?We shall now call on some of our sisters?: LDS Women and General Conference Participation

By March 14, 2013

On the second day of October conference 1929, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant introduced three other Presidents without warning?Sisters Louise Robison, Ruth May Fox, and May Anderson. President Grant commented,

?We have listened to a great many testimonies from our brethren during this conference.

We shall now call on some of our sisters??[1]

photo (10)As Presidents of the General Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary Organizations each of the three women offered short witnesses. The first two clearly demonstrated their surprise at the call to speak. Read their remarks here. These three women would also speak at the two following conferences in 1930 at Grant?s request–with more warning and time for preparation. Despite their original surprise and the absence of an early pattern of LDS women participating in General Conference, these three women were not the first women to speak in General Conference.

The current pattern of LDS female participation in General Conference is relatively recent and still not wholly static. The precedent of women speaking in General Conference was set with what the Times and Seasons called the first General Conference in 1845. In the morning session of the third day of that General Conference, Lucy Mack Smith spoke in the Nauvoo Temple. It was here that Brigham Young assured the Saints of Mother Smith?s desire to join them in their journey West?the end of her address was apparently inaudible to reporters. Mother Smith and Brigham?s final comments took the whole of the morning session?an unmatched three hours.[2]

After the Saints settled in Utah, Sister Zina DH Young spoke in the Tabernacle at the afternoon session on the second day of Conference on October 8, 1879 (“General Conference. Second Day.” Deseret Evening News. 8 October 1879). She was perhaps the first woman to speak in the Tabernacle during General Conference.

photo (13)In the first decade of the twentieth century three women spoke during conference in the overflow meetings on Temple Square. In April 1908, recently returned missionaries Sister Rachel Leatham (24 year old) and  Sister M.M. Lagenbucher both spoke to a few hundred waiting outside of the Tabernacle. (Read it here.) Likewise, the following April Sister Lilian Jones recently returned from the Southern State mission spoke to a much larger 2500 present on Temple Square. (Find it here.)

According to Relief Society Minutes, new Relief Society General President Belle Spafford spoke to in the priesthood session of General Conference in 1946 teaching and encouraging bishops to work in a partnership with the RS and utilize the expertise of RS presidents ?In determining the needs of families receiving welfare assistance? to better meet the needs of their congregants.[3]

From October 1976 to October 1979 the succeeding RS General President, Barbara B. Smith, biannually spoke in the Welfare Meeting of General Conference, but never in any of the regular conference sessions. (See her Oct. 1977 address here.) In October 1978 and 1979 she was joined by the Young Women’s General President (Elaine Cannon) and Primary General Presidents (Ruth H. Funk and Naomi M. Shumway) There was no welfare session in October 1980 and in October 1981’s last Welfare General Conference Session Smith once again spoke this time with Sister Joann Randall (just a normal member!–listen to her here). Moreover, the Relief Society General Meeting began its current fall single session rotation in the fall of 1981.

photo (12)In April 1984, four women spoke in conference?the new Relief Society General President Barbara Winder and the new Young Women?s General President Ardeth G. Kapp in the Sunday sessions, and the women whom they replaced–Barbara Smith and Elaine Cannon–in the Saturday afternoon session. (You can watch them here.) Four women in conference was a first, but women did not speak again in a general conference session until 1988.

In April 1988, Primary General President Dwan J. Young spoke after she was released.  Her replacement, President Michaelene P. Grassli spoke the following October conference. In the 1980s and beginning the 1990s women began speaking with more regularity, but generally one woman per conference, unless an organization president was released.

photo (11)In general, the current scheduling of two women speaking at each biannual General Conference began in 1994. Women spoke for a time on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon with a few shifts in the sessions. The schedule further normalized in 1998 with women usually speaking in the Saturday morning and Sunday morning session though still with a few exceptions. In 2002, the deviation from the norm was three female speakers.

Though almost twenty years is plenty of time to establish a pattern, within a church that subscribes to the possibility of change it could just as easily be time for another shift. Perhaps a prophet will yet say, ?We shall now call on some [more] of our sisters.?

**Thanks to all the help pinning down all of this. I’ve made changes to the text as necessary to more correctly reflect the timeline. If anyone yet finds a mistake or any additional examples I would love to hear about them.

[1] Conference Report, 5 October 1929,  84.

[2] ?Conference Minutes,? Times and Seasons, 6 no. 16, 1 Nov. 1845.

[3] Jill Derr, et al., Women of Covenant, 313.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Gender Women's History


  1. Very interesting.
    I had thought that the pattern of women speaking in GC would have been older, I guess I’m just young and used to hearing women speaking. And I wouldn’t have guessed that there have been a female speaker in a GC priesthood meeting.

