Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon double-speak in historic announcement about women’s leadership

I was delighted last night when I saw YW President Bonnie Oscarson’s historic announcement:

Bonnie Oscarson announcement

You can read the details here in the Salt Lake Tribune or here in the Deseret News. The gist of it is that the general presidents of each of the three women’s auxiliary organizations will now have permanent membership in three of the Church’s top committees, which have always been all-male.

Moreover, the name of the Priesthood Executive Committee has been changed to the “Priesthood and Family Executive Council”—with the implied possibility that this might be a change adopted at the local level too.

History was made yesterday. Go us!

But there’s a curious double-speak in the way history is now being rewritten, at least by the Deseret News. All of the former auxiliary leaders interviewed for the DN story emphasized that they had sometimes attended or participated in high-level Church meetings in the past.

But they also, like President Oscarson, pointed to the utterly historic nature of this permanent change.

In other words,

“Women have long been consulted and sometimes allowed to sit in on all-male leadership meetings. In no way were we ever not listened to.

But now, we will be listened to for sure!”

How the Deseret News is choosing to report on this reveals a tension at the heart of all of the recent small changes regarding Mormon women’s roles, from having the first woman ever pray in General Conference in 2013 to creating new supervisory roles for female missionaries. And by this criticism of the newspaper’s mandate I am in no way impugning the individual journalist who wrote the story, because he’s a strong writer who does due diligence with interviews. I have liked and learned from many of his articles.

But he’s in an impossible position. If you’re the Deseret News, you have to write something that both trumpets any new LDS Church policy as amazing and momentous while not offering so much as a hint of criticism of the old way of doing things or suggesting that the new change resulted in any way from the demands of public pressure.

As the headline put it, the new policy is a “significant move.” But the article nowhere acknowledged (as the Trib writeup did, with refreshing frankness) that it comes in response to significant criticism from within the ranks about the invisibility of women in key leadership roles.

I celebrate the fact that Mormon women are becoming more visible, our leadership capabilities promoted at the highest levels of the Church. What happened last night is a small but important step forward.

But we can’t tell the story of women’s expanding leadership two ways. We can’t insist that women have always been empowered while also declaring that their new roles are wholly groundbreaking. In fact, when we try to do that we remove the very reason that yesterday’s policy announcement made history: It’s major because we have not involved women in leadership enough in the past.

What I would love to see (but doubt I ever will) is a candid acknowledgment that this is historic because the way we have done things in the past was ridiculously short-sighted and lopsided.

That we systematically denied ourselves the regular inclusion of women’s voices, to our sorrow and detriment.

And that we are now making long-overdue amends.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Is this really an inherent dilemma? It seems to me it’s at least potentially true that:

    (a) while women have not had a formally recognized seat in the specific councils, their input has in fact been sought and valued

    (b) this is notable progress because it institutionalizes a positive informal practice (which might have otherwise been subject to whim)

    It may be that (a) *isn’t* true or that (b) is only modest progress (and I’ll leave others to argue about that), but I think it’s overstating the case to pronounce holding both positions doublespeak.

  • Double-speak? More “natural evolution”. Our God is unchangeable from everlasting to everlasting. But he deals with imperfect humans and has to alter his approach according to how much our imperfect minds are able to absorb his directions to us at any one time.

    Hence, Joseph Smith counseled with his wife, Emma, on many issues associated with the governance of the Church, just as more recent leaders have done. However, could their male minds have coped with the idea of bringing female leaders into the higher councils of the Church? Not so, then, with a patriarchal culture so embedded in their mortal minds. But very much so today!

    So, we simply move from impermanent and less frequent opportunities for female input into the decision-making bodies of the Church to permanent and frequent input. That ain’t double speak. It’s the unvarnished truth.

  • They are still going to be the token women in these councils. The councils are still going to be almost all men. The woman (purposively singular) is there because she was chosen as a good and obedient representative of the sex by the men. She stays in her position as organizational president only as long as the men want her there. This stand in contrast to the leading men who have thier job for life. Even in the council, the group is presided by a man (one of the apostles) who actually in the end makes all the decisions. If that is not tokenism, I don’t know what is. The change is just formalized tokenism.

