On January 21st, 2017, Utah streets and canyon passes were covered in snow, making traveling hazardous to say the least. Nevertheless, when word broke out of a march being organized in Park City, thousands of women grabbed their picket signs and braved the storm for hours. As I scrolled through my news feed, I saw picture after picture of friends and acquaintances drenched and smiling, happy to have joined in solidarity with the millions of women gathering in peaceful protest that day. Though I didn’t participate, I couldn’t help feeling that solidarity myself as I saw fellow Relief Society sisters fighting for their beliefs. But then the next words that came up on my newsfeed replaced that solidarity with concern. Another deeply respected Relief Society sister in my life expressed her disgust for the demonstration after some attendees reproached those not in attendance. She commented on the events of the day on her Facebook by stating, “I don’t need anyone marching for me.” I was amazed that these two groups of Latter-day Saint women, who both cling to the same Gospel, could have such distinct and differing beliefs on a social standpoint. I was heartbroken that it would inspire such biting remarks because it is those contrasting opinions that cultivate the strength of Relief Society.
The organization of the Relief Society has taken pains to show the world, and even its own members, that it is more than just tablecloths and centerpieces. The Relief Society is a worldwide sisterhood with a mission to “help prepare women for the blessings of eternal life (see Moses 1:39) as they increase faith in Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and his Atonement; strengthen individuals, families, and homes through ordinances and covenants; and work in unity to help those in need.” This newly revised purpose by the recently released General Presidency of the Relief Society emphasizes the ‘how’ of its purpose. The addition of the word ‘unity’ in the purpose seems particularly timely with the increased divisiveness spurred by the current political climate. That divisiveness has, unfortunately, seeped into the Relief Society and among women of the Church.
Women are having a moment in the world today, as exemplified by the thousands of women who gathered on January 21st in response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The 2017 Women’s March was a worldwide protest advocating legislation regarding women’s rights and other human rights. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, and its influence has spurred dozens of similar protests like it. Many Latter-day Saint women have chosen to participate in protests like these. They march, demonstrate, inform, and advocate for causes that hit closest to them, causes ranging from equal pay and equality in the workplace to the defense of religious freedom and the family. They stand as advocates for the LGBT community and as advocates for those not yet born. Their motives vary, but regardless, they feel the need to take action.
On the other hand, many Latter-day Saint women choose not to participate and instead take action in more subtle ways. Rather than taking up arms against institutions, they lift up the arms that hang low and focus their efforts on their neighbors and close ones. These are the silent majority lifting where they stand and not necessarily advocating for anything specific, if only for the Kingdom of God. Each of these paths are paths of discipleship and each of us plays one role or another at any given point. The Lord needs both in His Work and yet when we pass judgements, a rift is formed in our sisterhood.
As a largely conservative coalition of women, some members of the Relief Society are opposed to social activism, preferring to take more private and personal steps in discipleship. It has somehow become taboo to become involved politically, and there exists some unspoken rule that it is inappropriate for devout Latter-day Saint women to be activists. It is significant to note, however, that activism has always been alive and well in the church and especially within the Relief Society.
The history of Relief Society is full of suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote. Martha Hughes Cannon wasn’t quite three years old when her family embarked from Wales to join the Saints out West. She grew up immersed in the gospel and would later graduate from medical school and become a resident physician at the newly formed Deseret Hospital. She was also a very prominent voice in the fight for women’s suffrage, and would eventually become the first woman in the United States to hold a State Senate seat when she was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1896. Another excellent example of activist women in the church can be found in Daughters In My Kingdom. It discusses a time when the women of the church were called upon to defend their lifestyle from a general misunderstanding from those outside of the church.
In January of 1870 a group of Latter-day Saint women gathered in Salt Lake City in response to legislation that outlawed the practice of plural marriage. The outlawing of polygamy came in response to the belief that the practice was degrading to women and that women in plural marriages were abused. While polygamy was difficult for many Saints to accept at the time, the women of the church did not feel debased by the practice and wanted the world to know that “there is no spot on this wide earth where kindness and affection are more bestowed upon woman, and her rights so sacredly defended as in Utah,” as one latter-day saint woman expressed at the time. These women chose to defend themselves, their husbands, and the laws and ordinances they were charged to keep by prophets of God. Sister Eliza R. Snow, who was general president of the Relief Society at the time, said “It was high time [to] rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves…The world does not know us, and truth and justice to our brethren and to ourselves demands us to speak… We are not inferior to the ladies of the world, and we do not want to appear so.”
