In 2005, former 1st Counselor of the General Relief Society Presidency Chieko N. Okazaki gave an amazing interview to Gregory Prince in Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought.1 In all the times I have heard a woman representative of the church speak, I have never been impressed so thoroughly nor learned as much as I have from this interview. Sister Okazaki speaks surprisingly openly and candidly about how often women in the church are overlooked, not consulted about important issues, and lack a feeling of self-worth. The interview starts as follows:
“In my meetings with the young women or with the Relief Society women, I’m often really surprised that they do not feel that they can function as women in the Church—not all of them, of course, but many of those who come to me and talk to me. I just keep wondering, “How did they get to that point of feeling like they were not worth anything in the Church?”
Is it just me, or is this kind of a shocking thing for a woman who has served in so many general leadership capacities to openly say? From my experience, it is usually status quo for leaders to speak of what a fabulous job the church does of making women feel valued. If anything, they will say that it is the number one organization in the world that makes women feel valued. Sister Okazaki’s candid, truthful nature is a font of knowledge and insight into the struggles facing Latter-day Saint women.
The more I know about Sister Okazaki, the more I am impressed. In 1962, she was the first non-Caucasian to serve on any LDS general auxiliary board and is the first woman to serve all three of the LDS women’s auxiliaries at a general level, with her highest calling being the 1st Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency from 1990-1997. I’m going to quote from her 2005 Dialogue interview heavily because I think it is so important for everyone to hear the candid, heartfelt record of this woman’s story.
She was very dedicated to serving the women of the church through her callings, but often felt at a loss to be able to do so because women simply weren’t invited or a part of the meetings where big decisions were being made, not even if you’re part of the General Relief Society Presidency. Because the role of the 1st counselor in the General RS Presidency is to oversee the education structure for the sisters, Sister Okazaki was looking for ways to help the lessons better help the current needs of the women in the church. She realized that the lesson manual was due to be updated soon so she prayerfully wrote a general outline to get the important process underway. After her outline was approved by the RS presidency, she brought it to the Curriculum Committee. She was promptly told that her lesson manual outline and suggestions were not needed because a new manual had already been written for them and was near completion.
“I asked what [the new manual was about], and he said, “Well, it’s the manual on Harold B. Lee.” It was the first one in that series of teachings of the Church presidents. I asked, “Why are they writing a manual for us on Harold B. Lee?” He didn’t know. I told the presidency, so we went and asked the Curriculum Committee, “What is this all about?” They said, “Well, we’re already almost finished with the first book.” We said, “You’re almost finished with the first book, and you didn’t tell us that you were doing this? Why is this is the first time we have heard about it?” “So I asked, “Who is writing this manual?” It turned out to be five men, and the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and Relief Society would have the same lessons. I asked, “Why aren’t the women included in this?”
As was the case with the new manuals, the biggest hurdle with getting the needs of women heard was the fact that women simply aren’t included where the most important conversations and discussions are being had. On a local level, Sister Okazaki suggested in the interview that the church would greatly benefit if the RS president was included in all bishopric meetings. The current set up of solely working with the Bishop during ward counsel (a larger group in which all auxiliaries are represented) is not enough. At the general level, she found women being excluded from a wide majority of important committees and meetings was not serving the needs of the sisters equally to those of the men.
“We asked one time if we could be on the building committee and the temple committee, because sometimes we think, “Why did they build it this way?”—because it doesn’t work very well for the women’s needs. And we wanted to be on the temple committee, because there are many things that affect women in the temple. But we were never allowed to be a part of those committees.”
The part of this interview that surprised me the most was finding out that the General Relief Society Presidency was not even notified that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was in the works. They were not informed of it, they were not asked for consultation of any kind in its drafting, and they were not asked if there were specific concerns for women that might need to be included. When she was presented with the finished product, her response was as follows:
“How come we weren’t consulted?”
Greg Prince: You didn’t even know it was in the works?
Chieko Okazaki: No. They just asked us which meeting to present it in, and we said, “Whatever President Hinckley decides is fine with us.” He decided to do it at the Relief Society meeting. The apostle who was our liaison said, “Isn’t it wonderful that he made the choice to present it at the Relief Society meeting?” Well, that was fine, but as I read it I thought that we could have made a few changes in it. Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there.”
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is a document that guides us in our understanding the roles of women, men, and the family unit in God’s plan. The proclamation outlines an ideology for the family and has been set as a standard to which all members of the church are encouraged to look.
