SALT LAKE CITY —Days before Saturday's first session of the 187th Semiannual General Conference of the LDS Church, Bonnie L. Oscarson and the other members of the Church's Young Women general presidency sat for an interview and discussed the messages given by women that have most impacted their lives.
“There have been some talks by women throughout the years that have really impacted me as a woman because sometimes they speak from a point of view that is specific to where we’re coming from,” Sister Oscarson said. “I’m always uplifted by the talks by our prophet and apostles, but these women’s talks through the years have truly had an impact on my life as a young mother, as a mother of teenagers and now, at this point in my life, I go back and read them still.”
After "At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women,” was published in February, the book’s co-editors, Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder, noted “a tremendous hunger for women’s words."
“The reception of this book has been really poignant to see, what a hunger it was and how grateful people are for the words, and it’s because of this, sometimes we just want to hear from people who have similar life experiences to ours because they can touch us in a way that matters,” Holbrook told the Deseret News.
On Saturday night, during the general women’s session, new discourses will join those that have been delivered throughout the church’s history as female auxiliary leaders will once again take their place at the pulpit.
An opportunity to speak
“Writing a talk for general conference is one of the hardest things I think we’re asked to do because you never feel like it’s good enough,” Sister Oscarson said. “You think about the setting and you think about the fact that you’re talking to the whole church, you think about the fact that it’s going to be published in the Ensign and that perhaps your talk might be used in a lesson. It just never quite feels good enough.”
“We’ve all done this, knelt by our desk in our office, closed the door and just wept and asked and pleaded, ‘Heavenly Father, please help this be useful to somebody. I don’t want to waste these 11 minutes you’ve given me. Just make it worth its while for someone who is going to be listening,’ and that’s all we want,” Sister Neill F. Marriott, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency, said. “We’re not there to entertain. We’re not there to get attention we just want to do things his way.”
They seek the Lord’s reassurance in knowing that what they have prepared is what God would have them share and eventually, Sister Carol F. McConkie, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, said they gratefully receive an affirmation that they’ve finally arrived at the talk they are supposed to deliver.
“Otherwise, you’re just too vulnerable to turn in a talk that’s supposed to represent his words to the world,” Sister McConkie said. “You can’t do it, and to receive that affirmation is such a sweet experience.”
In the days leading up to the conference, they are able to practice their talks at a practice pulpit located in the basement of the Church Administration Building, a pulpit that looks and sounds like the pulpit in the Conference Center.
Still, despite their best preparations, Sister Oscarson said nerves begin to set in 24 hours before she is scheduled to speak. Sister Marriott remembers approaching the pulpit for the first time with legs that felt like wood and thinking, “Am I getting there? Am I getting closer?”
“But when I got to the podium and I turned and looked out at those 20,000 sisters, these words were given to me, ‘These are your friends,’” Sister Marriott recalled. “And it made all the difference because I thought, ‘I can talk to my friends.’”
This feeling of overwhelming peace is not unique to Sister Marriott. Sister Oscarson calls it “the bubble of calm” she seems to enter the moment she steps up to the microphone. Sister McConkie heard her fellow presidency members speak of this calm that comes at the pulpit but she wondered if she would have a similar experience when, prior to giving her first talk, she felt like her heart was about to beat out of her chest.
“But once I got to that pulpit, it was one of the most expanding experiences I have ever had because this clarity expanded every sensibility in my whole being every sense was magnified: my awareness of my message, my awareness of the audience, the awareness of where I was looking and all of the things that we had been instructed,” Sister McConkie said.
Women’s opportunities to speak are not unique to the LDS Church, but Holbrook, a women’s history specialist for the Church History Department, says that “women are often still socialized to be really deferential and to not speak up or fear that people won’t like them if they speak up or say something too strongly.”
Holbrook said that it was when she was in divinity school that she recognized that as a member of the LDS Church she has been given opportunities to speak since she was a little girl.
“My first panic attack at a microphone was when I was in Primary (the church's program for children's instruction) and I remember breathing really hard into the microphone and not saying anything,” Holbrook said. “But you have this opportunity again and again and again to work through that and figure out how it works.”
She believes giving talks are one demonstration of how “the church helps to push you.”
“The more you participate, the more it keeps you vulnerable,” she said. “These are grown women who have done so much and have found their way in the world and then they’re doing this thing that is really emotionally risky.”
An opportunity to minister
While it may cause her to step out of her comfort zone at times, Sister Marriott considers her calling “a remarkable privilege” but emphasizes that every calling in the church is “a remarkable privilege.”
“I was the food storage leader before this calling and that was a remarkable privilege,” she said. “I will go back to being something in the ward and I’ll look forward to that. The Lord needs us all and he’ll put us in different places for our good as well as others. We are ministers, we give what’s in us and in whatever circumstance we can be an influence for good.”
For now, their opportunity is to serve as the presidency of an auxiliary that has half a million young women.
“We have great privileges in this church,” Sister Oscarson said. “And I think sometimes there’s a tendency to compare ourselves to worldly models and to look at what we think we don’t have instead of looking at the great blessings we do have. That we are a priesthood-directed church and that we have access to that priesthood power as women as well and we work hand-in-hand with our brothers to manage the programs of the church.”
They understand and cherish their responsibility.
“We are here to minister and it’s not because it’s a job or because of any professional training. It’s because the Lord has called us to minister,” Sister McConkie said. “You look at the covenant that we make, to love and to serve and to stand in his name, to serve in the name of Christ, these are gifts that are given to women. It’s what we have, it’s who we are.”
"It's not about, 'We need a bigger voice,' it's not about time, it's about giving and we give what we have and that makes a whole," Sister Marriott said.
In her April 2017 general conference talk, Sister Linda K. Burton told of a young Relief Society president who, when leukemia often prevented her from visiting the sisters in her ward and attending church, began writing notes to the women in her ward. Jenny Reeder was her name, the same Jenny Reeder who co-edited “At The Pulpit.”
“I felt prompted in what to write to them, kind of like I would imagine a priesthood blessing feels like to give,” Reeder said. “And I just had so much love for them and I could see what God wanted for them but I feel like that was part of my mantel as the Relief Society president and my authority as Relief Society president and it was so exciting to be able to participate in something like that.
"Emma Smith said, ‘We’re going to do something extraordinary.’ And ‘extraordinary’ to me at that time was sitting in my bed writing a note to some wonderful less-active woman that I had this amazing love for that I wouldn’t have normally.”
Sister Burton quoted Reeder in her talk.
“As a certain woman, Jenny testified: ‘Not only are we here to save others but to save ourselves. And that salvation comes from partnering with Jesus Christ, from understanding his grace and his Atonement and his feelings of love for the women of the Church.’”
In the wake of Sister Burton’s talk, the phrase “certain women” took on a life of its own, Sister Marriott said. It caused women all over the world to ask, “Are we certain women?”
“And we are,” Marriott said. “We are certain women.”