Not So Easily Demeaned

In the 1868 novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Meg March, the eldest daughter of morality-conscience parents, goes to a party away from home and experiments with dressing and behaving less modestly than usual.  She is punished for this mild indiscretion by becoming the subject of gossip among the older women at the party. In the 1994 movie adaptation of the novel, the young sisters muse about why their male next-door neighbor, who was at the same party, was not subject to the same degree of censure as Meg. Their mother explains: “Laurie is a man, and as such, he may vote, and hold property and pursue any profession he pleases, so he is not so easily demeaned.” Reference 1

In my modern world, women have caught up with men in the basic civil liberties mentioned by Mrs. March, but as a Mormon, there are still a great many important activities that are reserved for men.  Only men may baptize, bless the sacrament, perform weddings (or even officially witness them), monitor church finances, conduct temple recommend interviews, appoint other members to callings, and supervise church functions. With men required to perform such an array of necessary tasks in the Kingdom of God, can we afford to demean or even overlook a Mormon male?Little Women

In the October 2012 priesthood session of General Conference, Pres. Thomas S. Monson told a story about a less-than-exemplary Mormon man:

Many years ago it was my opportunity to serve as president of the Canadian Mission. There we had a branch with very limited priesthood. We always had a missionary presiding over the branch. I received a strong impression that we needed to have a member of the branch preside there. We had one adult member in the branch who was a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood but who didn’t attend or participate enough to be advanced in the priesthood. I felt inspired to call him as the branch president…It was the beginning of a new day for that man. His life was quickly put in order…Sometimes letting our brethren know they are needed and valued can help them take that step into commitment and full activity. This can be true of priesthood holders regardless of age. Reference 2

I think it is wonderful that church leadership reached out to this less active male member, showed him how much he was needed, and that this effort resulted in a spiritual awakening for him.  But I also wonder, what about non-priesthood holders, or in other words, women? Would there be a similar effort to reach out to a less-than-exemplary Mormon woman?  Could you accurately show such a woman that she is needed and valued?  Or is she more easily demeaned than her male counterpart?

When I was a missionary, one of the goals set for us by our mission president was to baptize a certain number of male converts.  Why was the goal limited to men, when church doctrine is that both men and women equally need the ordinance of baptism for salvation?  The mission president explained that priesthood holders were needed to staff the church.  Women and men may equally need the church but the church itself disproportionately needs men.

A ward or branch can be established without any women at all, while no church unit may exist without men, regardless of how many faithful women are in the area. In an established ward, there are about twice as many callings reserved for men as those reserved for women. The higher levels of church governance include about 50 male-only positions for every one female position.

Jesus asked, “If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” Reference 3 

I ask, “Would he bother if that sheep happened to be a woman?”

April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at


  1. This is a really interesting question, April! In a period of my life when I was inactive, and friends of mine- a married couple– were also inactive, they were contacted significantly more regularly than I was. I asked another active friend, and he said that the policy was that they were a “family”, whereas I was an unimportant individual. At the time, it did not seem as though gender, but marital status, was the defining factor in who was sought for reactivation. I did finally feel welcomed by visiting teachers, so thought that was the connection policy for women.

    But then, when I was living in a remote area and attending a distant branch on occassion, I was “assigned” to contact- through visiting teaching- all other remote female church members. I began an effort to contact these remote and inactive women, but was soon told that was “really” a “priesthood” function, so had been given the assignment in error. I didn’t mind not having the assignment, it was, after all– something that I believe was assigned to me just because of my location, and not because my location was closer to the other women. However, after the “priesthood” took over, the reactivation connection for women ceased and the aim was only on families who had males who had been baptised.

    Missionaries were finally sent to the branch because we had the highest number of baptisms in the mission– all female. I do not know if they were explicitly instructed to convert males, but based on some of the other rediculous policies of the mission president– some which were frankly impossible in our area, I would not be surprised if he instructed missionaries to only focus on males.

    So, in summary, I do not believe the church organization and policies care very much for women at all.

    • I experienced a similar situation in a small ward in New England. I moved to town at the same time as a married couple and I became good friends with them. It quickly became clear that the ward was going out of it’s way to welcome, include and involve this couple while I was generally ignored. Gender and marital status seem to shade everything in the church.

  2. I dunno, ever since we moved away from Utah in 1980, our stakes have always included a ward or branch that didn’t have sufficient numbers of males, so brethren from elsewhere in the stake went in to serve in those positions. Of course that also happens for people of both genders with musical talents, if a unit lacks an organist or primary pianist. And it hasn’t been a barrier to organizing a unit.

