The Role of Women in the Church

14 May 2006

We often hear of the contributions men have made in the Church. The president of the Church, of course, is a man. Bishops and stake presidents are men. Missionaries responsible for bringing thousands of converts at a time into the church were men. Brigham Young, who was instrumental in organizing several pioneer treks across the American plains, was a man. One could go through the Journal of Discourses or the History of the Church or the many old publications of the Church and see how much of what we have today was because of the efforts of men.

Outsiders with an exposure to this sort of history—and even many members of the Church—can easily develop the idea that the Church's history and even its form today was because of the efforts of men alone.

Yet there are women throughout the history of the Church whose efforts and influence in early Church history can still be seen in the Church today.

Emma Hale Smith

Probably most notable and likely the first to come to anyone's mind is Emma Hale Smith, wife of Joseph Smith.

Emma's first contribution to the Church was helping her husband with the translation of the golden plates into the Book of Mormon. Before Oliver Cowdery, Emma served as Joseph's scribe, writing down the beginnings of the Book of Mormon as he dictated to her. While the introductory pages of the Book of Mormon list 11 witnesses of the Golden Plates, it fails to mention Emma's own experience with them.

In the 1879 issue of the Saints' Herald, Emma was quoted as saying the following:

The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.

In 1830, the Lord instructed Emma through a revelation that she was to compile a selection of hymns. In 1832, six of those hymns appeared in The Evening and Morning Star, an early Church newspaper published in Independence, Missouri, and later Kirtland, Ohio. These hymns included ones we can see in our hymnbook today, such as "Redeemer of Israel" and "He Died! The Great Redeemer Died!"

Four years later, the first hymnal was compiled and it consisted of 90 hymns, half of them being those found in Protestant hymnals of the time. A second hymnal was published in 1841 and this one included 304 hymns.

In Kirtland, when the School of the Prophets met in the upper floor of the Whitney Store, several of the brethren would smoke and chew tobacco. Emma was responsible for cleaning the room where they met and naturally was disgusted by the state in which the room was left at the end of each meeting. She expressed her feelings regarding the use of tobacco to her husband. This, as well as her support for the Temperance Movement, eventually led to Joseph Smith praying to God and subsequently receiving what we now call the Word of Wisdom.

Eliza Roxcy Snow Smith

Another well-known woman in the early church was Eliza Roxcy Snow Smith, also wife of the prophet Joseph Smith.

Eliza played a pivotal role in the organisation of is what now the Relief Society. When Sarah M. Kimball approached her neighbours in Nauvoo to organise a women's society, Eliza drafted the constitution and bylaws. As the secretary of the society, she was responsible for bringing the records of the Relief Society across the plains as the pioneers travelled to Utah.

While many wards in Utah organized independent Relief Society organisations throughout the 1850s, it was not until 1866 that a general Relief Society was organised. Brigham Young called Eliza to be the general Relief Society president. Two years later, President Young instructed Eliza to work with all the bishops in the Salt Lake City area to be sure their units had their own Relief Society organisation, which she accomplished before the end of the year. In fact, by the time she died twenty years later, there were over 22,000 members in 400 local units.

Eliza helped contribute to the formation of the Woman's Exponent, the first Relief Society magazine and a precursor to the Ensign. She was also responsible for the formation of the Primary Association and the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association, and directed temple ordinance work in Salt Lake Endowment House for many years.

Not all women who have had influential lives in the Church lived in the 1800s, however. We have had many even in recent years who have not only had an influence on many members of the Church, but have been role models for many women throughout the world.

Janice Kapp Perry

One of the most well-known LDS women today is Janice Kapp Perry. Janice is likely the most well-known composer of LDS music throughout the Church. She has composed over 50 albums, and some of her music is found in The Children's Songbook and our hymnal.

Her music has been sung in Sacrament meetings throughout the world and many members of the Church listen to her music during their daily commutes, their Sabbath day activities and even while they are serving full-time missions. Her songs have been a source of inspiration and reflection for many members of the Church for the last thirty years.

Ardeth Green Kapp

Another well-known woman in our Church is Ardeth Greene Kapp, who most recently had served as matron of the Cardston temple while her husband was president. Many of the women of my generation will likely remember her as the general Young Women president.

As the general Young Women president, she played a pivotal role in introducing personal progress books, medallions, and the Young Women values, things that are still present in the Young Women programme to this day. Millions of women and young women in the Church have been greatly influenced because of her efforts.

Ardeth was also a great teacher who knew the importance of sustaining the priesthood as well as the importance of having autonomy and responsibility when called as the leader of an organization. In a 1999 BYU fireside, she had the following to say:

I was new in my calling and felt somewhat overwhelmed as we approached that first meeting. I had a certain responsibility that was to be an item on that day's agenda. I waited anxiously with pen in hand to receive any direction. I was prepared to follow without question. I spoke briefly to the matter when called upon and then waited for Bishop Brown's response. He listened, paused, leaned forward in his chair with his hands folded on the table in front of him, and then asked, "Ardeth, in view of what you have presented, what is your recommendation?" At that time in my experience I had never anticipated that the Presiding Bishop of the Church would ask for my recommendation.

One significant fact in Ardeth's life made her unique in her calling. She never had children of her own; she went through her entire life never being able to raise children of her own. As such, not only was she a great influence in the lives of many Young Women, she has taught childless women through her own example that there is a place for them in the Church.

Sheri Dew

One of the most endearing women who have ever served in the general Relief Society presidency was Sheri Dew. Her talks have touched the souls and hearts of many women throughout the church. Her career as CEO of Church-owned Deseret Book has influenced many of the books members of the Church have in their homes. In fact, as an author she brought the lives of Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley closer to many of us.

Like Ardeth Kapp, Sheri had a unique situation; she has never been married. Not only did she touch the hearts of many with her down-to-earth talks, but she showed single women throughout the Church that marriage is not a prerequisite to being able to influence the lives of others.


Women play an integral role in the Church today. Children, youth and adults throughout the world are taught every Sunday by women. They are taught gospel principles, scripture stories, values and morals.

Women sit in the governing bodies at the ward, stake and general levels. Women influence the development of policy and curricula.

Despite this, there are still areas throughout the world where women in the Church are not considered for their opinions and counsel. Their talents and abilities are not valued and such areas are run like autocracies with priesthood leaders running their wards and stakes with gender-based ideas from the 18th century.

The Lord values women. The worth of every soul is great in the sight of God and is precious before him. The Lord has organised his church in a way that enables women to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints and redeem the dead. As such, it is a wise priesthood leader that considers equally the counsel received from women in the Church as he does that given by men. Likewise, each woman in the Church should feel comfortable providing her opinion and sharing her concerns openly with her priesthood leaders. As Ardeth Kapp once said,

[Women have asked], "How do I honor and sustain priesthood leaders, and how do I contribute so I will be heard? How can I be courageous and bold but not overbearing?" These questions are not unfamiliar to women called to positions of leadership. Should she interpret supporting the priesthood to mean going along with a plan she has concern for, without expressing her views? I think not. It means studying, preparing, seeking, asking.

Women have made a great, and perhaps sometimes overlooked, work in this Church and each of us benefits from the fruits of their labours. It is my solemn prayer that 176 years from now, the same could be said of the women of today.

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