    Comment by Niklas — March 14, 2013 @ 7:10 am

  2. you know, sometimes, i wish some of the Brethrens were reading this!
    thank you very much for such an inspiring post.

    Comment by FrancisE. — March 14, 2013 @ 8:13 am

  3. Great write-up J. I was unaware of these early 20th century examples. The Welfare session is interesting as well, in its own right. I seem to remember seeing the manuscript minutes for that 1845 conference in the General Church minutes file on Selected Collections and now at the CHL website. I remember seeing a report of Lucy Smith’s words around that time, at least. If the ms minutes are extant, I wonder if they have any additional material.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2013 @ 9:34 am

  4. Like. Very much like.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 14, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  5. Thank you so much for doing this! When the “Let Women Pray” project first began, I came across the 1929 instances but was overwhelmed with other research and never went further back. I’ve been told that “Mr.” & “Mrs.” were used in lieu of “Brother” & “Sister” in some early conferences, so I’m curious how you filtered through all of this information. Mark Davies’ Corpus wasn’t all I thought it to be, and direct correspondence with him didn’t yield any new information.

    This might be info you want to share with Peggy Fletcher Stack. She was given information for a SLTrib article she wrote a few years ago that listed Pres. Grassli as the first female speaker in 1988. That article is used as a source on a Grassli’s Wikipedia page, indicating her to be the first female speaker.

    Anyway, thanks again!

    Comment by jg — March 14, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  6. Someone needed to pull this together; very helpful.

    The presumption that no woman has prayed in General Conference is based largely on our collective memories. You haven’t happened upon any evidence of women praying in General Conference, have you? I’m wondering whether such a thing might have happened in the 19th century or early 20th but is not documented in a way that is readily accessible.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 14, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  7. Well done, JJ.

    Comment by Ben P — March 14, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  8. Thank you all.

    Stapley – I haven’t seen the Manuscript History for Lucy Mack’s talk. I’d like to see it, but couldn’t yet find it. I used the T&S version, which I would link if BYU’s Digital Collection worked well with links.

    I went through the database on gospelink for a few decades and then realized that if the speaker wasn’t in bold it wasn’t necessarily there. I decided I needed to go through the Conference Reports from archive.org to be sure I hadn’t missed any.

    I wanted to also address women praying, but it takes more effort to find the prayers. I haven’t seen any yet, but I would like to be able to say that one way or another conclusively.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  9. Fairly substantiated rumors that there will be women praying in General Conference this year. Warm feelings this morning. THanks for putting this together, Janiece.

    Comment by Valerie — March 14, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  10. JJ, I just checked my notes and the Lucy sermon I had read was that year but on a different occasion. I did check and the ms minutes are available in the General Church Minutes file in Selected Collections, however oddly, the minutes for that conference are missing from the CHL’s online version.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  11. JJ, love this. I’ve been thinking about the prayers in GC as well. Any insight on organists playing? I remember my grandpa thinking it was strange when one of the current organists started about a decade ago.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 14, 2013 @ 11:15 am

  12. What is the welfare session of conference?

    Comment by Joanne — March 14, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  13. This is very helpful! I also appreciate the links.

    Comment by NatalieR — March 14, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  14. Joey- There were certainly women participating in the music, I’ve seen a couple notes on female soloists, but I have yet to see anything noting the organist. But I wasn’t specifically looking either.

    Joanne- The Welfare session of conference was an additional conference session from October 1975 to October 1982. Generally the presiding bishopric, RS General President, and a member of the 12 and/or members of the First Presidency would speak. I’ve assumed that members of ward leadership would attend, but I am not entirely sure of that. It was held on Saturday–I believe in the morning, before the 10am session.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  15. jg-

    Sorry, I missed your question earlier. I haven’t seen any Mrs, but I haven’t yet gone through that early period 1846-1879, so that is possible. It is fairly easy to note them in the Conference Reports, women seems to always be sister, even if they are a president. Though I must admit there were names of a few of the brethren that I had to check to be sure. I’ll try to do the early period as soon as I have enough patience to deal with BYU’s digital collection of the Times and Seasons.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  16. JJ, great post.

    Comment by David G. — March 14, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  17. Wow, so we used to have even *more* sessions! Actually, there used to be sessions on Friday as well, right? Plenty of time to make room for them females! I came of age during Ardeth G. Kapp’s presidency, so I remember some of those auxiliary leaders speaking both when they were called and when they were released. I really like the practice of hearing from leaders on their way out.

