not in Primary anymore

but they’ll never make us equal

“Feminism doesn’t mean female corporate power or a woman President; it means no corporate power and no Presidents. The Equal Rights Amendment will not transform society; it only gives women the ‘right’ to plug into a hierarchical economy. Challenging sexism means challenging all hierarchy – economic, political, and personal.” – Peggy Kornegger, “Anarchism and the Women’s Movement”

Growing up, the folk story of Mary Fielding Smith healing her oxen with consecrated oil enthralled me. To me, the story wasn’t just about the power of faith; it seemed to say that although only men held the priesthood, women could invoke the same power if circumstances were dire enough. It was a rare testament to women’s potential equality within the Church: a woman’s laying on of hands could restore an oxen to health as well as any man’s, and despite the unorthodox gender reversal, the journey towards Zion would still continue, the desert would still blossom as a rose, Mormons would still stalwartly practice polygamy, etc. It was all a great bedtime story, and it catalyzed my fascination with women’s ordination.

Also growing up, the fact that black Mormon men couldn’t hold the priesthood until 1978 enraged me. Learning about the historical erasure of Elijah Abel and Green Flake enraged me all the more. This is another story entirely, but suffice it to say that the priesthood has always been a subject towards which I’ve been decidedly ambivalent: I associate it both with subversive opportunity and institutionalized limitations. And yet, as a teenager I still found myself praying and fasting that one day, women would be able to hold the priesthood. Seminary and Sunday School teachers assured me that my cherished Mary Fielding Smith story was all wrong (apparently she asked some nearby bros to bless her oxen which is boring and disillusioning) and my religion professors bellowed against the very notion of women holding the priesthood, but my rock-solid testimony in Maxine Hanks’s Women and Authority and some MoFem blogs here and there somehow pulled me through.

Eventually, however, my Mormon feminism couldn’t drown out Boyd K. Packer et al. This is also another story entirely; in a nutshell, after my belief system shifted, I began thinking about women and authority in increasingly different ways. I’ve stopped praying for women’s ordination not only because I’m unsure there’s someone/thing on the receiving end, but also because I’m unsure assimilating women into the very system that disenfranchises them and other minority groups will be conducive to the wide-ranging equality I’d like to see in the church – and in every aspect of society. While ordaining women would have obvious positive ramifications for some, I’m more committed to the idea of de-privileging the priesthood as an institution of power and authority over subordinated others.

In a sense, there’s scriptural precedent for this. D&C 121:41, for instance, reads, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” By this logic, I’m not sure why Mormonism has such a deeply entrenched ruling elite that maintains its power and influence by virtue of the fact that they are priesthood-holding men. The female leaders in the church similarly rely on their priesthood-sanctioned power to substantiate their claims that women are first and foremost mothers and wives, or that girls are the gatekeepers of male virtue. As D&C 121 points out, the priesthood is a power easily and not infrequently abused, and the results are always detrimental.

The concept of priesthood keys, the god-given “right to preside over and direct the Church within a jurisdiction,” creates an ineluctably hierarchized system. While priesthood keys are generally associated with a centralized authority that confers responsibility onto another authority figure, it’s also important to consider this authority’s relationship with those over whom it presides and directs – those without access to high-ranking priesthood keys (which entails both women and men). Keys give individuals the authority to mediate between god – truth – and their structural subordinates; they call the shots, and their benevolent intentions cannot obscure the fact that our apprehension of truth and our sense of selfhood should not be presided over by anyone other than ourselves. Incorporating women into the priesthood as it’s currently understood will only give women the “freedom” to be competitive in an inequitable marketplace. It’s a freedom that (to quasi-quote Janelle Monáe) might add us to equations, but will never make us equal. It’s a freedom that does not sidestep institutionalized subordination, only dresses it up.

