We Say, “Sisters are Doin’ it For Themselves”

Provo Missionary Training Center entrance
Provo Missionary Training Center entrance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aretha Franklin & Annie Lenox. Doin’ it for themselves.

So one of my friends went to a fireside on a few Sundays ago with the Director of Operations at the MTC (LDS Missionary Training Center). He said that sister missionaries will now be 50% of the population, so the whole dynamics of how missions run will change. There will be sisters-only districts, and they will have to restructure leadership. And here is the proof of that. 

This is a rather interesting and perhaps the first unexpected step of a new thought order within Mormondom. Women have been a larger proportion of the active LDS population for many years. Just like they are in other parts of society (larger college attendance numbers, every grad school but business) women have pushed up their participation. Now its the mission field for LDS people. Interestingly, sisters in leadership positions reporting directly to the head of the organization with an active wife of the head is not a new phenomenon. In the early days of the LDS church, when Joseph Smith was prophet, he organized the Relief Society (RS) on March 17, 1842. The purpose was to be an organization for the female members of the new church:

—that the Society of Sisters might provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor—searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants—to assist; by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their time to other duties, &[et]c., in their public teaching…

The organization of the Church [is] not complete until the sisters [are] organized.

The interesting thing about this organization was that it was completely self-contained. In the current LDS structure, RS presidents report into a priesthood authority at every level. The ward level into the bishop, stake level into the stake president, so on and so forth. However, in the early church the RS structure did not report into the priesthood until the prophet. It was its own organization with reporting directly into the woman above until you hit the prophet, although now that I think about it, it wasnt that big of an organization or that widespread so it makes sense that Emma Smith, the new president of the organization, would have reported directly to the current prophet, her husband, as there was not anyone below her (2 counselors and a secretary were all that was chosen). That changed after Joseph Smith’s death. One version of the story is that Emma Smith, Joseph’s first wife (yes he was a polygamist), and Brigham Young did not get along. This was further fractured when she decided not to go with the rest of the Saints in leaving Nauvoo for the West. Obviously the LDS church was in flux after their exodus from Illinois in 1844, but I have never heard an official reason for the lack of the relief society for the 20 years. And the interruption is rarely brought to public attention unless you do some history reading, so remains invisible unless you look at the dates of the service of the presidents.

Eliza R. Snow, the secretary of the original RS, did travel west, and in 1854, about 10 years after arriving in Utah, helped establish the Indian Relief Society, which was designed to provide services to the Native American population living in Utah. It was not until 1866 that Brigham Young called for formal reorganization of the Relief Society as part of the ward structure again, Eliza R. Snow was called as General President of the RS, but this time the RS reported into the local priesthood at each level. This may be the first formal structuring of the organization as it was large enough to need it as it was sustained throughout the rest of the history of the LDS church until present-day, where our latest General RS President and counselors were called a year ago, April 2012.

I dont know where we are headed as a church in regards to the norms surrounding females. There was the recent Wear Pants to Church Day movement that brought out the ugly on both sides (there were death threats against the female founders by males and women who verbally attacked the orchestrators for their lack of understanding, etc) that in my opinion mostly illustrates that women in the LDS church are feeling the burden of inequality in roles and organizational structure. Many feel the lowering of the missionary age in the first place (from 21-19 for females, 19-18 for males) was designed to help with that inequality, but Ive also heard its to encourage more marriages as we dont have this “lost generation” of eligible women when males return from missions and women start to go on them. There’s also a group of women who are pushing to ordain women to the priesthood, as they see that as the major perpetuator of inequality in the LDS church. I have not paid much attention to it, but I know the power issues have affected my own life when how I wished to run my calling in the LDS church was mediated by a distant priesthood authority, who often shut down my ideas or made me feel I needed permission for something (nothing heretical people, just my inspirational awesome ideas to improve what I was responsible for). Maybe they did have final authority? No idea. Of course, today on LDS General Conference Saturday we can see the lastest manifestation of the debate. For the first time, women may give the prayers in conference sessions. So we will see about that.

So, who knows? Im not even sure what changes I would want to see, but I know that as women we have something to offer and Im not sure that we are doing it yet. I have seen many examples of excellent women, excelling in school, in motherhood, in their lives, but Im not sure organizationally we get it yet. Anyway, just the lastest from the ranks.

One thought on “We Say, “Sisters are Doin’ it For Themselves”

  1. I hope there is at least something in General Conference this weekend, one way or the other. It does not have to be earth shattering–I am just hoping the concerns are not completely ignored and swept under the rug. Like you, I don’t know. But, I do want to participate and be included in the kingdom to my fullest. I want some acknowledgement that this is an important, valid, and righteous desire that is worthy of being addressed. Whether it will be considered appropriate for General Conference, I don’t know . . .

    The missionary field changes are an interesting development!

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

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