It’s a pleasure and an honor to address this conference today. I am a newbie at FAIR, so in preparing this talk I paid close attention to the description on the conference website. This description identified three elements for conference presentations:
- “a unique perspective on history, science, or theology”
- “a desire to help discuss issues that are sometimes challenging to testimonies and faith”
- “information and answers needed to faithfully deal with criticisms leveled against the Church and gospel”
The “challenging issue” I’d like to tackle today is gender. In a talk to CES teachers in 2016, Elder M. Russell Ballard said that the Information Age had changed the game of building faith in young people:
“Our curriculum [a generation ago], though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view. Today, what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting.
Elder Ballard identified “gender issues” as among today’s challenging topics. This slide shows examples of the kinds of questions, themes, and memes pertaining to gender and the Church that one sees often online. People comment on the absence of women compared to men in Church documents and discourse.
Of course, women have been part of the story of the restored Church since the very beginning. If there had been no women involved in the Restoration, Joseph Smith’s movement wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. If anything, there are probably more women members who participate in the Church than men. But some people, especially young people, don’t see women in our history. Whose problem is that?
Here’s a little pop-quiz. Take 30 seconds to see if you can name 5 women from Church history? Tick them off on your fingers.
A while ago some of my colleagues at the Church History Department made an informal survey, asking this same question to adults attending Gospel Doctrine classes. Most couldn’t come up with five names. Of those they remembered, the most frequently listed were Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and “that woman with the cow and the milk strippings.” I gave this quiz to my husband. When I asked him to name men, he easily rattled off a string of names, starting with the early church Presidents whose names we have enshrined in Primary songs. But women were a blank space.
Today’s presentation about responding to concerns about gender issues at Church has four parts. First, I share my perspective as a historian of China and Christianity; then I share information from people who frequently talk to young people about gender issues, and actions we are taking at the Church History Department to address these concerns. Finally, I list some actions all of us can take.
First, perspective: My mission in Taiwan had a lasting influence on my perspective. After my mission I continued to study religion in China. I wrote a book on a Chinese restorationist movement in China called the True Jesus Church. It’s the story of someone who was a bit uncertain about which of the Christian denominations was correct, had a vision and saw Jesus, and was commanded to restore the one true Church—in China, in 1917.
This study took me deep into the history of Christian missionary work in China, first with European missionaries, and later with local Chinese Christians. When European missionaries first got to China, they struggled to find the right Chinese word for “God.” For instance the 16th century Catholics considered the word “shen,” which can be either plural or singular, god or gods or spirits, but rejected it because it could refer to petty deities or even personal spirits. They coined the term Tianzhu, Lord of Heaven. This word was entirely foreign, which meant it couldn’t tap into existing reverential feelings, but then it didn’t have to compete with other native religious associations. Contrast this with the Protestant choice, Shangdi, “God-on-High.” The problem with this is that Shangdi was an actual name for an actual God in the Chinese religious pantheon, like Zeus. Here’s a big statue of him in Taiwan.
Multiple translations of the Chinese Book of Mormon wrestled with the gaps between English and Chinese terms. The earlier translation of the sacrament prayer in Moroni starts off, “Shangdi, yonghende fu”—Shangdi, eternal father. But the more recent translation now uses “Shen”.
Beyond written words, Christians in China also struggled to bridge a cultural gap when it came to visual images. Here we have two depictions of the story of the wealthy young man in Mark. The German and the Chinese illustrators have both painted Christ and his followers—who were Middle Easterners—in their own German or Chinese national image.
My guess is that of the two options, most of the members of this audience today would feel like the German Jesus is “the right Jesus”. It’s what we’re used to. But to the Chinese Christians, the slim, wispy-bearded Jesus with black hair was the “Jesus who felt like Jesus,” and they could see themselves in his followers. Very sensibly, instead of insisting on European Jesus, local Christian artists represented the Savior with all the cultural cues and visual symbols that would align with Chinese expectations for a benevolent Savior who knew them and loved them.
The retranslation of the Chinese language for God in the Book of Mormon illustrates how hard it is to bridge cultural gaps. Sometimes you have to keep having a go. The two pieces of artwork show how “cultural differences” are not just about folk dance and clothes. They extend to how people understand the divine, and what they expect from it.
Ignorance of cultural difference can be costly. When I was a new professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, I was assigned to teach a discussion section in a lecture hall that had rows and rows of seats with little desks. I organized the students into discussion clusters and told students in lower rows to just sit on their desks.
A young woman raised her hand, a bit uncomfortably, and told me that in Māori culture, sitting on tables was tapu. It was one of the rudest things a person could do, like picking one’s nose before an audience or kicking a baby. As an American, I didn’t see a problem with table-sitting. But in this setting, since I was trying to get this group of young people in New Zealand to pay attention to me and respect me, I must not sit on that table. It would distract from my message and detract from my credibility.
