United States citizens have lately been regaled with the tale of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina from the South Bronx who got diabetes at age 8, lost her father at 9, and fought her way to Princeton with the encouragement of her strong-willed mother. Her future influence on the Supreme Court remains to be seen. But President Obama believes that Sotomayor's qualities and qualifications will add empathy to the judicial philosophy of the nation's highest court. She has "a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live," he said.
In a 2001 speech at UC Berkeley, Sotomayor expounded her belief that her gender and ethnic identity affect her ability to make fair decisions in the courtroom:
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
This statement may rankle some few of those in the higher echelons of authority in the LDS Church. The Presidency of the Church and the Council of the Twelve continue to be dominated by older white males from privileged backgrounds who consider themselves capable of making decisions addressing the needs of a worldwide ethnic Church. Though I do not wish to quibble with the current established order of succession in Church leadership, I strongly believe that an underprivileged woman of color has the potential for making a quantifiable positive difference in decisions coming from the highest councils of the Church.
Since such a situation is moot, however, let us look at the effect of the inclusion of such women at the highest levels of women's service in the Church. The first champion for diversity in the Relief Society General Presidency of whom I am aware was Chieko Okazaki. Just prior to this time, efforts had been focused upon unity, uniformity and correlation, beginning with the presidencies of Belle S. Spafford and Barbara B. Smith. (Sister Smith spearheaded opposition by LDS women to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1980's.)
Chieko Nishimura Okazaki served as a counselor in the General RS Presidency from 1990 to 1997. She was born and raised in Hawaii as a Buddhist, the daughter of a Hawaiian-born Japanese plantation laborer. At the age of fifteen she converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was the first non-Caucasian to serve on a general board of the Church. She came from a professional career as an elementary school teacher and principal. Throughout her service in the General RS Presidency she was an advocate for diversity among LDS women. She often told groups of women that cookie cutters are for cookies, not for human beings, and we should not try to live someone else's life. Her messages were much beloved by LDS women who felt a bit out of place, for they celebrated diversity:
"...look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church." (Chieko N. Okazaki, “‘Rejoice in Every Good Thing’,” Ensign, Nov 1991, 88)
When Sister Okazaki was called into the Relief Society general presidency, President Hinckley counseled her that she represented an outreach across the world to members of the Church in many lands, who would see in her a representation of their oneness with the Church. He then gave her a blessing that her tongue might be loosed as she spoke to the people. When she received assignments to go among the sisters in lands where Korean, Spanish or Tongan was spoken, she spent hours working with the Church Translation Department and coaches who helped her to deliver addresses in those languages. She once gave the following example to show the difference between the doctrines of the Church and the cultural packaging:
"Here is a bottle of Utah peaches, prepared by a Utah homemaker to feed her family during a snowy season. Hawaiian homemakers don’t bottle fruit. They pick enough fruit for a few days and store it in baskets like this for their families. This basket contains a mango, bananas, a pineapple, and a papaya...they might have been picked by a Polynesian homemaker to feed her family in a climate where fruit ripens all year round.
The basket and the bottle are different containers, but the content is the same: fruit for a family. Is the bottle right and the basket wrong? No, they are both right. They are containers appropriate to the culture and the needs of the people. And they are both appropriate for the content they carry, which is the fruit." (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Baskets and Bottles,” Ensign, May 1996, 12)
Sister Okazaki, like Sonia Sotomayor, was someone whose gender and ethnic identity, as well as her personality, helped her to understand the world and the ordinary people who live therein. Because of this, she was able to contribute to Church policy accordingly.
Women who have missed the outspoken voice of Chieko Okasaki since her release 13 years ago were heartened to witness the calling of Silvia Henriquez Allred to the General RS Presidency in 2007. She is a native of El Salvador who served as a full-time missionary in the Central American Mission. She and her husband served as public affairs missionaries in Madrid, Spain. She also served with her husband when he presided over the Paraguay Asuncion Mission, and later over the Missionary Training Center in the Dominican Republic.
I am often discouraged by the lack of much of a public presence among our Relief Society Presidencies. What little public attention this new Presidency has been able to garner has centered around President Julie B. Beck's 2007 General Conference address "Mothers Who Know," which seemed to be a retrenchment in LDS thought concerning women. Recently I was mollified to hear of a fireside held in Utah for over 1500 Spanish-speaking women by Julie Beck and Silvia Allred. Both women delivered their talks in Spanish, Sister Allred speaking with native fluency, and Sister Beck aided by the fact that she learned as a child to speak Portuguese.
Surely Presidents Beck and Allred are doing much service among the women of the Church of which I am unaware. I simply wish that the few women who have higher echelon positions in the Mormon Church had more of a public voice. Just as Sonia Sotomayor is poised to make a difference in the judicial system of this country, our women leaders can potentially make a difference in the spiritual lives of LDS members. Instead, so many of the Relief Society General Presidents and their counselors fade into obscurity, and when they are released no one remembers their names or what their contributions were.