“Reaching Every Facet of a Woman’s Life: A Conversation with Belle S. Spafford, Relief Society General President,” Ensign, June 1974, 14
Ensign: Relief Society often is viewed as being an organization for older women, but who, really, are the members of the Relief Society?
Sister Spafford: Relief Society is now accountable for all females 18 years old and over. If a woman is younger than 18 but is married, particularly if she has a child, then we think we would also be accountable for her. Relief Society has educational and homemaking programs, music, social activities, and recreational activities. There is no facet of a woman’s life that cannot be reached through Relief Society.
Ensign: How is Relief Society different from other women’s organizations?
Sister Spafford: Relief Society differs in many respects. First, in its organizational structure. Most other women’s organizations have elected officers, but we have priesthood appointed ones. Other groups operate under a constitution and bylaws, but we operate under the direction of the prophets. When the Relief Society was first organized, the sisters presented Joseph Smith with a constitution and bylaws. He praised their efforts but told them that the Lord had “something better” for them. Then, when the Relief Society was organized under the priesthood, the Prophet told them, “Let this Presidency serve as a constitution—all their decisions be considered law, and acted upon, as such. … The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.” (History of the Relief Society, 1842–1966, p. 18.)
That’s quite different from most women’s organizations. Although they have the best thinking of good minds to direct them, we have revealed truth. One of the differences that this makes is that we have firm answers to the problems women’s organizations encounter. They sometimes have acute competition for election of officers, but there’s none in Relief Society. A good sister could say she wanted to be the ward Relief Society president, but saying she wanted the job wouldn’t give it to her. That’s not the way calls come. Officers are priesthood appointed.
Ensign: As you look at your association with Relief Society over the years, where has the organization been and where is it going?
Sister Spafford: I think one remarkable thing is the tremendous changes that have taken place in the social, economic, industrial, and educational life of most countries in the world since Relief Society was founded. And I don’t think any change in the world has been more significant than the change in the status of women. At the time the Relief Society was founded, a woman’s world was her home, her family, and perhaps a little community service.
Today a woman’s world is as broad as the universe. There’s scarcely an area of human endeavor that a woman cannot enter if she has the will and preparation to do so.
Yet, in the midst of all this change, the organizational structure of the Relief Society, the basic purposes for which it was established, have remained constant, and the Church programs that have implemented these purposes have been adaptable to the needs of women in each succeeding era.
Through the years, Relief Society has been just as constant in its purpose as truth is constant. The purposes that were important for a handful of women in Nauvoo are still important to women world-wide. That is the miracle of Relief Society. I’ve worked in Relief Society many years, and I’m just beginning to get an insight into its greatness.
Ensign: What is the role of LDS women today?
Sister Spafford: From the Church’s point of view, a woman’s role remains the same as it has always been. A woman should give her greatest priority to her home: her husband, her family, and the opportunity to child-bearing. That is her divine mission. All women can’t have children or aren’t privileged to be able to raise a family in this life, but I think they have great potential for growth that the Lord expects them to develop.
Ensign: What is the main contribution women can make in the home?
Sister Spafford: The mother has the great and wonderful opportunity of creating a spiritual atmosphere in her home. By her teachings and, even more important, by her attitude, she teaches children what it means to love the Lord, to sustain the priesthood, and to live a rich, fulfilling life—a peaceful, orderly life that is reflected in the home itself. Can you imagine what a home would be like where the mother had the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost?
Ensign: Are there ways that a woman can contribute directly to her ward?
Sister Spafford: There are offices in the Church that women have filled traditionally where they have made wonderful contributions, such as serving as officers in the Relief Society, Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary, doing secretarial work, and teaching classes in most of the auxiliaries. But I think one of the greatest and most important contributions women make in a ward is in giving compassionate service.
I went to Bangkok silk factory one day and watched workers weave material with large colored spools of thread. Way up on top was a tiny spool with a different kind of silk thread on it, and every so often it would drop down and swing across. I asked, “What’s that? It doesn’t look like the same silk fiber.” The weaver answered, “No, it’s a very special fiber, and it gives the silk its luster and its strength. That’s what makes Thai silk so valuable.”
That’s what compassionate service does for the women of the Church, particularly the young and the elderly. It gives their lives a luster and a strength they couldn’t get otherwise.
Ensign: Do you feel that young women have a special contribution to make?
Sister Spafford: Yes, I do. They have very special talents they can make available in giving certain types of compassionate service, such as service to the aged and homebound. It’s wonderful for older women to have a young woman come in and say, “I’m going to the store. May I pick up your groceries?”, or if a person is ill, “May I write a letter for you?” Just dropping in to visit breaks the loneliness of an aging person. Even putting a few clothes in a washer and dryer can be a tremendous service. We think younger women could be a great strength to the Church in caring for the aged or ill people.
Ensign: Do you have special counsel for single parent families?
Sister Spafford: My mother was a single parent. My father died as a young man, and my mother reared seven of us. She sent her boys on missions, educated the two girls, and she didn’t work outside the home. But how she worked at home!
She taught us to work, and to save and choose carefully what we bought, since there wasn’t money for everything. But she taught us the value of what we bought in very good ways.
