The topics LDS Church leaders discuss in General Conference messages to women — such as homemaking, birth control and motherhood — have changed over the decades, according to data from the LDS General Conference Corpus.
LDS women saw an increasing emphasis on homemaking from church leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, but since then the topic has been brought up less, according to data.
Lisa Olsen Tait, LDS Church historian and former BYU professor, said the idea of women as domestic and in the home was in large part a reflection of the overarching cultural story.
“I would say the high point of the conflation of Relief Society discourse to women about homemaking, at least in fairly recent memory, would be in the mid 20th century,” Tait said, adding that in those years the general American discourse about women looked similar in promoting homemaking.
Tait said she thinks the recognition that Mormon women can’t be reduced into one role like “homemaker” came with the 21st century.
“It’s an increasingly diverse category,” Tait said. “A discourse rooted in American culture about women and what women’s lives are like is just not adequate to reach and represent the lives that Mormon women generally live.”
Tait said she believes the new awareness is an echo of leaders’ efforts to talk about universal experiences and ground them in principles of the gospel instead of American culture.
Family and Gender
Church leaders have increased their emphasis on families since the 1970s, according to the data. Tait said this emphasis relates back to gender.
“We live in a world, especially those of us in America and Western culture, where the meaning of gender — what does it mean to be female, feminine, womanly, whatever — what is really up for grabs,” Tait said. “There is a lot of debate and discussion about what gender even means and so it is harder to connect gospel principles or the discourse we use to ideas about gender that are going to be generally accepted.”
Tait said changing cultural ideas may be the reason messages to women are less gender specific now than they have been in the past.
“I think that is why we see so much emphasis on identity as daughters of God, on covenants and keeping them, on serving each other and taking care of each other,” Tait said. “Those have a slight gender inflection on them, but they are more universal principles of the gospel.”
As recorded in the LDS General Conference Corpus, the phrase “birth control” was used 18 times in General Conference in the 1960s and 1970s, but use of the phrase has since tapered off in frequency, leading to zero mentions in the 2000s and 2010s.
BYU senior Madison Savoie is the writing fellow for Mormon Women’s History, a women’s studies class. The class covers topics like history of women in the church and women’s changing roles.
Savoie said birth control is one topic in which messages to women have changed gradually over time.
In the 1960s an oral contraceptive for birth control was approved in America, which created a large social debate in the LDS Church.
In 1969, a First Presidency Letter was issued on the topic of birth control, stating, “it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by.”
Savoie said comments from church leadership about this letter may appear from a modern lens to be sexist and degrading towards women.
“However, you have to understand that there was a lot of social and political uproar about birth control that was going on,” Savoie said. “It was something new, it was something different. To a great extent, leaders of the church thought it might be an attack on the family, and so there were a lot of leaders that reiterated that having children is important.”
Spencer W. Kimball also spoke to the church on disapproval of birth control, as recorded in “The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball.”
“Relatives and friends and even mothers sometimes encourage birth control for their young newlyweds … The Church cannot approve nor condone the measures which so greatly limit the family,” he said.
In 1983 Gordon B. Hinckley, then second counselor in the First Presidency of the church, changed the conversation about birth control when he said the decision to have children is a personal choice between a husband and wife.
“I am offended by the sophistry that the only lot of the Latter-day Saint woman is to be barefoot and pregnant,” Hinckley said. “The Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth that we might have joy in our posterity … But he did not designate the number, nor has the Church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord.”
Today, official church policy emphasizes the importance of children as “one of the greatest blessings in life,” but refrains from offering any specific guidelines on birth control.
Women in church history
Tait said she sees a growing discussion surrounding early Latter-day Saint women, which contributes to the changing messages given to LDS women recently.
“There’s no denying that traditionally that story has been told largely from the point of view of men and featuring men as the major characters,” Tait said. “But over the last several decades, as the women’s movement has come along and as Mormon women have started to research and think about our story, we see that women are every bit in the center of these important stories and that by not telling them we are not getting the full story.”
Tait said modern Mormon women have a sense of connection to women in early church history.
“Women have a sense of sisterhood over time and space not just in the moment that we live in, but this feeling that we are connected to our mothers and our foremothers and the experiences that they had,” Tait added.
Female voices in the church
Savoie said it is important to have female voices heard within the church.
“Women are equally as decisive, equally as influential, equally as educated as men,” Savoie said.
Savoie said it is “incredibly important” for women to participate in conversations with men as equal partners, “not only for the progression of the church but also for up and coming women to understand the role of women in the church.”
Gordon B. Hinckley shared his thoughts on women’s roles within the church at the National Press Club in 2000.
“People wonder what we do for our women. I’ll tell you what we do,” he said. “We get out of their way and look with wonder at what they’re accomplishing.”