This story is part of a series by The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation on women’s roles in male-led religions.
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When she was younger, Sharon Eubank figured she would one day marry and form the kind of nuclear family typically expected of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Today, at 58, she is neither married nor a mother but glad to embody a different image of womanhood as one of the top female leaders in the male-dominated faith widely known as the Mormon church.
“We have to broaden out our approach and talk about family in a really inclusive way,” said Eubank, who is both first counselor of the Relief Society and president of Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm. “I think family is the building block of society … but I want my experience of not living with a husband and children right now to be recognized and accommodated.”
Though she isn’t the first single or child-free woman to hold a prominent role in the church, Eubank’s example is encouraging to other members during a time of growth for women’s roles in the faith nearly a decade after a key change for young women in its iconic missionary force. Still, some want to see a faster pace for progress.
While women are not filling the leadership roles traditionally held by men, “women’s positions are being expanded” including more speaking time during the church’s worldwide conferences, said Kathleen Flake, an expert on the faith and religious studies professor at the University of Virginia.
Only men are in the church’s lay priesthood — ordination is off limits to female members of the Salt Lake City-based church. Nor do women serve in the top echelons of global leadership or lead congregations.
Instead, every adult woman in the faith is a member of the Relief Society, often referred to by church leaders as one of the oldest and largest women’s organizations in the world. It runs activities primarily for female members and plays an important role in the faith’s charitable activities, reflecting the organization’s motto, “Charity Never Faileth.”
Neylan McBaine, a lifelong Latter-day Saint and the author of the book “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact,” said she wants to see more official church positions created for women, and she thinks parity can be achieved without women’s ordination, an issue that often surfaces in conversations about female roles in the church.
“Until that representation becomes a priority in the church, we are going to be losing the girls of this generation in droves,” McBaine said.
Over the last 30 years, the church has been exploring how to give women more latitude to preach and teach while remaining consistent in its foundational doctrinal principles, Flake said.
“Women have always had access to teaching authority and preaching authority in Mormonism,” Flake said. Still, “this is not a structure that thinks in terms of equality as sameness. So you’re going to have these different roles, but nonetheless they are authoritative for women.”
In a change this year, for example, the church created a new position for women to advise regional leaders outside the U.S., a move that Eubank said amplifies women’s voices around the world. Eubank said the church’s model of governing by council is one that’s attuned to women’s voices, sometimes in a way that pushes boundaries in more conservative nations.
“We’ve made mistakes in our history and we’re still making mistakes, but the foundation is to try and always improve,” Eubank said.
McBaine, who wants “women in the room where decisions are being made,” pointed to the church’s history, noting that founder Joseph Smith’s wife and mother were involved in the faith’s formation.
Smith also created the Relief Society, though he was killed before it truly hit its stride. Smith called the organization an order of priestesses, McBaine said, and “seemed to lay out a vision for a women’s priesthood structure that really, if not put them on par with the male authoritative hierarchy, at least carved out very specific roles and responsibilities.”
Today, McBaine does not think progress on women’s roles in the church is happening fast enough, especially for her three teenage daughters.
“The idea of gender in the church today is the defining issue for the rising generation, because this is the only place in my daughter’s lives where they are being told that they cannot do something because they are girls and women,” McBaine said.
But she singled out advances over the last decade, including the shift formally allowing women to be witnesses at baptisms and temple weddings — two key church rituals. She also praised the lowering of the missionary age requirement for women from 21 to 19.
The latter change, which came nearly a decade ago, opened the door for more young, single women to go on missions and gain leadership skills. While almost all young men go on missions, historically it was less common for women, many whom married young and started families before reaching the minimum age.
Eubank said women make up at least one-third of missionaries today, and the leadership experience has a lasting impact.
“They expect that and want that for the rest of their lives,” she said. “If they belong to places that aren’t hearing their voice, they’re happy to stand up.”
Rosie Card, an entrepreneur and social media influencer who served a mission and taught at a missionary training center, uses her online platform to highlight women leaders and discuss topics long taboo in the conservative faith, including sex, modesty, LGBTQ members and the denomination’s divine feminine, Heavenly Mother.
“I was tired of sitting in Sunday school wishing that someone would say these things,” said Card, a former fashion model turned author and founder of temple clothing company Q.NOOR. She became a vocal feminist precisely because of what she read in her Scriptures and experience going to temple every week, she said.
“I really believe that I’m doing exactly what my heavenly parents want me to do,” Card said.
She wants to see more women speak at the faith’s twice-annual General Conference gatherings and to fill male-dominated leadership roles that don’t require ordination.
“There’s so much room for growth without having to make massive shifts, which is what ordaining women would be,” Card said. And even that she sees happening eventually, just as the church lifted its ban on Black men holding the priesthood in 1978: “I think if that can change, surely it could change for women.”
In the meantime, Card said, she found something of a role model in Eubank.
“To have an example like Sharon — a single woman who had immense success in her career and also an immense leader (who) was living a full, happy life and didn’t constantly harp on the fact that she was single — that was a wonderful example for me,” said Card, 32, who married this year at an age older than many church members.
Eubank stepped into Relief Society leadership in 2017 after learning she’d been called to it from the faith’s top leadership: Its prophet and president, and his two counselors. Before heading up the Latter-day Saint Charities, she worked in the U.S. Senate and owned a toy store.
The hardest time of her life, she said, was around age 35 when she realized she wasn’t going to become a mother the way she had wanted. Her circle of friends and sisters helped her cope, and it’s that sense of community she points to when she speaks with young women about their future in the faith.
“The greatest power is when you’re part of a group that is all focused on the same thing,” Eubank said.
“I want women to understand: You can participate … you can lead,” she continued. “You can create impact.”
READ THE FULL SERIES: Women’s Evolving Influence in Male-Led Faiths
Meyer reported from Nashville, Tennessee.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.