    Perhaps 20 years ago, couple missionaries worked in a nearby area and organized three branches. After a few years, one branch was dissolved, one was lead by the son of a part-member family, and one became a ward and had the largest primary in their stake. They also had insufficient numbers of local men, and as of last year, they had a bishop from elsewhere. But their was no move to dissolve that ward, and the brethren who have served there consider it a privilege to go and help.

    It could be argued that if only those women had the priesthood, they could manage on their own. I never asked those women that directly. But many of them felt that they have plenty to do, since they are raising active families with a non-member husband–not sure if they would want to do all the leadership as well. A lot of us use a cleaning service or lawn service to make our lives easier, so having servants come in to do the bishop thing was also a help in their busy lives. Also, the men who come in provide role models for their sons, as a different way to be from their wonderful non-member dads. And that ward had also provided female leadership to stake RS and primary presidencies.

    So I dunno what the official policy is, but I’ve seen lots of wards and branches created and maintained without men in their boundaries. The church knows that is a temporary situation that generally only lasts about 10 years, until the next generation comes up and takes over. The church in many areas is a story of women married to nonmembers whose sons become the first missionaries to serve, the first stake presidents when a stake is formed, the first temple president when a temple is built and so on. The church first sent missionaries to Brasil at the request of a mother who had joined the church in Germany, whose husband was not a member. The units I have seen that have failed to “grow their own” leadership in a few years have all been in rural areas where the children can’t find jobs and have to move elsewhere as adults.

    As for reaching out to women, I think most of that is done by Relief Society. I know that when I was RS president, reaching out to sisters in pain and or who were not with us was my top priority. We only met as a presidency once a month. The other three weeks, I took out one each of my counselors/secretary, and we made visits to new people on our list or people we hadn’t seen in a while, while doing some business on her stewardship in the car. In our current ward RS, both counselors are single women, so I assume they are pretty sensitive to single sisters. And a former RS prez in another ward was not participating in church for years, and credits outreach for her reactivation.

  3. Dear April, the answer to your question is – lost sheep who are women are NOT sought out. I’m a lifelong member, who was temple-married, many children, leadership callings, etc. THEN I divorced abusive Mormon husband and later married a NOMO. Heavens – my ward doesn’t know what to do with me! Especially after X married in the temple. Now he looks much more “righteous” than I (we’re in the same ward – insane). I’ve been shunned for marrying a NOMO, told I knew better, haven’t given a talk but twice in ten years since i married NOMO, hold no callings and rarely have HT or VT. I’ve been in WC meetings in the past where it’s said if part-member families aren’t interested in joining, effort shouldn’t be wasted on them…so sad…because that’s the boat I’m in. I have a wealth of experience and talents, but my ward doesn’t want them, so I have turned to other things. We have many NOMO friends and are active in the community now. IMO, the church simply does not value women, especially women married to NOMO’s.

  4. If the question is whether the Savior would come after a female sheep, I say vehemently yes. Whether those who are His hands rescuing today do, I say they should. I’ve been blessed to see that happen in wards I’ve been in, but as I’m learning that may not be the case everywhere.

  5. I am similarly convinced that Christ would, because he did, in his earthly ministry.

    I similarly hope that others would pattern themselves after Christ whom they hope to represent.

  6. The Little Women quote gives me chills (and not the good kind). I think there’s something to the statement. I often see women in the Church being the more judgmental, dare I say, misogynist sex. Like those old women in the book, I wonder if being a gatekeeper of patriarchy is a result of one feeling like they have so little power that they must make sure another feels that same (or worse) lack of power.

  7. I am a single woman who has decided to step away from the Church. I cannot get them to leave me alone (which in itself raises issues), although perhaps I haven’t really made myself clear enough. I get contacted/surprise visits from the Ward Missionaries , calls from the Bishop (granted this is rare), drop-bys from the full-time missionaries, and occasional contact from home teachers and visiting teachers. This hasn’t gone on for a short period of time either. They admittedly didn’t start happening until I’d stepped away for about a year, but they have been going strong for almost two. I don’t know what is different, perhaps it’s the attitude of the bishop, perhaps it’s because I’m in a singles ward that hemorrhaged (to use the Brethren’s word) members. I also don’t know if my experience is universal for single women or men in my ward.

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