Shades of Power


I have been thinking a lot about power, empowerment, and disempowerment recently. For me, the root of religious empowerment is access to decision making power. As such, I feel that the structure of the church disempowers women. There are many things we can do to empower women in the church (as has been discussed often on this blog). While these things are helpful, true empowerment needs to come in the form of actual decision making power on all levels of church hierarchy. This raises the question: without this major step what access to other forms of power do women have?

INFORMAL POWER: One of the most common reasons I hear from women of why they “do not feel unequal in the church” is because they have access to the formal structure of decision making through their callings and husbands. They feel like their voice is heard and considered to their satisfaction by the males in their lives. While this is a positive thing and something that is obviously “lovely, of good report, and sought after,” it still places the apex of power singularly in the hands of males and women’s access to it dependent on their good will. Unfortunately  not all men are interested in women’s contributions and there are no formal structures to ensure this. The other difficulty with informal power is that it is not something that is granted or assumed. Unlike the priesthood responsibilities which all members are taught about regularly, informal power is not discussed, taught, or even regularly encouraged– so that empowered women tend to find a niche where they are happy with their informal power and disempowered women do not even realize informal power exists or how to access it. How can we better empower women to utilize informal power? 

FINANCIAL POWER: Many of the women mentioned in the New Testament after Christ’s resurrection were benefactors who housed, fed, and financially supported Paul and his missionary efforts. For the most part, rich women are mentioned at a higher rate in religious texts than poor women. This tells us something about the power of financial wealth. I have a handful of very very wealthy friends and they have access to church leaders on a level that I will never have. If there is a tabernacle, a BYU project, a temple, a mall, or a cause that the church does not want to spend tithing money on, they reach out to their wealthiest members and ask for donations. This is no different than any other organization on the planet. Money gives you access to leadership. Whether or not those leaders listen to you is another matter. The only problem here for women is that often the wealthiest members of the church are either couples or males. Because women typically spend a large percentage of their lives raising children they rarely reach the level of financial wealth it takes to get access to sit down dinners with the apostles. What would change if women made up the wealthiest members?

MEDIA POWER: The 2012 Mormon Moment was a good example of the power of the media. Being able to construct a narrative, raise controversial questions, and reach large groups of people is an enormously powerful skill. Regardless of whether or not the church wants to deal with a certain topic, if it generates enough media attention they are forced to reckon with it. Women throughout the spectrum of media professions from public relations to blogging have a lot of power. The internet has changed the way that information is spread and processed and opens up many avenues for the expression of opinions and experiences that have the potential to reach those with actual decision making power. While it seems like a round about way to access power, the ability to shape public opinion is radically important. The historical and cultural context in which our current and future church leaders are raised makes up the foundation from which their decisions are based. LDS women are notoriously media literate (pinterest, blogging, etc.) in what ways can we better utilize the media to empower women in the church?

ACTIVISM POWER: The conversation about blacks and the priesthood changed radically when sports teams around the nation began to boycott playing BYU. Although this is arguably something more male-centric I cannot help but wonder what would happen if teams refused to play the BYU football team because of gender inequality? How much money would be lost? How embarrassed and frustrated would members be? How many men would think about gender equality in the church for the first time? While this is not the best example of activist power, there are many ways to advocate for your interests when you have been left out of the formal decision making structure. Some activism advocates for specific causes or changes while others attempt to get a conversation started or promulgate information. What are the pros and cons of activism power within the church versus outside of it?

POLITICAL POWER: Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, Orson Hatch and Rocky Anderson communicate and interact with church leaders on a level that most people never see. While women have no way to acquire decision making power within the formal church structure, they have access to political power in most countries. What would happen if LDS women began to take over the political spectrum? How would wards and stakes change as women in the congregations became mayors, governors, senators and congresswomen? The vision of politically powerful LDS women walking the halls of our ward buildings, being consulted on relevant matters, stating their opinions as if they ought to be present in meetings, and asserting their God given powers is one of the most encouraging and empowering visions I have had in a very long time.


