Caroline Kline’s March 26 post, “Mormons Who Advocate Women’s Ordination,” marks a new direction in the Mormon feminist movement. As she describes, the website Ordain Women was launched on March 17 by a few dozen Mormon women and men who state: “As a group we intend to put ourselves in the public eye and call attention to the need for the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood.” By the end of March, 44 people (37 women and 7 men, including a Mormon bishop) have posted profiles with photos where they describe their relationship to Mormonism and why they think women should be ordained. I understand from the organizers of this site that a number of others have submitted profiles for posting and that the site has had close to 100,000 hits. On the corresponding Facebook page, however, only 363 people have given Ordain Women a “Like” sign.
While supporters may appear to be a small group in comparison to the 14 million Mormon (aka LDS) church members worldwide, it is a significant number for a grassroots movement like this. As a Mormon feminist who has publicly advocated for the ordination of women since 1984, this is the first time I have seen more than a handful of people willing to state publicly their belief that women should be ordained. In the past, women’s ordination has always been the dividing issue among Mormon feminists. All Mormon feminists want women to have more voice in the Church, more decision-making power, more visible authority and equality. Very few have wanted to be ordained into the male-priesthood structure of the Church, though more have claimed a private, spiritual priesthood.
And yet, as I have always argued, there is no way that Mormon women can be equal to Mormon men as long as they are denied access to priesthood ordination and offices because the priesthood structure controls all resources, discourses, and practices. In some ways this issue is even more crucial in the LDS Church than in other religious traditions because the Mormon organization is based on a lay priesthood where all active boys and men have priesthood. What this means is that grown women have less practical and religious authority than their 12-year old sons.
Whereas boys from a very early age are made to feel they have been given power to act in God’s name within the community and that their talents are vital for the Church to fulfill its divine mission, girls are given the signal that they only have a supporting role. They are told that motherhood is their divine role, and that this is the equivalent of priesthood for men. But motherhood gives women no public authority, and it reduces women’s main contribution down to a biological function, which many women cannot fulfill, even if they want to. (Yes, I know that motherhood is more than that! I am in favor of motherhood, having four daughters and a granddaughter I help raise.)
Caroline outlines five reasons Mormon women, even feminists, have not advocated for women’s ordination in the past. Mr. Nirom, in the “Comments” to Caroline’s post, asserts the typical reason most mainstream LDS people give for not supporting women’s ordination: It is not God’s will, because if it were, the prophetic leaders would have told us so.
I want to give five reasons why this is not a sufficient reason in the context of Mormon theology, history, and cultural practice. First, Mormonism’s founding prophet promised the women of his day that the priesthood also belonged to them, and he began to incorporate them into church priesthood quorums the year before his death. In a series of speeches in 1842, Joseph Smith announced to the newly formed Female Relief Society that he intended to make them a “kingdom of priests,” and he instructed them that they “should move according to the ancient Priesthood.” From Brigham Young to the present church leaders, this promise has never been fulfilled; so perhaps leaders are the ones who are not following God’s will.
Second, one of the most basic doctrines of the LDS Church is the importance of continuing revelation because each age has new needs that have to be addressed. While Mr. Nirom thinks it is only leaders who can be inspired, this was not the case in the actual history of what led up to the 1978 revelation that allowed black men of African descent to be ordained (as Caroline pointed out so well). And leaders themselves disagreed about this issue for a long time.
Third, another basic tenet of Mormonism is the importance of individual agency. Mormon scripture admonishes members to use this agency to be engaged in good causes and to seek out wisdom from all sources to know the truth for themselves.
Fourth, Mormon scripture reinforces the New Testament teaching that in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.” The belief in equality is crucial for believing that God’s love applies equally to all.
And fifth, the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother, which Mr. Nirom references, is a foundation for female priesthood. This idea rests on Mormon scriptures and rituals that see godhood as the fullness of priesthood power that must include the female as well as the male; and this godly power is not about commanding others but blessing them with abundant life and a fullness of joy.
I believe strongly that women should be ordained because it is the right and just thing to do. But Mormons who know their history and theology should not be dogmatic about this issue; there is room for respectful disagreement. I applaud Caroline for her brave post, both on FAR and the Ordain Women site. I also applaud Rachel and Emily for speaking up, and all the other women and men who have posted profiles. I am deeply moved and encouraged by their testimonies. This takes courage, I know, because I was excommunicated in November, 2000, for my public advocacy of women’s ordination and my refusal to be silent on the topic. I am hopeful that the LDS community has matured to a place where such actions are not condoned and where differences of opinion are tolerated.
Margaret Toscano is an Assistant Professor of Classics and Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Her research focuses on religion, myth, and gender. She has published extensively on Mormon feminism.