I’ve struggled with women’s role in the Mormon Church for more than 15 years, my entire adult life. The internal conflict and unanswered questions have been a consistent source of friction with my church involvement. The discontent waxed and waned depending on the ward, my own searching, my assignments, or the priesthood leadership.
I operate from a realm of glorying in women. I believe, from knowledge and spiritual experiences, in doing right by women and children. I’ve learned of and see women’s oppression and believe in change – such change is a process and requires being active. I believe in equality for women, where experiences and opportunities are equal. Equality for me means women are supported in doing and being what works best for them. I believe in women’s choice and the empowerment that comes from owning your choices and the natural consequences. I recognize that my belief system won’t work for everyone. But it completely works for me. I’m not looking to change my belief system. Rather I am working to change my world and lifestyle to fit within this paradigm.
A few months ago I committed to fully explore my angst with women’s role in the Mormon Church. I was nudged forward in this quest by simple but unanswerable comments from my children. My six-year-old daughter complained, “It is better to be a boy!” When asked why she explains “Only boys can be the President, the prophet or pass the sacrament.” I know the church sanctioned responses but I am unable to pass the vague one-liners and untruths to my kids. I replied, “One day a woman will be president and you will come with me to vote for her. Women were prophets and I’m not sure why we’ve stopped talking about and looking for them.” I was stumped in responding to her observation of the sacrament. No plausible explanation came to my mind. Another day my five-year-old son proudly tells me “It is better to be a boy because you can pee standing up and when you get bigger you get the priesthood.” I’m aghast to consider the priesthood (governing in the church and home, access to inspiration, the powers to act in God’s name) as such an entitlement. Clearly the rift between what I know and what my children have learned is larger than I had realized.
Changes for Women in My Lifetime
I have been waiting with faith and hope my entire adult life for change. I’ve been active in the church with the knowledge that women’s roles should be different and therefore change would come. However, an analysis of the changes for women in my lifetime shocked me. The results: 1) Women allowed to pray in sacrament meeting (1978) 2) Married women allowed to go to the temple without their husbands (1978) 3) The temple ceremony changed from women “obeying” their husbands to women “following” the counsel of their husbands (1990) 4) The Proclamation on the Family (1995) 5) Standards for women’s grooming (2001)
Much of this change is not progressive and the sights not on equality. Change and progress are critical for growth and personal improvement. Equality does not mean “sameness” or putting male expectations on females. Equality is the expectation and the support for women to be whom they are, who God made them to be. Christ aptly modeled equality in his teachings, parables and interactions with women while gently going against the cultural norm with Godly behavior toward all humans.
Women’s Sanctioned Roles
The cookie cutter approach, with narrowly prescribed roles, doesn’t fit for every woman. I see the rejection of women in their “other” roles as many women struggle with situational and clinical depression, women living in situations other than the preferred nuclear family, women who work outside the home, and women unfulfilled by motherhood. The Proclamation on the Family is a rigid and exclusionary pattern for family living. I watch women struggle with the defined roles. I struggle myself. At times the struggle lands women squarely within the church defined measures of success. Other times the struggle results in depression, marital conflict, feelings of inadequacy and lack of fulfillment. There is little comfort for women who are single, celibate lesbians, and/or childless. The simple injustice that the sanctioned role for women is not inclusive for all women is profound for me.
Doctrine and Culture
Over the last decade and a half, one of the common responses to my angst about women has been, “Yes, but are you concerned with doctrine or culture?” In reality, both the doctrine and culture are offensive. The omission of discussion regarding the cultural tendency to oppress women speaks loudly. A culture that thrives under a patriarchy isn’t inclusive or progressive. Doctrine that requires perfection would support a culture that is open to change, growth and betterment.
Assuming the culture, not doctrine, is the problem there is no avenue or mechanism for advocating for cultural change in breadth or depth. Additionally, as the Mormon Church is a “way of life” church, members sign up for both culture and doctrine even though there can be discrepancies. For many members the difference between the doctrine and culture is indiscernible.
