“Woman in Charge”: Extending Traditionally-Male Callings to Females

On the last page of the most recent issue of BYU Magazine, a two-paragraph story written by Candace Kunch Elder, entitled “Woman in Charge,” caught my eye and subsequently ruined a good night’s sleep. Nestled inauspiciously amongst slightly-syrupy “first person” memories of BYU, Elder’s piece tells of her calling as ward mission leader in a BYU ward. The inspired stake president who approved this traditionally-male calling was none other than Rex E. Lee, who would later become president of BYU.

According to the account, President Lee and this sister’s bishop had fasted and prayed concerning such an unorthodox invitation, and ultimately felt that they were “certain of the Lord’s choice” in extending the calling to her. She went on to magnify her calling, and, incidentally, snagged a husband in the process (I think the husband-snagging was actually the main point of the article).“HARUMPH!” I mutter as I thump my husband on the head with the BYU Magazine as he lies unsuspectingly in our bed, waiting for me finish up my nightly bathroom rituals (savvy readers may be able divine what particular ritual I was engaged in when I happened upon the above-referenced article).

“This proves it! I was right all along. You can call Sister X to be the new [traditionally-male calling] in our ward. Rex Lee did it, so you can, too. I mean, he was the president of BYU—you have to be like a GA to be the president of BYU, don’t you? Don’t tell me you think Rex Lee wasn’t inspired…”


I see his sleepy brain attempting to connect the dots. (Wife on toilet. Wife yelling about Rex Lee. Wife hitting me with rolled magazine. Wife resuming usual rants about gender in the church. Aaahh…)

After bringing him up to speed on my flawless logic, we begin debating the nitty-gritty doctrine that might support or undermine such a position. We agree that it probably isn’t necessary to hold the priesthood to successfully serve in certain callings, such as a ward mission leader, Sunday school president, or executive secretary, because none of these positions requires that you actually perform priesthood ordinances or be associated with a priesthood quorum. But, the GHI indicates that these callings are to be held only by priesthood holders. Is the GHI considered “doctrine”?

We definitely both agree that a two-paragraph anecdote written by a BYU co-ed 25 years after the fact doesn’t exactly rise to the level of “doctrine,” as currently defined by the Church. But, we agree that it’s something. It’s an official BYU publication, and we don’t imagine the editorial advisory committee would publish anything that was too “out there” as far as doctrine goes. We’ve seen no “first person” accounts of blood atonement or Adam-God theory on the last page of the BYU Magazine, at least in recent memory.

So, we surmise, maybe calling a woman to be a ward mission leader isn’t that unexceptional after all? Maybe inspired bishops and stake presidents do stuff like this on a small scale all the time? Hmm…do we have any data points on this? Maybe we should enlist the collective experience of family and friends to settle this so we can go to bed? It’s a good thing Utah is in an earlier time zone and we have plenty of minutes left this month.

After a few calls, we receive confirmation that, yes, Grandpa B did call a woman to be his executive secretary back in the 1980s. The stake president wasn’t thrilled, but there was literally no one else who could do it, so he ultimately acquiesced. She was the best darn executive secretary Grandpa B ever had. She color-coded all of his interviews in an appointment book for him.

But, other than Grandpa B’s famed executive secretary, we have no hard facts. The other reports are all hearsay, or, horror of horrors, even double hearsay.

Help us finish off this fight in style—do any of you have personal knowledge of women being invited to serve in callings traditionally reserved for men? Do you think the BYU piece would raise any eyebrows in your neck of the woods? Would this type of situation raise any concerns for you?


  1. I wouldn’t exactly call it leadership, although I was the only member of the presidency that did anything.

    Aslo at BYU, I was called to be the Sunday School secretary. To me, this is odd in that it made the presidency mixed geneder, which I believe to be a bigger no no than having a female SS presidency or male Primary presidency. It meant that once in a while (SS presidency, remember, they don’t do much) I attended presidency meetings with a bunch of boys.

  2. Here’s some hearsay. I heard a former mission president talk about how he was inspired to call a couple of sister missionaries to be APs.

    I have also heard of women serving as clerks and exec secretary. But I think this was 20 or 30 years ago.

    Way to spot that article, Maria! I think this is an important step forward – an official church publication actually talking about a female ward mission leader. Awesome.

  3. spectator–this one is quite common in my experience. So, this suggests that there is no problem with a woman serving in a mixed presidency when all she is supposed to do is go around and take the roll???