These stories describe how effective communication depends on understanding, and taking seriously, gaps in culture that vary from place to place. Hard work is also required for bridging cultural gaps that grow between generations. The work of adapting to changing times and generational differences is part of the ongoing Restoration, in which we eagerly look for the great things that God has yet to reveal.
In 1934, Joseph Fielding Smith, then an apostle, later President of the Church, addressed a conference of leaders concerned about faith crises among young Latter-day Saints. Many were disillusioned about the clash between contemporary scientific understandings about how the earth was formed and a literal reading of the Bible. Many didn’t see a way forward.
But Elder Smith declared that “frequent reorientation” in Church teachings was necessary as horizons of human knowledge and experience broadened: “What was adequate for Moses’ time was not adequate for Christ’s, what was adequate for the Prophet Joseph’s time is not adequate for ours, and our grandchildren’s world will find our interpretations inadequate. Their world will have so changed that fundamental truth in order to function for their benefit will have to be interpreted in light of their needs and problems.”
Elder Smith would be 144 years old today. The grandchildren of whom he spoke are now grandparents. The onus is on the older generations to engage with the needs and problems of the younger generations.
So now let’s take a closer look at these needs and problems.
Historian Ardis Parshall, took a look at the indexes of popular Church histories and counted women. In the 1970 Joseph Smith and the Restoration the percentage of named women was 7%. Story of the Latter-day Saints was 8.5%. By Rough Stone Rolling in 2005 it was 15%–seven men to each one woman. If the trend continues at this rate it will be 2189 before we have histories that discuss women and men in normal (50-50) ratios.
The absence of women from history, records, and discourse in general is a problem found all over the world, called “the gender data gap.” One study of U.S. high school history textbooks from 1960 to 1990 found that only 9% of the names in the indexes were women. A 2015 worldwide study of newspaper, television, and radio news found that women made up only 24% of named persons therein. A 2013 study of films and TV found the ratio of male to female characters in family films was 2.5 men to 1 woman.
It’s not the case that, historically, there have been no talented or noteworthy women, no women whose contributions were worth remembering. Barbara Strozzi, an Italian composer during the baroque era, had more music in print in her lifetime than any other composer of the era. She was kind of like the Beatles or Elvis Presley, the group and artist with the most albums in the second half of the twentieth century.
Perhaps because she was a singer as well as a composer, most of Barbara Strozzi’s work is written for the accompanied female voice. Her father was a poet, and perhaps because of his influence Strozzi’s work is known for the way the musical inflections are intimately tied to the words of the text. You can hear this in her solo cantata setting of a poem, “Lagrime mie,” in which the first line of the text reads, [SONG] “Tears of mine, what holds you back, why don’t you give vent to the fierce pain that takes away my breath and weighs on my heart?” Here’s a 1-minute clip.
But few people today have heard of Barbara Strozzi, the Elvis of the 17th century. Her teacher and contemporary, Francesco Cavalli, is well-known. As a man, he was able to get a job at St. Mark’s in Venice as head of music (this position was not open to women) that gave him steady financial resources. With these resources he paid for his works to be kept in a library and cared for by an archivist. He also paid for his Masses to be sung on the anniversary of his death. No wonder Cavalli’s name was preserved over centuries and Strozzi’s fell from public remembrance.
Without being accusing or argumentative over why history has so many more references to men than to women, we can simply acknowledge that this is a fact. Of course for many centuries and indeed most of recorded history, this foregrounding of men, men’s activities, and men’s words seemed only natural, to the point that even today, learning about the gender data gap is surprising. It is kind of crazy, when you really think about it, to think that for centuries people have assumed that “history” included only stories about activities that at the time were mostly limited to males, like being a head of state, or a soldier, or a pope.
We now realize that political, military, and ecclesiastical activities are not the only things worth understanding and remembering. The history of humanity is the history of the children of God, the stories of their lives and contributions. This is why we do family history, of course. A person doesn’t have to be a head of state to make a difference. We seek them out and tell their stories because they are our own.
What do we lose, when we leave women out of our history?
In the first place, we lose the gifts that they have shared—their talents, discoveries, insights, and sacrifices.
In the second place, we run the danger of having a skewed view of reality—not knowing who we really are as children of God. Women’s stories and lives are not “niche.” Half of all of us are women.
Dr. Valerie Hudson, who was a mechanic in the Special Forces before she was a renowned political scientist, says from a military point of view, the gender data gap signifies “a failure to cultivate ‘situational awareness.’ You are making worse decisions when you don’t have a complete understanding, and you will never have a complete understanding without consulting women” and including women in the picture.
