In a 1979 conference talk by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ President Spencer W. Kimball, he said women in the church would be the contributing factor for major growth in the church.
His statement was called prophetic by then Elder Russell M. Nelson, now president.
“Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers,” Kimball said. “This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different — in happy ways — from the women of the world.”
That thought was reiterated by one of the church’s apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook, in the April 2011 general conference when he said, “Much of what we accomplish in the church is due to selfless service of women.”
According to Lisa Olsen Tait, church historian and specialist on women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, LDS women have always stepped forward, when needed, to be a standard for the church to the world. Today, due to almost instantaneous media coverage, it may seem as if women are taking on more leadership roles, but Tait said women have been in those roles since the beginning.
“This is not new for women leaders to take a visible role,” Tait said.
Women well-known from the early days of the church include Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, his wife Emma Hale Smith and others who made important contributions to the growth and visibility of the church, Tait said.
Many thousands of women since then have given their very lives to the church. From the mobs in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, to the crossing ofthe plains to the Rocky Mountains, and on to colonizing communities throughout the west, women were at the forefront of caring for and meeting the needs of individuals, families and communities.
Women in the Utah territory were the second to receive the right to vote. Martha Hughes Cannon, a polygamous wife and suffragist, became the first female state senator in U.S. history—Nov. 5, 1896.
According to Tait, from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century, LDS women leaders were also an important part of the National Council of Women.
“It was [in this] council that many women’s groups would meet together to discuss issues of the day,” Tait said. “It was not political, but women had a voice that needed to be heard in the public sphere.”
By the middle of the 20th century, women’s and girl’s auxiliaries had become large and vibrant. They were the flagship of the church, Tait indicated.
“They had great programs, but the women gave service like it was a full-time job,” Tait said. “That model was not sustainable in the global church.”
Many women took their lead from Belle Spafford, General Relief Society president from 1945 to 1974. Spafford served nearly 30 years — the longest length of time anyone served in that position — as president of the largest women’s organization in the world.
In her church capacity, Spafford founded the church’s social services programs and was editor of the Relief Society Magazine.
She also served as president of the National Council of Women from 1968 to 1972. She travelled nationally and internationally, speaking continually on the rights and responsibilities of women.
During the 1970s, another LDS woman leader stepped forward, Barbara B. Smith.
“In the 1970s, as a church, they fought against the Equal Rights Amendment. Barbara B. Smith led the women of the church in the fight,” Tait said. “It was another moment when the church felt the need for Mormon women to stand up.”
Of note, Smith appeared on the Phil Donahue Show, a popular and controversial television talk show, to take a stand against ERA. The church did have its member naysayers, particularly Sonia Johnson, an activist in favor of ERA.
In 1977, Johnson co-founded Mormons for ERA and received national exposure in 1978 when she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights.
Johnson openly denounced the church’s stance against ERA (and its nationwide lobbying efforts). Because she drew national attention, her local church leadership began excommunication proceedings.
Johnson was excommunicated in December of 1979. That didn’t stop her from promoting the Equal Rights Amendment. On one occasion, she and 20 ERA supporters were briefly jailed for chaining themselves to the gate of the church’s Seattle Washington Temple in Bellevue, Washington. That same week the new temple was dedicated.
There have been some issues, like Johnson and ERA, that have divided women in the church. Such is the case with Ordain Women, an organization supporting the ordination of LDS women to the priesthood. In the church, men receive the priesthood, which members are taught is the power to act in God’s name. Women do not receive the priesthood.
Ordain Women held its first public meeting April 6, 2013. In October of that year, 240 women tried to enter the priesthood session of the LDS general conference and were denied; the session was for men only.
Ironically, that was also the first time the church made a live stream of the session available, so women could view it on computers, through BYUtv channel and other venues. That same conference was also the first time a woman offered a prayer in the general sessions of conference.
After that conference, the organization then took to other methods to make a point, including putting a series of six lessons on how to gain the priesthood on YouTube. Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, was excommunicated June 23, 2014. Since that time, the Ordain Women organization has not had much media attention.
The #MeToo movement, which has swept across the country in the public sphere, has also affected LDS members. In November 2017, former sister missionary McKenna Denson, accused the former president over the Provo Missionary Training Center of rape and sexual abuse. She filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Joseph L. Bishop and the church. The incidents happened in 1984. A judge recently dismissed part of Denson’s lawsuit against the church because the statute of limitations had passed, but allowed a fraud claim to stand because the alleged cover-up was discovered recently.
Now as women of the 21st—century church, Tait and others believe it is time for the women to come forward in increased involvement again.
“In our current time period there is another moment in gender issues and how Latter-day Saints are being perceived,” Tait said. “There is a need for substantial involvement with women in the church. It is important to have women represented in the Church as it ebbs and flows with visibility of women.”
Tait did not elaborate on the gender issues she sees coming forward.
Tait added, “We are coming out of one of the ebbs. With the massive global growth (of the church) the balance shifts.”
In 2014, the First Presidency endorsed LDS women who were non-federal chaplains for the first time.
Non-federal means they do not represent branches of the armed services. For Chaplain Tami Harris, who was already a licensed chaplain, that endorsement was a significant move.
“I am endorsed by the church,” Harris said. “I represent the church.”
Harris is the chaplain at the Heritage School in Provo. The school works with troubled teens and brings in students from all over the U.S. Harris services a number of Jewish students from New York City, as well as Christian students of varying denominations.
