Thomas Jefferson believed that “the care of human life & happiness, & not their destruction, is the first & only legitimate object of good government.”1 According to Elder Wilford W. Andersen of the Seventy, one of the ways good government cares for human life and happiness is when it “protects religion and fosters religious freedom. And good religion encourages good citizenship and adherence to the law of the land.”2 If we are to ensure that human life, happiness, and religious freedom will thrive and be protected in the years ahead, women must be active in government. Women’s participation is essential in political representation (for example, public elected office) and local, state, and federal government workforces, since critical decision making that impacts individuals, families, and communities occurs through all these channels.
Events of the past few years underscore the need for democratic governance processes—and government in general—to integrate diversity at all levels. In fact, American democracy is based on the concept of representation,3 and research has found that when a government mirrors the population it serves, local, state, and national entities better represent the population in decision-making processes.4 This is known as representative bureaucracy,5 which is based on the idea that people are shaped by their social experiences and that, as a result, the social experiences of political leadership and the government’s workforce matter.6 In fact, in terms of a public workforce specifically, diversity “implies equal access to government positions promoting empowerment and connection with government in diverse communities [and] can also signal the inclusion of group interests, attitudes, and experiences in government decision making and build government legitimacy.”7 Gender diversity in democratic governance matters.
I begin this article by laying the groundwork related to the positive difference women can bring to government and the importance of women’s influence in these settings. Secondly, I discuss Church teachings related to the involvement of its members in government, narrowing to a specific focus on Latter-day Saint women. Next, I address categories presenting broad challenges for women in participating in government, with a focus on Latter-day Saint women. I conclude this article with some action items for Latter-day Saint women to better assist in furthering our contributions to good government.
The Positive Differences Women Can Make
Hundreds of studies have found that when more women lead in a variety of settings, positive change occurs. For example, one study discovered that diverse teams are smarter, reporting that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”8 Other studies have found that more gender- and racial-diverse teams shared more facts, made fewer factual errors, were more willing to reexamine facts and remain objective, became more aware of personal blind spots, processed facts more carefully, and embodied more innovative thinking than nondiverse groups.9
For decades, organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and other experts have concluded that when women work and lead alongside men in teams and organizations—and other types of diversity also apply—creativity is enhanced, and teams and organizations can better generate novel ideas, understand various perspectives, make discoveries, and create breakthrough innovations.10 Studies have also shown that when leadership teams are diverse, workers are more likely to be engaged and involved, people tend to behave more ethically, the culture is more open to diversity in hiring and promotions, employees are more satisfied with their jobs and have lower intentions to leave, and workers have higher perceptions of fairness. Researchers have even concluded that simply being exposed to people who think differently can improve the way work is done.11
One study based in Germany found that teams that included women performed better on highly complex tasks compared to all-male teams, in part because the range of different thinking patterns available increased team creativity overall.12 A product development study found that teams with both men and women produced more patents for inventions and new products, demonstrating improved creativity and innovative thinking.13 In addition, researchers recently conducted a study with military participants in the United Kingdom and found that adding just one female voice to an all-male team made a significant positive difference, as long as team members listened to her and acted on her suggestions (which is not always the case).14 Some researchers through the years have concluded that having “a critical mass” of three or more women makes a difference in terms of better leadership overall, while other researchers argue that the benefits primarily emerge when women make up at least 30 percent of leadership team members.15
As mentioned, these findings apply to a variety of workplace and organizational settings, including political bodies (for example, city councils, county commissioners, state legislatures, parliaments, and Congress) and government workforces. In addition, sector-specific research has found that women’s participation in politics affects the range of policy issues that arise and the types of solutions that are proposed in decision-making processes.16 For example, one study discovered that the gender of a legislator had a direct impact on policy priorities.17 In fact, this and other studies have shown that when more women are elected to office, policymaking also increases about the quality of life and priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities.18 After more than thirty-five years of research, the National Democratic Institute concluded that, more than men, women politicians tend to “work across party lines; be highly responsive to constituent concerns; help secure lasting peace; encourage citizen confidence in democracy through their own participation; and prioritize health, education and other key development indicators.”19
Another area of emerging research focuses on the benefits of women leading in national and international political peacekeeping efforts. War and conflict continue to ravage communities and nations across the globe, which makes the topic of peacekeeping vitally important in leadership conversations today. Many studies have reported that, although women continue to bear the brunt of war, they also have a critical role as peacebuilders and peacekeepers around the world.20 One global study focused on preventing conflict, transforming justice, and securing peace, analyzing hundreds of data points in 181 peace agreements made since 2000.21 The study found that if women participated in the peace talks, the chance a peace agreement would last at least fifteen years increased by 35 percent, and its chance of lasting at least two years increased by 20 percent. Overall, this report concluded that peace is more durable and more easily achieved when women are engaged in the peacemaking process.
