“Nice job taking a hit on your church by complaining about ordination. Did God discriminate against men when he gave women vaginas? Why can’t men have babies? So why can’t your daughter pass the sacrament? Or be a prophet? I guess that too must be oppression of the woman right?”
We could call this installment of Ask Mormon Girl the “Inside NBC Rock Center” edition. Because questions like these are the ones I’ve gotten aplenty after my three-soundbite appearance in the Mormons in America special.
As for the behind the scenes scoop—All throughout the process, I found the producers very kind and gracious and sincerely interested in humanizing our faith. I will say that I wish they hadn’t shown garments on television, or given quite so much time to Abby Huntsman, as beautiful as she is to watch. I wish they had included the footage they took of my family praying at our dinner table. And I wish that the three soundbites they used from the two hour interview they did with me had drawn more broadly from my description of the joys of growing up Mormon, the experience of interfaith families, and the broad-ranging concerns of Mormon feminists and not just focused in on the question of ordination and the threat of excommunication. It’s too often that Mormon feminism gets put in the ordination-excommunication box. And it’s not a comfortable box in which to live.
I worried that might happen. My gut told me so before the program aired. I even reached out to my friend Mitch Mayne, an active and out gay LDS man who also appeared on the program, to see if he was feeling okay. We were nervous nellies. And when I saw that out of the two-hour interview I recorded, the three soundbites focused on ordination, my nervousness compounded ten-fold. And then my inbox started filling up with aggressive and grouchy email from people lecturing me about how “God gave women vaginas” and therefore not priesthood. Some folks on Twitter even called for my excommunication. Just because I observed that ordination is important to some Mormon feminists. Which is factually true.
The lesson I take from my experience this week is that just raising the question of ordination brings out incredible anxiety and defensiveness and even meanness in LDS people, even though it is an honest question that women of Judeo-Christian faiths have been asking for centuries. And it is a question our boys and girls, young men and women, will come to naturally as they develop and grow and learn more about our faith tradition. My six year old and eight year old ask me this question. I refuse to make them feel that it is wrong to ask.
I’ve searched myself, and I will say that women’s ordination in the LDS Church isn’t really a driving question for me. It doesn’t cause me personal pain or struggle. I can’t remember a time when it has.
But there are many LDS women I’ve met who have told me plainly, “Yes, I think women should be ordained.” They’ve done so with a simple sense of conviction that has stunned me. Most of the women who have told me ordination matters to them are temple-attending and fully active. They’ve been Primary Presidents and Young Women’s Presidents. This question is important to women I care about and love.
That’s why when Rock Center asked me to characterize Mormon feminism, I wasn’t about to leave those women out. I told them, yes, ordination is important for some of us Mormon feminists, and that for some of us questions of decision-making and institutional participation and visibility take priority.
I find myself more in the latter camp. I can’t recommend highly enough this recent article by the Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack, in which she interviewed a spectrum of Mormon feminist activists who made an eloquent case for advancing the status of LDS women in ways that don’t center on ordination. The article even presents a list of suggestions for advancing the visibility of women in the Church without doctrinal change, including having more women speak at General Conference, appointing women presidents of Church-owned universities, allowing women to serve as Sunday School presidents, ward clerks, and in other leadership positions that bear no priesthood keys, allowing women to serve as witnesses as the baptisms of their children, lowering young women’s mission age to 19, and even including Relief Society or Young Women’s Presidents in personal interviews with young women—which personally seems like a smart idea to me.
Stack’s article also included quotes from Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and Mormon feminist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who observed that the women of the LDS Church today are nowhere near as visible and active in leadership as our pioneer and early 20th century foremothers. Before correlation put most church programs and functions under an office of the priesthood, Mormon women developed their own curriculum and managed their own budgets for Relief Society. They practiced the gift of healing by laying on of hands. They led hospital building drives. They led suffrage campaigns. By comparison, Thatcher concludes, our era is “The Great Disappearance.” When I read that, my stomach hurt.
I think we can do better. In fact, I think Mormonism is capable of providing some uniquely powerful answers to that question of women and priesthood. Gender has a uniquely powerful symbolic role in our faith tradition, and a complicated one. It’s not an issue of black and white, “vaginas” vs. priesthood. I do think LDS women hold and exercise a form of priesthood in our temples. And I think that Mormon history provides us plenty of evidence that the “men have priesthood, women have motherhood” rationale is not even faithful to our own doctrine. It’s not even correct. Last night, when I was reading my copy of The Beginning of Better Days—a Deseret Book-published collection of minutes from the first meetings of the LDS Relief Society in 1842; please buy yourself a copy and study it—I about dropped my book when I saw how and how much the Prophet Joseph talked to these early women about priesthood. He told them that the Relief Society “should move according to the ancient Priesthood,” and, yes, he “turned the keys” to them to govern their own Society. And I cheered when Emma Smith declared that Relief Society would “expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls”—that “when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief.” Her boldness was instructive and exemplary. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere in these sermons did Joseph Smith tell the Relief Society that their capacity to gestate and bear children was the equivalent of a male-only priesthood. So I don’t think that simple answer reflects doctrinal truth, and I won’t be using that explanation with my own daughters.
I think of Emma Smith’s grand sense of the Relief Society’s purpose—her bold “ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough” attitude–and I do believe that as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes LDS women today are operating in an constricted sphere of activity. In his sermon to the Relief Society, Joseph Smith himself noted that women tend to be “contracted in their views” and should be more “liberal in [their] feelings.” I wonder if in our post-Proclamation on the Family LDS world there has been a contracted overemphasis on narrowly-defined gender roles, an emphasis that doesn’t fit the reality of many women’s lives and can in fact distract us from the “extraordinary occasions and pressing calls”—as Emma Smith put it—of our times.
So starting today, I have a new definition of Mormon feminism. A Mormon feminist is a person [updated: from “woman”] who thinks that all people should have the opportunity to love and serve God with all their might, mind, and strength—regardless of gender, race, or sexuality.
That means that women and girls around the world and regardless of faith tradition will have access to the basic rights and resources (including freedom from abuse and access to contraception and education) they need in order to exercise agency and stewardship in their own lives and the lives of their families. This means that women and girls around the world and regardless of faith tradition will be able to use the full range of their skills and abilities—not just their reproductive systems–to advance the work of God on earth. And this means that men and boys, women and girls will be supported when they ask the very basic questions about God and gender that people have been asking for millennia—the questions that allow us all to disentangle human culture and philosophy from the workings of God. At the very least, no one will get shamed, or isolated, or subjected to excommunication—real, virtual, or imaginary—just for asking honest questions and factual observations.
My experience this week tells me that we’re not there yet.
What do you think?
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