What are your thoughts on power, empowerment, and disempowerment? What other sources of power do LDS women have access to? Which types of power make the biggest difference at a local level? At the general church level? How can we best increase women’s decision making power in the LDS church?





  1. Informal power is interesting in an LDS context, because it is limited further (in the examples you cited) to women who have husbands in leadership, women who have husbands period, or women who themselves are in positions of local leadership. That leaves out a large constituent of faithful sisters. Many of them single. (This is conflated further/even more true, because many leadership positions only go to people who are married.)

    I have heard at least one (divorced) woman explain that she felt like she actually gained some power by her new single status, in part because she didn’t have to worry if her expressions or actions would hurt her husband’s leadership chances.

    I am interested in the directionality of power. Top down? Bottom up? Side to side? We see some of all of these in the church, and I think the mix is actually fruitful. An example of top down, of course, being the brethren we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators, having jurisdiction over the rest of the members. Examples of bottom up are not as clear, but I believe are real. (This could be as simple as making a suggestion to our Relief Society Presidents and Bishops that we honor the history of the Relief Society in Sacrament Meeting on its birthday. Or, it could be many members continuing to hunt, even when their current prophet counseled very firmly against it.) An example of side to side is the way callings work. They are generally for the short term, meaning not only that a bishop can be a high counselor can be a nursery leader, but that new voices are heard, and new people are serving new people. I like the flow of it.

      • Oh, you know. Some previous prophets suggested that hunting for sport was not righteous. One being Kimball. One also being Snow (about his personal feelings). Apparently some members were quite upset after Kimball’s talk, and a majority chose to ignore it. (I likely could have used a better example, but this was the most innocuous one I could think of.)

  2. Whoa-man,
    What a great analysis of the power situation at church. The soft powers women seem to wield always mystify me. I’m not sure that most women in the church think in terms of power at all.

    My first impression of your post was that some people in the church might think that decision-making power is not about who is in the role, it’s about what God wants to happen. It’s that kind of thinking that makes any conversation about men and power almost irrelevant to many Mormons. I wish that it were the case that God spoke unbiasedly through every priesthood leader, but it’s just not. Allowing our leaders to actually be fallible, even in their callings, would be so helpful for church members. But, it’s hard to hold both the notion of a leader’s fallibility and his prophetic ability at the same time.

    My favorite question of yours was, “What would change if women made up the wealthiest members?”

    My answer, “A whole hell of a lot.”

    First of all, to even have women in the position to be earning what men earn in the church would be a breakthrough. Church culture would have to be dramatically different by that time, so I imagine that there would be more equality anyway.

    Thanks for this awesome post. I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

    • Jessa why
      I find this article to be an interesting read, but, I disagree with your analysis that there would be a great difference in the Church Structure if More Wealthy women were to be involved. I can think of two Wealthy Mormon women who have the access to leaders that Whoa Man is speaking about. One being Gladys Knight, the second being Marie Osmond. They are both conservative Republicans. Gladys does a lot of missionary work using her musical skills as does Marie and I’ve herd both speak . They tote the party line, and given the death (by suicide) of Marie’s son I’m surprised and disheartened by the fact that she uses the same hurtful language that the general membership of the rank and file as pertains to Mental Health issues, as well as LGTB people.

    • I agree Jessawhy. Economic security, autonomy, and control for all women (especially in patriarchal structures) would change the world!

  3. Whoa-man,
    I love this breakdown. I think almost always in terms of hard (formal) power and soft (informal) power in the church. So I appreciate you adding in these other avenues of power that I hadn’t really considered. I think media power is one avenue that Mormon feminists could use to our benefit. With the pants movement, I think many Mormons came face to face with just how ridiculous a social norm skirts-only are in the eyes of our neighbors. We need to highlight other norms like this in the media and see if we can get any softening from our leaders. I for one would recommend we press the issue of women holding (or not holding) their infants during baby-blessings. I think we can press this by suggesting that women offer to hold the microphones for their husbands if the bishops don’t want the mom holding the baby. That vision of a mom awkwardly craning her arm in front of her husband so he can speak should also point out the ridiculousness of the practice of barring her from participating in the blessing. Imagine a photo of that or description of that getting out into the world through the media.

