Does the Mormon Church Empower Women? A Social Media Storm Answers.

Amy Watkins Jensen, a volunteer leader in her Mormon church who was indignant when the church said women could no longer sit in a place of honor, at her home in Walnut Creek, Calif. on March 21, 2024. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)
Amy Watkins Jensen, a volunteer leader in her Mormon church who was indignant when the church said women could no longer sit in a place of honor, at her home in Walnut Creek, Calif. on March 21, 2024. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)

On Sunday night, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged women around the world to gather to celebrate the Relief Society, a women’s organization in the church that was observing its 182nd anniversary.

In a video produced for the event, J. Anette Dennis, a leader in the Relief Society, spoke glowingly about women’s roles in the church. “There is no other religious organization in the world, that I know of, that has so broadly given power and authority to women,” she said.

But when the church’s official Instagram page posted an excerpt from Dennis’ speech, including that quote, the response was immediate, overwhelming and largely negative. “What a joke!” one commenter wrote. “The sexism in this organization runs deep.” The post had more than 14,500 comments as of Friday morning, with some critical comments receiving thousands of approving likes.

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Anger had flared a couple of days earlier when comments were deleted before being restored. In a comment on the post and in emails to The New York Times, the church blamed an Instagram glitch. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, said there was no issue that had affected comments.

The conversation quickly burst out of the bounds of the church’s comments section and into a flurry of text messages among church women, who shared accounts of feeling marginalized and belittled in their interactions with church leaders.

The Instagram post had tapped into a long-running seam of discontent among some women in the church, who have chafed at the church’s restrictions and say that its discussion of empowering women is essentially hollow. Women are not eligible for the church’s priesthood, a designation of God-given authority that applies to only men.

The church makes a distinction between “priesthood authority,” accessible only to men, and “priesthood power,” available to all. As in many other religious traditions, women are barred from specific leadership roles, and from some meetings.

“We are collecting and reading the comments on all the posts and appreciate knowing these heartfelt messages, concerns, thoughts and experiences,” the global president of the Relief Society, Camille Johnson, said in an email sent by a spokesperson for the church. The church provided the comments by Johnson in response to a request to interview Dennis.

Johnson noted that hundreds of thousands of people watched a broadcast of the Relief Society’s celebration. “The intense interest we experienced demonstrates the importance of these issues to women of faith,” she said.

The current groundswell began last fall, when a regional authority cracked down on a practice in the San Francisco Bay Area of inviting female leaders to sit on “the stand,” a raised seating area facing the congregation during Sunday services. The stand is a place of status, reserved for “presiding authorities,” roles for which only men are eligible, along with any others participating in a specific service, including women and children. Local leaders had extended that invitation to some female leaders who were not participating in services.

When the church took away this gesture of representation, Amy Watkins Jensen was indignant. She has three daughters and is a lifelong church member, who had been able to sit on the stand in her capacity as a volunteer leader. “We do this labor and it should not be invisible,” she said.

She spoke with her bishop, and continued up the chain of authority, all of whom were men. Nothing changed. She wrote a public letter, which almost 3,000 Latter-day Saints signed, and started an Instagram account, Women on the Stand, asking for clarity and consistency on the issue for the global church.

Watkins Jensen’s immediate concern was local but spread quickly to other communities.

In Seattle, a therapist and lifelong church member, Kierstyn Kremer Howes, was awake with her newborn in the middle of the night when she read about the removal of women from the stand in Watkins Jensen’s region.

“I was just like, ‘I’m so tired of this,’” she recalled.

“You go to church and all you see are male leaders, and all the people we talk about in the scriptures are male,” Kremer Howes said. “Everything good and glorious and wonderful is in the male voice or looks male.”

She dashed off a fiery opinion essay (“I call it pissy, my mom calls it saucy”) calling for church women to stay home from church on March 17, the anniversary of the Relief Society.

“We do a lot of work, and when we ask for representation for that work, we get denied,” she said. “So let’s just stop doing it.”

Kremer Howes doesn’t believe many women actually stayed home from church on Sunday. (Several women said they supported the idea but realized if they stayed home they would have to ask other women to cover their volunteer responsibilities.) But the church’s Instagram post kept the discussion going.

“There’s not one single decision a woman can make in this church that cannot be overruled by a man,” said Cynthia Winward, a co-host of the podcast “At Last She Said It,” which focuses on women in Latter-day Saints culture.

She said that the discussion of women’s access to the stand is a notable milestone in the ongoing conversation about women in the church, because it is being driven by women who by definition are deeply involved in the church. The women given access to the stand had been seated there because of their volunteer work and leadership. “It’s not fitting the narrative anymore of, ‘It’s just fringy feminists,’” Winward said. “These are mainstream women.”

For some women, the backlash over the post does not capture their own experiences. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been with a male leader or a male counterpart in the church and felt like they didn’t hear me because I’m a woman,” said Hayley Clark, who lives in Utah. She compared her experience in the church favorably with the condescension she has occasionally faced as a female business owner, and said she was encouraged by the quote posted by the church.

For others, the contretemps reminded them of deeper disagreements they have with the church. About one quarter of American Latter-day Saints say they have thought about leaving, compared with 16% of the population overall who have considered leaving their religion, according to a 2022 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Sarah Schow is pregnant with her second child, a boy. As a preteen, her son “will have more authority in the church than I will ever have,” she said, referring to a rule allowing boys to be ordained to the all-male priesthood the year they turn 12.

Schow, who now lives in Canada, belonged to wards in Montana, California and Washington as a child. She recalled being taught as a child that she had a “divine nature,” of which femininity, procreation and nurturing were essential pieces.

Now, however, she wonders about the church’s vision for her. Is her only role to be silent and supportive? She cited an emotional ballad from the movie “Barbie” in describing her disillusionment with the institution she has belonged to her whole life: “What Was I Made For?”

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