The third thing we lose when we leave women out of our history is proof that you can be a strong, intelligent, pathbreaking woman and also be a Latter-day Saint. In 2001 President Gordon B. Hinckley told the young women, “the whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. . . . You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.”
This generation has taken President Hinckley’s advice and run with it. They also have a sharpened awareness of gender issues. They count where women are present and absent. If our young women don’t see themselves in our history, how can they see themselves in our future?
Gender issues don’t concern young women only. Rachel Cope, a professor in the Religious Education department at BYU, said that in recent years both men and women had approached her, troubled by what they saw in terms of gender in the Church.
“One semester. . . I had more male students come into my office concerned about gendered temple language and women’s absence from formal roles at Church than I did female students. They had questions about practices that felt wrong and looked wrong to them.”
Without opining on what gender compositions are ideal or whether certain situations naturally produce particular gender ratios, we can observe that young people pay close attention to the presence and absence of women, and see sexism as incompatible with something true and godly.
As my friend Erin McPhie put it in a popular article for Meridian Magazine, young people today are eagle-eyed at spotting sexism, which they regard as morally disgusting.
“We can be sure that our youth are on high alert for [sexism], and that when they find it, it pains them. It blunts the needed impact of our teaching, obscures the light of divine standards in their lives, and may even frustrate them so much that they don’t ever get past the wrapping to see what’s inside.”
The heart of the restored gospel is our faith in Jesus Christ. But if young people look at our church histories and see sexism, it makes it harder for them to see Christ here, too.
At this point, someone who doesn’t currently share these concerns might say, “Who cares about appearances?” In our Church we have been taught to care about appearances very much, particularly the appearance of evil. This “appearance of evil” shifts in every age and place. Not too long ago, people might have zealously measured dress hemlines as a litmus test for righteousness. Now, many young people’s morality litmus tests measure sexism, along with racism and other social issues.
Appearances matter in missionary work as well. Missionaries representing Jesus Christ adopt tidy grooming and demeanor that facilitates respect for their message. When we write the history of the Church that bears the Savior’s name, we owe it to him to not present him in a slovenly way that makes his church look sexist or otherwise dismissive of whole groups of God’s children.
In sum: not caring about whether the stories we tell at church seem sexist is kind of like having spinach stuck in one’s front teeth. It may not bother us, and we may not even notice it, but it makes people looking at us take us less seriously. If it doesn’t do violence to the core gospel truth of Christ’s atonement, and if it makes young people better able to hear the Savior’s voice, why not pick the spinach out?
So let’s talk about how we can take action. First I’ll talk about what we are working on at the Church History Department, and then I’ll make some suggestions about what all of us can do.
At the Church History Department we strive to serve the whole, global church. We are working hard to keep records and write histories that acknowledge the Saints’ diverse experiences. We are working to narrow the gender gap by publishing work that shows women’s dynamic contributions in building Zion.
At the forefront of this effort are the Global Histories – histories of ordinary Latter-day Saints all around the world. And at this point, I’d like to make a note that all over the world, “gender issues” are very different for people depending on their situation. Because of the composition of the audience I’m speaking to today, educated people in Western postindustrial societies, my talk today primarily discusses a particular sort of gender complaint—the perception that women have relatively less visibility and opportunity in a church setting than in surrounding society.
In many other places and cultures around the world with very conservative gender norms, where the Proclamation on the Family may read like a revolutionary feminist document, the situation looks very different. I’ll speak some more about this toward the end of my talk.
If you go to the Global Histories within the Church History section of the gospel library, you’ll see stories like the story of Elizabeth Xavier Tait. I’ll draw on the version that’s currently online with other stories from India.
Elizabeth was born and raised in India. Her great-grandfather was Portuguese. She married William Tait, a British man. The two of them joined the Church in 1852, in Poona. In 1855 they joined a group of Saints who were making their way across the Pacific Ocean, and from there to Utah. William loaded their possessions and their young son onto the ship, expecting Elizabeth to arrive shortly with their infant daughter. Minutes before departure, he learned that Elizabeth’s mother had prevented her from coming. Elizabeth booked passage on the next ship, even though it was bound across the Atlantic Ocean for New York City instead. After arriving in New York, Elizabeth made the journey across the eastern United States with her infant daughter, who died in Iowa. After burying her baby, Elizabeth crossed the plains with the Willie handcart company. She survived the journey and was reunited with her husband when he and other members of the rescue party rushed out to bring the Willie and Martin companies in from the plains. William and Elizabeth Tait settled in Cedar City with their son, where Elizabeth taught school and raised seven more children.
And yet: It’s no longer enough to tell faith-promoting stories; we must be able to cite faith-promoting data. My colleague Ryan Saltzgiver and a team of missionaries and interns who launched the Global Histories project wanted to have situational awareness. As we know from research on the gender data gap, things can feel equal but often turn out to be really unequal when we actually count.
