal stories was in the General Women’s session, compared to men who shared 7 personal experiences in the Priesthood session, and 21 personal experiences in the general (non-Women’s session, non-Priesthood) sessions of conference. With only two women speaking in the General Conference (Durham and Oscarson), compared to 24 male speakers, I was saddened but not surprised to think that these women did not feel, or were not allowed to share personal stories in the general sessions.
In the end, it is clear that women’s voices are in the minority. This is not a surprise. BUT WE NEED TO CHANGE THIS. In future, I look forward to improved inclusion and witness of the testimony of women—not just women quoting men, or women tagged on as companions to men in a men’s story or as the guides of children in a story about raising men. I look forward to women and men quoting and sharing the testimony of women as intelligent, spiritual speakers with testimonies worthy of canonization.
SPEAK UP, SISTERS!
What is it like in your home ward and in your own speaking habits? Do you quote Mormon women as much as you quote Mormon men? How can you improve at your local and ward levels to share the voice of women?
P.S. The working title for this post was “Gagged.” Do you agree or disagree with the sense of Mormon women being “gagged” in public speaking within the church?