Why It Might Be Harder for Women to Speak Up at Church Than We Realize (+ 5 Ways to Help)

Why It Might Be Harder for Women to Speak Up at Church Than We Realize (+ 5 Ways to Help)

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

― Henry David Thoreau

Over the past few years, there has been an increased discussion about women’s place, involvement, power, and voice in the official Church organization. As an LDS woman, a therapist specializing in women’s mental and emotional health, a wife, and mother to daughters and sons, I am heartened by the positive steps the Church and our culture have made to increase women’s voice and visibility.

Steps such as the inclusion of women’s meeting as an official part of general conference, appointing female leaders to top Church leadership councils, new leadership roles for female missionaries, the inclusion of more women in ward councils, and prayers offered by women at semiannual LDS general conference show the Church’s awareness of the need to include women’s voices. In addition, the LDS topics essay Mother in Heaven acknowledges female deity, gives permission to acknowledge Her presence, and helps us more clearly see the divine power and potential in earthly women.

A year ago, we heard President Russell M. Nelson directly encourage women to “speak up and speak out” in wards and communities and to be a full and contributing partner in marriage. As someone who is passionate about empowering women to find and use their authentic voices, I found myself asking, “Can we do more? Can we do better?”

When I talk about women’s issues, my message is sometimes misinterpreted as women vs. men conversation or as blaming men for women’s inequality. This discussion is not about blame. It's about greater awareness. We (men and women) have inherited subconscious assumptions, behaviors, and beliefs that frequently value male contributions above female contributions. We need to work together, in partnership, to elevate the voices of women.

Based on my own life experiences, my clinical practice, and my research on women’s assertiveness, I offer some suggestions on ways we can continue to support women’s voices in our ward families.

1) See the invisible patterns of inequity.

Women have generally been taught not to speak up, especially when they are in disagreement. We’ve been taught to defer to male authority (fathers, husbands, bishops, stake presidents, general authorities) and to keep quiet if speaking up might compromise a relationship. In business settings, women are interrupted more often (by men and women), speak less in meetings, and are perceived by others as talking more than they actually speak. We have all grown up with these patterns as the “norm.”

In order to encourage women to speak up, it’s important to start seeing the ways we silence or devalue girls and women, such as calling on boys more often than girls in classes, or offering stories centered around only male characters in church settings. Additionally, young men are given very specific priesthood stewardships that bless their ward family and let them know they are valuable to their community, whereas young women are not given specific ministry stewardships. We should also be conscious of issues and cultural practices that impact women that may not be visible (issues I have written frequently about). For example, how our tendency to idealize motherhood may minimize other aspects of women’s lives, talents, and aspirations, and how the term “gender role” was adopted from a language of science and has evolved into an inflexible frame that limits men and women.

2) Include women in decision-making councils.

We are increasingly hearing about the importance of men and women working together as equal partners, and working side-by-side in the home. This pattern of men and women working together for a common goal began with Adam and Eve. However, throughout most of history, women have often been excluded or underrepresented in community, business, government, and religious decision-making councils.

Whether you’re a male or female in a position of leadership, be sensitive to the fact that women’s voices have historically not been equally valued. Unless we shift our practices, we will continue to perpetuate the subconscious pattern of leaving out or invalidating women’s opinions and input. Parents, ask your daughters what you can do to support their voices and input in your family. Ward leaders, reflect on whether the perspective of women is represented in decision-making councils. I encourage Church leaders to intentionally look for ways to integrate women’s input on the ward level, not as a token, but as an integral part of discussions and decision-making.

3) Expand the language used to describe women.

Over the pulpit and in official Church publications, women are often described in very glowing terms: nurturing mothers, homemakers, and supportive wives who are selflessly serving, strong in faith and testimony, and naturally spiritual. While these descriptions may be accurate and complementary, intended to inspire and show appreciation, they are incomplete and can be seen as putting women on a pedestal.

I was glad to hear President Bonnie L. Oscarson describe a young girl as a “brave warrior” in her 2015 general conference talk and refer to women as high achievers whom we hope “will love learning, be educated, talented, and maybe even become the next Marie Curie or Eliza R. Snow.” She also expanded the definition of a “homemaker” to include men and children.

As our language used to characterize women expands, women will feel freer to speak up, share differences of opinion, and feel less pressure to conform to ideals that aren’t aligned with their personal path. Expansive language allows for greater appreciation of differences and encourages women to fully actualize their potential without fearing they will be deemed “unrighteous.”

4) Use more quotes from female leaders in talks and lessons.

Because there are more male than female leaders in the Church, it is easy to find quotes and stories told by men and often about men. This pattern of highlighting the words of men may unintentionally send the message that women aren’t as knowledgeable about the doctrine, that women aren’t able to receive revelation, or that women’s voices aren’t as valuable. The recent publication of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History is another important step toward telling women’s stories and valuing the voices of our female leaders.

The website General Conference Sisters makes it easier for you to include general conference quotes from and about women. The content is well organized and listed alphabetically by topic. Quoting women’s voices over the pulpit and in lessons helps reinforce for everyone that women’s voices matter, that women possess wisdom worth sharing, and that women are also spiritual leaders.

5) Speak openly of our belief in Heavenly Mother.

One of the most beautiful and unique doctrines of our faith is a belief in Heavenly Mother. Some of the most famous lines from Eliza R. Snow’s hymn “O My Father” speak of Her, and She has been mentioned by many prophets and apostles since the Church’s restoration. The idea of “sacred silence”—meaning “we don’t know much about her because she’s so sacred”—is a commonly held Mormon myth.

The Church’s Gospel Topics essay Mother in Heaven published last year publicly acknowledges and clearly confirms our belief in Heavenly Mother. One way that I have chosen to include Heavenly Mother in my language is to say “Our Heavenly Parents” whenever I am not referencing the Father specifically. For example, I’ll tell my children that their Heavenly Parents want what’s best for them and I’ll say in a testimony that I know that my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother love us and are aware of our needs. The more female deity is acknowledged, respected, and revered, the more clearly we can see the value, divinity, and potential in Her earthly daughters.

In order to continue to elevate women’s voices and encourage equal partnership in all areas of life, men and women need to come together, see the patterns, and intentionally intervene by taking concrete steps to not just say but really show that women’s voices do indeed matter.

Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW is the owner/director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a popular blogger, an online mental health influencer, a local and national media contributor. Dr. Hanks’ new book The Assertiveness Guide For Women (download a free chapter) helps women find and use their authentic voices to improve their lives and relationships. Julie and her husband are the parents of four children. Visit DrJulieHanks.com for more great tips on facing life's challenges and to schedule coaching sessions. For therapy services in Utah visit WasatchFamilyTherapy.com. Connect on social media with @DrJulieHanks.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com