They put together a spreadsheet that tracked how many of the “Stories of Faith” in the Global Histories mentioned women by name, showed women taking action (as opposed to just being mentioned as someone’s wife, for instance), or featured women as the chief protagonist or co-protagonist. They also counted total numbers of women and men.
In the first round of counting, after the first 40 places had been written up, from Argentina to Wales, this is what they got:
- 70% of the stories had at least one woman who appeared and was mentioned by name
- 44% of stories depicted women taking action
- 14% of stories listed a woman as the point of view protagonist
- 12% of the stories listed a woman as a co-protagonist (often with a husband)
- Women were 26% of the named individuals, including names from that country’s chronology
In terms of “being a normal, natural representation of women” it was not super (only just over halfway there), but compared to women in the 20th century U.S. history textbook study or the Global Media Project study, it was better representation than either, at 9% and 24% respectively.
In the second batch of counting, after another 9 histories had been written up, this is what we see:
- This time, 83% of the stories had women appearing, mentioned by name.
- 74% of the stories showed women taking action. This improved on [the] 44% in the first batch and brought the average up to 50%.
- 20% of stories were told from a woman protagonist’s point of view, improving on 14% and bringing the average up to 15%.
- Women were co-protagonists in 33% of the stories, improving on 12% and bringing the average up to 16%.
The percentage of women named stayed at 26%. This is because in this second batch there were a ton of men named from South Africa, Russia, Romania, and Denmark.
Just before this conference I took a look at a third batch of histories in the queue, waiting to be published. It wasn’t ALL the histories in the queue—just the first sixteen out of twenty-four.
- A woman was named in 87% of the stories.
- A non-protagonist woman took action in 57% of the stories, bringing the average up to 51%.
- A woman was the point of view protagonist in 36% of the stories, bringing the average up to 19%.
- A woman was a co-protagonist in 45% of the stories, bringing the average up to 22%.
- Women were 28 percent of named individuals, bringing the average up one percentage point to 27%.
Just one percent!
There are two morals to this story: One, the skew in the historical records themselves is really hard to overcome.
- Most mission records are the Internal bureaucratic correspondence of North American mission administrators or missionary leaders, written for Salt Lake City leaders (essentially, men talking to men about male activities)
- In chronologies, we have a lot of “major events,” which are administrative – a new branch, district, ward, stake, or high-ranking leader visit, centered around changes in priesthood officeholding
- They are usually written in English, inconsistent romanizations of languages, so it’s hard to get people’s “actual names” in the local languages
- There’s infrequent recording of female leaders such as presidents of Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary
But the second moral is that even given the limitations in the sources, it is possible to narrow the gender data gap by digging a little more. Just by exercising a little accountability, we went from 14% of stories with women as the point of view protagonist to 36%. Individual stories have more inherent flexibility and less of those structural limitations than a chronology of “important church events” and here it’s possible to make a real difference.
Let me show you what this kind of “digging” looks like. I’ll share examples from Germany in the late 1920s and 1940s and Hong Kong from the 1950s and 1960s.
This is the minute book of the Dresden Relief Society. It is written in beautiful handwriting in a book with very sturdy, thick pages that make a nice sound when you turn them. I’ve taken a video here so you can appreciate the nice sound:
Here’s a photo that was tucked into the back pages, probably some time after 1948.
These sources not only give us the names of women leaders, like “Mission President Eliza Tadje” and “President Sister Radichel”, they also give us their titles. Both women were referred to respectfully as “President.” Because the congregations were small and women outnumbered men—in Dresden in the late 1920s, there were many more active female tithe-payers than male tithe-payers.—Relief Society activities were often the de facto activities of the whole unit. This meeting is listed as taking place under the presiding authority of President Sister Radichel, but with male members such as the branch president in attendance.
This is a record from the RS in the city of Koeln (Cologne). This first record here is produced around the same time as the Dresden record book, just before the Great Depression spread around the world and plunged the German economy into a downward spiral which helped fuel the rise of the Nazi party.
During this time in Cologne, “Families lived five to a room with one bed and heated with coal picked from ash heaps; children went without schoolbooks, winter coats, or even decent underwear; some, in Cologne’s South Side, went to school barefoot.”
During this difficult time, the Relief Society women held “working hours”, knitting and selling socks to support themselves and each other. As they did this, they sang and read poetry and literature.
Here in December 1930, in the middle of the depression, the 18 sisters in the Cologne Relief Society raised 95 marks (around a month’s salary for a working woman)
Here in December 1930, they still worked hard, but also pooled their resources so they could have a Christmas party. Their expenses are listed as wool, Christmas party provisions, Christmas presents, and stage props.