    Comment by Joanne — March 14, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

  18. JJ-

    Ha! When I was doing my research, I came across “Shirley Christensen” and thought I had struck gold…until I saw the title- “Elder”.

    Darn androgynous names & assumptions (on my part).

    Comment by jg — March 14, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

  19. jg- Ah, shirley. 🙂

    Tonight I’ve quickly checked through Journal of Discourses v. 1-26 and Collected Discourses, 1886-1898, v. 1-5 and though these are not just collected conference reports, I’m pretty sure there are any women’s talks therein either.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  20. Great stuff.

    Comment by WVS — March 14, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

  21. Maybe we should remember that from about 1915 to 1970, the Relief Society held its own auxiliary conference in the Tabernacle each April and October, several sessions over two days, usually on the days immediately before General Conference or, in April, sometimes in the middle of General Conference (GC was then Saturday and Sunday, plus April 6, whatever day of the week it fell on; if it fell on Wednesday, RS Conference might have been held on Thursday and Friday before GC resumed on Saturday). This was not a simple meeting like today’s annual women’s meeting — it was a full conference, with reports from the stakes and instructions from the General Board, with breakout sessions for, say, secretaries or education counselors or musicians or whatever. (Primary and YMMIA had their conferences, too, but not so directly tied to General Conference.)

    While we today may not think that speaking at an even beefed-up Relief Society conference is the equivalent of speaking at General Conference, it may well be that the Saints of the mid-20th century, women and men, considered that planning, directing, speaking at, and participating in the full-scale Relief Society Conference *was* an adequate, equivalent, and satisfactory involvement of women in the Church’s two great annual conferences.

    (P.S.: I’m the one who told jg that “Mrs.” was something to search for in order not to miss women’s participation. The mid-century church magazines very often speak of “Mrs. Lyman” and “Mrs. Spafford” and so on — I do not have any idea whether any Conference speaker was styled “Mrs.” but it’s something to keep in mind while searching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Mr.” McKay in a Church magazine, though.”)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 14, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

  22. Ardis-
    How the Relief Society General Conference works into this is likewise important, though I believe that in 1945 the conference began to be held annually in October, rather than biannually.

    I also think that in reading the text of the president’s 1929 talks and listening to the 1984 talks, to me the women clearly see this as something new for them–more than one of them is a little flustered and surprised as they get up. Interestingly, the former missionaries who speak in 1908 and 1909 don’t seemed surprised or flustered.

    I’ve wondered if many of these women have grown up seeing General Conference as a priesthood responsibility, so this is a change for them. Maybe a change not unlike the one Chris talks about for Emma with the section 25 revelation to exhort the church…eventually she finds her place exhorting the women, but never fulfills that part to exhort the church. Do women in part limit themselves?

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

  23. PS It is likewise interesting to note which sources consider the RS and YW General Meetings a part of conference. Scriptures.byu.edu includes the RS and YW General Meetings. Gospel Library does not (despite my complaints). Conference Reports do not.

    Also just as another point of reference, from 1976 to 1987 there is just a General Women’s Meeting which involves talks in the fall from the RS, YW, and Primary General Presidents.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 14, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

  24. Great post!

    Comment by Saskia — March 15, 2013 @ 4:20 am

  25. Janiece: Great, timely post! Sorry I’m just now getting to my comment. I am most fascinated by the thirty (30!) year gap between Belle Spafford’s 1946 address and her next time speaking in the mid-1970s. As with most things related to women’s place in the Church, we can often trace the origins of some of our most outdated gender traditions to the cavernous post-WWII era of retrenched roles. So, my question, I guess, is what do you make of that period for women’s public speaking in the Church? How did Belle herself respond to this, especially since she had cut her teeth on some public activism, progressive social work, NCW, ICW, and other venues? I know some have written about the effect that correlation had on Sister Spafford, and the transition from an autonomous Relief Society to a correlated one, but I’d love to hear your take on it, especially in regards to the public speaking.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 15, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  26. And I just now went back an reread Ardis’s comment which adds some great context to what I’m asking. Anything else that you might add to that?

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 15, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

  27. ARM- I think that the larger role of the Relief Society General Conferences is a part of why they might not see a need. I do likewise see the post-WW2 as a touchpoint, but I think the changes in the Relief Society and loss of autonomy start at the beginning of the century–at least with the loss of control of the grain storage. But then, RS is really only autonomous for a very short period–from the 1870s reinstatement until about the early 20th century…I think that the most important thing this tells us is it is always in flux. We are so familiar with the last one or maybe two decades that we begin to think that things are static, but they aren’t ever static. I NEVER thought I’d see the end of nylons for sister missionaries (or Church employees–even if I never wore them).