LDS military chaplains are still required to be male priesthood holders, as they are called upon to give priesthood blessings, which are only permitted to be performed by male members.
Harris said she believes there may come a time in the future when the LDS women chaplains could be called to military service, as there are many female troops that need special counseling that only women can give and receive.
“I love that I belong to a church that cares about the faith of everyone,” Harris said. “Parents know of my faith and it’s never been a problem. They are glad I have a heritage of faith and I help their children with their heritage of faith. You’re there to help everyone.”
Harris added, “There are places and people a woman can reach that others can’t. It has been my honor to assist in the building of bridges in families and with clergy leaders and volunteers of many faith traditions. I believe that is one of the opportunities given to women of The Church of Jesus Christ.”
More global visibility
Women are becoming ever more visible in the world and are being recognized for their contributions.
Brigham Young University religion professor, Mary Jane Woodger, a specialist in women’s history, pinpointed the time the church emerged as a global faith during the leadership of David O. McKay, who led from 1951 until 1970.
“When we went from a regional church to international, (President) David O. McKay was key. He put the responsibility on the church, ‘every member a missionary’. His wife was always there. Before then, you didn’t see a wife,” she said.
She has even personally felt a recent change in support from BYU as a female educator. She didn’t elaborate on the difference, but said, “I’ve been amazed at how very much my colleagues and the university want me to succeed and have as much of a voice as possible. It’s very much an equal experience and that my view point is valued.”
Also in recent years, women are more visibly traveling the world on humanitarian missions and speaking at conferences on faith, family and many other topics. They also are active in the public sphere. Surrounded by leaders of other faiths, including Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish leaders from across the nation, General Relief Society President June B. Bingham offered a prayer May 3, 2018, in Washington D.C. for the National Day of Prayer.
With the sustaining of President Russell M. Nelson as president of the church this year, women have participated in worldwide discussions and are sent out frequently as ambassadors, according to Mormon Newsroom.
Sisters Wendy W. Nelson, Nelson’s wife, and Kristen M. Oaks, wife of President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, have not only traveled with their husbands, but they speak as a team with them. On June 3, the Nelsons hosted a worldwide youth conference as a couple, and spoke together. At RootsTech in March, the Oaks teamed up to talk about family history.
The Nelsons recently traveled together on a Global Ministry Tour in eight different countries, throughout Canada, and in the United States. Wives of members of the Quorum of the Twelve are also counted on to speak as they travel.
As recent as 2016, while countries of the world struggled to come to a consensus about handling the massive refugee influx from the Middle East, again the women of the church were called upon.
“The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a letter (in October 2016) encouraging Mormon women of all ages to assist refugees in their own communities,” a press release from the church stated.
The letter, which outlined the “I Was a Stranger” refugee relief effort, included an invitation from the general presidencies of the church’s Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations and information about how to get involved.
Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, and Lisa L. Harkness, first counselor in the Primary general presidency, were in Escuintla, Guatemala, visiting families living in a church meetinghouse since the volcanic eruption.
The women also went to minister to the residents of the temporary homes in Finca la Industria, Escuintla. The housing was built with funds from the church’s Humanitarian Aid Fund.
From women helping to clean up the grounds around Kenya’s largest teaching hospital this summer, to young women serving at Grow Canada, Canada’s largest urban farm, LDS women are continuing to reach out wherever they are, to whoever they can as they minister and serve around the globe.
Females representing the church abroad and taking some leadership roles is reportedly spreading beyond general presidencies and older women. Woodger noted that in the past five or six years, sister missionaries have been given leadership positions to great effect in the areas they serve. In 2013, the church changed mission leadership to include a mission leadership council that included both male and female missionary leaders. These female leaders function in a new role as sister training leaders.
Women join executive councils
Another adjustment in leadership roles and councils came with the August 2015 announcement general auxiliary president would join the executive councils of the church. Prior to this time, the higher executive councils — or governing bodies — of the church only consisted of male leaders, usually the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Presiding Bishopric and members of the Quorums of the Seventy.
In a new twist on communicating with members where they are, the announcement was posted first on Facebook.
“Several women general officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been appointed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to priesthood leadership councils within the Church,” the announcement said.
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, then Young Women’s president, talked about her new assignment on the Missionary Executive Council in a Facebook post.
“We are confident that the wisdom and judgment of these general auxiliary presidents will provide a valuable dimension to the important work accomplished by these councils,” stated a letter to general authorities and general auxiliary presidencies from Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors in the First Presidency.
During her October 2017 women’s session address of general conference, Sharon Eubank, the first counselor in the Relief Society referred to President Spencer W. Kimball’s talk in 1979 on women.
Eubank noted that Kimball had prepared his talk, but on the day he was to give it he was in the hospital, so his wife Camilla Eyring Kimball read his remarks for him.
Eubank then quoted from Kimball’s message.
“Among the real heroines in the world who will come into the Church are women who are more concerned with being righteous than with being selfish,” Kimball said. “These real heroines have true humility, which places a higher value on integrity than on visibility.
She continued, “… It will be … female exemplars of the Church [who] will be a significant force in both the numerical and the spiritual growth of the Church in the last days.”
Eubank ended with the statement, “I conclude with the words of our well-loved prophet, Thomas S. Monson: ‘My dear sisters, this is your day, this is your time’.”