Skipping ahead to 1948, this welfare report lists the items that Relief Society members made together, meeting on Monday afternoons, noting,
“The undertaking was the desire of the members and brought much joy. It produced:
15 bras, 2 children’s shirts, 2 boys’ shirts, 6 girls’ underwear, 5 aprons, 6 slips, 8 hats, 3 hair-stylists’ cloaks, 2 dresses, 3 pairs of house shoes for children, 2 pairs of house shoes for adults, 9 women’s underwear, 6 caps, 1 hood, 40 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of leggings, 1 child’s jacket, 1 pillow, 2 children’s blouses, 1 plush vest, 4 rugs made out of old socks . . .”
In this lively list we see the industry, ingenuity, and care of the women of the Dresden Relief Society. The old socks are converted into useful rugs; the hair-stylists cloaks could be used to earn additional income—even in war, hair keeps growing; and they also made things for women, like bras and slips.
This report from 1948 comes on the heels of a desperate time in the Dresden Saints’ lives: the months and years after the end of the war, when Germany was utterly devastated and food was in short supply. Money was worthless, and many died of hunger.
In these postwar years, one Latter-day Saint woman named Ilse Kaden from the Dresden Ward kept her family from starvation by trading knitted jackets for a sack of flour. She darned socks for milk, cheese, and eggs. The Relief Society culture of “handwork” on behalf of others had saved their own families as well.
The Church was established in Hong Kong in 1955. Most Church members were refugees
And you can see this huge influx of people—the population of Hong Kong was 600,000 in 1945, but by 1950, 5 years later, it had swelled to 2 million, and 3 million in 1960. At the peak of the migration there were 1,000 new refugees a day. And people were living in squatter settlements on hillsides in very temporary shelters.
These mission records can be hard to penetrate. They were written by North American mission presidents, primarily, and pay more attention to missionary transfers and statistics than women’s activities. We can catch a few sentences here and there, for instance:
“[In the Tsim Sha Tsui Primary] some difficulty is experienced because of distances which some of the children must come alone.”
Digging further, we found a personal reminiscence by HK’s first local full-time missionary, Nora Koot. The sister missionaries collected the children from a rural settlement and took them to a church activity in the city. By the end of the activity, it was late, pitch dark, and the children’s homes were far away. So Sister Koot had them sleep over, boys and girls, at the missionaries’ apartment. Her North American companion wrung her hands—“Oh, we’re breaking so many mission rules!” But everything turned out fine.
We ran into the usual gender data gap with the story of Ning Ching, a former Nationalist Army field commander, and “his wife,” who had come to Hong Kong as refugees. Ning Ching was listed in the mission record. His family was baptized in 1958. They got a $75 microloan from the Hong Kong mission to start a noodle factory and sold noodles out of their home. But what was his wife’s name? We reached out to local members in Hong Kong, and they remembered her name. Now she’s there in the history as a person in her own right.
The Hong Kong temple is a famous part of Hong Kong history and of temple history, with its unusual story as the first multipurpose temple structure in the world. This story features President Hinckley waking up in the middle of the night, drawing a picture of the temple, and consulting with many local leaders. It’s a wonderful story, but there aren’t many women in it, and so we looked for a way to include them.
We found and included the story of another way in which the Hong Kong temple made temple history, by pioneering the first Sunday temple worship.
Many of the church members in Hong Kong are women from the Philippines or Indonesia, who work as live-in domestic helpers. It’s demanding work. They only get one day off, and this day is set by their employer. Sisters whose day off falls on Sunday were never able to attend the temple, because the temple was closed Sundays. One day local leaders thought to ask up the chain whether accommodations could be made for them. In March 2014, it was announced that the Hong Kong temple would be opened on Sunday once every quarter to allow these sisters to access temple worship. Fe Marzan, Relief Society President of the Peninsula 3rd Ward, was there on that first Sunday session. Fe remembers,
“The room was filled with happy saints. Our eyes met and we couldn’t hold back the tears flowing down on our cheeks.”
One Global History with very recent content is the story of Esohe Ikponmwen, born in 1954. Her father was determined that all his nine children should be well-educated. Her mother, Dianah, who was illiterate, supported all nine of her children as they focused on their studies. Esohe completed studies in law at the University of Nigeria, Enugu. She and her husband Edward both built successful careers and had five children.
In 1992, when Esohe was serving as a magistrate in Edo state, she visited her mother’s home and found her nieces and nephews reading the Book of Mormon to her mother. She confronted her brother, who had brought it home, and told him it was dangerous. He told her the book and the Church that had given it to him were good, but she remained unconvinced. Later, Esohe found that her mother was learning to read. The Church that had given them the Book of Mormon also organized literacy courses. Her mother was now able to read from the scriptures and write letters to a daughter who had emigrated. Seeing her mother so happy, Esohe began to reconsider her assumptions about the Church. “There must be something there,” she thought.
