Historic Prayer by Woman at LDS General Conference Signals Growing Concern with Gender Equality

Saturday’s first-ever prayer by a woman at the global General Conference of the LDS Church grabbed national headlines, reflecting heightened attention to gender equality in Mormonism—among members, LDS Church leaders, and the media.

Jean Stevens, a leader in the Primary, an LDS Church auxiliary responsible for the education of Mormon children, delivered the benediction at the Saturday morning session of General Conference.

Her groundbreaking prayer comes in the wake of Let Women Pray, a campaign that generated 1600 letters to LDS Church officials petitioning for an LDS woman leader to offer an invocation or benediction during General Conference. While spokespeople for the Church have indicated that the prayer selection was made prior to the campaign, many Mormons celebrated Saturday morning’s prayer as an indication that concerns about women’s visibility, representation, and access to Church leadership opportunities are being heard.

Change in institutional Mormonism comes slowly and through the deliberations of a deeply intransparent bureaucratic hierarchy. But the last six months have seen several noteworthy changes pertaining to women’s education and participation, including last October’s widely-covered lowering of the age for women’s missionary service, January’s release of a new, more theologically rigorous curriculum for Sunday meetings for young women, and Friday’s announcement that women will now hold positions of increased authority in overseeing the Church’s global proselytizing missions—an advance that follows a surge in numbers of women missionaries. Some observers believe that the changes are part of a concerted LDS Church effort to bolster its rates of retention among younger women. 

Increased attention to the theology of gender and equality is also evident, both among rank-and-file Mormons and on the part of leaders.

Last month, advocates of women’s ordination to the Mormon priesthood—a lay priesthood that enfranchises all male members of the Church above 12 years of age—launched a new online campaign to foster conversation by profiling LDS men and women who support ordination at OrdainWomen.org.

On Friday, the LDS Church responded to the heightened attention to with the release of a video featuring leaders of the Church’s women’s auxiliaries weighing in on the role of women. Female church leaders directly addressed women “concerned that they don’t hold the priesthood” by stressing the “complementary” quality of traditional gender roles and their own positive experiences in joint “councils” with the male members of the LDS leadership hierarchy.

On Saturday morning, minutes before Jean Stevens broke a historic gender barrier at the podium, at least two addresses from LDS Church leaders stressed the complementarity and value of traditional gender roles in Mormonism. Apostle M. Russell Ballard explained, “Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without a man, so a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family without a woman.” 

This gender “complementarity” rationale has no footing in LDS scripture or even early LDS history, say advocates of Mormon women’s ordination, who convened a Saturday evening public meeting in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah featuring presentations on the role of women in the ministry of Jesus Christ and the early Christian Church as well as Joseph Smith’s own views of women as priesthood holders.

Even as various fixes to the administrative program of the Church are rolled out, need for serious theological discussion of gender issues continues. At the LDS blog Times & Seasons, Julie Smith noted some dissatisfaction with the content of the official LDS Church video rolled out Friday but observed: “Let’s take a moment and enjoy the fact that the cause of Mormon feminism has enjoyed more progress in the past six months than the past sixty years.”

A good deal of that progress is coming in the form of increased visibility and resilience on the part of Mormon feminists, including an emerging generation of Mormon feminists in their 20s and 30s who are observant members of the Church and willing to shoulder a public activist stance some have viewed as dangerous. Many feminists left or withdrew from the LDS Church after a series of high-profile excommunications of feminists began in 1993, and fears of excommunication and repression pushed many deeply committed Mormon women into a fear-driven relationship with a faith they loved. 

But the release of Friday’s video suggests that LDS Church leaders are willing to acknowledge concerns about gender issues rather than excommunicate the women who raise them. 

And that move towards greater openness and conversation about issues that touch the lives of so many Mormons would be progress indeed.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.