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Latter-day: When Change Is Made For Mormon Women, Children Often Come Along For The Ride

Renee Bright / KUER

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been taking steps to be more inclusive of women. For example, last month church officials announced women could be witnesses during baptisms, a role previously reserved for men. But in that same announcement, children over the age of 8 were also allowed this new privilege. This grouping of women and children together is not new. 

And, as one Mormon woman tells KUER’s Lee Hale, it feels more like a theme at this point. Debra Jensen is a professor of Journalism and Communications at Utah State University. She’s been an advocate for the inclusion of women at church. 

We began our conversation talking about why Jensen thinks women and children are often grouped together when structural changes are announced. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Debra Jensen: I think structurally it's hard for the church to differentiate between women and children.

Men and boys have these offices that they hold and titles that entitle them to certain authority and power, and women do not have that. Women are also canonized as mothers and nurturers, and so I think when our leaders think about women, they just automatically include children with that, because that's been their experience of women — that women are always raising children and nurturing them. Which is beautiful — it's a beautiful thought. But it also fails to acknowledge that women are individuals with their own ideas and thoughts and talents and skills.

Lee Hale: When the church adjusted the women's conference meeting during General Conference to be the same week in a general conference, they also allowed young girls to come as well. Are there are other examples I’m missing at times where the women and children have been grouped together like them?

The only other example that I can think of would be when we as church members sustain — or raise our hands in support — of a new prophet. In the past men were asked to raise their hands first, the Melchizedek priesthood. And then teenage boys, the Aaronic priesthood. And then everyone who was left, the women and children. That has since changed, but it's been a really slow movement to come away from that idea. So, in a way, it's not surprising to see these changes also include children. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

LH: Is there a shift happening where adult women are starting to be respected more as decision makers, as people welcome at the table?

DJ: I do think there is a gradual shift. It's sort of like watching little pebbles pile up and eventually form a hill, which will eventually be a mountain.

I do think there's a change — we do see women. It started at the very basic level of hanging the pictures of the members of the General Relief Society presidency, and then including them in the amazing red velvet seats at the conference center. And now, we just had this last conference where we really did have some movement there — members of the Relief Society presidency are now working with the bishopric. I think that's very important that we start to see women as leaders. 

I won't really be satisfied until we see women as leaders capable of leading men and not just women and children. But I do see it happening.

LH What does your faith teach you about your role as a woman in the church? Not the organization, but you're faith.

DJ Oh, that's a huge. That's a really important distinction. Institutionally, it's difficult. But my faith has always felt that this was a church — this was a gospel — that valued me as an individual [and] for whatever I could accomplish or contribute. 

When I came to this church, I was a 13-year-old brash feminist who had argued with a teacher that I wasn't going to repeat the preamble to the Declaration of Independence because it was sexist. I was not someone who would easily fit into a space that wasn't feminist friendly. And, I found this gospel to be incredibly feminist. I found it to be respectful of women. I think our institution will eventually catch up with the promise of that gospel. Eventually.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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