Esohe investigated the Church for more than a year. Eventually she decided to be baptized. She has served both as president of her stake’s Relief Society and chief judge of the high court of Edo State in Nigeria. She was known for her integrity. She was also known for being a Latter-day Saint. After her swearing-in ceremony, when reporters asked her about her attitude toward her work, she quoted King Benjamin: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.”
This short video clip from 2019 shows the ceremony to commemorate her retirement as a judge. Esohe is one of the highest-ranking Latter-day Saint judicial officials in the world, along with Christine Durham, who was chief justice of the supreme court of Utah State in the United States. A prestigious scholarship has been established in Esohe’s name to mentor young female lawyers.
So, we at the Church History Department are working hard to publish better histories. Now it’s your job to read them and use them. Here are some “action items” that will help everyone respond to the criticism that women are missing from our Church history, with knock-on effects in our Church culture. This gender gap is not borne of malicious or domineering intent. It simply reflects a longstanding pattern in human history, which naturally shaped patterns in Church history.
But now we know about this gap in our records and storytelling. Now we know that significant gender gaps make it hard for young people to believe that this particular Church, compared to all the other churches and religious traditions sailing on the wide sea of possibility, is where God wants them to be.
It does not diminish the Savior’s Atonement one whit to fill the blank spaces in our history and in our consciousness with women’s contributions and women’s discipleship. On the contrary, the Savior’s teaching compels us to reckon with times we have buried women’s talents in the ground instead of multiplying and distributing them for the glory of Christ. We can resolve to undertake the new journeys needed to feed his sheep in this generation.
ACTION ITEM I
Find and magnify women’s words and voices in lessons, talks, conversations
I really, really love the recent publication At the Pulpit, a compilation of Latter-day Saint women’s discourses. A talk in Mexico City in 1972 by Lucrecia Suarez de Juarez has a beautiful story that someone should make into a short animation. A talk on suffering at BYU in 1986 by Francine Bennion is one of the most powerful discourses I’ve ever encountered in the entire Church tradition.
ACTION ITEM 2
Count. Notice situations where women’s voices, talents, and perspectives are weirdly absent. If you see something, say something.
- Ward councils, sacrament meeting lineups, special youth fireside programs, Church history, conference talks used as the basis for lessons
ACTION ITEM 3
Don’t miss missionary opportunities to highlight the strength of women in Latter-day Saint theology and history
And remember, at church, it is our children who are the real investigators
Latter-day Saints believe Eve was wise and took initiative
We believe we are children of a loving Heavenly Father and Mother
Hammer these points home!
ACTION ITEM 4
We need to use women’s names a lot so we remember them.
Maybe the next time you’re climbing a mountain, you can say, “Elizabeth Xavier Tait crossed two oceans and one continent. I can do this”
People who are talented should write Primary songs about Elizabeth, and also about Jane Manning James, Eliza R. Snow, Martha Hughes Cannon, and so on.
You might feel some trepidation, like, “Oh, but will it be a problem to have the boys singing a song about women, or memorizing women’s names?” At this point, you should ask, “Have the girls ever had a problem singing songs about men, or memorizing men’s names?” “Songs about women” might sound weird and edgy, but just because we’re used to the gender data gap! Half of everyone is neither weird, nor edgy!
STUDY – USE RESOURCES; SAINTS IS TRYING HARD.
Jed Woodworth was kind enough to share his list of named women from Saints, Vol. 1. They are also trying to narrow the gender data gap. Maybe some of you were able to name women from Church history because you remember them from Saints. I counted, and Saints blew the Global Histories away in terms of total named women—39%.
ACTION ITEM 5
Write local histories of your branch, ward, district, or stake. So often we historians find bare-bones unit records that list only proceedings of ward conferences, changes in callings, and notes about the occasional visiting speaker from Salt Lake. They are like the historical sources equivalent of a neverending pre-recorded telephone message. But occasionally we find things that are delightful, like stories about what the local Saints are up to and detailed descriptions, with names, especially of women, tearing it up at linger-longers, youth camps, and stage productions.
Being called as a branch or ward historian is often a thankless, lonely task. I’ve never heard of someone who refused the offer of free additional primary sources.
If you’re a woman, write your own story. If you’re a woman, you might also say: But is it self-promoting? Given the severity of the gender data gap in history, I would say it is self-preserving. Women are up against powerful forces of disappearance. Your gifts and hard-won experiences must not be lost, like the work of Barbara Strozzi, Elvis Presley of the 17th century.
