The August Ensign reprints a talk prepared by Elder Richard G. Scott for an international leadership training session in 2004; entitled “The Doctrinal Foundation of the Auxiliaries,” the piece outlines the functions and footings of the three female-led auxiliaries. The address delivers two admonitions, the primary establishing the women’s auxiliaries’ subordinate position with respect to presiding priesthood authority, and the secondary urging the leaders of these auxiliaries to simplify and downsize the initiatives undertaken. Elder Scott reiterates in no fewer than eleven forms the undergirding and overarching charter of the women’s auxiliaries: that they “operate under the direct presidency and supervision of stake and ward priesthood authorities, who carry the ultimate responsibility for the work of these organizations” (64). (Presumably this describes the relationship of the male-led auxiliaries to priesthood authority as well, but Elder Scott specifically excludes them from this discussion, so it’s not entirely clear.)
Elder Scott’s accent on the female leadership’s subordinate administrative status (is there a more neutral term for this? I’m entirely open to a better suggestion) stands in contrast to Elder Ballard’s recent emphasis on the importance of priesthood leaders’ soliciting women’s contributions in ward and stake councils; Elder Scott mentions councils on a single occasion, and does so to stress the importance of auxiliary presidencies’ obtaining priesthood approval for their plans before execution. The two messages are not contradictory, but they do act as counterweights to one another—the one structured by a hierarchical administrative vision, the other by a vision of participatory collaboration—and, though it is of course far too early to tell, it’s hard not to wonder whether the reprinting of Elder Scott’s talk, together with the Ensign’s ongoing series on priesthood quorums, represent a the beginnings of a swing of the pendulum.
I was struck as I read the article by how closely the structural relationship of the auxiliaries to priesthood leadership—a relationship that, in this article, at least, is explicitly gendered—resembles the traditional interpretation of Eve’s relationship to Adam as a “helpmeet.” Generally (and, as I understand, incorrectly) rendered as a compound substantive, “helpmeet” to older generations suggested a sidekick, a helper, a clearly secondary—though clearly valued—assistant. In Elder Scott’s presentation, the auxiliaries’ functions are never described in terms of responsibility or prerogative, but in terms of helping, aiding, assisting, recommending and serving priesthood leaders; this, of course, is entirely consistent with the administrative structure he lays down in the article.
As the rehabilitation of Eve and the attendant re-reading of the Genesis stories have proceeded apace in recent years, the term “helpmeet” has come in for similar treatment by the Hebraists. It’s more correct, I’m told (and I have no reason to doubt it, except for its convenient coincidence with the feminist revisions), to read the term as two distinct elements: “help,” a substantive meaning something roughly like partner, and “meet,” a modifier meaning something like equal or appropriate. Thus we get Eve as equal partner with Adam, which accords neatly with President Hinckley’s egalitarian vision of marriage as a union of “equal partners.”
There’s an historical irony in all this, of course, because earlier LDS versions of the structural position of wife to husband subordinated the wife quite clearly (though never, I think, maliciously or arbitrarily), whereas earlier versions of the auxiliaries were afforded significant (though never absolute) independence with respect to priesthood authority. It was the wife, in other words, who was “helpmeet”; the Relief Society was “help meet.” To put it in terms of structure rather than semantics, the civil society that surrounded the early institutional Church—those organizations and initiatives culturally attendant upon but institutionally independent of Church authority—has been folded into an increasingly rationalized and systematized priesthood scaffold, whereas the marriage relationship has been largely decoupled from the priesthood context by which it was originally defined and ordered.
I don’t think this reversal has been a coordinated or deliberate process; on the contrary, I think both movements have proceeded independently of one another, though along roughly the same timeline. The auxiliaries’ incorporation into the lines of priesthood precedence and presiding was, of course, one of the fruits of correlation, as Elder Scott explicitly notes. (This is not an anti-correlation critique: I have nothing like the expertise to reach an independent judgment, but observers I trust agree that correlation was a necessary precursor to the Church’s international expansion—though not, naturally, without costs.) The ascendancy of the egalitarian view of marriage, by contrast, has followed the general cultural pressures exerted by feminism. The flip-flop that has resulted, though, is rather complete and, in this article, striking. Mother Eve has found a place on the front row of the Relief Society room.
(As always, I welcome comments, preferably those that presume a prevailing goodwill on the part of the Brethren toward women and the women’s auxiliaries.)