The role of women in the Mormon Church
History and reality of the role of women in the Mormon ChurchSince Romney began his run for the presidency, the images of male leaders of the Mormon Church have been in the news. But what about the women of the church? Do women have a significant role in the LDS religion?
As in many other religious organization, men fill the primary leadership positions in the LDS Church. In the Mormon Church, all worthy male members are ordained as priests. This priesthood is not a professional designation, but it does make the men qualified to fill various (volunteer) administrative, leadership and educational positions, including as spiritual leader of a congregation. Women do not occupy these positions.
But women are not left out of church roles. Back in 1842, after hearing of a group of women organizing a service group women in the church were forming (with the goal of making shirts for their families and other church members), Joseph Smith had other ideas. He directed the women to form a more extensive women's organization that would parallel the priesthood's structure.
The History of the Relief Society
From the start, the Relief Society was focused on more than gathering women for sewing and conversation. The group provided health care for the sick and was charged with ensuring that members had help with food and other necessities as well.
Under Eliza R. Snow (president of the group from 1866-1887) the Relief Society sent women to medical school and nursing programs, participated in women's suffrage efforts and worked to ensure that members of the church were well educated in the arts and world cultures as well as in the beliefs of their faith. During this time, the Women's Exponent, a regional newspaper focused on women's voting rights as well as other issues affecting women and other pioneers was launched. The Deseret Hospital, founded by Mormon women doctors, was also built during this period.
The trend continued under Zina D. H. Young (president from 1888-1901) who brought the Relief Society in as a of the National Council of Women. She and other members also continued to campaign for women's right to vote.
The organization continued to grow, adding regular classes to its responsibilities. In 1919, under the direction of member Clarissa Williams, the Relief Society added a Social Services Department which included a formal church welfare program, a social work service (made up of women who were professional social workers), a women's employment agency, and an adoption agency.
And when Carissa S. Williams became organization president from 1921-1928, a fund was created to provided resources and education to improve neonatal outcomes by making home births safer for mother and baby.
Additions and improvements continued over the decades, with increasing responsibility for members of the Relief Society, who continued to administer their own programs.
There's a wonderful video history of the Relief Society that covers the history of the organization, as well as its goals and accomplishments, if you'd like more details about the groups history.
Women in the Church today
Women in today's Relief Society continue to have responsibility for the major of their programs, although in the 1950's, the budgets of all church programs were combined into a central budgetary authority. The organization's leadership now consists of three women who are called to be the leaders at the international level, and who are considered to be members of the General Leadership of the Church (although not General Authorities, an exclusively male title.) Each ward (equivalent to a congregation) also has a Relief Society President, as well as two counselors.
On the international level, women now serve along side men on the Church Education Board, the Missionary Training Center boards, as well as in a variety of other leadership boards and committees.
Women and the Missionary Program
Like young men, young women in the Church have the opportunity to serve their faith by volunteering to go on a mission. Young women aged 19 and above can choose to accept the role of missionary somewhere in the world.
Older women can also volunteer as missionaries. Like older men, these missionaries typically serve in Temple visitors centers or in other locations rather than going door to door. Couples also serve in these missionary roles.
Men, women and the Temple
Temple work, one of the cornerstones of the LDS faith, is performed by women and men, and each Temple throughout the world is staffed by women and men who help church members who come there to receive their own endowments, seal a marriage or perform work for ancestors who have passed. Church doctrine insists that both men and women must receive their Temple work, and that both genders are needed for either to receive the highest rewards in heaven.
Everyday Mormon services
During weekly church services, although the Bishop of the ward is a male, both women and men are speakers during the service. Men and women attend services together, and both receive sacraments during the service. After services, men and women do separate to attend separate meetings, with women heading to Relief Society and men going to a Priesthood meeting.