Culture aside, there are significant deficiencies for women in the doctrine.
Women and the Temple
One consistent reason for remaining a part of the church through my various bouts with angst was the possibility to be with my family forever. However, to fully explore the angst, I have to admit aloud that there are doctrinal issues with the temple.
The Second Article of Faith says we will be punished for our own sins. And yet in the temple film after Eve lowers her eyes when chided by God, women must covenant to follow their husband’s counsel as he follows God’s counsel. This is problematic at face value. There is the discrepancy in the doctrine. Plus the lack of allowance in the covenant for women who are single, married to non-members or temple non-attendees, married to jackasses, or widows. This covenant further enforces the notion that only/primarily men communicate with God.
Furthermore, how does this telling of the Garden of Eden story reconcile for those who feel Eve was framed or that the story is part of the bad Bible translation. Or those who take an interpretive view of the Garden of Eden story much like the church has taken an interpretive view of the rest of the creation story, i.e. a day really meant a period of time, not 24-hours. The credibility issues of the Book of Abraham further complicate the Garden of Eden story.
Another paradox is the notion that women hold the priesthood in the temple. While whispered among liberal minded Mormons, this doctrine is never taught in church, general conference, missionary discussions, the Ensign or even priesthood lessons. President Hinckley and other General Authorities do not acknowledge women holding the priesthood when questioned by the media about the exclusionary male priesthood.
If indeed women hold the priesthood in the temple, it is held and practiced in secret. Why are we ashamed? Other priesthood functions are boldly performed and even offered to non-members such as the healing blessing or grave dedication. This women-priesthood is only held near the temple bathrooms. One is not allowed to hold this form of women priesthood while having young children as women are forbidden to be temple workers during this time of life. This woman form of priesthood is not something women are set apart to do, nor are they sustained by their peers. There is no Sunday instruction for this woman form of priesthood. Women early in this dispensation were encouraged to use their priesthood for healing blessings and ordinances inside and outside the temple (Joseph Smith, History of the Church: Volume 4, pages 602-603.) Early women leaders were told and believed that they were building up a women’s organization after the same pattern of the priesthood. It was not until the 1900’s that women’s autonomy was denied and the presiding authority of the Relief Society usurped.
The process for getting to the temple is problematic for equality minded members. It is male priesthood leaders who determine who is worthy to go to the temple and to become one of these woman holders of the temple kind of priesthood. To enforce this practice of males determining worthiness, a male temple worker checks each temple recommend at the door.
Women and Polygamy
A discussion of the temple must include polygamy. The “new and everlasting covenant of marriage” or “celestial marriage” is polygamy. This is doctrine. The current living recommend policy reinforces the practice as men are allowed to be sealed to more than one woman while a divorced or widowed and temple-sealed woman is only allowed to be sealed for time. While exploring these issues, I realized that if the only way to be with my family forever was in the celestial kingdom I was in trouble as I’m not likely to feel comfortable there.
The history of polygamy deserves exploration. A tremendous amount of information regarding early church polygamy exists. My particular issues are:
- Joseph Smith manipulated women and their families. He lied to Emma. For him the new and everlasting covenant of marriage also included polyandry and over 30 wives.
- My God does not take advantage of or herd women.
- Polygamy doctrine vs. polygamy culture has never been reconciled. This may be impossible to clarify yet the church carries on with a murky history and double-standard temple practices.
- The whole notion of a group of women bowing their head and saying yes to one man, bringing him more glory, makes me uncomfortable.
Power to Act in the Name of God
If the question is “What is the priesthood?” the seminary answer is “The power to act in the name of God.” In reality, I observe two types of priesthood: The Power to Act in the Name of God (PANG) priesthood and the Priesthood Leadership (PL).
It would be great to know and identify the difference between PANG and PL. Would one say, “Welcome to the Power to Act in the Name of God Executive Committee meeting?” Or, “Thank you for coming to Sunday School. You are excused to Relief Society and your respective Power to Act in the Name of God classes.” It is nearly impossible to reconcile the difference between a young woman attending a class titled “Beehives”, while an emotionally less mature 12-year old boy will attend his Aaronic Power to Act in the Name of God class.
