Yesterday afternoon Alice Smith, our friend of many years from Logan (Mrs. W. Whitney Smith) spent a full hour talking with me about women in the Church. She has been a member of the General Board of the Relief Society for about 18 years and is fairly sure that she will be released in the near future because of this long service. She came in to see me, I suppose, because we were personal friends and because she knew I was interested in the history of women in the Church.
Alice had just returned from regional meetings in Roanoke, Virginia. This plus things she has heard the Brethren say and things she has read give her great anxiety. She is very discouraged and doesn't see any reason for hope about the future role of women in the Church. She is surely not a feminist; she is very much a traditionalist. But the tradition as she understands it gives women an equal, though not similar, role with men-equal but different. She has read through many times the early minutes of the Relief Society in which Joseph Smith made comments. She is also aware of the changes in these minutes that were made by George A. Smith in the 1850s. And it is this revised form that has been published by the Relief Society ever since. It is that revision which the Brethren have read and which they quote from. There are significant differences. [[For instance, George A. Smith changed Joseph Smith's statement to the Relief Soci- ety in April 1842, "I turn the [priesthood] key to you" to "I now turn the key in your behalf." ]] She sees the role of women being constricted from the 1850s up to the present. She thinks Joseph Smith's vision of woman and her role is what should be our guide, and she wishes somehow we could give that particular emphasis.
Alice says that we are gradually losing our women. She says this was clear in Virginia, where the attendance of women at Relief Society meeting and at Sacrament meeting is dropping substantially. She has obtained statistics for the whole church which show the same thing happening. Attendance of women at Relief Society is considerably lower than attendance at Priesthood meeting, and attendance of women at Sacrament meeting is lower than for men. Whereas men run around 40-45 percent, women are now averaging about 35 percent. This is compared with, say, 45 percent five years ago for the women. She attributes this to the Relief Society in particular and the Church in general not meeting the needs of the women. I asked her for particulars on this, and she feels it is not a result of particular things as much as the general attitude of women feeling inferior. Item: Women are not now permitted to pray in Sacrament meeting. Ten years ago women were permitted to close Sacrament meeting while a man was supposed to open it. Item: Women used to be permitted to bless other women. This [was] particularly true of midwives who were permitted-indeed, encouraged-to administer to women who were about to undergo childbirth or who had other illnesses. This has not been true for 30 or 40 years. Item: Few if any bishops or stake presidents would permit a woman to join or to stand as observer at the blessing of her baby. This was once permitted where the woman requested it. Item: The women once had their own magazine and therefore an avenue of communicating with each other. This has not been true since 1970. Item: The women once had their own money and therefore had a certain autonomy in what they did. It was hard to get the money; they had to hold bazaars and sponsor stands at fairs and put on plays and musicals and solicit donations, but at least they were permitted to do this and had a certain independence because they controlled their money. They have not had this privilege in the last ten years. Item: Once upon a time women were invited to speak in General Conference. No woman has been invited in recent years to speak in the open sessions; and despite the importance of women in the Welfare program, only one woman is permitted to speak in the Welfare session of General Conference; namely, the [Relief Society] president, who has seven minutes. Everybody knows that the influence of women on children and young people is stronger than that of men simply because they are around them more. Everybody knows that if the father is inactive and the mother is active, the children will be active, whereas if the father is active and the mother inactive the children will rarely be active. The influence of the mother on children and the youth is determining. If we are denigrating women and their position we will soon lose the youth, and when we lose the youth our future is dim. Sister Smith hoped that I could give her just one example of some action in recent years which has raised the position of women in the Church. If I discover any such thing now or in the days to come she wants me to write her. Some of the General Authorities are quoting statements by Brigham Young which suggest the inferiority of women. Alice says that President [Harold B.] Lee, under whom the magazine and the money were taken away from the Relief Society, was accustomed to using a quotation from President Joseph F. Smith about woman and her role, and she said that if he had used the paragraph which follows that quotation the net effect of the quotation is nullified. [[Lee believed women should