A Sea Change Towards Women’s Ordination by Mary Ellen Robertson

If I see a flaw in contemporary Mormon feminism, it’s that we haven’t ventured outside our own religious community to partner with other religious feminist activists. Working separately or in ignorance of the work already done by other religious feminists, we’re more likely to spend time reinventing the wheel than building upon the lessons learned.

Fortunately, there’s an exciting shift afoot.

Last week, Catholic and Mormon women came together for a dialogue on women’s ordination.
Hosted by Claremont Graduate University, this discussion brought together six women from  patriarchal religions to explore what happens when we call an all-male priesthood into question and examine the theological and cultural assumptions upon which an all-male priesthood rests.

Karen Jo Torjesen opened with an overview of the ecclesiastical leadership roles women held in the earliest centuries of primitive Christianity.

Victoria Rue, an ordained Roman Catholic Womanpriest, spoke about the canon law cited to deny ordination to women, the need for transformation in the Catholic Church, and advocated a radical inclusivity wherein women and men and all sexualities represent Christ in a discipleship of equality.

Lorie Winder reviewed the LDS concept of Mother in Heaven, a God who wants to share spiritual authority with us, and the incongruous framing of motherhood as equal to priesthood. She asked, “Isn’t it about time to lay aside the tortured logic and rigid gender roles that keep us from seeing each other as we are: brothers and sisters, colleagues and friends, inching together toward sainthood?”

Christine Haider-Winnet talked about her call to  ministry and the questions of who will ordain her or hire her when she finishes her seminary studies and seeking a community that will nurture her gifts. Christine thanked Catholic women who are blazing trails, advocating for women’s ordination, and standing in solidarity with others who want more gender equality in their churches.

Jennifer O’Malley, who is about to be ordained a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, proposed new thinking about the sacrament: celebrating it as a gift rather than something received passively. This creates a world where the dignity and fullness of women and men are acknowledged.

My remarks focused on glimmers of women’s empowerment in early Mormon history, when Mormon women used gifts of the spirit to anoint, bless, and heal the sick. Since there’s no arena within the current LDS Church for these gifts, I feel called to nudge the church I care about to return to its more equal and inclusive roots.

Margaret Toscano called ordination the most divisive issue among Mormon feminists. Mormon women are reluctant to claim spiritual power out of concern that they’ll be seen as power hungry rather than seeing an opportunity to bring out the best in each other.

We asked “How can we help each other in advocating for ordination and expanded roles for women?”  The ensuing dialogue was momentous. Catholic and Mormon feminists share a deep love and respect for our religious communities; a common mission to advocate for practical, equitable, and inclusive changes; and a call to ministry so that women’s spiritual gifts and power can flourish and enrich the larger community.

Being aware of each other’s concerns, becoming versed in each other’s prior activism, and working together can help swing the pendulum toward equality in both traditions. This collaborative work transforms us and moves all of us along the path toward wholeness and equality.

Mary Ellen Robertson grew up Mormon in the suburbs of east Los Angeles. She attended Brigham Young University as an undergrad, which had the unintended consequence of turning her into a confirmed feminist. She earned a master’s degree from Claremont Graduate University in Women’s Studies in Religion. Mary Ellen is Interim Executive Director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Salt Lake City dedicated to independent Mormon Studies. The organization publishes SUNSTONE magazine,  holds the largest public conference on Mormon Studies–the annual Sunstone Symposium in Utah.

Categories: Catholic Church, General, Mormonism

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. I am so happy to hear of the event. The more we can support and partner with one another in the different work each is doing in our respective traditions, the stronger our feminist efforts will be. Also, with Mormonism being a tradition that is often only informed by news and headlines, it’s important to develop friendships across our traditions in order to better know and understand one another – and therefore stand in solidarity with each other. Thank you for this – wish I could have been there!


  2. I also enjoyed this post. Thanks for keeping us up-to-date about feminist initiatives in our many different traditions. I believe that we’ll get there if we persist!


  3. What I find absent from the panelist and discussion (or perhaps this was discussed?) are the women who refuse to be co-opted into a system of hierarchy whether ordained or not. I have belonged to the Catholic Women’s Ordination Conference for over 15 years, so this is not something new to me. Where I locate tension is the use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which is to say, what separates women from replicating the very institutions to which they seek to enter?

    How will the institutions be different? How do the Women-priest engage in a different paradigm of authority and how does this translate to the wider church?


    • “How will the institutions be different? How do the Women-priest engage in a different paradigm of authority and how does this translate to the wider church?”

      Those are great questions, Cynthie. I don’t know if the panelists directly answered both those questions, but they did mention that “adding women and stirring” was not going to truly fix the problems of patriarchy. I believe they envision a real transformation of symbols and liturgy when women are ordained and included in hierarchy.

      Mary Ellen, thanks so much for this summary. It was a terrific evening — it’s exciting to see feminists from these two different traditions come together and dialogue like this.


      • My pleasure, Caroline. And thanks to everyone who has commented; I think bridge building is an important part of activism.

        Cynthie, a question similar to yours came up in the Q&A/discussion. There’s definitely an awareness of not wanting ordained women to replicate the problems of patriarchy when they’re in spiritual leadership roles.

        The panel was filmed/recorded. When the link is available, we’ll definitely share it!


  4. Thank you for this wonderful post, Mary Ellen! The panel was terrific and I was thankful for the insight and experience shared by you and the other panelists. I also want to mention that Victoria Rue addressed some of what Cynthie is questioning here and discussed that women’s ordination is a step towards a discipleship of equals. As mentioned by Caroline, I think all panelists were clear that simply adding women to a patriarchal structure was not the answer. Hopefully the link will be available soon!


  5. Mary Ellen – I didn’t see any reference to Elder James E. Talmage’s statement that appeared in the 1914 Young Woman’s Journal and thought I’d post a link to it here for you and your readers – it’s titled women and their relationship to the priesthood. I look forward to your comments here or on my blog. Thanks.


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