It seems to be an unfortunate reality that, if I am to speak of gender issues to traditional Latter-day Saints, I must, at the outset, announce that I am not a member of Ordain Women. So here it is: I am not a member of Ordain Women. But I am a practicing and faithful Latter-day Saint who is disturbed by the depiction of the group as a small cluster of angry women who intend to usurp the positions of authority in the church. I’ve come across too much of that kind of rhetoric over the past few weeks to remain silent. And so I decided, in preparation for the 184th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which will be held the first week in April, I’d share with you my observations about what today’s LDS feminism looks like from where I sit, which, admittedly, is the cheap seats of the organizational hierarchy. My focus will remain on female ordination even though Ordain Women, as well as LDS feminists outside that group, have an interest in other women’s issues.
What Today’s LDS Feminism is NOT: There is a certain blog post that is being recycled this year, The Mormon feminist protest: And why I won’t be there, which I’m seeing championed by a few of my friends. There is much to love about the post and the woman who writes it. She is a strong, career-minded Latter-day Saint mother who values innate, divine gender differences and swears to defend them. But she is incorrect in her assumption that today’s LDS feminism is about overpowering the authority of men and the devaluation of femininity. Today’s LDS feminism is not a reincarnation of Sonia Johnson‘s angry, accusatory feminism of the late 1970’s, and it looks nothing like the militant feminism of Gloria Steinem and NOW. I think it would be wisest for all of us to take a deep breath … and then take the time to get to know who these women are before we judge them with false assumptions or assign them nefarious motives.
Ordain Women as Faithful Members and Followers of Christ: In order to get to know these people, we first need to recognize what most of us “know” about Ordain Women comes through someone else’s lens. If you want to understand them, you should meet them. Maybe you can’t visit with these moms (and dads) on a park bench while your kids play together, but you can visit the Ordain Women website and click on any of the many profiles on the home page to learn exactly who they are. You won’t find a group of raging women who despise their femininity. You will find women who stay at home with their children, as well as women who are employed outside the home. You will read many testimonies that are as full of faith as your own. These aren’t whiners. These are competent, loving, and, for the most part, practicing Mormons–women and men–who aren’t trying to steady the ark or disavow the divine nature of women. Maybe they think differently about certain cultural practices stemming from doctrine than you do, but they are hardly rabid, hardly the sometimes disrespectful pro-ERA feminists of the late 1970’s who angrily shouted out their refusal to sustain leaders at bygone General Conferences. Today’s LDS feminists don’t “rattle cages;” they stand quietly in line for admission to a priesthood session they are freely allowed to watch on taped delay later. They aren’t nailing demands on the door of the temple; they are reverently entering through it and performing the same ordinances you are. They aren’t much different than the rest of us. Their desire is to become one with God.
Of course, they are individuals with individual motives and experiences. There is no cookie-cutter member of Ordain Women. And certainly the perpetuation of the image of Ordain Women members as trouble-makers and complainers has no universal application. Rather most, like Christ, stand at the door and knock. Please take a minute and read a most thoughtful post, The Importunate Women: Faithful Activism and Questioning in a Gospel Context, by Mahonri Stewart. Like me, Stewart is not a member of Ordain Women but his efforts to behave in a Christlike manner have driven him to seek an understanding of who they are and what they hope for. Although his title is a bit academic sounding, the article he writes is beautiful. Don’t miss it.
But again, in reading Stewart’s post, you will be hearing about LDS feminists from an outsider’s perspective. Therefore, I direct you (in addition to the Ordain Women website) to Jana Reiss’ post, I’m a Mormon feminist, not an anti-Mormon protestor, over at Religion News Service. Reiss is not a member of Ordain Women, but identifies as an LDS feminist. In her post, you will discover a voice in the middle of long-suffering, not one filled with anger. You’ll read about how it feels to have the church you love and sustain (yes, sustain) park a garbage truck between you and the entrance to your church, as if you were about to go rogue and use your girly Ninja skills to force your way in and wreak spiritual mischief. Or how it feels to have the Public Relations department (hardly the source of doctrinal discourse) publicly relegate you–a believer and practicing Latter-day Saint–to the Free Speech Zone, an area where those who despise Mormonism congregate to disrupt, dissuade, and cause disharmony. Many LDS women, inside and outside of Ordain Women, feel the sting of being broadly mischaracterized.
The Historical Evidence for Female Ordination: And lest you don’t make it to the end of Reiss’ article, I offer a quotation that will likely surprise most. She writes in the linked post. “Many of us [in Ordain Women] don’t support full ordination for women but seek smaller changes within the existing structure of the Church.”
For a number of the members of Ordain Women, the desire is not to preside in authority, but raise awareness of gender issues in the LDS culture and, perhaps, to instigate a return to the teachings of Joseph Smith on the subject of females and the Melchizedek priesthood. Yes, return. Most LDS don’t realize that, just as Joseph Smith ordained black men to the priesthood, he also saw to it that women were bearers of the priesthood.
I personally know Mormons who avoid studying early church history with any depth because they fear what they will find. But at the recent Church History Symposium, President Dieter Uchtdorf stated, “Learning about the real struggles and real successes of early Church leaders and members is a very faith-promoting process for me. We always need to remember that transparency and openness keep us clear of the negative side effects of secrecy or the cliché of faith-promoting rumors.” If you are not aware of the historical basis upon which Ordain Women is built, I direct your attention to the work of the eminent LDS historian, Michael D. Quinn, or, more specifically, to his essay, Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843.
Even if you accept only the lens provided by the modern patriarchal rhetoric on the subject of female ordination, surely, after reading this, you will have a clearer understanding of why Ordain Women exists. Their motivation, as they see it, is not to change doctrine but to return more fully to a doctrine taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Early LDS women were, in fact, seen to hold some level of priesthood. They did bless the sick. The facts are, early LDS women were considered priestesses and holders of the Melchizedek priesthood on their own accord by the Prophet. After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, the rhetoric began to shift. I suspect many practicing Latter-day Saints who see themselves as the keepers of the Victorian morals most of the western world has rejected need the occasional nudge to remember just how radical Mormonism is. In an era when no woman held any form of priesthood, Joseph Smith was, again, a revolutionary.
And so the Ordain Women members will stand patiently outside the priesthood session at the 184th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not to agitate or disrupt, but to quietly remind members–both in leadership and not–that there are historical reasons to re-evaluate how our culture may have developed rhetoric, attitudes, and practices that may not fully harmonize the divine role of the daughters of God in mortality with the bold teachings of the Prophet chosen to usher in this last, glorious Dispensation.
Agree or disagree with Ordain Women, but remember charity–or the pure love of Christ–never fails: It never disparages; it never marginalizes; it never parks a garbage truck in front of a church door. It listens and it understands. Our duty, as individuals who bear the name of Jesus Christ, is to practice this charity toward all. To understand is to love, and to love is to understand.
“Be still and know that I Am.”