    I love that quote from Belle Spafford. She comes in and feels like the bishops aren’t working with the RS and gets to speak directly in the General Priesthood Meeting. I wonder if she was disappointed that there wasn’t more similar interaction that followed or whether she didn’t see the need. George Albert Smith is president when Belle speaks in the priesthood session. It surprises me that nothing happens during David O McKay’s tenure as president…the next two presidents are quite short, but nothing happens until President Kimball. He abolishes the women not praying in Sacrament Meeting thing and Barbara Smith starts speaking in the Welfare session.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 15, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  28. Great post! Thank you.
    A minor quibble: In April 2012 & October 2012, women spoke in the Saturday AM and Sunday AM sessions. But you said that since 1994, they speak in the Saturday AM and Sunday PM sessions with the exception of 1998. So is 2012 another exception or did you mean Sunday morning sessions?

    Comment by Mindi — March 15, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

  29. Mindi- Thanks, I miswrote…keeping track of too many variables. Two female speakers has been consistent since 1994 (with that 1998 exception). Actually it has been Saturday am and Sunday am consistently since October 2007. I’ve changed the text to reflect that.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 15, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  30. Great stuff. Thanks, Janiece.

    Comment by Christopher — March 16, 2013 @ 6:16 am

  31. So interesting. Thanks for doing all the work.

    a note about the organists. Linda Margetts and Bonnie Goodliffe have been organists for the Mo Tab for about three decades.

    Comment by Diana G — March 18, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  32. JJ: It’s great to see this all in one place. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 18, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

  33. I’ve been very busy with some deadlines and am just now catching up with blog posts. It is always delightful to see the connections and additional information that can add such value to an already insightful blog post. Thanks, JJ and Ardis and others. (Wish I had something more to add than a round of applause!)

    Comment by Amy T — March 18, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

  34. Things like this make me want to study church history again–well done! I happen to love the Ruth May Fox/Louise Robinson/May Anderson era. So many interesting things happening, and being organized by such pro-active women. Ruth May Fox has some pretty hilarious poetry, too. Thanks, J.

    Comment by katie blakesley — March 18, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

  35. Interesting. Although not specifically stated there was a June Conference for many years as I was growing up. It was likely the Auxiliary Conference alluded to in some of the comments. I just remember it because there was always a Church Wide Dance Festival as part of the conference. Dad

    Comment by Severin Johnson — March 19, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

  36. Katie, I know an awesome blog devoted to all things Mormon history that would love to help facilitate your re-entrance into Mormon studies. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  37. […] ‘We shall now call on some of our sisters’: LDS Women and General Conference Participati… (JJohnson, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.11 (March 11-17) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — March 20, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

  38. No women spoke at the October 1990 conference.

    I believe Ruth Wright spoke on Sunday afternoon.

    1998 is the one year exception during this period without a Sunday female speaker in either April or October.

    I believe Margaret Nadauld and Susan Warner spoke on Sunday morning at those conferences.

    The schedule has further normalized more recently, from October 2007 until now a woman has spoken in each Saturday morning session and in each Sunday morning session.

    It appears that the Saturday morning-Sunday morning schedule has been the most popular since April 1994. It’s been followed with only a few exceptions since April 1998. I would also note that three women spoke at the April 2002 conference.

    Comment by Justin — March 21, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  39. Justin!

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 21, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  40. !!!

    Comment by Randy B. — March 21, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  41. He’s back! And all Bloggernacle Justin-watchers score ten points!

    Seriously, though, the other day I managed to work the story of Karl Püschel into a stake RS conference workshop about scripture study (it made a point about inspired writings) and used the picture from Karl’s obituary for a slide. Thank you again for that, Justin, and if there were any guest posts you wanted to send over to Keepa right about now, we’d be happy to post them. : )

    Comment by Amy T — March 21, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

  42. Justin- Tales of your prowess are not exaggerated. Thank you for catching those, the consequence trying to do this within a very limited timeline.

    The three women in April 2002 is great to remember, I missed Gayle Clegg.

    I would say the Saturday and Sunday morning scheduling has become more consistent since 1998. There are a lot of female afternoon speakers between 1994 and 1998.

    I’m going to change that paragraph to reflect this for those who don’t make it all the way down to the bottom of the comments.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 21, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  43. THank you for your great research. I have been trying to document this very thing in the last few months. Elaine Cannon spoke in general conference in both 1978 and 1979 and I noticed that wasnt listed in the article.

    Comment by Mary Jane woodger — April 9, 2013 @ 11:35 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”