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Owen Stayner, Deseret News Archives
Sister Barbara B. Smith counsels sisters during annual women's meeting. Oct. 2, 1983.

A woman’s voice was heard for the first time in the general conferenceof The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 1845. This was the last conference to be held in Nauvoo, Illinois, and the voice was that of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the martyred prophet.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
A painting of Lucy Mack Smith hangs in the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial.

Seventy-year-old Lucy spoke at length, rehearsing the history of her family, and that of the church. She also bore her testimony and encouraged and admonished the Saints, which was her way. “I want everyone to look into their hearts to see what they have come to this place for, whether they have come to follow Christ through evil and good report or for any other cause” (see "At the Pulpit," Church Historians Press, p. 23, online at churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit).

“I feel the Lord will let Brother Brigham take this people away,” she said. And though she herself was prevented from joining them, considering the needs of her daughter-in-law Emma Smith and Lucy's daughters first, she had met with the members of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Monday, June 30, 1845, and, as Brigham Young recorded: “Mother Smith expressed herself satisfied with the Twelve and the course they were pursuing” (see my "Stories of Lucy Mack Smith," pages 82-83).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Sister Zina D. H. Young served as the third general president of the Relief Society and served from 1888-1901.

On Oct. 7, 1879, in the Salt Lake Valley, Sister Zina D.H. Young spoke during the evening session of conference and is likely the first woman to speak in the Tabernacle (see "General Conference. Second Day." in the Deseret Evening News, Oct. 8, 1879, and “At the Pulpit,” The Church Historian’s Press, edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, p. 363, note 17).

In the October 1929 conference, church President Heber J. Grant suddenly announced, “We have listened to a great many testimonies from our brethren during this conference. We shall now call on some of our sisters.” Sister Louise Y. Robison, Relief Society general president; Sister Ruth May Fox, Young Ladies Mutual general president; and Sister May Anderson, Primary general president, then addressed the assembly, according to the "One Hundred Semi-Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Oct. 4-6, 1929, pages 84-85, available on archive.org.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Sister Louise Y. Robison was the seventh general president of the Relief Society and served from 1928-1939.

“I know that our Heavenly Father has been good to me,” Sister Robison testified, “and to all women, especially since this glorious gospel has been restored. … The Relief Society women are striving to give to the church boys and girls who are clean and who will be capable of carrying on the Lord’s work.”

Sister Fox entreated, “I do pray that he (the Lord) will give me influence with the daughters of Zion, especially; that, because I have lived they may have more faith in God and in their fathers and mothers and in the authorities of the church."

The following April, these women were called upon to speak again (see "One Hundred Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," April 6-9, 1930, pages 144-145, available on archive.org). What is more, Ruth Pyrtle, president of the National Education Association and not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was also invited to speak for the church’s centennial conference in April 1930 (see page 163).

Deseret News archives
Sister Belle Smith Spafford

Sister Belle Spafford led the general Relief Society for an unprecedented and never-matched 29 years (1945-74). In 1946, she suggested to the General Church Welfare Committee that the bishops of the wards might profit from counseling with the Relief Society about the needs of their families. Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards arranged an invitation for her to speak to the priesthood meeting at the following general conference. Fearlessly, she addressed the hundreds of bishops assembled, sharing with them her wisdom and experience and teaching them how to work in harmony with the Relief Society sisters (see "Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society," by Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon and Maureen Ursenback Beecker, p. 313).

Sister Barbara B. Smith, who succeeded Sister Spafford as general president in 1974, spoke biannually at general conference sessions in the welfare sessions. The welfare meetings, which were devoted either to auxiliary programs or to the temporal needs of members, were part of general conference until 1982.

In October 1978 , Sister Smith, Sister Ruth H. Funk, Young Women general president and Sister Elaine A. Cannon, who succeeded her in 1978, spoke as the women's session of conference, and Sister Smith, Sister Cannon and Sister Naomi M. Shumway, Primary general president, spoke in the October 1979 women's session.

Interestingly, in the April 1984 general conference, the beloved leaders, Sister Smith from Relief Society and Sister Cannon from Young Women, gave farewell speeches to the church membership in the Saturday session, and the new incoming presidents, Sister Barbara W. Winder, the Relief Society general president, and Ardeth G. Kapp for Young Women, spoke in the Sunday sessions.

Howard C. Moore, Deseret News Archives
President Marion G. Romney and President N. Eldon Tanner congratulate Relief Society General President Sister Barbara B. Smith. Oct. 4, 1974.

Women’s voices are unique, with power and conviction that harmonize with the testimonies of men.

Women organized or joined service and civic organizations. They headed welfare efforts in their wards and stakes. They built and staffed hospitals, trained nurses and midwives, and took seriously their role as leaders and teachers of youths.

Sisters Emmeline B. Wells, Susa Young Gates, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young, Bathsheba Smith — the list goes on and on — of women who achieved notable things in society. Many of them were members of the National Council of Women and active in the cause of women’s rights. But they always kept their finger on the pulse of their own womanhood — on the pulse of the home.

The Relief Society was organized and the first meetingswere at the home of Sarah M. Kimball in Nauvoo on March 17, 1842. Presenting before a wide audience of the Triennial Council of Women in Washington, on Feb. 21, 1895, Sister Kimball spoke of “Our Sixth Sense, or the Sense of Spiritual Understanding.” Speaking directly to the point, she told the listeners: “The sixth sense links mortal with immortal existence. … It educates, exalts and refines those that follow its guiding influence. … (It) leads to blissful heights of superior understanding. … When through our spiritual nature we are in communion with God, we are drawing nearer and nearer to each other, and our words and works will blend more and more harmoniously” (see "At the Pulpit," Church Historian’s Press, pp. 90-92).

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Today, the scope of influence of the Latter-day Saint woman is worldwide. The exciting possibilities of reaching hearts and minds, of teaching, lifting and loving, exist in all parts of the globe, and are endless.

Encouraging changes for women have recently come. The Restoration is still in progress. As President Russell M. Nelson said in the October 2015 general conference talk titled "A Plea to My Sisters," “The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God! … We need you to speak up and speak out” (quoted in "At the Pulpit," introduction).