I’ve spoken warningly of the negative effects of women’s absence, but I should also mention the positive effects of Latter-day Saint women’s presence.
I feel so awesome, by association, to know of the accomplishments of Esohe Ikponmwen, a renowned judge and pioneer for women, and my sister in the gospel. She chose this Church on her own terms, after seeing its good fruits, and has used it as a springboard for service to others.
I feel so devastated, by association, to know of the privations of Ilse Kaden and those sisters in the Dresden Branch in the years after World War II. It’s common to speak of “Nazi Germany” as one big horrible clump of people, but I can’t think of Germany during this time without remembering my Latter-day Saint sisters and wondering what it felt like to be swept up into the currents of nationalism, totalitarianism, and war, with mouths to feed.
There are aspects of human experience that come through the pattern of women’s lives that differ from the pattern of men’s lives, that enrich us all.
Earlier I noted that gender issues are tied to local cultural realities, and vary depending on where you are in the world and in the Church. What is seen as a problem for women in one place is not necessarily seen as a problem for women in another.
Speaking personally, as an individual, I find this global perspective really healthy. It’s not a silver bullet for gender-driven faith crises, but it does inspire humility, which is always helpful.
There are innumerable cultures and societies beyond the narrow audience I address today. I do believe in the existence of universal values that transcend culture, but I freely acknowledge that my understanding and experience are limited.
What I love about the women I see in the Global Histories is how little we have in common in terms of our everyday cultural assumptions, yet how much we share in terms of our covenants to follow Christ and bear one another’s burdens.
[IN THE PHOTO: 1977 Ana Cumandá Rivera of Quito and Sister Missionaries from Ecuador, 2014 Ebola epidemic family in West Africa receives supplies, 2018 Belarus sisters make blankets for orphanages]
In sum, I would like to leave you with testimony. Sometimes, testimony means saying “I believe X, and I know Y,” with the assumption that if you say you believe X and know Y, a listener will also believe X and know Y. Sometimes this is how it works. But it doesn’t work to change the situation that causes some to be concerned about gender issues. Testimony can also mean “offering evidence” to be weighed and considered.
This “by their fruits you shall know” style of testimony is the kind of testimony we need with regard to difficult gender issues. If we aspire to teach about Jesus Christ in the Information Age, we must not give His church the appearance of evil through careless disregard or prideful ignorance of women’s experiences and concerns.
We must, and shall, provide young people with better evidence that women belong and flourish within the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, historically and in the present. We must be accountable for the presence of women in the center of our bookshelves, lessons, and cultural references. Like learning a new language or culture, it will take time and effort; it will make us feel occasionally dumb and vulnerable. But now we have great historical resources, and great direction from the leaders of the Church.
I do believe God has brought us together in these confusing times and mortal circumstances to learn from each other’s wide experiences and learn to be repairers of the breach. I do know the gift of the Atonement, which allows us to leave behind the things that encumber our spirits and find a new life. As we strive to see our fellow strangers as children of Heavenly Parents, our true sisters and brothers, we will become equal to our task, and bring forth fruits worthy of the Savior’s name.
Scott: The first question is, do you believe the removal of mention of polygamous wives and handbooks about the Presidents of the Church hinders or helps appropriate view of the role of women in the church? So when the President of the Church handbooks came out, or the manuals came out a few years ago, the writer was telling me that many of the polygamous wives were not mentioned so the first wife was, but not the other wives. Good, bad? What are your thoughts on that?
Melissa: I think Claudia Bushman put it really well when she said, those women paid the price then, and they pay the price now. I think we should remember who they are, they made a huge sacrifice, because they were trying to follow Christ and gain eternal life.
Scott: That’s good. So what are your thoughts about the gender ratios of men and women in the new Saints volumes and how does it compare with previous histories?
Melissa: Right, so I did mention this in that last slide, so I think Saints is doing a fantastic job of trying to bring women into the stories, and what I love about Saints is that you kind of have to spend a lot of time with someone to remember their name. And what I love about it is, for example, Louisa Pratt and the other characters in the Saints, they come back over and over again. You check in with them throughout the whole volume. And that’s really wonderful. So I gave my dad the five “name five women from church history” quiz, and he was able to do it by drawing on his new found knowledge from having read Saints. So, I think that the team is doing a great job. And they’re really paying attention to this. It was Jed Woodworth who gave me the numbers that I use in my presentation because they’re paying attention to those numbers as well.
Scott: Excellent, yes. So the Church History Department has been very focused on bringing us women’s stories recently, and it’s wonderful. The curriculum department seems to lag behind. How can I move this knowledge into mainstream teaching instead of only in places we have to go looking for it?