All modern discussion about the practice of plural marriage aside, this is a classic example of a minority group faced with organized oppression who, recognizing a lack of understanding, took it upon themselves to educate society on their position and plead for tolerance toward their lifestyle and beliefs. One reporter in Salt Lake City that day wrote, “In logic and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the…women of the East.” While opinions and beliefs may differ, along with the way we express them, it’s significant to note that without the efforts of activists within or outside of the Relief Society, necessary social changes would have been much longer in the making.
Eve is another great example of a woman of God taking necessary action. Eve is regarded throughout Christianity as the woman who ruined it for the rest of us. Her disobedience in the Garden of Eden in partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is commonly understood to be the act that introduced sin into the world. But we, as members of the Church, know better. Modern-day revelation has taught us that Eve’s choice to pass through sorrow was the only way we could all inherit our mortal bodies and come to earth to take our place in God’s eternal plan of happiness. Elder Dallin H. Oaks put it best when he said, “Some Christians condemn Eve for her act, concluding that she and her daughters are somehow flawed by it. Not the Latter-day Saints! Informed by revelation, we celebrate Eve’s act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the Fall.”
Imagine if Eve chose to be a passive follower and didn’t take action when it was required of her. The plan would have been halted! It’s interesting to note that God didn’t give Eve instructions as to how she would fulfil her role in the plan. In fact, He commanded her to do the opposite of what she was foreordained to do. While I’m not suggesting God expects us to disobey His commandments, He does expect us to grab our power of agency with both hands and be the driving force in fulfilling our individual roles in His plan as well as advocating for those without a voice. He’s not going to micromanage our stewardship, but expects us to take action in our own way. Taking action, whether that be for a social cause or more personal one, is going to require, as it did for Eve, courage, faith, and understanding of our individual role within the plan.
Divisiveness stems from turning our attention away from God and His custom-made plan for us and comparing ourselves to each other. Sisters, defending your beliefs and standing as witnesses and advocates in social demonstrations is an approved path of discipleship. Sisters, defending your beliefs and standing as witnesses on more private and personal platforms is also an approved path of discipleship. Frankly, both are vital to the Lord’s work.
As Relief Society sisters, we have been blessed with a worldwide network of strong, faithful women to lean on for support and to serve as our means will permit. However, it’s all too common for us women to glance around at our sisters surrounding us (members or otherwise) and compare ourselves to them. Perhaps we feel like we don’t measure up or, heaven forbid, we feel like they don’t measure up to us. In any case, we have forgotten the timeless words of Elder Marvin J. Ashton, who said:
“Sisters, do not allow yourselves to be made to feel inadequate or frustrated because you cannot do everything others seem to be accomplishing. Rather, each should assess her own situation, her own energy, and her own talents, and then choose the best way to mold her family into a team, a unit that works together and supports each other. Only you and your Father in Heaven know your needs, strengths, and desires. Around this knowledge your personal course must be charted and your choices made.”
God has given us the opportunity to choose our personal path of discipleship. For one single mother, who’s husband’s transgressions ended their marriage, her path involves single-handedly providing for the emotional, financial, and spiritual security of her children. For an LDS scholar and feminist blessed with advanced educational opportunities, her path involves empowering the women of the church to recognize that men and women stand as true equals before God and dispel some of the misconceptions held in regards to Latter-day Saint women. Each path is very different, and there is something absolutely fantastic about that.
Sisters, eternal exaltation is not a contest. God has hand curated our individual journeys back to His presence. Each of us has different lessons to learn and those lessons will go unlearned if we focus our energy on comparing our progress to the progress of others. With the amount of divisiveness in the world today, it’s becoming increasingly important for us to create a unified society where we can go without fear of being judged for our methods of discipleship. As members of Relief Society, part of our purpose has always been to help those in need, but let’s now put more emphasis on working in unity to help those in need instead of judging our sisters for how they choose to do so.