Earlier this month, nearly 150 women were turned away from listening to the leaders of their church. The first weekend of October in the Mormon (LDS) Church is set apart for church members world-wide to hear messages from their leaders. The conference takes place in 5 two hour segments of speakers and music. The Saturday evening segment is called the Priesthood Session–a meeting all priesthood holding men and boys aged 12 and up are expected to attend. This year a new demographic asked to attend the Priesthood Session. Ordain Women, an activist feminist group which is petitioning LDS Church leadership to prayerfully consider the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood, arrived at the conference doors and respectfully asked for admittance. These women were turned away one by one until the doors were closed and blocked.
On October 5th, I eagerly watched Twitter and Facebook feeds in anticipation of the news of the day: would the many dear friends I had who were petitioning LDS Church leaders for admittance into the Priesthood Session of General Conference be allowed to participate? The first word I got was from Ordain Women organizer Suzette Smith’s simple status update: “They said no.”
Though I was crushed on behalf of my friends who had placed themselves in such an honest and vulnerable position to ask for this mere token of equality, I would be lying if I said this wasn’t the outcome I expected and maybe even wanted. For as much as I seek equality for myself, my sisters, my daughter, I want the Church to be transparent in how unequally it treats its men and its women–for the inequity to be fully revealed beneath the platitudes and pieties surrounding the discourse of Mormon womanhood. As I was confronted with the image of a green garbage truck blocking women from the standby line for tickets into the Priesthood session, this inherent inequality was exposed in all its metaphorical and literal ugliness. This image, and all it represents, does Mormon feminists’ work for them.
I believe the most compassionate, as well as PR savvy move the Church could have made that afternoon was to quietly and respectfully allow this reverent group of women admittance to hear the words of their revered prophet and apostles. Such a move would have offered ammunition to Ordain Women detractors who may have used such generosity as evidence of the Church’s respect for prayerful women.
But instead, Church leadership chose a course which opened wounds and stifled hope. Poring through the photographs of women’s faces taken in the moment they were being turned away will stay with me for years. In each face one could see hope, fear, pain, joy, power and purpose. Each face, one after another, was looked into and turned away by a church official. The image of an entire congregation of women watching as fathers and sons dashed by them into the conference center, averting their eyes as though avoiding sin, will haunt me.
And I believe these images will continue to haunt all of us in ways that will both enervate and empower. The exposure of one more symbol of inequality will do more for the cause of Mormon feminism, and the Ordain Women movement in particular, than if those sisters had been quietly ushered in to participate in a rather forgettable church meeting.
To the members of Ordain Women I say, yes, the Church said “no.” But YOU made them say it. And that’s saying something!
Aimee Hickman is a graduate of the University of Utah and the Co-Editor In Chief of the Exponent II magazine, a publication which has been sharing Mormon women’s experiences since 1974. Aimee currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and three children.