  • It’s a very strange phenomenon in the church that whenever any of these announcements are made (including the new essays), so many members feel compelled to proclaim that “there is nothing new here.” So we get a lot of “it was common knowledge that Joseph Smith married other people’s wives!” or “everyone always knew about the seer stone!” or “women have always played an important role in meetings and stuff!” So instead of celebrating something new and positive, they are bound and determined to proclaim that “nothing has changed!” As if change is bad, or as if acknowledging that the church is imperfect and sometimes makes mistakes or has room to grow is tantamount to it not being true. Which to me is not only bizarre, but kind of sick.

    I welcome all of these changes and celebrate them! I wish all the membership felt the same.

  • This is a really interesting phenomenon to me, and I know that the LDS church isn’t the only one to fall into this kind of thing. This quote from ‘The Edges of Seventh Day Adventism’ popped out to me because it’s so similar to our tradition; talking about progressive movements the author says: “They run ahead of the Seventh-day Adventist church in it’s transition . . . and find themselves so far ahead that they become isolated from the mainstream. They are usually expelled from the church . . . Within a decade a decade or two the church may itself reach similar theological conclusions. However, it will not give credit to these individuals nor try to win them back.” So to all of the women’s movements out there that have been agitating for this kind of thing, I would just like give a hat tip. If any of them have stopped participating in Mormonism, well, maybe that’s necessary, but this shows they are having an influence.

  • Sorry W – I cannot agree with your statement: “While women have not had a formally recognized seat in the specific councils, their input has in fact been sought and valued.” I can’t entertain that this is even potentially true. Try reading a little Chieko Okazaki – she was there (General RS Presidency). They did not seek nor did they value women’s input. Chieko claims quite the opposite –distressingly so.

    Forgive my cynicism, but I’m hearing, “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” just like “We’ve always preached monogamy.” & “Doctrine never changes.”

  • Wonderful article. Thank you, Jana. I think this kind of phenomenon can be summed up in a meme I’ve seen floating around: How many Mormons does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, one to change it and one to say nothing was changed.

    The LDS Church has (inadvertently, I suspect) painted itself into a corner. It has to change, yet change implies that the way things were done previously didn’t work or wasn’t perfect, so we end up with these kinds of “have our cake and eat it too” statements where our changes are awesome but make no mistake, no change was really necessary. Shifting from a church that teaches it is God’s divine institution on earth run by men who speak directly with him to a church that is a human institution run by human beings doing their best to fulfill God’s will would do wonders for Mormonism.

  • I remember Okazaki saying “Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there” in a Dialogue interview printed back in 2012. Then again, I remember her also saying Belle Spafford was “her own boss” as Relief Society Presidency and apparently positing that at different (perhaps less retrenched :/ ) times in church history, women have had more significant informal input.

    It may well be women have not had *enough* input, formal or informal; like I said above, I’ll let others argue that.

    But I think that’s independent from Jana’s main argument about the doublespeak dilemma, which is mainly what I find problematic here. If (a) is wrong, then it’s because (a) is wrong, not because it’s contradictory to (b).

  • You hit the nail on the head, Eric. That is exactly how I see it. And the women have gushed about how honored they are to be there. “Thank you, Sirs, for the sweet breadcrumb from your table.”

  • Part 1
    In February, Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, commented “People ask me sometimes, when — when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine [that is all the justices].” I’m not 100% what she meant, but there seem to be two reasonable readings, one of which demands context.

    The one that doesn’t demand context is that some feminists believe there won’t be enough women until women totally dominate power structures. This is based on the fraudulent notion that women are inherently superior, having 2 complete strands of DNA on the 23rd chromosome, and that men are little more than drones.

    Yes, there are a few individuals who actually hold such views, just as there are those hold the view that men are inherently superior because of certain characteristics. Of course, as a Mormon, I find both these extreme views equal ridiculous.

  • Part 2
    I believe, “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.” I believe commenters, including W, who have made the point that the council of sisters have been sought and valued and that it is now being formalized are essentially correct, even though there have certainly been lapses.

    We need to clarify that the nature of Church councils is not representative and democratic in which the majority rules, but is revelatory, seeking unity through divine guidance. The presiding authority will not necessarily be the one to first receive revelation, but will recognize and sustain it along with the rest of the council. Different viewpoints are necessary so we can more effectively study-out the problem and efficiently move forward. I have seen sisters in Ward Council frequently be the first to give voice to the eternal perspective on challenging…

  • Part 3
    I do Not see the inclusion of the female general presidents in these councils as tokenism, but as a natural progression.

