Women’s Ordination and the Mormon Church by Margaret Toscano


Me April 2011 3Caroline 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.  

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Categories: Feminism, Mormonism, Women's Ordination

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24 replies

  1. Margaret, I understand the issues for Mormon women as I married into a Mormon family, but am not a Mormon myself. That experience is one of the factors causing me to do the research and writing I have. Both my earlier book and recent eBook are about biblical material pertaining to women. My recent eBook contains biblical material portraying the feminine/masculine inclusiveness of the Deity. My earlier book has material about woman’s roles and importance in biblical times. Both might be an aid in the arguments for feminine priesthood in the Mormon Church.

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    • Thank you, Jennifer, for your comment. I will look at your book. I am indebted to women from all traditions for ideas and inspiration about possibilities for women within religious groups.
      Women like the regular contributors to this website have enriched my writings for years!

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  2. Margaret, your arguments sound so convincing. It is a shock to read you were excommunicated. It demonstrates the irrationality of the religion and the male ego when bounded up in a patriarchal activity with other male egos. One wonders why they can’t see the ridiculousness of their position, and I don’t just mean Mormons, I include orthoddox Jews, Catholics, Muslims…any organization using women for the activities of the feminine mystique (motherhood, household maid, wifely duties) while the men go play with their sticks. (My sister takes Native American kids out on weekly field trips and notices how the boys gravitate to playing with sticks, she correlates this to boys in later life picking up guns. I extend it to men with their religious objects as well.)

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    • The power of the male ego was central in my excommunication. After all the doctrinal arguments, it all boiled down to whether I would follow their authority when they commanded me to be silent. If I would not follow their priesthood leadership and stop speaking about women’s priesthood and spiritual power, I was an apostate.

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  3. Go Mormon feminists! The world needs more women like you. Times are changing, Women are rising up, and the world is listening.

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  4. Margaret —

    Thank you for this well-argued post, and, more importantly, for your bravery in the face of a recalcitrant patriarchal old guard.

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  5. Margaret: it is so interesting how your issue is exactly the same in (my) catholic church. Can you tell me: in Mormonism, do you have to accept the story in Genesis 2 as literal truth? Why? Because this is where the discrimination against women comes from: the “curse of Eve”. This is such a powerful myth, that unless it is clearly retired (disavowed) I see little chance how women’s ordination can become a reality. The men in power do not want to give up or share their power – period. That is typical male behavior, sanctioned by Genesis 2, supposedly God’s word (which I have come to sincerely doubt). Would appreciate your comment. Thanks, Sigurd.

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    • Catholic and Mormon women have a lot in common, in part because of the hierarchical and centralized nature of our church organizations. In the last year I have participated in three discussions with catholic women involved in the womenpriest movement. I intend to do more because it is a helpful and encouraging coalition.
      Though Mormons tend to be literalists in regard to scriptural interpretation, Eve is not viewed negatively within Mormon theology because earth life is seen as necessary for humans to progress. Mormons believe that we were created as spirit children of heavenly parents before we came to this earth, which was a vital step toward becoming like God
      The Mormon priesthood structure finds other ways to keep women subordinate, namely the separate but equal concept. Of course leaders claim that Mormon women are fully equal, and sadly mainstream women buy into this.

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      • I accept that male and female are born with obvious physical differences. Men are physically stronger, and women are able to have children. Our physical roles in life were not earned, they just happened at birth; but spiritual qualities have to be nurtured. They have nothing to do with physical gender differences. If man’s role was sitting in the congregation, supporting women leaders who constantly talk about “the glory and the power of giving birth,” knowing they can’t have this experience, how would they feel?