Overall, when government more closely mirrors the population it serves, all residents are better represented in decision-making processes.22 The research is clear that when there are more equal numbers of men and women serving and leading together, a host of benefits emerge, including the achievement of “care of human life and happiness” for all citizens.23 Because men and women are most often shaped differently by their social experiences, it is critically important to have representation from both. Differing experiences, perceptions, and interests matter in political leadership and the government’s workforce,24 particularly if the concept of good government is embraced.
Teachings from Church Leaders
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of encouraging both men and women to be involved in government in a variety of ways. In a 1971 issue of the New Era, D. James Cannon wrote, “Encourage good men and women to enter politics and work to help them. Organize political discussion groups. Consider now taking your turn as a candidate or party worker when the time is right.”25 In 2015, Elder Wilford W. Andersen stated, “Latter-day Saints are encouraged to engage in the political process and to add their voices to the public debate. It is part of our religion to be good citizens wherever we live.”26 In a session of the April 2018 general conference, President M. Russell Ballard stated, “Church members—both men and women—should not hesitate, if they desire, to run for public office at any level of government wherever they live. Our voices are essential today and important in our schools, our cities, and our countries. Where democracy exists, it is our duty as members to vote for honorable men and women who are willing to serve.”27 And finally, according to President Dallin H. Oaks in the April 2021 session of general conference, “We should learn and advocate the inspired principles of the Constitution. We should seek out and support wise and good persons who will support those principles in their public actions. We should be knowledgeable citizens who are active in making our influence felt in civic affairs. In the United States and in other democracies, political influence is exercised by running for office (which we encourage), by voting, by financial support, by membership and service in political parties, and by ongoing communications to officials, parties, and candidates.”28
The Church’s General Handbook also includes several relevant statements related to the “Political and Civic Activity” of its membership:
Church members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs. In many countries, this may include:
- Joining or serving in political parties.
- Providing financial support.
- Communicating with party officials and candidates.
- Participating in peaceful, legal protests.
- Serving in elected or appointed offices in local and national government.
Members are also encouraged to participate in worthy causes to make their communities wholesome places to live and raise families.
In accordance with local laws, members are encouraged to register to vote and to study issues and candidates carefully. Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties. Latter-day Saints have a special obligation to seek out and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise (see D&C 98:10).
The Church is neutral regarding political parties, political platforms, and candidates for political office. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. Nor does it advise members how to vote.29
In all cases, these statements refer to both men and women, even though significantly more men serve in public roles than women do.
In the early days of the Church, however, and even up through the 1970s, women of the Church played a particularly strong public role in efforts advocating for women, families, and related initiatives. In fact, they were encouraged and supported by Church leaders to do so. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, a book published by The Church Historian’s Press, is particularly useful in providing context. In the introduction, editors Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook write: “Like women elsewhere in the United States, Latter-day Saint women claimed a role in the political process. In part because of cultural backlash against the practice of plural marriage, contemporary writers often derided Latter-day Saint women as weak and mindless. Mormon women therefore had particular motivation to demonstrate their eloquence and strength, which they did in ‘mass meetings’ where they defended their faith and sought the right to vote. They also participated actively in national women’s groups and by the late 1800s were regular speakers at national conferences of women’s organizations.”30
Chapters in the book highlight women who not only believed in the importance of women’s engagement in politics and government but also acted on those beliefs. For example, one chapter discusses the 1893 Services of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA), which was an evening session of the World’s Congress of Representative Women held in Chicago. “Speakers included Elmina S. Taylor and other members of the YLMIA general board, addressing such topics as literature and art, the legal and political status of Utah women, and education.”31 In another chapter, Sarah M. Kimball is highlighted as an advocate “for the equality and rights of women, including promoting women’s suffrage in the 1870s and 1880s in Utah.” It is noted that she participated in the “National Council of Women, which coordinated efforts of various women’s rights organizations.”32 Another chapter highlights a speech from Belle S. Spafford, ninth General President of the Relief Society from 1945 to 1974, given at Brigham Young University in 1975. She spoke of the “record number of experienced, qualified, dedicated women” who ran for public office that year and won.33 Women’s involvement in good government was important to Spafford and other leaders of the Church throughout its history. The Church has a powerful history of women being advocates for important causes and, particularly in the early days of the Church, running for and serving in government. Yet, in Utah at least, Latter-day Saint women’s visible energy, excitement, and engagement have waned through the years, based on state data and anecdotal evidence.34
Overall, Church leaders have clearly articulated the need for women (and men) today to learn and advocate the inspired principles of the Constitution, engage in the political process, add their voices to the public debate, organize political discussion groups, vote for honorable men and women, encourage good people to enter politics and work to help them, run for public office at any level of government, financially support candidates and political parties, and be knowledgeable citizens who are active in making their influence felt in civic affairs. This is equally important for both women and men.
Challenges for Women
Any productive dialogue about women and government should include a discussion of gender-specific barriers and challenges, particularly as they relate to women who run, serve, and advance in political and government settings. This section will highlight only a few of these common challenges, with a focus on religious contexts.