    • When my baby was blessed a few months ago, I requested to hold him for the blessing, just as I would if he were sick and my husband were giving him a healing blessing. My bishop said, sure, he didn’t see a problem with that, but he would need to check with the stake president first. The next week, he informed me that the Church Handbook of Instruction, Volume 1 (the volume all but 9 female church members are not allowed to read) bans all but Melchizedek priesthood holders from “participating” in the blessing, so I was refused. I think banning women from reading church policies, (not to mention the fact that we do not have any input to writing them), is one way in which power is kept from women in the church. How can we use the few forms of power we have, like activism or media, if we don’t even know the policies that govern us? Shortly thereafter, I read the CHI Volume 1 as an act of civil disobedience and wrote a little post about it. However, my protest was super-subtle, not powerful. The take-way most of the readers of the post got was a craving for funeral potatoes; I don’t think anyone noticed I was quietly protesting that I am governed by policies I may not read. But I think I’ll mention it here more directly, and with exclamation points: Women should be allowed to read policies that govern them! They should have a voice in writing these policies! Church policies should be transparent!

      • I know this is tangential to your point, but I can’t think of a baby blessing I’ve witnessed where a deacon/teacher/priest wasn’t holding the microphone. It’s silly to think that’s not “participating”, but holding the baby is. (I also agree that it’s silly to think that average Joes, both men and women, aren’t privy to the policies and procedures that govern participation in the church.)

      • I asked to hold my baby in Sacrament Meeting, and after much discussion and parsing of the CHI, my bishop did decide there was scope for me holding the baby. So I did, and it was lovely. I wish your bishop had come to the same conclusion, April. I’m sorry to hear he didn’t.

        And amen to the idea that women should be allowed to read the policies that govern them. The CHI was recently put on line, is that right? So do we access now? Or was it just part of the CHI that was put online? Anyway, I hope the church is moving more in that direction.

      • On my mission we worked with a single mother with an infant son. Shortly after her baptism she brought him to be blessed in sacrament meeting. I remember her proudly walking to the front and holding him during the blessing. It was quite lovely, and it didn’t register to me in the moment that what I was seeing – a mother holding her infant during a baby blessing – was unusual. I’d like to learn more about the history of the practice of not having women hold their babies since, to me, it seems incredibly counterintuitive.

      • Volume 2 of the CHI is available online at Volume 1 is not, and specifically lists in its first pages who is allowed to read it. Only 9 women are allowed: the general RS presidency, the general YW presidency, and the general Primary presidency. Their secretaries and boards may not read it. Tens of thousands of male church members may read it. For example, temple presidents may, but temple matrons may not. All bishops and stake presidents may.

  4. I had a discussion with 2 of my daughters at Christmas. Both daughters have University degrees, one is a RS President and the other a councilor in YW. We discussed what women holding the P’hood and what they can and can’t do at present. Since women were to be invited to be more includeded in decision making committies the RS president had been invited to two meetings in three years, so not feeling empowered.

    I downloaded book 1 to see what might be possible. The handbook is very definite on some things and more vague on others. Must hold M P’hood to bless baby or even give blessing of comfort, for example.

    So when you get to the ability of the SP or bishop to invite people as required to Bishopric or SP meetings, why would they not permanently have the RS presidency there? When I was in a bishopric I remember coming home and telling my wife we had decided…., her response was, you wouldn’t have decided that if there had been a woman there.

    Another area that has room for possibilities is on P60 where it talks about who can conduct sacrament meeting. The councilors in the bishopric may, so may the RS presidency also? It is left open in case all the bishopric are not there. But it does not say you have to hold the M P’hood to conduct Sacrament meeting. Wouldn’t it change things if the RS presidency rotated with the Bishopric in conducting Sacrament meeting.

