Spiritual Authority Figures and Spiritual Role Models

I am going to start out with a couple of thought questions.

First of all, in general do Mormon women see Mormon men as spiritual authority figures and spiritual role models? I would say, yes.  Many Mormon women look up to their Bishops and Stake Presidents and listen carefully to the insights that they share over the pulpit.  Many Mormon women listen carefully during General Conference and later study and highlight the words of the male General Authorities.  When they attend council meetings, most Mormon women will agree that the Bishop or Stake President gets final say and will do everything they can to support the leader’s decisions.

Ok, second question.  In general, do Mormon men view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures and spiritual role models?  I find this question a bit harder to answer.  Spiritual authority figures?  I would say no.  Spiritual role models?  I would say, perhaps.  I think that it is highly unlikely for men to view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures given the structural organization that dictates that women never preside over men.  There are a few (but very few) exceptions to this rule such as the Primary President presiding over male primary teachers.  What about spiritual role models?  One could argue that many men see women as spiritual role models because they often praise the righteousness and spiritual superiority of women.  However, I would argue that truly seeing women as spiritual role models requires that you identify specific women to emulate, listen carefully to their words, carefully observe their actions, and try to be like them.  While many Mormon men praise the idea of women’s spiritual superiority, I think it is unlikely that they had identified specific women that they are trying to emulate.  The exception is men who try to emulate their mothers or wives.  While, I do think that it is noteworthy that a man would emulate his mother or wife, it is a vast cry from the number of specific male leaders that women listen to and try to emulate.

So why is it unlikely for Mormon men to view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures and role models?  I think there are a number of specific structural aspects of the Mormon church that contribute to this trend.

1-As I mentioned previously, women almost never preside over men, thus men are less likely to listen to and look up to women.  When I was in a singles ward, I had a friend in the ward who was serving as a temple worker.  One day, he complained to me about how the Temple Matron corrected something that he had done.  He was very offended and taken a back because he didn’t feel like it was her place to correct him.  What strikes me about this situation is that it is highly likely that the Temple Matron had more experience and more knowledge about how things should be done in the temple than he did.  However, although she had a calling that was “higher” than his calling, he didn’t feel like it was her place to correct him because technically she didn’t preside over him.  No matter how high a woman rises in the leadership structure, I think that men are still unlikely to view her as a spiritual authority figure and a spiritual role model.  I don’t think many Mormon men would identify members of the General Relief Society or Primary Presidencies as their spiritual role models even though these women have callings that are much, much higher than the average male member.

2-Through social cues, men are often identified as the most important or “key note” speaker during church services.  I am not sure how universal this is, but at least in the U.S. we have very strong social cues that indicate who the most important speaker on the program is.  That person usually speaks last and speaks for the most amount of time.  Currently in many Mormon congregations, sacrament meeting follows the structure of having a youth speaker speak first, a woman speak second, and a man speak last.  Although, there are many congregations that have veered from this pattern, this cultural tradition still exists in many, many cases.  We also follow a similar pattern during Ward and Stake Conferences.  During these conferences, you may have some women speaking earlier in the program (or in many cases not at all), but the Bishop or Stake President usually speaks last and for the longest amount of time.  I think these social cues have a strong, but profound, effect on members of the congregation.  When the key note speaker stands to speak you can see people perk up as if to say, “Now we really need to listen because we are going to hear something important.”  These cultural markers reinforce the idea that men’s words are the most important in these settings.

3-Most of the leaders for both the general church and on the local level are men, and in all cases the male leaders are much more visible than the female leaders.  During one conversation about how women will never be Bishops or Stake Presidents, someone pointed out that there are plenty of men who are unlikely to have these callings either.  Thus, their argument was, that just because you are a man doesn’t mean that you will end up having a lot of decision making power in the church.  I agree that this is true.  However, I also think that who the leaders are and what they look like impacts everyone else in the congregation.  I would argue that seeing only male leaders contributes to a subconscious tendency to give more weight to the words of men and less wight to the words of women.  (I would argue that the race of the leaders has a similar effect).  Thus, the lack of visible female leadership impacts all women in the church because they, by proxy, are less likely to be viewed as spiritual authority figures or spiritual role models.  Likewise, the men who will never be Bishop, enjoy the benefits of looking like the Bishop and are more likely to be listened to.  My sister recently shared with me her frustration about only certain people being listened to during Sunday School.  She studies the scriptures and tries hard to offer insightful and intelligent comments during class, but she often feels that her comments are dismissed.  I asked her if the people who are usually listened to are older men. She responded that they were and that the Sunday School teacher refers to them as “the scriptorians.”  He will say things like, “Do any of our scriptorians have anything to say about this?” while looking directly at several of the older men in the room.