support their husbands and raise children. See, e.g., "Maintain Your Place as a Woman," Ensign, Feb. 1972.]] She suggests that Belva Ashton is equally concerned on these matters but that neither Alice nor Belva have any effective voice. She says that neither the presidency nor the board members have access to the First Presidency nor to the Quorum of the Twelve. The advisors to the Relief Society now are this General Priesthood Committee with Dean Larsen as chairman and with Brother Worthlin [Joseph B. Wirthlin] as the particular Relief Society coordinator or advisor. Brother Worthlin presumably has access to Brother Larsen. Brother Larsen presumably has access to some member of the Twelve, and that member of the Twelve presumably has access to the Twelve as a group, which in turn has access to the First Presidency. But relatively speaking, things do not work that way. Brother Wirthlin passes on to Brother Larsen what he feels Brother Larsen wants. Brother Larsen passes on to the member of the Twelve what he feels the Twelve want, and the result is that what the Relief Society really wants is never seen by the First Presidency. Nor are the Relief Society presidency permitted to make an end run around to the First Presidency. There is the strongest admonition that they must not do that. The result is that the First Presidency are asked to approve policies for the Relief Society on the assumption that they are approved by the Relief Society presidency when as a matter of fact they have been watered down and are not at all what the Relief Society presidency wants. I asked Alice why it was that the Relief Society presidency did not feel like they could go directly to the [First] Presidency on some matters that they feel strongly about and let the Presidency know how they really feel. I said, "I feel sure that Belle Spafford did this." She said that is true; Belle did. She said Sister Spafford was a strong personality; she made her desires known, and she got away with it. That, however, is not the characteristic of the three members of the presidency. Janath Cannon is scared to death; Sister [Marian Richards] Boyer is not sharp enough to see all the problems and to be articulate in expressing them. Barbara Smith just is not the kind of a strong personality. Her husband [Douglas] is a strong personality and high in the circle of influential persons in the Church. And he would not be able to understand this problem
with respect to women. As for Barbara, she senses it, she feels it, but she was trained in her home and in her marriage with the idea of women being submissive and obedient. It just would not occur to her to be pushy.
I asked Alice what we could do to improve this situation-to have a helpful influence. She said that it would be helpful if we continue to stress in our historical writing the broader and more influential role of women in early Church history and the views of the Prophet Joseph Smith. But she is impatient and does not think that influence will be very strong or very immediate. What else? Well, nothing really. I guess she hoped that I would have conversations with people and might express a concern, but she surely does not realize how little influence we have in that way. Alice says that she hasn't lost her testimony in any way, but she feels depressed about the future of the Church because of the way they are treating women as inferior beings or second-class citizens. I tried to bring up the positive role of Exponent II, and she said that it has so few readers. She said the Relief Society board members were not permitted to subscribe to Exponent II, and so she and a few others who want to subscribe do so under the names of their husbands.
Alice loves the Church too much to be unconcerned about this matter. When she is released from the board, which she thinks will be soon, she then wants to publish two or three things, possibly in Exponent II, that will help to call attention to these concerns.
Alice is not at all exercised over the "priesthood question;" that, is she has never thought that women ought to hold the priesthood, and thinks that that is an extraneous issue. She thinks not [m]any women want to hold the priesthood. It is just that they be regarded as equals-as not inferior. It is just that women ought to participate in the decision-making process that affects them. They ought to have some say in the direction of the ward, the stake, and the Church generally. There is a statement which Susa Young Gates made in the Relief Society Bulletin-the predecessor of the Relief Society Magazine-in which she says, "Women do not hold the priesthood. They ought to face this calmly and express it thoroughly and calmly to their daughters."
Whatever problems the Relief Society has today, they are probably not equal to those of the 1920s when they were under the Presiding Bishopric. That, according to Jill [Mulvay Derr], who has studied that period of Relief Society history, was the most frustrating of all-worse than the situation today where they don't have direct access to the Twelve or the First Presidency. [[For more, see Beecher and Anderson, eds., Sisters in Spirit.]]
[Source: Confessions of a Mormon historian : the diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997, Gary James Bergera, editor, Signature Books, 2018]