    In context, I hope Justice Ginsburg was meaning having all women on a civil court is just as reasonable as having all men. I hope and believe that we are moving forward in the Church toward a better organization based on revelation rather than primarily human reasoning based on numerical and role sameness. Men and women are different, but we are both children of a loving Heavenly Father with divine potentially. “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” and both are vital to the great gospel plan of happiness and salvation.

  • Spot on, Jana. Another manifestation of this problem was pointed out to me by one of my sisters: When we talk about the history of Correlation, it’s hard to have anything to say. Since we’ve Correlated our history so well, there’s no obvious need for Correlation. But of course this brings up the question of why it even happened or was thought to be needed.

  • Are we to believe that now in 2015 we finally live in a world where society can accept a female’s voice as equal to man? It seems your God moves far slower on social and political issues than his imperfect man. Another example could be how the freedom of Black men to hold the priesthood came much later than the civil rights movements.

    It’s a rubbish argument anyway to say that God alters his approach to how much our imperfect minds are able to absorb. Religious literature is pebble dashed with God asserting new radical commandments on his unready people. I imagine Joseph Smith’s revelation that polygamy was a viable social strategy must have been seen as radical to most.

    All you have done is show that there is no argument that could ever be presented to you that undermines this religion in which you can’t make sense of.

  • “All you have done is show that there is no argument that could ever be presented to you that undermines this religion in which you can’t make sense of.”

    In all fairness it is impossible to ask for rational arguments against something which is not believed on the basis of rational arguments and evidence. Religious belief of any stripe doesn’t really make sense nor relies on evidence, logic or proof. It relies on faith in something which defies them.

    Its a given that excuses for changes in policies will be made over time.

  • Nice article, Jana. Though, when you confront similar situations in the future (and you most certainly will), I have a suggestion: don’t judge the Deseret News the way you would most other newspapers. It is a PR organ of the church, not serious journalism.

    If you hold it to journalistic standards, then a story such as this takes on an Orwellian quality—an effort at misdirection designed to get you to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. But, if instead, you assume that it is little more than a press release issued by the church’s communication folks, then it isn’t so disquieting.

    Now, there is the separate question of whether the church itself should be more candid about its past, about policies it has abandoned, doctrines it has changed, actions it no longer condones. Those are serious questions that warrant serious consideration. But don’t look to the Deseret News for answers.

  • I have not made a claim of the falsehood of the religion (that of course is easily done) but observed yet another example of how Mormons will go through any mental acrobatics to justify the purity of their church. I would find it refreshing if more members conceded that their institution needs to update to keep with the standards of society which is so obviously the case.

  • You funny girl. As one of these invisible women in the church, I realized years ago that though the men “head” of so many organizations, we are the necks that hold them up and turn them. I know very few men who are able to really fully serve to their capacities without a woman by their side keeping track of where and when they need to be “there”. Supporting them in their positions that can be so difficult at times. The men who do it without this support never cease to amaze me.

    BTW, these decisions are made by inspiration, not desperation to the whims of this poor sad world. If you don’t believe it, I dare you to get on your knees and ask, sincerely, why these “changes” are being made!

  • JS may have counceled with Emma about many church related thing but so sad he didn’t feel the need to council with her more openly about his polygamy practices

  • I have no doubt that this decision was the product of inspiration—but inspiration that was only sought after substantial progress had been made in the area of women’s rights, often in the face of stiff opposition from the church hierarchy. Similarly, it seems clear that the civil rights movement of the 1960s—which was also opposed by several church leaders—was one of the catalysts for the church’s decision to abandon a race-based doctrine that denied priesthood and temple blessings to a large segment of the population.

    With all due respect, I believe your point of view is what inspired the folks at South Park to write the following lyric sung by the one of missionaries in the “Book of Mormon” musical: “I BELIVE that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.” God didn’t change. But the church did.

    Winston Churchill once said: “Americans always do the right thing—after they first try everything else.” The same can be said about Mormons, I believe.

  • Eric Facer raises a good question, “whether the church itself should be more candid about its past, about policies it has abandoned, doctrines it has changed, actions it no longer condones.”

    Looking at this pragmatically, I suggest they take whichever approach makes them most comfortable to opt for change. Spin it as they choose, do it quietly or with fanfare, etc., I just favor as many changes in this direction as possible.