    Maria, in my sophomore year of college I was very gung-ho to go on a mission. I was called as the co-ward mission leader in my ward. The other person was a guy who had just gotten home from his mission. I don’t remember that we did much. Help with the very few missionary discussions and get people fired up about serving missions–we spoke in church together, and so forth. But, all in all, I was very excited about the calling and it helped me in my preparation for my mission. So, there is another data point for you.

    And by the way, do you have any comments on the Jane Clayson article?

  4. Caroline, you bring up an interesting area. Missions. In the Ensign a few months ago, there was a article devoted to the sister missionaries that make up the entire SLC visitor center mission. In this case, all the district and zone leaders, plus APs, are all sisters. But, very little, to my dismay, was made of this or discussed about this. I would love to see how these sisters fare out in their 3-4 month proselyting missions when there are no sisters in leadership–if they have a different perspective, if they feel disempowered, etc.

    I think that out of all the areas in the church, a mission president could do the most with bending gender roles. Does anyone know if there is anything in the missionary handbook about having the elders be the leaders? The only problem that would arise is the baptisimal interview, but it seems like that could easily be taken care of.

  5. In Lavina Fielding Anderson’s infamous Dialogue article (Spring, 1993) she recounts Ann Kenney’s story of being called as Stake Sunday School President (in 1979) with the approval of an unnamed Apostle, only to be released a few weeks later when the full quorum refused to sign off on it.

    In a social setting, I once heard Ann give her own account of the incident, in which she named the Apostle. I don’t know whether she withheld that information from Anderson, or whether Anderson knew the name but left it out of her article. Whatever the case, I will respect that decision until the person in question is dead.

    Incidentally, although Anderson’s article dealt with spiritual abuse, Ann did not seem to feel particularly abused by the incident, just confused.

  6. Caroline & Michelle,

    I forgot all about missions when I was writing this post! Because I could have included on the list that I personally know a sister missionary who, along with her companion, was asked to be a “Traveling Sister”–equivalent to an AP, but not actually an AP. They traveled around the mission with the MP and taught zone conferences, did splits with other sisters, etc.

    My mission was actually when I first began to identify myself as a “feminist” to others–I was constantly frustrated by gender issues in my mission. I even sent several lengthy documents to my MP about my thoughts on why sisters in my mission tended to stagnate (lack of leadership opportunities + small companion pool + lack of confidence in them on the part of local leaders/DLs/ZLs/APs). I need to drag out my mission journals to find the copies of these docs–it would be interesting to examine the development of my feminist self at that stage in my life.

  7. When I was on my mission, a sister in one of the wards I served in was called as Sunday School secretary.

    Before my mission, I was a counselor in the institute presidency, and then I was called as president. (I realize that institute is organized under CES instead of the traditional church structure, but ecclesiastical approval is necessary to issue institute callings.)

    The only difficulty I ever had in being respected as institute president was when we went on trips to do baptisms at the temple. It was common practice whenever a group came to do baptisms, that the leader of the group would be asked to call on someone for an opening prayer, and then a member of the temple presidency would give a brief devotional. We would arrive, be seated in the baptistry chapel, and then a temple worker would address my counselors (who were often the only men in attendance) and ask them which one was in charge. To their everlasting credit, they would both gesture in my direction and say, “She’s in charge.” The worker would often protest, with my counselors backing me up. This would go on for a moment or two before I would just delegate the prayer calling to my first counselor. (It was easier than fighting it.)

  8. Michelle wrote:
    spectator–this one is quite common in my experience. So, this suggests that there is no problem with a woman serving in a mixed presidency when all she is supposed to do is go around and take the roll???

    I work with a stake relief society presdency and my husband serves in a stake presidency where both presidencies have secretaries whose people skills, inspiration, organizational skills, insights and leadership abilities make them whiz-bang essential participants in that presidency work. So, though I’m sure you meant no harm, I take exception to that comment.
    (And, by the way, neither one of those secretaries takes roll, or keeps attendance statistics.) Please, never assume that a secretary in the church is or should be no more than a roll-keeping go-fer.

  9. My father unofficially “called” a woman to be the financial clerk in his branch because she was, in his words, “the only one who could count and keep the books” I don’t think he ever informed the stake about though. He is a very law-and-order Mormon, but really needed a good clerk and was willing to step outside the box to get one.