    One of my daughters’ concerns was the number of suits on the stand to conduct Sac meeting. We has 7 on Sunday. The book says if someone higher than Bishop is there he should be invited to the stand (so he could decline?) It takes one person to conduct the meeting, I would like to see that person on the stand with their family and the rest in the congregation with their families.

    The handbook at present excludes women from most things because they don’t hold the M P’hood, but not conducting Sac meeting. Although no power involved it would certainly change the atmosphere if women conducted and suits were removed from the stand.

    • ” When I was in a bishopric I remember coming home and telling my wife we had decided…., her response was, you wouldn’t have decided that if there had been a woman there.”

      I used to think that, but I embarrassed myself twice by complaining to leadership, only to find out that women were in the room.

      It turns out that the differences among women might be as great as the differences between women and men. I still think it is worth questioning how such decisions were made, but I will never again be as strident that obviously women weren’t there, and it would have been different if they were:)

      • Naismith, I think this is a problem in many situations where there is limited female representation. If only ONE MAN were present in a meeting “the male perspective”
        would be limited by his own biases and assumptions. However, when you have a room full of men the diversity of opinions tends to better represent (not always- but better than with one) the diversity of a congregation. As long as ONE WOMAN represents ALL WOMEN in decision making bodies we will run into this problem in the church. Especially when the few women who actually make it into these callings are a particular type of women who typically represents a “good Mormon woman” who obeys, listens, and honors her leaders by NOT sharing too many alternative opinions.

  5. Really interesting post, Whoa-man. I was particularly struck by the point about money. It is fascinating to wonder what the Church would do if most of its wealthiest members were women. Would they still go to them for donations for big stuff, or would they worry that the women might not go along with all the things the men and couples do?

  6. This is very thought-provoking. It should be noted, however, that the decision-making in the church is different than in other organizations because in our system of servant leadership, even someone who supposedly makes decisions is subservient to the promptings of the Spirit.

    I also think that the kind of power exerted by women in callings (missionaries, rs presidents, etc.) is much more formal than that of bishop’s wives, etc. Their calling is official, they sit in ward councils and often have responsibilities that are unique to the ward.

    Also, I just want to mention that informal power may be as potent as other forms. For example, healthcare workers who deal with Latino populations are counseled to include the senior mother/grandmother in decision-making if the family wants, which they often do. In many societies and families, nobody is going to have that surgery until the abuela approves.

  7. “Naismith, I think this is a problem in many situations where there is limited female representation. If only ONE MAN were present in a meeting “the male perspective” would be limited by his own biases and assumptions. However, when you have a room full of men the diversity of opinions tends to better represent (not always- but better than with one) the diversity of a congregation. As long as ONE WOMAN represents ALL WOMEN in decision making bodies we will run into this problem in the church.”

    This argument must drive men crazy, since of course having a penis is no guarantee that their opinions will be heard, either. In any event, in none of the situations that I complained about and disagreed with was only ONE woman present.

    One of the situations was this: For our ward conferences, it was traditional to have a potluck dinner afterwards, so that the stake leaders could eat before driving an hour or more home, and so that ward members could hang out with them in a less formal way. In an effort to simplify things, the stake sent out a notice that this was not required; units could do the meal if they chose, but the stake was fine either way.

    I thought we should do away with One More Thing that required a cooked meal. I mean, a lot of us had to get up early for a leadership meeting before church meetings, so how early would we need to get up to cook a dish? Clearly, we should cancel, IMO.

    But it turned out that one of the sisters who was married to a non-member spoke on behalf of continuing the dinner. She explained that it was the one social event that she could enjoy and felt wholly comfortable going alone. Social events at other times were a hassle about whether her husband should attend, whether she should go alone, etc. But since this was right after church meetings, it was natural that she should go alone.

    So the ward council heeded her request–the request of someone who often feels like an outsider. And when I heard about that, the leadership were not as “wrong” as I thought they were, as it turned out. I was grateful that someone shared the whole story with me.

  8. Whoaman, This is a great breakdown. I don’t have much to add but I just want to compliment you on the title. It definitely is engaging and summarizes the post.

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