How can we increase the likelihood that men will view women as spiritual authority figures and role models?  I think small structural changes could help a lot.  For example, women could be included as the last speaker in Sacrament Meeting and even Ward, Stake, or General Conference.  Women could be included in more callings that don’t require the priesthood which involve presiding over both men and women such as Sunday School President.  However, maybe small structural changes would not be enough, and larger structural changes would be needed for women to viewed as role models.

What do you think?  Do you think that men in the church are less likely to view women as spiritual authority figures and role models?  How do you think this could be changed?



  1. I do not like the remarks made by teachers that there are “scriptorians” present and we should defer to them. It is said too often. Photographic memory does not equate with spirituality or insight

  2. I know too many a persons who revere a member of the SP during ward conference but could careless when the RS SP speaks in the priesthood session of said conference. It seems the ideal is women are there to share opinions, but the male opinion is the one that matters.

  3. Excellent post. In addition to your very good suggestions to improve the authority of women, I would suggest increasing the number of female general conference speakers. Only two women usually speak. Perhaps because these two women know they will be the only ones to address women’s issues, they almost always do and therefore, practically invite men to tune out. Also, since general conference talks contribute so much to church curriculum, and almost all speakers are male, this effect expands.
    As for the idea that most men do not serve as leaders, they are all eligible, and win certain deference for the possibility that any of them could be the next bishop or whatever. Meanwhile, they know that a woman both doesn’t and will never preside over them. I think there is only so much can be done culturally to address this issue without changes that give women real authority in bigender church situations.

  4. xII April,

    Your comment also reminded me that even at the general RS broadcast, a man speaks last. This seems to send the message that even at a meeting for women, men should have the final word. How wonderful would it be for the general RS President to speak last and be treated at the authoritative speaker in that setting?

  5. I absolutely agree on the men as spiritual authorities and the program set up- and I’ve thought about this often- however, I disagree on the Spiritual Role Models angle.

    While in the church men may have spiritual authority- ask a man who the most spiritual person they know is and they’ll mention their mother or their wife. Ask a woman, and she’ll name another woman. My spiritual role model- a companion I had on my mission.

    Spiritual role models aren’t created across the pulpit- they’re in our wards and our families.

  6. As a side note: women are taken mores seriously when they do not speak with the singsong voice across the pulpit. That tone detracts from the message and undermines the authority of the speaker. There are few that speak in General conference that execute with authority and do not sound like they’re talking to primary children: see Sherri Dew.

  7. To address the question of what else can be changed, we could focus more on stories of women in the scriptures and women in the early church, and emphasize that they are role models for everyone, not just for the women. This isn’t universal, but in my experience in Sunday School we often either skip over the stories altogether–even sadder because there are so few of them–or frame the stories as if they are only useful to the women in the room.

  8. Great post, Beatrice. I think you’re spot on. Mormon men do not view Mormon women as spiritual authority figures or role models. As you well point out, the structure of who presides over whom pretty much screams to men that they can ignore women.

    I like Petra’s idea of focusing more on the few scriptural stories that do involve women. Along sort of similar lines, a few years ago, I taught TFOT in elders quorum, and whenever there was a talk from a woman on our list of talks to be used in the lesson, I made sure to quote liberally from it, just to make the point that we need to listen to women too.

    I wonder if it might not help men to see women as spiritual role models if we looked outside the Church. Mormon men are likely well practiced in unconsciously dismissing Mormon women. But what if lots of lessons and talks quoted from Mother Teresa, or Joan of Arc, or Julian of Norwich? Then we men might accidentally engage our ears for listening instead of being reflexively dismissive. Or on the downside, we might just feel it reinforces the idea that we only have to listen to women outside the Church. I don’t know.

  9. Eventually, we have to stop looking for authority figures and role models – in church and out. We’re all mortal, slogging through life on planet Earth. Our fellow travelers may have an experience or insight that is helpful to us, but a human being can never be completely relied upon by another. It’s too much to expect from a frail, imperfect being.