        I believe in the Patriarchal Order. God the Father gave spiritual gifts to Christ for his obedience and submission to his will. Christ holds all powers over Heaven and Earth. He is the God of this world. Men, as they obey the commandments of God and Christ, get spiritual gifts for their obedience and submission. They hold to themselves, while on Earth, the spiritual gift of the Priesthood. They heal, seal, anoint, give blessing, hold the keys to this dispensation, and govern the church. Thus we see a constant theme in the Patriarchal order: those who are obedient and submissive are rewarded with spiritual powers. Yet women, as they are obedient and submissive to God, Christ, and men, hold no spiritual powers unto themselves in mortality. I have pointed out this discrepancy to many male church members, and they give me that “deer in the headlights” look. Having never considered this glaring fact, they quickly fall back upon a standard, thoughtless response. They say, “Well, women have the honor of bearing children.” Bearing children is honorable, but it is a physical, not a spiritual, gift. I think Christ’s words to the Pharisees concerning baptism can also be applied to the priesthood: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). We cannot equate a physical event with a spiritual power.

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      • Zan Paul, I’m glad to see that you are arguing from your patriarchal viewpoint for women’s rights. How you can do that is completely mind-boggling to me. Can’t you see that what you call “Patriarchal Order” is the problem when it comes to women’s rights? First of all, you assume God is Father, i.e. male. How can a woman be considered spiritual if spirit is viewed solely as male? Secondly, your hierarchy of spiritual power comes from a male God to a male Christ to a man and finally through this last example of masculinity to a woman. Even if you say that all of this spiritual power derives from submission and obedience (i.e. men must be subservient and obedient to Christ and God), you by definition view women as submissive to men. How can women have equal rights with men when they are subservient to them? How can you consider them spiritual except as a hand-me-down from their men? Obedient and submissive daughters and wives have no spiritual leg to stand on. Don’t you believe that women have their own spiritual relationship with Christ? with God? Sorry, your whole scheme doesn’t work. In fact, in my experience, women tend to be more spiritual than men — they have more spiritual gifts than men — and as a result, should have much greater say in what is happening in our churches.

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  6. There is no logic to it, so it can’t be effectively debated. It is important, therefore, to situate the male mindset against women’s ordination within the full context of the underlying bias against women, especially older women, in our society. In her writings on feminism, goddesses and world religions, Tamara Agha-Jaffar offers this fabulous rant:

    “Through the media, through popular culture, through education, through socialization, and through religion, we are told that women are unintelligent, powerless, shallow and inconsequential. […] Fairy tales are particularly effective in packaging these pernicious messages.[…] They articulate the proposition that we are totally inept at redeeming ourselves and need the muscular arm of a handsome Prince Charming to rescue us from our miserable, humdrum lives, and not coincidentally, from the cruelties inflicted on us by nasty, jealous women — women who are typically depicted as postmenopausal females. They tell us that Prince Charming will come to our rescue only if we are passive, supine, asleep, or virtually dead. And, of course, we have to be unnaturally thin, virginal, and very, very beautiful as part of the bargain.”

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  7. Margaret,

    Putting your religious arguments to the side, the basic premise for women’s ordination in the Mormon Church is that Mormon Feminist believe that with running the church along side of their male counterparts that they will make the Mormon Church not only a more welcoming church, but, ultimately, give a voice for those who are other wise disenfranchised. This is simply not true. The previous five responses to your editorial are from people who are not members of the church and by that effect do not understand the inner workings of the church or church culture quite the same way that you and I do. (I am a former member of twenty six years)

    There is really no actual number of how many people would support ordination because of the tactics that Mormon Feminist use to disengage people simply disagree with them. If one goes to any of the Mormon blogs specifically Feminist Mormon Housewives, and The Exponent, you will see what I mean. If you disagree, you get publicly flogged. comments are ignored; as if your not even in the conversation, comments will get deleted, or you are otherwise all together banned from the site, and told to leave. These are basically, the same tactics, that the hierarchy of the Church have used against members who speak against them, such as you.

    And to be clear, I don’t have a problem with Women receiving the Priesthood, I just don’t think its going to Church any better or any more inclusive basically because when people with the church have a disagreement instead of discussing, they get told to leave and they get told to leave because Church members don’t know how to handle conflict, and that is not going to change just because women have the Priesthood.