First, the lack of developmental opportunities for women in the Church does not prepare women to serve in government leadership and political positions at the same level that men in the Church are prepared. In a recent study of the leadership development gained by women serving full-time missions for the Church, more than four hundred returned sister missionaries expressed their thoughts regarding the optimal opportunities for growth and development they could have been offered while serving.35 Although most women who responded said their missions did prepare them to lead at some level, they said that most elders had much greater preparation. For example, sister missionaries asserted that they needed substantially more opportunities for leadership roles. Many participants also mentioned unequal or unfair opportunities or treatment—either directly or indirectly—that limited their growth. Respondents stated they would have liked the chance to take workshops on confidence, gender challenges, communication, and management, to name a few, and to receive formal leadership training, whether they were in a leadership role or not. They also wanted more opportunities for developmental relationships, since they typically did not feel they had the same types of opportunities that the elders had to be coached, mentored, and sponsored by those with influence. Although the study focused on returned sister missionaries, it provides insights that may be applicable for women in other Church settings.
Second, groundbreaking national research by Drs. Chris Karpowitz, Jessica Preece, and Olga Stoddard at Brigham Young University found that even when women have a seat at the table, they do not necessarily have a voice.36 These researchers found that in groups of mostly men, women are seen as less authoritative and influential, are interrupted more than men, speak up less often, and when they do, they are not listened to as much. When this happens, the value that women can bring to decision-making and problem-solving is substantially diminished. In addition, they found that women worried more about the reactions of others if they were to speak their minds, because their doing so has been found to violate gender norms. In terms of solutions, the researchers spoke of the positive impact men can have when they support a woman’s statement when she does speak up. However, the researchers emphasized the importance of changing the environment, not the women. In organizations and societies that are more patriarchal—including in the Church and other religious environments—these concerns for women are amplified.37
Third, in religious settings, scholars have found that political attitudes and behaviors are shaped by cues from religious leaders, doctrinal worldviews, social networks within churches, and religiously derived opinions that are reinforced within congregations and communities.38 These attitudes often include underlying and often unconscious beliefs that female political leaders have lower capabilities,39 that women’s leadership in the public sphere should be less valued,40 that men should have more public roles and women more private roles, and that the pursuit of policies to support gender and racial equality is not acceptable.41 Overall, scholars have observed that a majority of American church attendees receive conscious and unconscious messages, situations, and worldviews that support male-dominated norms,42 including benevolent sexism, which typically does not support women rising to positions of power and authority within and without its ranks. Two recent comprehensive studies connected religiosity and the gender pay gap, finding that states in the United States and countries around the world that have high religiosity have fewer women in political office and in influential decision-making roles in society.43 This research also found that there is more sexual objectification in religious settings, which diminishes the overall value of women.
Finally, the Utah Women and Leadership Project conducted two recent studies on the challenges of women running for and serving in elected positions, as well as the challenges related to women leaders in government.44 The top four challenges for elected women included experiencing gender bias; being subjected to public criticism, rumors, and personal attacks; meeting the time commitment; and facing the general challenges associated with running for office more broadly. For women leaders in government, challenges included biased attitudes, lack of organizational support, stifled voices, pay inequity, caregiving responsibilities, hiring and interview processes, and social exclusion.45
Each challenge is complex and needs further exploration, particularly within the Latter-day Saint culture. However, if we are aware of these challenges, women and men in the Church can provide a foundation for positive change in terms of the visible and invisible culture that encourages the aspirations and actions of men toward more public roles and women toward more private contributions. Change is good when it focuses on lifting everyone to new heights and opportunities to serve.
Women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can make a positive difference in their homes, communities, states, countries, and the world. There is substantial counsel from past and present Church leaders for women to engage in the processes, activities, and opportunities that uphold and create good government, in spite of the challenges highlighted in the previous section. As President Joseph F. Smith stated about the Relief Society in 1914, “It is not for you to be led by the women of the world; it is for you to lead the . . . women of the world, in everything that is praise-worthy, everything that is God-like, everything that is uplifting and that is purifying to the children of men.”46 As women are being encouraged to rise up to engage in important work, they are stepping into new roles that are not only leading the “women of the world,” as President Smith stated, but all people.
As women of the Church keep their allegiances and behaviors aligned with the eternal principles and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they can better contribute to good government and to the Lord. As President Russell M. Nelson stated in 2015, “I plead with my sisters . . . to step forward! Take your rightful and needful place in your home, in your community, and in the kingdom of God—more than you ever have before. . . . [I] bless you to rise to your full stature, to fulfill the measure of your creation.”47 I believe that as more confident, covenant-keeping, committed Latter-day Saint women use their voices to lead in political roles and governments around the world, sisters will have the opportunity to work hand in hand with the Lord to further his work in ways this world has never seen before. This work matters. The time is now.