SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – When she was younger, Sharon Eubank believed she would one day marry and form the kind of nuclear family one would usually expect from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Saints in the Last days.

Today, at 58, she is neither married nor a mother but happy to embody a different image of femininity as one of the main female leaders of the male-dominated faith widely known as the ‘Mormon church.

“We need to broaden our approach and talk about family in a truly inclusive way,” said Eubank, who is both Relief Society first counselor and president of Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of the Society. church. “I think family is the lifeblood of society… but I want my experience of not living with a husband and children at this time to be recognized and accommodated.”

Although she is not the first single or childless woman to take a leading role in the church, Eubank’s example is heartening for other members during a time of growth for women’s roles in the Church. faith nearly a decade after a key change for young women in its iconic missionary force. Still, some want to see a faster rate of progress.

Political cartoons about world leaders

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This story is part of an Associated Press and Religion News Service series on the role of women in male-led religions.

While women do not occupy the leadership positions traditionally held by men, “women’s positions are broadened,” including more speaking time at church world conferences, said Kathleen Flake, expert on faith and professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Only men are in the lay priesthood of the church – ordination is prohibited for female members of the Salt Lake City-based church. Women also do not serve in the upper echelons of world leadership or in the ruling congregations.

Instead, every adult woman in the faith is a member of Relief Society, often referred to by church leaders as one of the oldest and largest women’s organizations in the world. It organizes activities primarily for female members and plays an important role in the charitable activities of the faith, reflecting the organization’s motto, “Charity Never Faileth”.

Neylan McBaine, a longtime Latter-day Saint and author of “Women in Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact,” said she wanted to see more official positions in the church created for women, and she believes that parity can be achieved without the ordination of women. , an issue that comes up often in conversations about the role of women in the church.

“Until that portrayal becomes a priority in the church, we’re going to lose the girls of this generation en masse,” McBaine said.

Over the past 30 years, the church has explored how to give women more leeway to preach and teach while remaining consistent in its core doctrinal principles, Flake said.

“Women have always had access to teaching authority and preaching authority in Mormonism,” said Flake. Yet “it is not a structure that thinks in terms of equality as similarity. So you are going to have these different roles, but nevertheless 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 United States, a move that Eubank says amplifies women’s voices around the world. Eubank said the model of church board government listens to women’s voices, sometimes in a way that pushes the boundaries in more conservative countries.

“We have made mistakes in our history and we still make mistakes, but the basis is always trying to improve,” Eubank said.

McBaine, who wants “women in the room where decisions are made,” highlighted the history of the church, noting that the wife and mother of founder Joseph Smith were involved in forming the faith.

Smith also created Relief Society, although he was killed before it really hit its stride. Smith called the organization the order of priestesses, McBaine said, and “seemed to set out a vision for a female priesthood structure that, if not put them on par with the authoritarian male hierarchy, at least defined roles and responsibilities. very specific. “

Today, McBaine doesn’t think advancements in the role of women in the church are happening fast enough, especially for his three teenage daughters.

“The idea of ​​gender in the church today is the defining issue for the rising generation because it’s the one place in my daughter’s life where they’re told they can’t do something because ‘they are girls and women,’ McBaine said.

But she pointed to advances over the past decade, including the change to officially allow women to witness temple baptisms and marriages – two key church rituals. She also praised the lowering of the required missionary age for women from 21 to 19.

This latest change, almost a decade ago, has opened the door for more young single women to go on missions and learn leadership skills. While almost all young men go on missions, historically this has been less common for women, many of whom married young and started families before reaching the minimum age.

Eubank said women make up at least a third of missionaries today and the leadership experience has a lasting impact.

“They expect this and want it for the rest of their lives,” she said. “If they belong to places that cannot hear their voices, they are 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 female leaders and discuss topics long taboo in the conservative faith, including sex, modesty, LGBTQ members and the divine in the denomination. feminine, Heavenly Mother.

“I was tired of sitting in Sunday school wishing someone would say these things,” said Card, a former model turned author and founder of the Q.NOOR temple clothing company. She became a vocal feminist precisely because of what she read in her scriptures and her experience of going to the temple each week, she said.

“I really believe I’m doing exactly what my Heavenly Parents want me to do,” Card said.

She wants to see more women speak out at bi-annual General Conference of Faith meetings and take on male-dominated leadership positions that do not require ordination.

“There is so much room for growth without having to make massive changes, which would be the ordination of women,” Card said. And even what she finally sees happening, 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’s found a role model in Eubank.

“To have an example like Sharon – a single woman who has had immense success in her career and also a tremendous leader (who) lived a full and happy life and did not constantly insist that she was single – c ‘was a wonderful example to me,’ said Card, 32, who married this year at an older age than many church members.

Eubank joined Relief Society leadership in 2017 after learning that she had been called to it by the faith’s highest leaders: her prophet and president, and her two counselors. Prior to leading Latter-day Saint Charities, she worked in the United States Senate and owned a toy store.

The most difficult time of her life, she said, came around the age of 35 when she realized that she was not going to be a mother the way she had wanted. Her circle of friends and sisters have helped her cope, and it is this sense of community that she evokes when she speaks with young women about their future in the faith.

“The greatest power is when you are 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 make an impact. “

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