Many members mistakenly say that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is a canonical revelation directly from God. If this were the case, then it would make sense for women to not be included as advisers since revelation is hardly a group effort. But proclamations are not meant to introduce new doctrine, that is not their purpose. If it were, a proclamation’s acceptance into the canon would be voted on by common consent and it would be included in the next edition of our printed canon (which was updated in 2013, its first update since 1980). The purpose of official proclamations of the church (there are five official proclamations, the most recent of which was at the sesquicentennial in 1990) is not to be seen and treated as new revelations as a whole, but instead to clarify the position of the church in matters that are significant to the world at the time with the hope of bolstering the resolve of the saints and to increase their understanding of issues of their day.2
When Boyd K. Packer mistakenly said the Proclamation to the Family “qualifies according to the definition of revelation” [video
] when he gave his talk “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” in General Conference of 2010, the phrasing was officially redacted when the talk was printed and instead the Proclamation was accurately described as “It is a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and to follow” [printed correction
So if “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is a public statement made by the leadership of the church with the intent of aiding the saints as they face current challenges, why wasn’t the General Relief Society Presidency consulted or even notified of its drafting? When we are told time and time again that women’s highest form of divinity is their unique ability to nurture and strengthen the family, why is it that women would not even be consulted in drafting a document proclaiming and outlining the church’s stance on the family? Surely the proclamation would have benefited from the insight of the General Relief Society Presidency. From what I have read of Sister Okazaki’s life experiences as a minority and outlier in the church, I think she would have insisted on including a section dedicated to those whose family prospects do not fit the “perfect” mold through no fault of their own. I truly don’t feel that this document is complete without including counsel to those who will never have a two-parent + children formula in this lifetime and ensuring them that they too are fulfilling a godly purpose.
I think this interview with Sister Okazaki is the perfect example of the struggles so many women are facing in the church today. It’s not that the church doesn’t love and value its women, it clearly does. But the infrastructure of the church is not allowing women to be equally represented; our voices simply aren’t an integral part of the narrative. Since women are excluded from the meetings and committees wherein the majority of church policies and practices are created, a gap has always existed for many women between their needs and what is being offered from the church. When Sister Okazaki was asked if she thought younger generations of women have a chance at correcting this dichotomy, she said:
“I have to say that, in my sixty-four years in the Church, I sometimes see a little bit of a change that the women themselves prompt, but most of the time, I haven’t seen women who would make that change possible. Wherever I go, I think that they already know their place.” … “When women get the message that their job is to be supportive and just agree with the decisions of the bishop, they become clams.”
I think that Sister Okazaki’s impression of Mormon women as rarely being the initial prompt or engineers for meaningful change in the church is accurate; they simply aren’t taught that that is their purpose so it rarely occurs. In the time since this interview was given however, the Internet has become a hub where like-minded women have found each other and have started to organize to better address the needs of women.
Groups such as Mormon Feminist Housewives
, Ordain Women
, and Young Mormon Feminists
have formed to provide a productive, unique space for the growing number of women who are finding themselves in need of extra support.
The mainstream church describes Mormon Feminists as not valuing their womanhood and not understanding their sacred role as mothers and nurturers. Much like Sister Okazaki, this could not be further from the truth. They value their divine role immensely, but they just want to do more in God’s kingdom on Earth. Ordain Women’s action of standing in line to ask for seats to Priesthood Session has been labeled by the church as a protest.3 But again, this is completely false. It is not a protest at all. They are simply faithful LDS women who wish to be in the room to hear the Prophet and our leaders speak about the Priesthood, something that we have been reassured we have equal access to though we do not hold it ourselves. The church also says that Mormon Feminists are purposefully trying to be divisive and cause discord, but again–this conjecture is inaccurate. These are not women who are unknowledgeable of doctrine and are apathetic to the church’s purposes and goals. They are women who are so committed to the gospel that they want to see it thrive, and the only way they can see that happening is by taking a more active role and being given a parallel structure for growth and leadership. They can see that many of the current policies, mindsets, and procedures of the church are hindering church growth world-wide and causing an alarming amount of members (especially among the youth) to become disaffected. They want to be part of the change for good in the church in ways they are not currently allowed to be.
Mormon Feminists know that in the early days of the church, women’s auxiliaries had far more autonomy and scope than they do now. Joseph Smith referred to the Relief Society as a “kingdom of priests”4
when he adopted the Relief Society officially into the church and Mormon Feminists want to know what he meant when he said that. They are seeking the restoration of responsibilities (such as the overseeing of finances, collecting tithes, and washing, anointing with oil, and laying hands on the sick)5
that were originally
given to women when the church was first organized. Mormon Feminists know these requests sound strange now since so few members even know that women ever performed such functions in the church, but they hope that bringing this knowledge to the foreground again will help restore these roles. They aren’t afraid to ask the tough question of why our influence and involvement in the church has been diminished rather than expanded with time.
Much like Sister Okazaki, many women in the church today know that you can have a true knowledge and testimony of the pure doctrine and gospel of Christ and yet disagree with the policies and procedures of the earthly institution that bears his name. They also know that no one should ever have to ask “Why aren’t the women included in this?”.
1) “Interviews and Conversations. There is Always a Struggle; and Interview with Chieko Okazaki”. Gregory Prince. Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought. http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V45N01_CO.pdf
2) “Proclamations, declarations clarify, reaffirm LDS doctrine”. Chuch News. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/36742/Proclamations-declarations-clarify-reaffirm-LDS-doctrine.html
3) Church Asks Activist Group to Reconsider Plans to Protest at General Conference http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-asks-activist-group-to-reconsider-general-conference-protest-plans
4) “Women and Authority”, edited by Maxine Hanks of Signature Books. “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843” By Michael Quinn. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=1171
5) A gift Given, A gift Taken. Sunstone Magazine. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/029-16-25.pdf