New Wave of LDS Feminists Speak Up, Ask for the Priesthood
With a number of online petitions, a Salt Lake City gathering, and the launching of websites and social networks, a new wave of LDS feminists are raising awareness about women’s issues on a scale unprecedented since the 1970’s.
The Ordain Women movement was launched with a gathering held at the University of Utah on 6 April at 6 p.m.—the same hour as the general conference priesthood session. Some 100 women and men attended the event, which included presentations by Kate Kelly, Lorie Winder Stromberg, Margaret Toscano, Debra Jenson, Hannah Wheelwright, and Mary Ellen Robertson.
“I am convinced that Joseph Smith saw the restoration of female priesthood as part of the restoration of all things,” Toscano told the audience.
Kate Kelly, an active Mormon and human rights attorney from Washington DC, told Religion Dispatches that she helped organize the new group “because women in the church give countless hours of service and still we are severely underutilized.”
“In seeking ordination, we seek a greater role in service to our faith,” Kelly said. “Our movement is an act of faith in the Mormon Church—our leaders, our community—that the institution can be more inclusive.”
The website OrdainWomen.org explains that the movement “aspires to create a space for Mormon women to articulate issues of gender inequality they may be hesitant to raise alone.” The site includes profiles posted by 100 women (and some men) who explain why they support women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Authors such as Margaret Toscano, her husband Paul, and historian D. Michael Quinn have argued that LDS women have held the priesthood since 1843—the year Joseph Smith established the endowment ceremony for both men and women.
According to the recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a solid 48% of LDS men favor women’s ordination, but only 10% of LDS women feel the same way (See Sunstone, March 2011: 70). The Community of Christ, organized in the 1860 by Latter-day Saints who didn’t emigrate west, has been ordaining women to all the offices of the priesthood, including apostleship, since 1984.
Not Just about the Priesthood
Though Women’s ordination is the most controversial, it is not the only issue to which this new wave of LDS feminists wants to bring attention. A growing number of active Latter-day Saints believe that there are many church roles women could serve in that wouldn’t require ordination.
Neylan McBaine, a creative director at Bonneville Communications and founder of The Mormon Women Project (MormonWomen.com) believes that there are many actions stake and ward leaders could take to empower Mormon women in what she calls “a cooperative ministry.” At the 2012 FAIR Conference, she proposed that male leaders could, for instance, appoint a woman as sacrament meeting coordinator, invite the presidencies of the stake auxiliaries to sit on the stand during stake conference, and more frequently invite the ward Relief Society president to the priesthood executive committee (PEC) meeting.
In August 2012, Hannah Wheelwright, a BYU student majoring in political science and minoring in women’s studies, launched Feminist Family Home Evenings in Provo, which attracted as many as 35 people. Her local group evolved into the Young Mormon Feminists project (YoungMormonFeminists.com), with six groups in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Washington DC.
One week after Ordain Women was launched, Wheelwright wrote an editorial in the Provo Daily Herald saying,
Imagine if your sister, a professional accountant, was able to serve as ward clerk. Imagine if your teenage daughter was invested in just as much as your teenage son. Imagine if you could feel a deeper connection to your Heavenly Mother. Imagine if that teenage daughter could discuss sexuality issues with her Young Women’s president instead of alone in a room with her older, male bishop. Imagine if your mother’s hands could join with your father’s upon your head to give you a blessing.
Envisioning the Heavenly Mother
Mormon Feminists are also concerned about the implicit and explicit messages in LDS publications, the use of sexist and non-inclusive language, and silence around the LDS doctrine of the Heavenly Mother. According to Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven “presents a conundrum for the Utah-based faith.”
“While more talk of God the Mother would appeal to some potential converts yearning for more female recognition, it might become entwined in the push to ordain women or in feminist politics,” Stack wrote on 10 May. “Yes, it would underscore Mormonism’s uniqueness, but it also could turn off those who come from traditional Christianity, allowing more outsiders to view Latter-day Saints as non-Christian.”
Sponsored by the Mormon Feminist Action Board, the We Are Daughters Project (HeavenlyParents.
WordPress.com) is challenging Latter-day Saints “to re-imagine the Young Women Theme, which is recited each week by the young women of the LDS church.”
The opening line currently reads, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him.” The We Are Daughters Project would like it changed to “We are daughters of our Heavenly Parents, who love us, and we love Them.”
A historic milestone for LDS women occurred on 6 April, when, for the first time in Church history, a woman was asked to pray in general conference. Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the Primary General Presidency, offered the benediction at the conclusion of the Saturday morning session. This was interpreted by some observers as a direct response to the petition, “Let Women Pray in General Conference,” which a group of Mormon feminists launched last January (Sunstone, March 2013: 61).
Also during general conference weekend, LDS leaders announced that they will enhance the role of mission presidents’ wives and some sister missionaries with the creation of mission leadership councils, which will replace old zone leader councils and include some women. Sister missionaries have typically worked under district and zone leaders who are always male and frequently younger than they.
However, on 5 April, the Church public relations department posted to the LDS Newsroom a 15-minute interview where the general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women’s organization, and Primary asserted that LDS women seek the “blessings and power” of the priesthood, but not its authority.
“Most of the women, I think, in the church are happy to have all the blessings,” says Relief Society President Linda K. Burton. “That’s what matters most to them, and it doesn’t matter who holds that umbrella. They’re happy to let someone else hold the umbrella because we have different, complementary roles and are happy with that.”
The Ordain Women movement received national attention and coverage from Utah newspapers and TV channels—with one glaring exception: LDS-owned media outlets. The Desert News and KSL5 covered neither the initiative nor the University of Utah event.
A statement by rape survivor Elizabeth Smart suggesting that LDS purity lessons discouraged her from escaping her abductors received wide media attention and unleashed a controversy about the way Mormons teach chastity to youth.
Smart, who at age 14 was kidnapped and sexually abused for nine months, attended an event at John Hopkins University on human trafficking where she recalled a “school teacher” who compared losing one’s virginity to being a chewed-up piece of gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum; you throw it away,’” said Smart, now 25 years old and married. “And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” she continued. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
Mormon author Joanna Brooks, who grew up hearing similar object lessons in the Young Women’s program in California, acknowledges that current LDS youth manuals “reflect a steady effort on the part of LDS Church leaders to revise out especially punitive messages about sexuality,” but also notes that “old teachings die hard.”
“Sexual morality object lessons featuring spent chewing gum, or molested flowers, or damaged cupcakes have indeed been taught in Mormon homes, on Sundays, and in Mormon-saturated cultural contexts,” Brooks lamented on Salon.com.
After the story about Smart’s remarks broke, Dialogue editor and blogger Kristine Haglund posted a petition challenging Church leaders to immediately “fix” a youth manual given to all young women.
“The very first scripture girls are required to study in their Personal Progress work on the value of Virtue is Moroni 9:9, which describes young women as having lost their virtue by being raped,” Haglund wrote on ByCommonConsent.com. “That scripture reference needs to go, NOW. And we need to start explicitly teaching that this scripture reflects a cultural mistake among Book of Mormon peoples in their understanding of virtue, one which fails to properly apply the principle of agency and denies the power of the Atonement.”