I sat in the pew, surrounded by women I barely knew and hardly understood, because that was where I was supposed to be. It was certainly not where I would have chosen to be. In a few minutes three eternally smiling, painfully sweet women would speak with pleading, wavery voices about the joy of being a woman and I would dutifully listen, searching in vain for some protein at this feast composed almost entirely of desserts. After they spoke, a usually powerful man would gently pat us all on the heads and we would go home – the other women tittering and filled, and I, hungry. To put it mildly, I didn’t see the point of Relief Society.
Or, at least so I thought. It was 25 years ago, and I was narrow-minded, perennially the “angry young man with his head in his hands” tilting against all kinds of windmills. Still, the kernel of who I am hasn’t changed much – enlisted in a battle of good versus evil and tenacious enough to tough it to the end – though I do now go more eagerly to the feast and can spot the protein being served much faster. Over the last three decades, there’s also been a lot more protein served.
I am thrilled to be a woman, but I am not a woman’s woman. I am more like GI Jane than Martha Stewart (though I certainly have no aversion to scarves or handmade jewelry or babies). When our young women went to Nauvoo to camp the year after I graduated from high school, I put up a lot of tents while the girls hugged and chattered about all the fun they were going to have, and while they stood in line for the bus home, I loaded gear. I preferred having my babies at home where nobody told me when to sit down. At a particularly trying time of my life, the Lord knew me well enough to say, “Nothing Matters But The Mission,” because the steel formed in my spine and I was then ready to move a mountain. I’ve always told my children, “I don’t mind pulling this handcart alone, but don’t drag your feet.” They quote it in unison with a grin and a hint of a salute when I even start the sentence. We aren’t anything like the orthodox family I grew up believing was the norm or ideal.
But we are ideally us, and I have so much more in common with the pioneer women who formed the Relief Society and grew its power and influence in the hostile desert of Utah than I ever imagined. My construct of true womanhood was a cultural mirage, and sadly, it interfered with my connection to an organization that could help me understand how to be a powerful and influential woman.
Last night I watched a remarkable woman teach principles of feminine leadership and was amazed at how much has changed in the last 25 years. More than ever, I can’t imagine what the world would do without Relief Society. I was especially interested in an experience, shared by President Beck, that highlights the profound power of women working intelligently together to change the world. If the leader of UN Women can take notes from the head of the 6-million-strong Relief Society, I’m pretty sure I can.
Saturday I worked for a good part of the day on an annual food drive. A lot of hands were involved. Our local Community Action organization crafted goals and strategies that will promote the greatest good in terms of long-term and short-term initiatives. They devised programs that allow the public to contribute. They collaborated with partner organizations, including United Way, the Boy Scouts, and branches of the military, with a defined and realistic contribution from each. These organizations then worked with their members to get the word out to the community about how a simple personal contribution could be maximized. A lot of people spent 5 minutes going through their pantries with a provided plastic bag to collect a few needed items, then set them out for boys in uniforms to pick up, driven by their faithful leaders. They delivered them to drop-off points, where they were loaded on trucks by volunteers and taken to a central storage facility where they were sorted. With a few staff, a hundred volunteers, and a lot of little boys, in a matter of a few hours hundreds of thousands of pounds of food were collected to feed the hungry.
At no point was any one individual’s expected contribution so overwhelming that it was prohibitive. Not one of the individuals who played a part could have created such an overwhelming store of resources to do a great good. In concert, however, the cumulative effect of a thousand small contributions is breathtaking. And the key is good leadership and widespread personal commitment within a cohesive structure any military would be proud of. That is the appeal of military leadership to this wanna-be-marine heart: communication, coordination, and accomplishment of bigger-than-life objectives.
We are all enlisted. The message that there is a work to be done with sleeves rolled up and our whole souls engaged is appealing to a great many more women than we might think. The power of a military is the intelligent, coordinated effort of multitudes of people who would never be enough on their own. If that were the vision we took to young women who are considering their value as a woman coming of age in a world with sincere problems that need addressed, I think more of them would sign up.
I would have, in a heartbeat.
I’m so glad to see the cultural mirage of ideal womanhood fading away to reveal bravery underneath beauty, courage undergirding kindness, and leadership coexisting with followership.
I am honored to be one of the few, the proud, the Relief Society. Oorah sista.
No cookies for me; I think I’d like the meatloaf, please.