Zelophehad’s Daughters

“I never noticed women weren’t praying in Conference”

Posted by Ziff

In the discussion of the Let Women Pray movement, one of the comments I heard most frequently was something along the lines of “I never noticed women weren’t praying in Conference.” In a few cases, the context suggested that the statement was being made as a marker of being more righteous than thou, but in most cases, it came across to me as a genuine statement of surprise. Heck, I probably said something similar at one point. I don’t think I had ever really thought about the question until I read Cynthia L.’s post on the issue at BCC a couple of years ago.

Even for all of us who sincerely hadn’t noticed that women weren’t praying, though, I think a lot of people drew the wrong conclusion. Specifically, they concluded that because they hadn’t noticed, then it must not be a problem and must not need rectifying. I think this is completely backwards, though. The fact that so many of us hadn’t noticed this very public and constantly repeated instance of institutional sexism means that sexism in the Church is a huge problem.

Several years ago, someone at fMh wrote a post where she said her young daughter had complained to her that the Church thought boys were more important than girls. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall who wrote it and can’t find the post.) My recollection is that at least one commenter to her to task and said if she hadn’t taught her daughter to see the world through a feminist lens, this never would have occurred to her. Like the conclusions people drew from not noticing women weren’t praying in Conference, though, I think the commenter had it backwards. I think it’s surprising that more of us don’t notice the sexism in the Church.

The Church is full of responsibilities that women are barred from fulfilling. I’m sure if you’re reading this blog that you’re well aware of them. We don’t have women leading wards or serving as counselors to people who lead wards, or serving as clerks or executive secretaries for them. We don’t have women perform any ordinances outside a very few in the temple. We don’t even allow women to be official witnesses of our ordinances. When people join the Church, they are interviewed by and baptized by men. When they leave the Church, they are excommunicated by men. When babies are born, they are blessed by men. When people die, their funerals are presided over by men and their graves are dedicated by men.

To be active in the Church requires us to find a way to deal with all of this institutional sexism. Maybe we decide that God wouldn’t let the Church go astray, so it must all be God’s will. Or maybe we compartmentalize our church experience, and don’t apply the same egalitarian standards we’re more familiar with in the rest of the world to church. In one way or another, though, we largely learn to be blind to it. When another instance of institutional sexism comes up (women can’t be stake auditors?) we’re no longer surprised.

When such a highly visible instance of sexism goes essentially unnoticed for years, for decades, for over a century, this isn’t evidence that institutional sexism in the Church isn’t a problem. Rather, it’s evidence of just how much the Church is drenched in sexist practice. If the Church were more egalitarian, barring women from praying in our biggest meetings would have stood out and been noticed long ago. The fact that so many of us missed it demonstrates just how sexist the general background of the Church is.

13 Responses to ““I never noticed women weren’t praying in Conference””

  1. 1.

    It also demonstrates how invisible women are in the church, which shouldn’t be that surprising given how we treat Heavenly Mother.

  2. 2.

    This is a really hard truth.

  3. 3.

    I would DEFINITELY not call down the wrath of God on all the little girls *and boys* who are confused as to why their sisters or themselves can’t pass the sacrament or baptize. I had a 4 year old who baptized her sister many times in the “off stage” area of our cultural hall because it looked like the font to her. That 4 year old is now 14 and is working hard to wrap her mind around what she sees (in a ward that is as balanced as I have seen…) as imbalances.

    I have a 9 year old son who asked why we weren’t allowed to talk about our Mother in Heaven and I said, Oh, but we are, and we will always talk about her here with love and respect. You can talk about her at church too, and I also said we don’t know why we don’t have very much information about her. People have some ideas but we don’t know why, so those ideas are just ideas.

    I struggled with apparent inequality many times and have prayed and received reminders to “be patient, be patient,” and “be still, and know that I am God.” But I believe we need to at least address the cultural inequalities, and let God worry about the doctrinal inequalities.

    I was so frustrated as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in two different wards when multiple women would say that they didn’t think they had something useful to say… and all the comments were by men and like 3 women. Then I went to RS and all these silent women had great ideas and comments and testimonies they shared with the other women. So of course they had something good to say. But for whatever reason they were culturally silenced.

  4. 4.

    Though some people failed to notice because they sleep through the prayers.

  5. 5.

    Not necessarily. It could just mean that it wasn’t noticed because it really isn’t a problem. No one e from Iowa has ever prayed in GC. And we never noticed! Therefore anti-Iowan sentiment in the Church must be a huge problem, right? Because all this time it never happened and we didn’t even notice! Or, it could be that not having Iowans pray in GC really isn’t a problem. Which, by the way, it isn’t.

  6. 6.

    Well, if half the church population was from Iowa, then yes, it would be a problem.

  7. 7.

    Not necessarily. That’s my point.

  8. 8.

    It’s great how gender is super super important, an eternal part of my eternal nature and all that. Oh, except for in the public sphere when, conveniently, it’s about as important as which state I’m from.

  9. 9.

    Oh, snap!

  10. 10.

    No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.

  11. 11.

    I told my (active, devout) father and brother about the Let Women Pray movement over Christmas, and they both said that they hadn’t ever noticed that women hadn’t prayed in General Conference.

    And then they – both, individually (these were separate conversations) – said that clearly it is an oversight and of course women should pray in GC, too. And they expressed a bit of embarrassment that they hadn’t noticed the absence of women before. It meant a lot to me.

  12. 12.

    Considering that the Church was once headquartered in Iowa, and considering that several general conferences were held there, (not to mention the thousands of general and local church officers who have prayed in conference since then), I would say the chances are slim that nobody from Iowa has prayed in general conference.

    But if the selection process for general conference prayers had the effect of systematically excluding all Iowans, yeah that would be a problem.

  13. 13.

    Sonja Johnson pointed out in her 1977 testimony to congress that at that moment, women couldn’t pray in meetings at the local level. I always noticed that women couldn’t pray in conference.

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