Conversations around dinner tables, water coolers and circular Relief Society tables have lately centered around women’s issues in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the role of gender in the Church is a hot topic, the significant contributions and roles of women have influenced Church history since the beginning.
“I don’t think people realize what an impact women have had on what happens in the Church and in the programs that have been developed,” said Mary Jane Woodger, professor of church history and doctrine at BYU. “I think if women looked at the history they would be surprised that they have had an incredible influence, even in the upper leadership of the Church. They walk hand in hand with the priesthood. They respect it and the Lord gives them inspiration. Their footprint is there, without a doubt.”
Sheri Dew, former counselor in the LDS General Relief Society Presidency, writes in “Women and the Priesthood” that roughly half the teaching in the Church is done by women.
“These privileges weren’t recent ones prompted by political correctness, but … in 1842, long before women had many privileges under the law, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized women in such a way that they could assume vital leadership and teaching roles in the Church,” she wrote.
Contributions from women in Church leadership roles have led to great opportunities for women and girls, and the Church pointed these out in a letter dated March 17, 2014, directed to Ordain Women in response to their request for tickets to Priesthood Session. The group of women were not granted tickets to the Priesthood Session because, as the letter stated, “The Priesthood Session of general conference is designed to strengthen men and boys as they receive specific instruction about their roles and responsibilities.”
The women in the group desire to receive the priesthood. Their mission statement states that they are acting on the idea that “the fundamental tenets of Mormonism support gender equality: God is male and female, father and mother, and all of us can progress to be like them someday.”
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles touched on the question of female ordination in a 2013 BYU devotional.
“Why are men ordained to priesthood offices and not women?” he said. “President Gordon B. Hinckley explained that it was the Lord, not man, ‘who designated that men in His Church should hold the priesthood’ and that it was also the Lord who endowed women with ‘capabilities to round out this great and marvelous organization, which is the Church and kingdom of God.’ When all is said and done, the Lord has not revealed why He has organized His Church as He has.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told UtahValley360.com that both men and women are loved by our Father in Heaven who has given them different functions physiologically and emotionally.
“Anyone who denies the differences of men and women is failing to harvest the uniqueness of the creator’s assignment of functions and the unique strengths that each bring to the partnership of marriage, which we believe should be eternal in nature and duration,” Elder Oaks said in an interview prior to being awarded the Pillar of the Valley by the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Church leaders listening to, counseling with and championing for the women of the Church has always been an integral part of church administration. Here’s a look back at some of the ways righteous women have influenced the building of the Church and how policies have changed to enhance the influence of women.
July 1830: Three months after the church was officially organized, Joseph Smith receives a revelation for his wife Emma, now recorded as D&C 25. Verses 7 and 16 read, “And thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit. … And verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my voice unto all.”
March 17, 1842: Relief Society Organized. Joseph Smith said, “This society is to get instruction through the order which God has established — through the medium of those appointed to lead — and I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time — this is the beginning of better days to this society.”
1867: Brigham Young asks bishops to reestablish the Relief Society in every ward after the trek west.
1873: LDS women are encouraged to receive medical training.
1890: Wilford Woodruff receives a revelation that leads to the discontinuance of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.
April 1, 1898: Inez Knight and Lucy Jane (Jennie) Brimhall, the first single, official, proselyting female missionaries in the Church, are set apart in Provo, Utah. In a report of their teachings in England, historian Orson F. Whitney wrote, “The hall was crowded, and their remarks were listened to with rapt attention. The novel spectacle of two young and innocent girls — whose appearance alone betokened modesty and virtue, as their utterances showed intelligence and sincerity — declaring in words of soberness that Mormonism was divine, that it had made them what they were, and had sent them forth to bear witness of its truth, was a revelation to many.”
1918: The Relief Society sells 200,000 bushels of wheat to the United States government.
1954: Belle S. Spafford, Relief Society general president, leads the United States delegation at the International Council of Women.
1978: The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve clarify that it is permissible for women to pray in every meeting they attend.
September 23, 1995: President Gordon B. Hinckley reaffirms the roles of men and women in families when he reads “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” in a general Relief Society meeting.
2004: Relief Society, Young Women and Primary general presidents participate in the first worldwide leadership training meeting for auxiliaries.
2012: Minimum age for sister missionaries lowered from 21 to 19. With the influx of female missionaries, mission leadership structures are adjusted. This included the addition of sister training leaders, a role held by sisters that is similar to that of a zone leader. Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Missionary Department, said the new structure would “better employ the remarkable faith, talents and abilities of all missionaries.”
April 2013: Jean A. Stevens becomes the first woman to pray in General Conference.
March 2014: Church officials state that they “considered many outstanding, well-qualified men and women for the position” of BYU president.