While women have been spiritual leaders and vital, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the beginning, their visible leadership and participation in the Church’s semi-annual General Conference has been limited. Only in the past 40 years or so have woman been regularly included as speakers to the general membership of the Church.
For decades, women leaders held their own two-day semi-annual General Relief Society Conference immediately prior to General Conference until 1945 when it switched to an annual schedule. In the fall of 1978 and 1979 a separate “Women’s Meeting”, sometimes characterized as a fireside, was held mid-September prior to General Conference. The Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary general presidents spoke, as well as the President of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball. In September of 1979, President Kimball was hospitalized, so his wife, Camilla Eyring Kimball, read his message from the pulpit of the Tabernacle.
For two years, in October 1980 and 1981, this meeting was designated as the General Relief Society Meeting and a member of the First Presidency of the Church, the Relief Society General President and her counselors spoke. In April 1982, they reverted to the General Women’s Meeting format at which a member of the First Presidency and a member of the presidency of each of the three organizations led by women gave a talk. This pattern continued in October 1982 and then annually every October until 1992.
October 1993 marked another shift in the women’s meetings. For two decades, from October 1993 to October 2013, a General Relief Society Meeting was held in conjunction with the October General Conference and a General Young Women Meeting was held in conjunction with the April General Conference, both the Saturday evening immediately prior to the general sessions of Conference.
While speakers were generally limited to those in a general auxiliary presidency, there were exceptions. On a few occasions, members of the Relief Society General Board (October 1980), a stake Young Women leader (April 1995) and other sisters (October 1993) spoke. For three years during President Janette C. Hales Beckham’s tenure as Young Women General President (1995, 1996, and 1997), three young women were invited to speak during the General Young Women Meeting each year, including Fono Latavai, a young woman from Samoa who bore her testimony in her native language as part of her talk. Since April 2008, video presentations including women and young women around the world have been part of these meetings as well.
Beginning in April 2014, the General Women’s Meeting was re-established, to which all women, young women, and girls aged 8 and older are invited. Prior to October 2014, these gatherings of the women of the Church were not consistently considered sessions of General Conference. With the clarification issued by the Church in October 2014, this meeting is now officially referred to as the “General Women’s Session of General Conference.” Consequently, we have included on this website quotes from talks given by women during all previous General Women’s Meetings, General Relief Society Meetings, and General Young Women Meetings as part of General Conference.
General Welfare Sessions
Women did not speak regularly in General Conference – to a mixed audience of both men and women – until October 1975, when Barbara B. Smith, the tenth general president of the Relief Society, was invited to speak during the General Welfare Session. President Smith spoke at every semi-annual General Welfare Session from 1975 through 1982 when the General Welfare Session was discontinued, except two: April 1979 featured an all male line-up, and in April 1980 her counselor, Shirley W. Thomas, spoke instead. In addition, in October 1981, a Relief Society sister named JoAnn Randall and her husband Nyle each spoke briefly about how welfare principles had influenced their family.
General Sessions of General Conference
Aside from a few anomalies*, April 1984 marked the first time women spoke in general sessions of General Conference. On Saturday morning, Elaine A. Cannon and Barbara B. Smith were released as Young Women General President and Relief Society General President respectively. Both gave brief talks and testimonies in the Saturday afternoon session. Having only had a day’s notice, the newly called Relief Society General President, Barbara W. Winder, spoke in the Sunday morning session and the newly called Young Women General President, Ardeth G. Kapp, spoke Sunday afternoon.
It wasn’t until four years later, April 1988, that a woman spoke in a general session of Conference again. President Dwan J. Young was released as Primary General President on Saturday afternoon and spoke Sunday morning. Her counselor and successor, Michaelene P. Grassli, was the only woman to speak in a general session of October 1988 General Conference. From that time through October 1993, the pattern was that one woman, selected from the general auxiliary presidencies, would speak during General Conference. Occasionally, a recently released president and her newly called successor would both speak.
The General Conference of April 1993 marked the first time a woman of color spoke to the general membership of the Church. Chieko N. Okazaki, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency had also previously addressed the women and young women of the Church in the General Women’s Meeting in 1991.
Since April 1994, two women representing different auxiliaries have spoken in general sessions of each General Conference, usually one on Saturday and the other on Sunday.
Women Praying in General Conference
Women – often members of the Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary General Board – and young women have offered opening and closing prayers for the General Women’s Meetings, General Relief Society Meetings, and General Young Women Meetings since they began, including several women and young women of color such as Shirley F. Sainz (a Relief Society General Board member originally from Mexico) in October 2002; Muzna Bukhari (a Pakistani Laurel) in April 2009; Ofa Kaufusi (a Polynesian sister living in the Salt Lake area) in April 2013; and Dorah Mhkabela (an African sister serving on the Relief Society General Board) in October 2014.
However, no woman offered a prayer during a general session of General Conference until April 2013. Jean A. Stevens, the First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency gave the closing prayer for the Saturday morning session and Carole M. Stephens, the First Counselor in the Relief Society Presidency said the opening prayer on Sunday afternoon.
Since then, at least two prayers in general sessions of General Conference – one on Saturday and one on Sunday – have been offered by a member of the Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary General Presidencies.
* In October 1929 President Heber J. Grant invited the three auxiliary presidents at the time (Louise Y. Robison for the Relief Society, Ruth May Fox for the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association – later renamed Young Women – and May Anderson for the Primary) to give brief testimonies during a general session on the second day of Conference. The same three women gave short talks on the fourth day of General Conference in April 1930. Ruth Pyrtle, the president of the National Educational Association and not a member of the Church, was also invited to speak to the Church for its centennial Conference in April 1930. The auxiliary presidents again bore brief testimonies in October 1930 General Conference.
In Women of Covenant, Derr, Cannon, and Beecher report that the Relief Society General Board minutes of April 9, 1947 record: “Sister [Belle] Spafford [Relief Society General President] suggested to the General Church Welfare Committee that bishops might not be using the Relief Society presidents’ expertise ‘in determining the needs of families receiving welfare assistance.’ At the suggestion of Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards, she was invited to address the priesthood meeting of general conference, where thirty-five hundred bishops were present, to remind them of the partnership opportunities.” However, we have been unable to track down the text of President Spafford’s talk.