Monday, August 27, 2012

Ask a Mormon Feminist: How Do You Feel About Women and the Priesthood?

Last week my friend Mark asked me this question on facebook:

Hi Emily! This is completely random, I know. But I saw your post and I wanted to get your perspective about women holding the priesthood. It's something I've considered but never felt conclusive about, one way or the other, though part of me certainly gravitates to the idea. I guess what I'd like to know the stance you've taken and why, so I can take a step closer towards understanding the issue as completely as I can myself.

The post he referred to was an article I linked,  which describes a moderate stance on the issue of Mormon women and priesthood: no, we don't need to be ordained in the Priesthood, most women in the article argue, but we can empower and strengthen women and families by returning to practices that were once common in the church. Surprising as it may be to most people, the early days of the LDS church (or early days of the restored gospel, as those in my faith would see it) saw women more proactively engaged in the priesthood. Women blessed one another and participated when their husbands blessed their children. So these recommendations have historical evidence to back them up, though the fact that the church once did something is probably not in and of itself a reason to do said thing.

For any readers who aren't LDS, here are a couple brief things you should know to help clarify this discussion: being ordained to the priesthood is available to (and expected of) every Mormon man who is 12 or older and who is living a "worthy" life - worthiness is determined  by obeying commandments that include having no sex outside marriage and not drinking alcohol. This policy plays a role in the lay clergy of the church, as it allows for a flexibility in leadership that is revolutionary.

When asked why women are not ordained to the priesthood, most LDS people you talk to will give you one of a few answers: Men have the priesthood while women have motherhood, they may say, or men need it because they'd slack off  and women do all the work if everyone had it, or even women don't need the priesthood because they're inherently more spiritual. The only accurate answers, mind you, are "God has asked us to fulfill these roles," and "We don't know why." But people love speculating, which is why you get all the drivel-presented-as-doctrine answers.

But I still haven't answered Mark's question - what is my perspective?

My perspective is a mostly-stable jumble of contradictions. When I was younger (I'm talking elementary through preteens) I was vehement in pushing for women to have the priesthood. I probably made my poor Bishop uncomfortable with my letters, and I tortured unsuspecting Sunday School teachers by instigating arguments between the boys and the other girls in class. Somehow, they never seemed to notice that I was the instigator. My perspective changed as a result of seeing the priesthood in a different light, and to this day I have some strong feelings about the way we, as members, discuss gender and the priesthood. 

For instance, few things bother me more at church than the kind of stupid speculation I described above. One time I was in a lesson taught by another woman in the ward, where she decided to address the question of why men had the priesthood and not women. On the one hand, I suppose it's laudable that she was willing to address an issue that we often ignore. But here's what happened: she brought this up, and I raised my hand and  explained that this issue had bothered me a lot when I was younger and that what had nearly destroyed my testimony were all the speculative "reasons" people gave and that it took learning that the speculation was unsubstantiated for me to feel okay with just not knowing the reason. And she thanked me for my thoughts, before offering her speculation on how brain chemistry explained the need for this difference in male and female roles. 

Not helpful. 

Guess what else isn't helpful? Saying things like, "It's separate but equal!" First off, God does not ask for husband and wife to be separate. Quite the opposite. Second - what educated American uses the phrase "separate but equal" as if it still carries positive connotations?

Here is what has been helpful to me: no longer thinking of Mormon men as "the priesthood," and therefore no longer viewing "the power of the priesthood" as male power. I view the office of priesthood as service and obligation. Yes, it is a privilege for any man to have access to such great power, but it's a privilege in the sense any gift from God is a privilege. And if a man ordained in the priesthood wants to be blessed through the priesthood, he cannot use his own access to that force. He must go to others who have that authority. When I view the priesthood in that light, my feelings alter significantly.

Now, when people take the hierarchy that exists within church leadership and try to apply it to families to argue that husbands should be in charge, that's a different matter. I see room for official language within the church (including language in the temple) to continue evolving, to the point that egalitarian Mormon marriages are not just the norm (as they currently are, based on my experience) - but also to the point that there can be no confusion among members about the fact that contemporary Mormon leaders have instructed us to have egalitarian marriages. Currently, there are some who still use concepts like "separate but equal" to justify marriages where the husband makes major decisions with only input from the wife. Still, I don't even see that kind of family as a large minority. It seems more and more rare.

In the long term, I do believe that women will be ordained to the priesthood. Maybe not during my mortal life, and maybe not before The Second Coming, but there's pretty solid evidence in the temple to support that theory, both in the language of the Endowment Ceremony, as well as in the fact that some women have access to priesthood authority in order to administer to other women within the temple. 

In the meantime, I wish everyone would stop stating speculation on this question as if it their speculation were doctrine, and I also wish men would think twice before saying that the church is democratic because "anyone who's worthy can hold the priesthood." I know plenty of women who are worthy but still not eligible to be ordained in the priesthood. I'm not asking to be ordained to the priesthood (though if I were offered the opportunity, I'd comply in a heartbeat) - I'm just asking for a little more sensitivity in the way we discuss it. 

Update: just as I was about to post this article, I encountered Joanna Brooks's recent post in response to people who have criticized her for bringing up this issue on TV. Joanna argues that Mormons are capable of providing much better answers than the knee jerk "women have babies and men have the priesthood" we hear all too often. With her thoughts in mind, I want to clarify that I absolutely welcome and encourage discussion on this topic. But like Joanna, I'm interested in thoughtful discussion, not empty statements that are meant to shut down the question. 


  1. Emily- thanks a ton for the post, it was fabulous and I couldn't have asked for a better answer to my question. =)

    I have to say I had no clue about the priesthood access you were referring to in the temple, that was an eye opener.

    And who on earth thinks this church is a democracy? Even with the priesthood matter aside, I feel like last I read God was my king, not the two term president of some republic I was born into.

  2. Emily,
    I really admire you for bringing topics like this one today up for discussion. I feel very similarly to you--and I think it's only a matter of time. I hope sometimes for this lifetime and have faith that all God's worthy children will have access to His power in the next life.