    Another line to think about… what about callings that are traditionally for women, but occasionally go to men? While in Cambridge, MA our bishop released the Elder’s Quorum Pres. to become the Nursery Leader. The “powers that be” in the Stake were dumbfounded and the bishop found himself having to justify the change. The fact that this dad was the best person to head up a large gang of nursery kids seemed to be unbelievable to the Stake leaders. All the women in the ward cheer on the call–

  10. Hi anon,

    I have served as a secretary in other organizations as well and have seen that most secretaries of course do much more than take roll. For some reason, though, Sunday School secretaries–whenever there is one– seem to do much less compared to all other church called secretaries. It has been a while since I remember being in a ward that actually had a SS secretary, but it seems, from what I have seen, they have a very limited role in the organization of the SS and do tasks like take roll and ask someone to say the prayer.

    Any SS secretaries out there to correct me?

  11. On a related note, I’d like to get some statistics on the proportion of men and women in the definitively non-gendered callings. For example, it seems clear that primary teachers are much much more likely to be female (exceptions for Valiant boys classes). But how often do you see a male Sunbeam teacher? New regulations mandating that no man teach alone in primary only heighten the difficulty of getting men into the primary, which I think is quite unfortunate.

    But, what about gospel doctrine teachers? I would like to know if there are equal proportions of men and women in this calling across my stake, and throughout the church (at least US). I have been lamenting no female voice in our ward gospel doctrine class for the year plus that we’ve lived here.

  12. A little off topic, but this issue of BYU Mag gave me such a headache. The article on the Cheney protest made the whole thing sound like a silly little accident fallen into by a girl who bakes cookies, keeps her apartment tidily vacuumed, and just wants to date more. And that Jane Clayson profile! Folks, her career was just an accident, and one she is relieved to be done with! Please don’t blame her; she started her freshman year with her wedding dress already picked out!

    Maybe reading the articles back to back unfairly overamplified what might just be a mild editorial slant, but sheeeessh!

    (Don’t worry alums – these situations were anomalies, and they’ve been resolved. Donate with confidence!)

  13. bigbrownhouse:

    I’ll follow you down that road. The Jane Clayson article drove me batty. I guess I was already riled up before I got to the last page of “First Person” accounts.

    Maybe it is the contrast with the standard party-line messages like the Clayson article that makes the appearance of “Woman in Charge” seem that much more ground-breaking.

  14. Michelle:

    I’d love to see data on the non-gendered callings as well. Maybe I’ll devote a post to it–with a survey link. (It’d be a rather self-selecting sample, however…)

    Also, your comment about the dearth of male primary teachers made me think of this article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago: Are We Teaching Our Kids To Be Fearful of Men? I’m sure that male-predator fears are one set of factors that drives the decision to rarely extend primary callings to men.

  15. The SS secretary thing was standard for quite a while, I think. And I agree that (according to my understanding) that particular calling really was mostly about roll-keeping.

  16. Michelle-

    Oddly enough, I think the majority of gospel teachers I’ve had in the 10+ wards I’ve been in have been women. The ward I’m in now had two women who team taught the class until a few months ago when they called a husband and wife team.


  17. In the Ward of my youth in Northern California, our Stake President made an interesting move. Upon his release, he became the Ward Nursery Leader. Anyone who understands the inner workings of ‘callings’ in the LDS Church knows that in many cases prayer and inspiration are employed. However, there are also a great many situations where a more pragmatic approach used. An outgoing Stake President certainly has an opportunity to request his new position. This is why I referred to him making a move. He chose a position that traditionally is reserved for those with female reproductive organs, as though somehow that matters. I have always loved him for choosing the way he did.

  18. About half our teachers in primary are male. They either teach in teams or as a married couple. It is sort of a pain though when one guy doesn’t show up and he doesn’t get a substitute.

    On another note. I didn’t feel that way about the Jane Clayson article. I liked what she said about the lack of value that our society places on being a stay at home mom. I really appreciated some of her comments as I have been thinking a lot about this lately. (Just my 2 cents :))

  19. I can see why some callings are reserved for males, such as executive secretary. At least in our ward, a large part of the ex. secretary’s job is to hang around during the bishop’s interviews so that the bishop is never completely alone. If the point of this is so that there is less opportunity or basis for accusations, real or not, against the bishop acting inapropriately towards someone while he is alone with them, then having a female ex. secretary, with whom he would be alone with often, would kind of defeat that purpose.

  20. Marsha’s comment is completely valid. People are sue happy. If my husband were the Bishop I wouldn’t want him there night after night with a female as his secretary. It is the only sane policy.

  21. My father was a mission president in a northern European country in the mid-1990s. On one occasion, he called sister missionary to be a district leader. He’s very by the book, and couldn’t find any rule precluding him. More importantly, he felt inspired to do so, and he says she did a fantastic job. Unfortunately, it only happened the one time, but progress is progress, right?

    Also, we had a female membership clerk in my college ward (not BYU) for a while.

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