Baby names aren’t the only form of naming on my mind lately. I have also been thinking about how our experience in the church is limited and enhanced based on the vocabulary we use to talk and think about it, especially vocabulary around women’s responsibilities and work in church administration.
On the one hand, naming gives people and practices authority and scope. Have you noticed the way leaders trip over the wording when they try to talk about how a woman’s auxiliary service will start or end on a different time table because of her and her husband’s call to lead a mission? Names matter here. We have a clear title for a Temple Matron, for instance, that implies certain responsibilities and influence. The Mission President’s Wife does not, and it impacts how we think of her role there. Hearing a leader say, “Sister _____ will begin serving in the YW Presidency in July, as she is completing her current assignment as the temple matron of the Winter Quarters Temple” feels very different than saying, “Sister _____ will begin serving in the YW Presidency in July, as her husband is currently serving as the president of the Omaha Mission.” The second makes it feels like her responsibilities are secondary to her husband’s; the first makes it clear she currently has important responsibilities. It sends a very different message about the value of women’s work, and I am thoroughly convinced that the biggest barrier to fulfilling President Nelson’s call for women to make their voices heard is our own lack of vision about our contributions and influence.
At the same time, when you name something, it places boundaries on its scope and possibilities. When a role isn’t as well-defined, leadership has greater capacity for creativity and fluidity in what positions are created and how to perform them. I think a prime example here is making the women’s session of conference an official session, rather than auxiliary. I love that it recognizes the centrality of women’s work to the work of the church, but I’ve noticed structural changes that have occurred since it was renamed. The format has gone to the same strictly talk-and-choir-number format of the other sessions, where in the past, women’s sessions included videos that helped engage younger attendees. And I think the redefinition probably had a lot to do with the fact there were fewer total female speakers this last General Conference – women had already spoken in an official session of conference, so why did they also need to speak in the other sessions? In this situation, naming interfered with our young women’s need to have content designed for them, and to see women acting as leaders in the church.
I’m a bit torn. Going back to the Mission Presidents’ wives example, I do feel that the work of Mission Presidents’ wives is not recognized as valuable because we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their contributions, and I feel like our rising generation desperately needs models to see themselves as leaders in the work of the church. Yet, as it currently stands, Mission Presidents’ wives have a great deal of flexibility in what work they do and how they strive to accomplish it. This flexibility allows women to play to their strengths, be flexible in how they share the workload with their husbands, and more easily adapt to the needs of their unique mission and missionaries.
I feel that our vocabulary is incredibly influential in how we think about women’s work. I want our young women to have the vocabulary to see themselves as the women of action and influence God needs them to be. But I want to change it in a way where we maintain our opportunities for innovation and adaptability.