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    • Hi Sunshine,
      I agree that ordaining women to the priesthood in the Mormon Church will not solve all the problems with disenfranchisement, exclusion, silencing, etc. But it is still an important step because it at least opens the door for other kinds of changes. Right now men who hold the priesthood but don’t have leadership positions are also excluded from decision making and have little voice in how the organization operates. And if they speak out about problems in the Church, they can be punished too, as my husband was. The hierarchical, corporate nature of the LDS Church is very damaging to all members, in my opinion. I wish the Church operated more like its sister organization, the Community of Christ, where there are general assemblies, debates about issues, and actual votes, rather than the demand to simply follow and sustain leaders without question.

      Including women in the hierarchy will not automatically solve these problems, as we have seen with secular institutions for the last 40 years.Often women just adopt patriarchal models of leadership and are very punishing to other women. I just listened on NPR to some stories about Margaret Thatcher, who was both anti-feminist and autocratic. Nevertheless, we will never have different kinds of religious communities if we don’t ordain women. Such a change at least gives more people in the organization (at least half) opportunities to influence it for the better.

      Ordaining black men to the priesthood in the LDS Church didn’t immediately eliminate racism. Mormons still have a long way to go in this area; there are still no brown or black apostles. But there is much more tolerance for race differences now than there was when I was a child. We have to start somewhere.

      And of course the ability to have open discussions and to deal with conflict are important skills if our communities are going to be more inclusive and compassionate. Liberals, just like conservatives, struggle with this because it’s a human problem. I’ve been in a lot of feminists groups, Mormon and non-Mormon. Being tolerant of differences is always a challenge, sometimes even more so in these groups because they feel so beleaguered and attacked from the outside. I know many of the women in the Mormon feminist blogs you mentioned. I also know they want to be inclusive, but it’s a hard challenge. The question is always how to allow fierce disagreements without the discussion becoming nasty.

      Thanks for your comment and the important issues you raise. We have to keep talking.

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  8. Thank you everyone for your comments and support. I have been busy at work all day and am leaving for another meeting. But I will be back later with some responses to your great comments.

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  9. Margaret,
    Thank you for this. Your five responses to Mr. Nirom are spot on. It’s imperative Mormons understand the earlier more inclusive vision of women’s participation and priesthood that Joseph Smith laid out, not to mention the ideas of equality, individual agency, and Heavenly Mother that scripture and revelation have elaborated upon.

    I am now kicking myself for not mentioning your work, alongside Lorie’s, in my post. Your essay, “Put on your Strength, O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother,” was foundational for me in my own thinking about women’s ordination within a Mormon context. For those readers that are interested, you can find this at http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=1353

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  10. Just read that a woman led a prayer (the closing prayer) at the 183-year-old conference in Salt Lake City, first time in ‘memory’, the article says. It says a feminist group launched the “Let Women Pray” campaign to make this happen. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/mormons-gather-utah-semi-annual-conference-18896328
    Looks like the church is making other slight changes.

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    • Yes, for the first time a woman was allowed to pray in one of the sessions of the LDS Church general conference. Back in the 1970s Mormon feminists lobbied successfully to get male leaders to allow women to pray in local Sunday church meetings. These “slight” and slow changes have not done much to raise the status of Mormon women. And they have been held up by male leaders as a sign of how responsive and benevolent they are, which is such an exaggeration. This is why many of us think that nothing short of priesthood ordination for women has to be our campaign, because the problems are structural and deep. Of course, even with that change it will be a struggle to make women equal. As we see in other organizations, getting in the door is only the first step.

      Thanks for your comment, Thea!

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  11. I always find it fascinating how women’s spirit will always rise, despite the most debilitating circumstances! Karen Tate had an interesting show on Mormonism, Goddess and Women http://www.blogtalkradio.com/voicesofthesacredfeminine/2012/08/16/mormonism-goddess-women–mercy-for-animals

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  12. Thank you so much for this post, Margaret! I feel that many women and men—particularly among faithful LDS membership—are unaware of the doctrinal justification for ordained women and that many purposely turn a blind eye to the scholarship supporting it. I am more than ready for active LDS members to open their eyes and hearts to this doctrinal foundation so that they might at least understand what organizations like Ordain Women have been striving for, and to stop labeling mere questioning as un-Christlike and activism about legitimate doctrine as apostasy.

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