Melissa: Advising the curriculum department’s way of my pay grade, but what I think we can do is we can… In Latter-day Saint settings, we are usually the lay teachers. We are in many ways, our own curriculum in our family home evenings and in Come, Follow Me discussions with their families, and even in Sunday school, people bring in things that they’ve read and quotes that they like or other talks to supplement what’s already there. So there’s just so many resources out there, and I should have mentioned this in my presentation, but some of them have been explicitly produced to remedy this thing, like The Witness of Women is a Deseret publication, it talks about women in Church history, so that when you’re talking about Church history, you’ll have this great resource to plug women in at every single point, and there’s some really cool experiences in that book that aren’t—that we should all know about because they’re faith-promoting and awesome.
Scott: That’s excellent. Here’s another question. It says, Melissa, you have an impressively extensive scope of the Church internationally, especially as it pertains to Asia and the Pacific. What more can you tell us about the growth, progress and challenges of the Church in the PRC that is not already known via the Church News?
Melissa: That’s also way above my pay grade
Scott: That’s fine. And what can we improve women representation in future publications, how can women better see themselves in ancient scripture canon, such as the Book of Mormon?
Melissa: That’s a really good question. I think there’s two answers to that. One is that it’s just simply a fact there aren’t a lot of stories about women in the Book of Mormon, or Nephi’s wife probably had a name, but it’s hard to remember her because we just remember her as Nephi’s wife. The second aspect of that though, is people have done a really good job and kind of mining on the stories, I really like just the children’s book, The Girls Who Love God series, where it talks about women in the Book of Mormon. And they point out that there are women throughout the Book of Mormon, they’re there at the Waters of Mormon, they’re there when King Benjamin speaks, and they say, what’s the desire of their hearts? So we can point them out and just be a little creative in how we tell those stories. You don’t have to make things up. Clearly, women were there, you just have to realize that they’re there, but they don’t have names, and do what we can to mitigate that.
Scott: Ok, very good. This is kind of a long question, but I’m going to read it anyway. It says, “I understand why we continue to talk about gender disparity in Church history and society. I recognize that my wife and I are older, in our 60s, but we have seen in our lifetime how efforts to equalize the genders, at least in society at large, have led to greater emphasis on women’s role in politics, business leadership, et cetera, and has minimized their far more important role as mothers. This affects both genders since men are one of the products and causes of these disparities in spite of many of our seven children having left the covenant path, my wife still feels that her greatest contribution was in being able to be a stay-at-home mom. How do we balance?” Long question.
Melissa: So the question is asking, how do we balance emphasis on people’s different roles?
Scott: I think what they’re saying is we’re emphasizing leadership roles, business, politics of women, and it seems to have a de-emphasis on raising children, which is important for all of our children, both male and female. So how do we help women contribute more to society, while still allowing and giving encouragement to be good mothers, wives and those types of things? At least that’s how I’m interpreting this question. That’s right. Obviously, yeah, I know, …
Melissa: I have two responses to that. I mean, number one, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Joseph Smith, Brigham Young—they were all fathers. The second thing is, I think President Hinkley’s talk, which I quoted in my presentation, is relevant. He said “The whole gamut of human endeavor is open to women. You can make a contribution to society and make and build society.” So I don’t think that President Hinckley himself saw a contradiction there. He also was a father, and his being the president of the Church didn’t make him unable to be a father.
Scott: Here’s another question, “As you studied about the history of Christianity in China, what aspects of Christology have you found to be the most resonant with the non-Westerners and what aspects seem to be the most difficult to understand?”
Melissa: Oh, that’s a good question. Talking specifically about Christology, not about religion?
Scott: I think that’s not what you spoke about, but I think your bio piqued their interest.
Melissa: I think what most readily comes to mind is kind of the gap in Christology that comes to from a kind of cultural Chinese point of view, there’s not a really great word for sin, the word for sin, which we currently use, the Christian context in China, can also mean guilt or the bad thing you did, or a debt even. Yeah, it’s like the guilt, the thing you owe or the bad thing, but it doesn’t have this sense of a terrible moral toxin that drags you down and damns you forever. Of course, a lot of Latter-day Saints don’t really believe in sin in that exact same way either. But that’s a difference. So I think one of the things that is really important in the Christology, in the Chinese question point of view, is Jesus’s power to exercise, to heal and to command the elements, his charismatic power was very important and very resonant in a Chinese cultural context where there are so many different deities out there, so you would worship the deity that was able to do things, are you make your life better, and protect you. The True Jesus Church, for example, founded by Wei Enbo in 1917, which is very much like our church, but just in China, was popular at the very beginning, because of the miracles of healing and tongues and exorcism that they practiced.
Scott: Ok, our time is up. We really appreciate your talk and I appreciate the extra effort of you coming here. I know it was an extra effort on your part to come here today. I thank you very much.