I recall receiving an invitation to go to a dance with the student body president in high school. I thought I was the smartest thing that ever was because I got that special date. I went home and told my mother that I had to have a new dress for it. She said, “All right. Let’s talk about the money. I heard you saying the other day that you needed some books to finish your senior year, and they’ll cost $8. I think I can make you a dress for $8 that will be lovely. Which do you want?”
Well, which would you pick? My mother let me think about it for awhile, and then she said, “I think you’d better have the dress, and maybe your brothers can help you with the books. You go and have a good time. We can’t always sacrifice everything to the practical.”
That’s what mothers can do. Of course, a mother left alone has tremendous challenges. But she also has some choice opportunities, Too often a single parent-rearing her child alone begins to feel a little burdened and sorry for herself, instead of saying, “Here is a great opportunity for me to rise to the needs of this family. We always have a bishop who can counsel us, or home teachers to help us, a Relief Society president who will show me how to make the children’s clothes. We can get busy and be an independent, strong family.”
Ensign: What counsel would you give women who are struggling with the problems of abortion, birth control, women’s liberation, and the question of whether they should work outside the home?
Sister Spafford: Women have the guidelines from the Church that they need. The challenge is to bring women to the point where they see the wisdom of those guidelines and will be obedient to them.
As far as working women are concerned, a woman must always measure the best interests for her home, her family, and her children against what she does as an individual. She should not work at the expense of her children just to satisfy her own interests.
I once gave a talk on the monetary worth of housework. Do you know how much housework is worth in a family with a husband, a wife, a young child, and a teenager? A study indicated its worth to be $8,500 annually. That is just the work that is measurable in cash value. So when a woman says that she has to work because she needs the money, she should know how much she’s worth economically in the home. The study didn’t attempt to measure the monetary worth of services such as love, security, etc.
Ensign: Is there any special emphasis that the Relief Society will be giving to different programs during the coming year?
Sister Spafford: There are three main goals. The primary goal is testimony building. What we want for the women of the Church is to have each one obtain a testimony strong enough to sustain her through every trial, because they’ll all have those trials. It was never intended that we wouldn’t. Some people have said that compassionate service is the fundamental work of Relief Society. I think compassionate service is an expression of testimony.
The second goal is to promote love and understanding among the sisters. Consider a sisterhood of 900,000 to one million women with strong testimonies of the gospel, following Church guidelines, built into a sisterhood that rises above national boundaries. The cultural refinement lessons for this year are designed to foster such sisterhood.
The third goal is to help women meet some of the practical problems of life. I think we have to teach homemaking skills—how to cope with inflation, how to cope with the high cost of living, and how to support the brethren in the illness-prevention program. Our nutrition lessons and our mini-sewing classes are designed to meet some of these needs.
We’re also moving into an expanded program in the United States of home nursing training. These are special classes organized through the Relief Society in cooperation with the American Red Cross. These home nursing skills are simple, but important: how to lift a bedridden patient without straining; how to put a person from bed into a wheelchair, or how to transfer a patient from a wheelchair into a bathtub. After they complete the course, they receive Red Cross home nursing certificates.
Ensign: How far afield is that program spreading?
Sister Spafford: It’s moving fast. We have thousands of women enrolled in the intermountain area alone.
Ensign: How would you evaluate the success of the mother education courses?
Sister Spafford: The women love these lessons. It’s interesting that the mother education courses are strengthening the Relief Society nurseries. When the mothers learn a principle of child care, they’re eager to go into the nursery and apply what they’ve learned, as they would in field training. It’s unfolding beautifully.
Ensign: Sister Spafford, in the years you have presided over the Relief Society, what principles of leadership have you learned that would help the women of the Church in their homes and in their callings?
Sister Spafford: One thing I’ve learned is that the Church offers us opportunities that often make us go beyond ourselves. I think as we conscientiously try to meet Church callings, the Lord inspires us and the Church gives us other experiences that help qualify us for our missions. I think obedience is an important thing. If you reach out, and are faithful and diligent, something usually comes along to help.
Ensign: What about the special situations women in the Church have in working with the Priesthood?
Sister Spafford: That’s the greatest blessing we enjoy. President John Taylor said at the founding meeting of Relief Society that he rejoiced that the Relief Society was founded according to the laws of heaven, which are divine laws, priesthood administered. The priesthood is government according to divine law. I’m perfectly satisfied to work under priesthood direction.
The Lord has divine missions for his daughters; he loves them and he respects their talents, abilities, and mental capacities. He assigns them to the divisions of labor according to their natures. He has placed the man at the head of the institution of the home. It must be according to the plan of the Lord. It’s as simple as that.
Ensign: Could you share with the sisters of the Church your own feelings about the gospel and the Relief Society?
Sister Spafford: I want women to attend Relief Society feeling that it is not only a privilege but an obligation. The Lord has given us something special, and we have an obligation to make use of this great gift. Membership in the Church is a tremendous privilege. Membership in Relief Society is a special privilege. There’s nothing like it for a woman to develop herself, to serve humanity, to find self-expression, to structure her own life wisely and well. It’s all in the gospel plan.