Whatever the format of the October 2021 Saturday Evening Session will be, it will not be a traditional Women’s Session. Some have expressed worry that this means that General Conference will have fewer women speaking than in past conferences since typically, only two or three women speak during the general sessions of the two-day conference.
“Speakers have been selected from the General Authorities and General Officers of the church.”
In April 2021, only two women spoke across the entire Conference, a statistic that was exacerbated because the Saturday evening session was the Priesthood session, thus boosting the total male speakers and diminishing those of women. 32 men spoke (26 if you subtract the Priesthood session speakers for the sake of parity).
On paper, that is a jarring contrast. But it’s also worth looking at the number of available speakers by gender and the proportion of speakers from each general group with respect to their gender. There are 126 men eligible to speak in General Conference and 9 women. Somewhat surprisingly, roughly 22-25% of the available set of speakers from each gender speaks during Conference.
That is merely one statistic, but it belies the bigger picture: the issue is not just that fewer women speak, it’s that there are fewer women eligible to speak in the first place.
Therefore, it should not be not a surprise that so few women speak when looking at hard numbers. But as a measure of proportion, these nine women normally deliver more messages during their tenure than a General Authority Seventy or member of the Young Men and Sunday School general presidencies would.
All of the general officer presidencies, both male and female are called to a five-year term. Recently released Primary General President, Joy D. Jones, spoke in five occasions during her service. In roughly the same period of years, Young Men general president, Stephen Owen, and Sunday School General President, Tad Callister, spoke three times each. The Sunday School and Young Men counselors each spoke twice. The Primary General Presidency counselors spoke three times.
Former Young Women General President, Bonnie Oscarson, spoke on seven occasions. Former Relief Society General President, Linda Burton, spoke eight times. The female councilors to the president speak an average of three or four times during their tenure while the men speak twice. Obviously, this isn’t taking into account the numerous General Authorities—all men—who speak, but it is still telling.
General Authorities Seventies speak with a roughly every three to six years, depending on if they are technically in the First or Second Quorum; however, their term of service is generally a decade or more.
If there are to be more women speaking during General Conference, there either has to be more women who are in General Authorities or Officers positions, or the pool of speakers at general conference must expand. But how? How do we increase the pool of eligible speakers without creating entirely new organizations that function at a “general” Church level and would be considered appropriate for a General Conference appearance?
General Advisory Council Members
Each general organizations in the Church has a general advisory council to help it in its responsibilities. The councils for the women-led organizations are much larger than those for the men. (These advisory councils were named “general boards,” in the recent past.) There has also been a Sunday School General Board in the past. It is unclear if the Sunday School still has a functioning board; The Church News has not reported its existence in many years. When it was functioning, there were two women serving on the board.
In 2019, the Church released a video to highlight the women in the Relief Society General Board. It illustrated the diversity of the women serving on the General Advisory Council. The message was widely celebrated. Surely these women would be remarkable speakers at General Conference, even if they comprise a board and not a presidency The women of the Young Women and Primary General Advisory Councils are equally as diverse and accomplished.
Wives of the Frist Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve
At firesides and other events, the wives of the apostles frequently speak while being accompanied by their husbands. Ruth Renlund was recently a keynote speaker for the 2021 Religious Freedom Annual Review, speaking alongside her husband Dale Renlund. The wife of President Nelson, Wendy Watson Nelson was the 2021 keynote speaker of the commencement at Utah Valley University. In the recent Face to Face Broadcast, Elder Bednar frequently deferred to his wife for answering questions. Clearly the voices of these women would be welcome additions in general conference.
Wives of the General Authority Seventies
When General Authority seventies are called, The Church News always features a picture of them and their spouses. Many of them travel with their husbands and speak frequently. This is clearly an under-utilized group of women that could be part of the administrative structure of the church. General Authority Seventies have assignments directing the various departments of the Church. Surely some of these non-priesthood positions could be filled by women.
International Area Organization Advisors
In early 2021, the First Presidency approved a new position for areas outside the United States and Canada, called an “international area adviser,” with duties comprising the follow:
These 50 women report to the area presidencies where they live. They represent the female organizations as well as their local area. They participate in the area council and may be considered on a similar level to Area Seventies. Even though Area Seventies do not speak in General Conference, the Church noted that the women serving as international area organization advisers will attend General Conference at least once during their three to five year service. Hearing from this non-American group of women would be a great addition to General Conference.
Lest you say start thinking the past few ideas aren’t worth considering because General Conference is about hearing remarks from general (i.e. global) Church leaders, let’s revisit a neat episode from 2020.
Young Women Speakers
Only 18 months ago, we were treated to two youth speakers in General Conference. Laudy Kaouk Alverez, of Provo, Utah, gave remarks on how the priesthood blesses youth. She is not the only example. Alejandra Hernández spoke in the 1997 General Young Women Meeting.
There are other random precedents. In 1979, President Kimball was unable to attend General Conference and asked his wife, Camilla, to read his remarks. There are also other examples of individuals reading a Conference talk on someone else’s behalf. There is no hard and fast rule that says who can and cannot speak in Conference. The Lord, through his prophet, can approve anyone He chooses.
It is important to note that the stated purpose of general conference is not to to showcase a representative sample of church membership. General Conference is not the Church’s House of Representatives.
Nevertheless, we need to hear from women, and whether the official pool of speakers creates artificial barriers on who can speak or not, we would all benefit from more female perspectives during a global meeting of the Church, and it’s bad optics to go to lengths to tell the sisters we need them, but then barely showcase their excellence over a 10-hour weekend. Just in April, President Nelson expressed his satisfaction with dedicating a session of General Conference to speakers of diverse backgrounds. Let’s continue that trend and find ways to include more women.