I was working my way through Saints, Volume 3 when I stumbled across this bombshell in Chapter 15: “…Armenia Lee had an interview with apostle George F. Richards and her longtime stake president, Edward J. Wood, who had been called as the president of the new temple. Armenia and Edward had been friends for many years. After her husband’s death, she had often gone to him for counsel and advice. They had worked together as stake leaders, and Edward had become like a brother to her. Once the meeting began, Elder Richards asked Armenia if she would be willing to serve as matron of the new temple…Armenia was at once dazed and honored by the call. “I will accept the position in all humility, and do my best,” she said.”
I had to reread the section a few times to confirm I didn’t misunderstand. An unmarried widow was called to be the Temple Matron to serve alongside her friend, the Temple President! Who was not her husband! In 1923! This meant two things that very much excited me:
1) Armenia Lee was identified and called to be a Temple Matron not because of who she happened to be married to but rather because of her own unique talents and abilities. So many women (including temple matrons and other wives of high-ranking male leaders in the Church today) seem to be elevated solely because of proximity to their husbands. It is so often the men who receive the true leadership calling and responsibilities, and the wives are along for the ride. Wives are frequently seen as a benefit or detriment to their husbands’ spiritual leadership rather than people capable of spiritual leadership in their own right.
2) An unmarried widow and a married stake president were called to serve side by side as Temple President and Temple Matron. This is a refreshing alternative to the tired, sexist narrative that men and women who are not married to each other cannot be friends or colleagues or spiritual leaders at the same time due to impropriety – as if the only thing standing between good, loyal people and rampant infidelity or fornication is mere exposure to the opposite sex.
Before receiving the call to serve as Temple Matron, Armenia Lee already had a record of extraordinary service in the leadership of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association and her Stake Young Women Presidency. She was also a sought-after writer and speaker on spiritual matters. At the same time, as a widow with five children from her first marriage, she made it clear even when she was extended the call to serve as Temple Matron that she had to work to support her family – without apologizing or rejecting the call. She was single when she began but continued to serve as Matron even after remarrying in 1936.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman and a man, friends, serving together in official Temple leadership roles in 1923. One need look no further than controversies that go right up to the present day to see that we cannot take such open-mindedness for granted. The outdated philosophy that continues to prevent such platonic or professional partnerships became a subject of popular debate in the United States in 2017 when media covered what became known as the “Mike Pence rule” because the then-Vice President maintained a policy of refusing to eat alone with a woman or attend an event with alcohol without his wife. Many conservative Christian men including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) brag about such practices (also known as the “Billy Graham rule”) as a way of publicly performing an image of faithfulness to their wives and resistance to sexual temptation.
Some LDS folks extrapolate that this is another reason to keep women out of leadership positions in general. For example, I’ve heard some make the argument that you could never have women or gender minorities in a Sunday School Presidency (even though Sunday School isn’t gendered) because it would be inappropriate for men in Sunday School leadership to work so closely in their callings with anyone except other men. The participants might be attracted to each other, tempted beyond what they can bear, and before you know it everyone is having emotional and sexual affairs left and right! Or so the logic goes.
Besides the fact that this view undermines our own doctrine of sacred individual agency and infantilizes grown, accountable adults who should have figured out how to control their own urges and behavior, its logical conclusion is that all aspects of life should be gender-segregated. Introduce diversity in sexual orientation and even the premise falls apart. Although this entire approach crumbles at even the slightest prodding of intellectual critique or practical implications, it continues to appeal to many, including members of the LDS Church who seek to defend an unjust and inequitable status quo.
I checked the historical list of presidents and matrons of the Cardston Alberta Temple where Armenia Lee served as the first Matron. She was succeeded by another woman, Jennie Leavitt Smith, who was not married to the Temple President when called but who was married to another man, Willard Lisbon Smith. Nevertheless, from 1948 to the present day, only husband-wife pairs have served in those roles. It appears my home Temple in Washington, DC has never had anyone other than a husband-wife pair as President and Matron. I wonder how many other instances (if any) in our history include women like Armenia Lee and Jennie Leavitt Smith in Temple leadership independent of their marriage to a Temple President?
I already knew from good sense, personal revelation, life experience, and simple logic that there is no reason we cannot call a woman directly, independent of her marriage to a particular man, to an office such as Temple Matron. But thanks to Armenia Lee and Jennie Leavitt Smith, I now know that it is not only possible but has in fact already happened. What changed? Why does it seem so impossible now, when it existed in the 1920s? Let’s expand our conceptions beyond the way things currently are to what they could be, if only we would notice the outstanding potential people around us have – irrespective of their marriage to a notable man.