In October 2017, the Church issued a statement regarding a change in the way the priesthood and women’s sessions of general conference are held. In a letter, the First Presidency stated that the two meetings would be held annually, with priesthood session in April and women’s session in October.
This was a significant announcement, especially because the women’s sessions have typically been held one weekend prior to general conference, but they will now be held Saturday evening after the general sessions. This change will integrate the general women’s session with the rest of general conference, and hopefully more members will hear the inspired words from the women leaders in our Church.
Women have always played a crucial role in the Church. From the time the gospel was restored, faithful women have dedicated their lives to serving others, leading in their congregations, raising families, receiving inspiration, and creating a sense of sisterhood in their wards and Relief Societies. Gordon B. Hinckley said, “People wonder what we do for our women. I’ll tell you what we do. We get out of their way and look with wonder at what they’re accomplishing.” The Church wouldn’t be the same without the faithful women who serve in it daily.
The women’s session of general conference has been through some major changes throughout history, but the inspired messages and revelation from our women leaders have remained constant.
History of the General Women’s Session
The general women’s session of conference hasn’t always been what it is today. It has evolved into an annual meeting for sisters ages 8 and older where speakers are typically selected from the Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, and First Presidencies. For the first time in history, this upcoming women’s session will be included in general conference weekend and will follow the Saturday afternoon session.
The first general Relief Society conferences were held prior to general conference for many years. The meeting was a semi-annual, two-day conference until 1945 when the Church changed it to an annual event. Then in October 1978 and 1979, the Prophet, Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary presidents spoke at a women’s meeting that was held mid-September.
In the fall of 1980 and 1981, this conference became the general Relief Society meeting. The speakers included one member of the First Presidency and the whole Relief Society presidency. The spring of 1982 brought back the general women’s meeting, which then took place each October until 1992. Then from 1993 until 2013, general Young Women and general Relief Society meetings took place every April and October, respectively.
The general women’s meeting was changed again in April 2014 when the gathering started including all sisters over the age of 8. These meetings happened one weekend before the April and October sessions, and when President Uchtdorf conducted the April 2014 meeting, he acknowledged it as an official session of general conference for the first time. “My beloved sisters,” he said, “my dear friends and blessed disciples of Jesus Christ, I am honored to have this opportunity to be with you as we open another general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
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The general women’s session was held one weekend prior to general conference and followed the semi-annual schedule until October 2017, when the First Presidency announced a change in the meeting schedule for the women’s session and priesthood session. The letter said, “Beginning in April 2018, the general women’s session will no longer be held on the Saturday preceding the other sessions of general conference. Rather, the general priesthood and general women’s sessions will each be held annually.”
The First Presidency made the change “in the spirit of reducing and simplifying the work of the Church and the demands made upon leaders and members.” Additionally, including the women’s session in general conference weekend will allow more people to tune in and listen to what our women leaders have to say. The letter continues, “We are confident this change will be a blessing in the lives of members throughout the Church.”
Women Speaking in General Conference
Lucy Mack Smith was the first woman to give a general conference talk. In October 1845, she shared “This Gospel of Glad Tidings to All People.” The talk illustrated some of the struggles she faced with her husband and children, and she gave the powerful advice, “Be good and kind and do in secret as you would do in the presence of millions.”
After Lucy Mack Smith, women didn’t regularly speak in the general sessions again until April 1984 when Elaine A. Cannon, Barbara B. Smith, Barbara W. Winder, and Ardeth G. Kapp each shared their testimonies over the pulpit.
Four more years passed before another woman spoke in the general sessions. In April 1988, Dawn J. Young spoke after being released as the Primary general president. Then in October of the same year, her successor Michaelene P. Grassli was the only woman speaker of that general conference. October 1988 through October 1993, one woman was selected to speak at each general conference from the general auxiliary presidencies with a few exceptions.
Since April 1994, it has been a common theme for two women of the general auxiliary presidencies to speak, typically one on Saturday and one on Sunday. And in April 2013, Jean A. Stevens and Carole M. Stephens made history by being the first women to offer prayers during the general sessions of conference. Now it is common for two women chosen from the Young Women, Relief Society, or Primary general presidencies to offer prayers during general conference.
General Conference Is Inspired By God
We are so blessed to hear from all of the men and women who share inspired messages over the pulpit at general conference. It takes time, patience, and spiritual intuitiveness to write a talk for the worldwide membership, and apostles have spoken of the difficulty and responsibility of the task. Although each speaker has a different experience, a common theme is that they all feel heavenly inspiration and don’t take the matter lightly.
In a KSL interview, former general Young Women president Bonnie Oscarson reflected on what it was like standing at the pulpit in the conference center:
“I remember the first time I stood up in the Conference Center. I was conducting the general women’s meeting at the time, and as I was sitting there I was watching the clock tick by and when there was one minute left and I knew I had to stand up, I started to panic. I turned to my counselor Carole McConkie and said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ She kind of got a panicky look and said, ‘Well you don’t have a choice; you have to.’
“There are moments when you say, ‘What am I doing here and how can I, just a normal person, be doing what I’ve seen these people I admire all my life do?’ The clock does hit that point and the little sign does go on that says stand up and so you walk to the pulpit and something kind of miraculous happens… I call it the bubble of protection. There is something that surrounds you when you stand up there and you feel calm, and you feel peace, and you know you’re not alone.”
Sister Oscarson’s words testify that general conference is truly the Lord’s conference. He enlightens each speaker’s mind with the things He wants us to know and gives us the knowledge and strength we need to navigate through our everyday lives. The word of God is spoken during general conference whether it comes from the mouth of a man or a woman.
Take time to prepare to hear the inspired messages this conference and pay close attention to what the Spirit tells you. As you listen with an open heart, the Lord will answer your questions and the Spirit will testify of the truths our Church leaders share.