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Mormon double-speak in historic announcement about women’s leadership

Last night's announcement about Mormon women's new leadership role was indeed historic, but only if we are honest about their lack of leadership opportunities prior to the change. We don't get to have it both ways.

I was delighted last night when I saw YW President Bonnie Oscarson’s historic announcement:

Bonnie Oscarson announcement

You can read the details here in the Salt Lake Tribune or here in the Deseret News. The gist of it is that the general presidents of each of the three women’s auxiliary organizations will now have permanent membership in three of the Church’s top committees, which have always been all-male.

Moreover, the name of the Priesthood Executive Committee has been changed to the “Priesthood and Family Executive Council”—with the implied possibility that this might be a change adopted at the local level too.

History was made yesterday. Go us!

But there’s a curious double-speak in the way history is now being rewritten, at least by the Deseret News. All of the former auxiliary leaders interviewed for the DN story emphasized that they had sometimes attended or participated in high-level Church meetings in the past.

But they also, like President Oscarson, pointed to the utterly historic nature of this permanent change.

In other words,

“Women have long been consulted and sometimes allowed to sit in on all-male leadership meetings. In no way were we ever not listened to.

But now, we will be listened to for sure!”

How the Deseret News is choosing to report on this reveals a tension at the heart of all of the recent small changes regarding Mormon women’s roles, from having the first woman ever pray in General Conference in 2013 to creating new supervisory roles for female missionaries. And by this criticism of the newspaper’s mandate I am in no way impugning the individual journalist who wrote the story, because he’s a strong writer who does due diligence with interviews. I have liked and learned from many of his articles.

But he’s in an impossible position. If you’re the Deseret News, you have to write something that both trumpets any new LDS Church policy as amazing and momentous while not offering so much as a hint of criticism of the old way of doing things or suggesting that the new change resulted in any way from the demands of public pressure.

As the headline put it, the new policy is a “significant move.” But the article nowhere acknowledged (as the Trib writeup did, with refreshing frankness) that it comes in response to significant criticism from within the ranks about the invisibility of women in key leadership roles.

I celebrate the fact that Mormon women are becoming more visible, our leadership capabilities promoted at the highest levels of the Church. What happened last night is a small but important step forward.

But we can’t tell the story of women’s expanding leadership two ways. We can’t insist that women have always been empowered while also declaring that their new roles are wholly groundbreaking. In fact, when we try to do that we remove the very reason that yesterday’s policy announcement made history: It’s major because we have not involved women in leadership enough in the past.

What I would love to see (but doubt I ever will) is a candid acknowledgment that this is historic because the way we have done things in the past was ridiculously short-sighted and lopsided.

That we systematically denied ourselves the regular inclusion of women’s voices, to our sorrow and detriment.

And that we are now making long-overdue amends.