  10. That’s interesting, Angie, but I think it’s tangential to the point Beatrice was making. To the degree that we look to other people as religious or spiritual role models (whatever that degree is–it sounds like for you, it’s zero), we’re taught by the Church to look more to men than to women.

  11. Sorry I’m getting to this so late, B – great post.

    Your argument and xII April’s comment brought to mind another of your posts from Both Sides Now where you said (that’s right, I’m quoting you to you 🙂 ):

    I just wonder where the eloquent female gospel scholars are within the traditional church structure. I don’t think that we all need to be highly educated or deeply spiritual, but while men have male role models to look up to who exhibit these traits, women often lack these models. I would like to belong to a religion where you could see a female equivalent to Neal A. Maxwell speaking at General Conference.

    Whenever I hear people advocate having the General RS Pres and other women quoted more in manuals and talks – an idea that I support highly – it occurs to me that we also need our female leaders to say quote-worthy things.

    There seems to be a vicious cycle of: women being told that they don’t have authority over men –> women feeling like they should only speak to women and children –> men feeling like clearly women don’t have much to say to the general membership as a whole.

    We don’t just need to start hearing women’s voices; we also need to give women permission and encouragement to say things of substance.

  12. Excellent point, Galdralag.

    A somewhat related point is that I wonder if in order to give women permission and encouragement to say things of substance, as you said so well, we might have to give them real authority. I speculated once in a post on ordinary members speaking in General Conference that perhaps only the FP and Q of 12 can really say anything interesting, since everyone else just pretty much has to repeat what’s been said before. If that’s true, then without women in the FP and Q of 12, we’re not going to get to hear them say really substantial things.

  13. I completely agree with your assessment. My ex-husband used to listen to General Conference talks every night as part of his daily scripture study routine. One day I asked him why he skipped the talks given by women. He told me he didn’t think their words were “scriptures” because they were not prophets nor apostles. I told him “well, by your logic you shouldn’t listen to the seventies either.”

    So, there it is. Women in our church does not have much leadership influence among the members of the penis club.

  14. Tea Black,

    Your comment reminds me of an institute class I took in which we studied talks from the most recent General Conference. We only studied talks by the first presidency or the 12, so we didn’t study any talks by women. I wanted to point this out to the teacher, but never did.

  15. I had a particularly unusual experience when I was called to be one of two regional committee chairman (we both happened to be women) of the Humanitarian Service Committee. We had several stake presidents and many high councilors, as well as the stake committee chairs, at our meeting. There was a pretty equal number of men and women in the room.

    At one point in planning a regional service project, several high councilors objected to the organizational structure for making assignments and suggested that only the stake presidents should be making them. He them made an off hand comment about my age. (At 25, I was by far the youngest person in the room.) One of the stake president’s (who I had always liked, but LOVED after this meeting) asked me for permission to speak, and then reminded everyone that we all hold keys to callings, given when we are set apart, and that none of the stake presidents in the room had been set apart to lead this committee.

    The issue came up again a few months later, and that same stake president very calmly explained that I was about the same age as Emma had been, when the RS was organized. He repeated his statements about who holds the keys to a calling, and then bore his testimony that the work of the committee could not be done without the women on the committee and the women throughout the region who were doing most of the preparations, and would do most of the actual work. He then promptly turned the meeting back over to me.

    I was very sad when the structure for those committees was changed. It isn’t that there are not still stake service projects, and occasionally something that prompts a more regional response. What I don’t see is the deeper cooperation between RS and priesthood that was forced by ward and stake humanitarian service committees. In many stakes, at least half of the committee chairs on the ward level were women, and that percentage was higher on the stake level callings. The excuse that most of the actual work was already being done by women, did not make me see folding it into the RS as a positive step. The scope is so much smaller now, and that makes me sad. Men are rarely involved in the planning of projects, and are not involved with even half of them, at least in our stake.

    I have no idea if gender played a part in the changes that were made bout area was one of the “test areas” and I know it was better developed than a lot of areas were. Maybe it didn’t scale up in other areas, but it is the only calling I have ever had where I got to see such an egalitarian approach.

  16. As a guy in the Church I like Ann Madsen, Chieko Okazaki, Wendy Ulrich and sometimes Sheri Dew. Ardeth Kapp is also cool! Anytime I give a talk I always, always use a quotation from a woman


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