    Along those lines, those of us who favor these types of changes should try to play along if it will increase the number and frequency of such changes. Let them save face.

  • That’s a fair point, Joel.

    I freely acknowledge that our church leaders are, just like the rest of us, a product of their upbringing, their culture, and their generation. All of these variables, and more, color their attitudes and influence the manner, timing and content of the inspiration they receive.

    Change is difficult for any organization, especially one that finds itself in the awkward position, at times, of having to retreat from policies and positions that were once promoted as being carved in stone. But however tortuous the path, if we ultimately arrive at the desired destination, then we’re good—though I firmly believe that the frequent questioning of dubious practices, when done with humility and in good faith, can expedite the process.

  • Clearly, this is double speak as usual. Claiming to be the one and only true church mandates double speak whenever change is forced upon them by outside forces, obviously.

  • “I would find it refreshing if more members conceded that their institution needs to update to keep with the standards of society…”

    To quote Jeffrey R. Holland, “Talk about man creating God in his own image!”

    As a member of the LDS church AND as a husband who is very much aware of how insignificant he would be without the strength and support of his wife, I can with the utmost confidence that women are now, always have been, and always will be viewed in the eyes of the faithful as, in the words of Gordon B. Hinckley, the “Pearls of Gods creation”.

    I am very pleased that the church leaders have heard the opinion of many of its members and has found a way to honor their wishes WITHOUT changing any beliefs or doctrine of the church.

    If you’re ok with your church bending in compliance with social norms then that’s fine but I would much rather have God lift us to His expectations than have it be the other way around.

  • …..but none of those things ARE anything new to anyone who actually takes some time to do some honest research.
    The problem is that most people only care about the beliefs of the church when the find one which is easy to attack, belittle and mock.
    I’m not saying the church is or has been perfect in all of its policies but I also will not celebrate small changes as though they were earth shattering changes just to appear forward thinking. This particular announcement is a change and it is a welcome change. But it is not as big of a change as this article is making it out to be.
    I have sat in many Priesthood Executive Committee meetings where the Relief Society President was asked to attend to lend further insight to how we can better help certain families. This has been laid out in black and white in the handbook of instruction and has been there for years.

  • SO true!
    I was and would be nothing without my love and support of my wife. Any good that I have ever done in church was made possible by the selfless, unfailing, and exemplary service given first by my wife.

  • @Briggs2326 you misunderstand me. It’s not that I think it’s good policy for religious institutes to keep up to date with social norms I’m saying that that is what the Mormon church has always done and it would be refreshing for to hear a member admit it when it happens.

    Yes he did say women are the pearls of Gods creation and also a “mans most treasured possession” 2007 GC.


    “…young women are exceeding young men in pursuing educational programs. And so I say to you young men, rise up and discipline yourself to take advantage of educational opportunities. Do you wish to marry a girl whose education has been far superior to your own?”

    Let’s not pretend this is not sexist institution that is need of great revision. To me (a non-believer) this is exactly what I’d expect from a Church established by a known crook who married other mens’ wives while they served missions for him in 19th Century backward US.

    For you (a believer) these updates must be…

  • Briggs2326, you engage perfectly in the double speak Jana addresses. You have been well-trained.

    “This particular announcement is a change and it is a welcome change. But it is not as big of a change as this article is making it out to be.”

    I support the change, it’s a good change, but it’s not a really changey change because there is no such thing as significant change for those who know ACTUAL stuff, like people who have sat in many PEC that disprove the changiness of this this change because we’ve always listened to women and plus I would not be nearly as great as I am if my wife hadn’t “supported” me in my greatness and I praise her for her own greatness which is, of course, making me great. Amen and amen.

  • Welcome to the club. Every religion does this. Apologia always follows organized religion. They all have their little “spin control”. You are asking for something that nobody ever does in any religion.

    Making crap up to support one’s faith is a given. Its not like they depend on rational thoughts, evidence or logical arguments. “Purity” of one’s church is always self-serving and subjective. One’s own church is always more pure than another.

    Religious groups, especially large ones are always the last to accept social change. In most situations, they are reactionary and committed to a status quo which grants them arbitrary authority.

    Doubletalk about some minor change to a previously discriminatory policy and rhetoric is nothing new. Look how many churches suffer from amnesia about prior support for antisemitism and racial discrimination.