BYU women alumni influence modern Church

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Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, who was named the Young Women General President in 2018, speaks during General Conference in October 2018. Sister Cordon is one of several BYU women alumni who serves in leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She received her bachelor’s degree in education from BYU. (Claire Gentry)

Twenty-seven women who are BYU alumni have held some influential leadership positions in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past 20 years.

These diverse women have come from varied study backgrounds such as English, political science, education, history and family life. They have had professional careers, been homemakers and held positions in civic engagement organizations.

Elaine S. Dalton, Jean B. Bingham, Mary N. Cook, Ann M. Dibb, Cheryl C. Lant, Janette Hales Beckham, Margaret D. Nadauld, Susan W. Tanner and Julie B. Beck were all born in Utah, but other women are from California, Washington, D.C., Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, Canada, and various other locations. Multiple sisters spent time in foreign countries as missionaries or for other purposes, and many speak multiple languages, including Portuguese and Spanish.

Several sisters met and married their spouses while students at BYU, like Bingham, Joy D. Jones, Bonnie H. Cordon and others. Some, like Sheri L. Dew and Sharon Eubank, are unmarried. Wendy Nelson, President Russell M. Nelson’s wife, wasn’t married until her fifties nor does she hold an official Church position.

Many of the women’s talks, given at BYU devotionals, forums and General Conference, focus on the importance and power of motherhood, coming unto Christ, serving others, raising strong children, holding to the iron rod and enduring trials. These talks emphasize the worth of women and the need to draw close to the Savior.

The sisters often tailor their remarks to specific audiences within the Church. Women who have held positions in Primary often direct their comments to parents raising children, and those over the Young Women speak directly to the youth.

Those involved in the Young Women’s presidency often speak about the damaging effects of comparison and told the girls to be different from the world, emphasizing intrinsic worth. They often single out trials like staying modestly, media, drugs and peer pressure. The Relief Society presidency members often speak to mothers about their role in the Plan of Salvation.

In both General Conference and at BYU, these women speak of a woman’s role. Many address the question of women and the priesthood, such as Sydney S. Reynolds and Dew. They emphasize that motherhood, in the words of Dew, “is not what was left over after our Father blessed His sons with priesthood ordination.”

Sister Reynolds said a man’s ability to hold the priesthood does not alter the fact that men and women are “equal before God.”

Many of them have encouraged women to become educated. Although they encouraged motherhood and homemaking, the sisters reminded their audiences an education is vital.

Sister Reynolds, in a 1979 BYU devotional, told students about her original plan to have an exciting career. She said she ended up becoming a full-time wife and mother but never regretted her college education. Although she never pursued a professional use of her studies, Reynolds said she did not find motherhood incompatible with a college education.

In more recent conference addresses, service and ministering have taken an extra prominent role. LDS Charities Director Sharon Eubank spoke of the importance of love in doing humanitarian work. Sister Jones, Sister Cordon and Sister Bingham gave talks in 2018 centered on ministering, partially in response to the new Church-wide transition to the ministering program.

They offered encouragement to the women who may feel like they do not measure up to expectations. They told the membership they are not alone. Throughout the years, Sister Craig, Sister Beck, Sister Lant, Sister Reynolds, Sister Jones, Sister Bingham, Sister Dew, Sister Nelson and Sister Dibb have spoken of their sisters’ individual value which is not dependent on outside forces.

Jones one differentiated between worth and worthiness, and said that “If we sin, we are less worthy, but we are never worth less.”

Over the years, each woman has spoke again and again about the enabling love of the Savior and impressed upon their fellow Church members they matter.

Women leaders’ influence in the Church does not end with General Conference. In 2015, women leaders began serving on general councils that determine Church policy, including the Priesthood and Family Executive Council, the Missionary Executive Council and the Temple and Family History Executive Council. According to Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, who served as Young Women’s general president until 2018, these councils are the three key Church councils and led by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Sister Oscarson was invited to participate in the Missionary Executive Council in 2015 and posted her thoughts on Facebook.

“What a great time to be a woman in the Church where our voices are needed and valued more than ever,” she wrote. “I am grateful for the opportunity to add my perspective and experience to this council as we work together to spread the message of the restored Gospel.”

In recent years, President Nelson has emphasized women’s role in the modern Church. He called women “vital associates during this winding-up scene” in his 2015 talk “A Plea to My Sisters.” 

“We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices,” he said.

President Nelson shared a similar message in his October 2018 talk “Sisters’ Participation in the Gathering of Israel.”

“My dear sisters, we need you,” he said. “We simply cannot gather Israel without you.”

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