(cross posted at the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent)
In a couple of different conversations I’ve had with her, Mormon feminist Lorie Winder Stromberg has proposed that many Mormons commonly perceive two types of feminists within the Church.
The first are the good Mormon feminists. These are feminists, often professional women, who may question gender roles and women’s lack of visibility in texts and leadership, but are on the whole seen as faithful and dedicated to the Church.
The second are the bad Mormon feminists. These are the feminists that are regarded as dangerous, apostate, and disloyal to the Church.
According to Stromberg’s theory, the dividing line between these two groups of feminists — the thing that makes the one group good and the one group bad — is the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
If a woman calls herself a feminist, but doesn’t focus on or talk about the issue of women’s ordination, then other Mormons are often willing to regard these women as benign, despite their strange feminist leanings. However, if a feminist does reveal her convictions that women should have the priesthood, she is automatically regarded as a threat to Mormon leadership and Mormonism in general.
I think this is a valid theory.
If one accepts this narrative, my follow up questions are these: Why does women’s ordination function as this dividing line? What is it about a woman thinking that priesthood should be available to all humans that makes her such a threat, whereas a woman questioning prescribed Mormon gender roles or a woman who wants to see an expanded space for women’s action and participation in Church is not such a threat?
I don’t know that I have a great answer to this huge question I just posed, but here’s an initial attempt. I suspect that people aren’t as threatened by women questioning gender roles or women’s lack of visibility in leadership because there appears to be wiggle room on these issues. The Proclamation on the Family, which has some of Mormonism’s heaviest prescriptions on men’s roles vs. women’s, does have that line about how individual circumstances may vary. Also, women who want expanded roles for women’s leadership have only to go back to our own Mormon past to see women who were really running their own programs, controlling their own funds, and highly visible in their callings. (How times have changed.)
However, on the topic of women getting the priesthood…. well there’s not so much precedent for that. (Though one can certainly find inspiration and hope from the way Mormon women used to talk about holding the priesthood in conjunction with their husbands, or the way people commonly perceived certain temple rituals giving women priesthood in some sense.) Women’s ordination within Mormonism is a forward thinking leap into the unknown and it questions the very structure of the Church organization. Perhaps that’s just scary to a lot of Mormons. And perhaps it also signals heresy because, unlike the questioning of gender roles, it’s a place where so few Mormon women and men are willing to go.