She answered the phone expecting the worst. The woman was a member of the General Relief Society board and received word that her husband had been relocated to California, which meant she would be released from the position she loved.
To her utter shock and delight, the voice on the phone informed her that she would be able to keep her position as part of the board from her new home outside of Utah.
This story is not as uncommon as it once was. Though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recently made headlines concerning the changes toward women in the past few years, history shows that women have always been supported and esteemed in the organization.
“(As women), we have privileges … and expectations of us that would require ordination in many other churches,” said Sheri Dew, former second counselor in the General Relief Society presidency, at the 2012 Time Out for Women Conference. “We pray in worship meetings. We teach. We expound on scriptures. We teach the gospel as proselyting missionaries. We lead all the organizations for the women, children and youth. We do this all since the time we were little. By my count, we have 400,000–500,000 women serving in presidencies in over 175 countries.”
Since 2012, changes have included the move to a global Young Women General Board, a combined biannual Young Women and Relief Society meeting and the introduction of younger sister missionaries and sister training leaders in the mission field.
“We need to help the women of the church realize how essential they are to this work,” said Sister Bonnie Oscarson, Young Women general president in a recent statement. “We are all needed. We have special gifts and talents that no one else can offer.”
Called to serve the sisters
The biggest policy change was President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement in October 2012 that young women 19 years and older would be eligible to serve as full-time proselyting missionaries rather than waiting until the traditional age of 21.
Although many missions scrambled to take in the 8,000 new sister missionaries added to the now-80,000-person LDS missionary force, Dylan Lambert, a recently returned missionary, said there was nothing but good that occurred as a result.
“I can’t explain the difference in the performance of the sisters with the change,” said Lambert, who served as a sister training leader. “Younger sisters had a lot more faith to talk to people. … The number of lessons being taught were significantly higher, and the results were more baptisms.”
In order to accommodate those sisters, sister training leaders, the female equivalent of zone leaders, were called in April 2013. The sister training leaders attend monthly leadership councils as part of their duties and do exchanges with their five assigned companionships each transfer.
“Those sister training leaders were vital for performance,” Lambert said. “If we didn’t have (them), the work would probably be halted.”
Lambert’s mission in New York had so many missionaries coming in at once that many sisters were called to train a new sister missionary after only six weeks of experience in the field. Other missions dealt with the influx by calling older sisters to train two new sister missionaries at the same time.
BYU has also felt the impact, as many young women are putting school on hold to answer the prophet’s call.
“In terms of executive directors, we had a lot of great girls last year who would have been involved with leadership roles this year but instead chose to serve a mission,” said BYUSA President Brandon Beck.
Last year the ratio of women to men in BYUSA leadership went from four girls and four boys to three girls and five boys this year, to two girls and six boys next year.
“Many of the same girls who have been involved with BYUSA have also chosen to serve church missions. Both are a great experiences with tremendous opportunities for growth and personal development,” said Erika Nash, BYUSA vice-president.
United as sisters in Zion
This March marked the first time in more than 20 years that all girls and women ages eight and older met for a combined meeting the week before General Conference. In November 2013, the First Presidency of the church made it known that the Young Women and Relief Society meetings, which had been split and held on a yearly basis for decades, would meet together semiannually.
“As the women of the Church gather together — sisters, mothers and daughters — they, their families and the Church will be strengthened and blessed,” the First Presidency letter states.
To meet the needs of the increasingly international church, the Young Women general board was organized, and women from all over the globe were called to fill positions. Traditionally, women located outside of Utah were not able to be part of the boards of the women organizations of the Church.
“We all know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is worldwide,” said Sister Rosemary M. Wixon, Primary General President. “That reason alone provides opportunities for advancement and progression. All of these things — the general women’s meeting, the training that will come online and also international boards for Young Women — are pointing in that direction, to meet the changing needs of women.”
The leaders of the church have also expressed the importance of the female half of the population on numerous occasions.
“Cherish your esteemed place in the sight of God,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in his 2007 talk “To Young Women.” “He needs you. This Church needs you. The world needs you.”
With all the recent changes, the church is developing more ways for women to participate in equal but distinct roles.
“This is actually a church that loves women and values them and teaches them and trains them and counsels them,” Dew said in an interview. “In fact, I have made a study of this, and for a good 20 years I have tried to find an organization from anywhere in the world where as many women had as much bona fide leadership and teaching responsibility as in the church. I can’t find one.”