“Wait…women weren’t allowed to pray before??”
This was my first reaction upon reading that Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the Primary presidency, gave the first prayer ever given by a woman at a worldwide Mormon meeting during Saturday’s General Conference session.
(Reason why I’m not a good Mormon: I’ve never watched a televised General Conference event. Ever. In years past, I’d read the talks online or in print if I perhaps was interested in any of them. Otherwise, I’ve never participated in General Conference.)
Women have been able to pray during regular, local Sunday services for as long as I’ve been alive. And truth be told, women’s prayers often captured my attention and spirit better than their male counterparts. I was baffled as to how a woman had never before prayed in a General Conference before. Welcome to 1925, y’all.
As per usual, the drama started while reading my Facebook newsfeed, blown up with news of the “first prayer by a woman at Mormon conference.” The response was an overwhelming “yay progress!,” to which I groaned.
In an email quoted by The Salt Like Tribune , Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, offered an explanation as to why women had never before been invited to pray at worldwide Church meetings:
"It was the unintended consequence of the institutional systematization of patriarchy.”
And it was Steven’s prayer that uncovered the existence of patriarchy at an institutional level. A system that didn’t acknowledge the capabilities and capacities of women to pray at worldwide meetings until 2013, 183 years after the Church was formed. And a system that is still in place, despite a historical prayer this weekend.
A system where at the same conference as the first woman’s prayer, talks were given that weren’t so welcoming and loving. Some warned us against the “tolerance trap,” as it was coined. Talks like these are especially harmful to members of LGBT Mormon spaces, and do much to show how little progress is being made, and how the institutionalized patriarchy is still operating at its finest.
I am glad that women are now able to pray in these spaces. But it’s only one of many worthwhile causes Mormon feminists are working on. These people are continuing to work on the causes pertinent to bringing about substantial changes. A Facebook event the other week clued me in to a movement of women nationwide to wear pants on a specified Sunday. Besides this, people are working to challenge this patriarchy and other systemic issues limiting the participation and equal treatment of fellow churchgoers. Some promote tolerance and acceptance of women not complying with social expectations of marriage and homemaking. Others are working towards the inclusion of their fellow members who happen to identify as lesbian or gay. The Exponent illustrates the many issues Mormon feminists are working on and steps to take towards resolution.
I do not wish to downplay the historical nature and significance of Sister Stevens’ prayer during General Conference. I accept it as a long overdue change that needed to happen, and hope it’s only a pit stop to real progress and adjustments of systemic and institutionalized issues present. For me, progress runs deeper than putting a woman on a pulpit and letting her speak. It’s making changes so that everyone may be able to partake in worshipping their God, and eliminate fear for being accepted or safe in religious spaces. That will be progress worth tuning in for.