Is it the PL or PANG that determines all worthiness? Which deposits the offerings, takes sacrament attendance, counsels, extends callings, calls people to repentance, decides the boundaries of wards and stakes, runs BYU (if there were a female president of BYU would she be called Sister or President?), organizes missions, leads LDS Social Services and church welfare at all levels, signs the food orders, etc.
Why call it PANG or PL when it most often materializes as patriarchy? While there is certainly patriarchy in the world, in other arenas we are allowed to speak out and find alternatives.
Although I’ve long not believed this theory, some placate themselves with the thought that motherhood equals priesthood. In the same pattern as putting women on a pedestal, this notion marginalizes fathers and diminishes the majority of women’s lives that are not spent in active parenting. For women who are unable or choose not to have children, the equation is terribly lopsided.
Church history is replete with sanctioned women’s Power to Act in the Name of God. Open teaching and practicing of women-delivered healing blessings is documented in church history. I don’t need women’s PANG sanctioned. I have profound experiences with contemporary women who make holy, sanctify and consecrate. I know it happens and I revel in it. I will be utterly happy and giggling with glee if my kids grow up to glory in it. The bottom line is women don’t need to be given PANG by the laying on of hands, and it is certainly not a power exclusive to men.
What then of women and Priesthood Leadership? I don’t care to run a ward, sign checks, pass out the worship program, or determine other’s worthiness for such activities. But the fact that it requires a penis to qualify is stifling. I want my kids to see women in leadership roles. I want my views and my kids’ needs represented at every level. I want single moms, lesbians, grandmas, mentally ill women, handicapped women, etc. represented in my church’s goals and activities. While men can certainly represent women’s needs and vice versa, having all the stakeholders at the table holds participants accountable for their words and deeds. The loss as a result of excluding women from leadership positions is incalculable. With inclusion, the potential is grand.
Abuse of PL power is overt and covert. Abuse of power happens because there is no differentiation between PL and PANG. If there is an opportunity with low probability of consequence there are those who will abuse. When we give power to an individual and don’t arrange a mechanism for quality control, there will be negative consequences. Let this kind of machine run for over 150 years and serious problems will fester. The abusive events are endless and fill volumes of published books, journals, and “silent notes taken” when the stories have never been told. Exclusion adds to the mystery, secrecy and implied power of PL both in church leadership and within the home. Meaningful inclusion of women would lessen the opportunities for abuse, broaden the pool of leadership participants, and add a level of accountability that is now absent.
God’s One True Church on Earth and How to Untwist the Pretzel
Believing I belonged to God’s one true church, I have felt pressure to conform, to participate, and to excel. While I’ve long known that my friends of other faiths would not be excluded from the presence of God, I felt required to complete my current path. I’ve carved a niche for myself, believing in parts and quietly dismissing others, all the while keeping much of my personal and church lives separate. My recent exploration along with melding the daily with the spiritual has been like untwisting from a pretzel. Or what it may feel like for a butterfly to first flap her sticky, new wings.
The problem is not whether I can carve a niche for myself or if I could teach my children to follow PANG/PL. I could teach my daughter to be submissive (but call it liberation) and bow her head. Feasibly, that can all be done. But being the parental bridge between my children and various forms of truth would be tricky, exhausting and possibly futile.
Ultimately I believe in inclusion and equality. I don’t believe in culture or doctrine that is not inclusive. The gospel and church should work just as well for the weak as the strong. The true Power to Act in the Name of God will protect (not just in word, but in daily deed) and represent all of Mother’s children. While the church-defined role may work for many women and some women feel liberated by the doctrine or culture, I am morally opposed to the exclusive belonging and requirements that do not work for all women. This is counter to Christ’s teachings and my belief that Heavenly Father and Mother want each child to return.
Why now? I want to give an inviting, inclusive and advocating legacy to my children. Establishing this legacy and gently handing off to the next generation may not be possible while twisted in a pretzel.