In Free Women of Spain, Martha A. Acklesberg quotes anarcha-feminist Federica Montseny’s observation that if institutionalized privileges “are unjust when men take advantage of them, they will still be unjust if women take advantage of them.” It’s tempting to idealize female power as intrinsically more egalitarian than male power – Susan B. Anthony definitely used this as a talking point in her treatises on the women’s suffrage movement – but it’s a fundamentally illusory claim. The women that the Mormon patriarchy deems worthy of institutional power are hardly any less homophobic or sexist or generally hegemonic than male leaders. The Mormon hierarchy is such that these prejudices are equated with god’s omniscient will, and the people who believe that their salvation is contingent on their unquestioning obedience to god’s mouthpieces often suffer and/or cause others to suffer. The system itself needs to change, and female representation in the system cannot do and has not done much to ameliorate it.

I still love the idea of Mary Fielding Smith blessing her oxen. That, along with the story of Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs, is one Mormon story I still have a testimony in. I still support the effort to ordain women, and I realize that this will help the deconstruction process of Mormon authority as it presently stands. And, if the priesthood is like any other traditionally male-dominated occupation, including women into it admittedly has a good chance of reducing its status.


6 Responses to “but they’ll never make us equal”

  1. Lynn in Europe

    Yes, unfortunately, current exercise of LDS priesthood is a far cry from the Book of Mormon’s description that “…the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor…” (Alma 1:26). It is not without justification that many people refer to the corporate-like church as “LDS, Inc.”

  2. Rebecca

    This is a debate I’ve been having with myself… to support something that won’t actually change the structure of the organization. After all, women can be just as cruel and malicious as men. So I’ve been asking myself, “Will women in the highest leadership positions of the church actually help it become more humanitarian or will they become shaped by the same forces the men deal with and make similar decisions so that nothing in effect changes?”
    This may also come down to whether a person chooses to belong to an organized religion or not.

  3. saturday is a special day | Young Mormon Feminists

    […] The following are several short posts with thoughts about Ordain Women from people who do not agree with Ordain Women or with the action this Saturday. I include them in this post partly because they are mostly short, and because I want to encourage discussion of Ordain Women in a way that does not stigmatize people who hold any particular opinion, for or against or anywhere in between. You can read past posts from this blog disagreeing with female ordination or Ordain Women here, here, and here. […]

  4. Abel

    I realize that you really believe that what you are doing is right and for the greater good. But even if you actually are right, which I definitely don’t believe, how you are going about trying to fix it is completely wrong. You are only helping to undermine the religion of which you claim to have such a strong testimony. If you truly believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that Christ is at the head of this church, and that He is leading it in the way that is best for the greatest number of individuals, to help them get back to our Heavenly Fathers kingdom – namely the Celestial Kingdom, where we will all live with Him again in eternal glory, then you should be ashamed that you are simply adding a stumbling block for those members who are teetering on the edge of a testimony. Those members who are still looking for the truth, or even the would be members that are investigating the church – who are so close to finding the light and truth in the gospel, they don’t need to find an internal cancer that you are helping to spread and grow. We are supposed to be missionaries for the gospel truth, and if you spent more time on that, and less time trying to tear apart the fabric of our religion, then you would find yourself filled with greater satisfaction and self-worth. You might even begin to see how wonderful you are the way God made you. If you can bring one soul unto the gospel, how great will be your joy in this life and the next?!? And if you can bring more than one soul, how much greater will be your joy, and the joy of those you helped to find the truth?!? I wonder how great your joy will be when you look back on the part you played in chasing people away, or creating a gap for Satan to place more contention – to disorient and confuse those who might otherwise have found enough strength and testimony to nurture them before the real challenges came? If a man take your coat, give him your cloak also. Love your enemies as yourselves. Pray for those who would despite-fully use you. These are words from the Lord. You are not following them. Even if you truly believe that you are being held back by the men in the church, this is not the way to fix it. If you have faith in the Lord, and if you remember the authority and willingness that the Lord has to succor and protect His people, then you must simply have faith and pray – like Mary Fielding Smith who had the faith to pray for her Oxen, and they were healed. Or faith like the Israelite’s – when they brought down the walls of Jericho with nothing more than some stomping and faith. The whole point of being here is to prove our willingness to be humble, teachable, repentant, patient, full of grace and long-suffering, and willing to trust that the Lord knows what He is doing, and how to lead His church. He set it up this way from the get go. It hasn’t been morphed into some male dominated system that abuses the Lord’s power. The Lord has promised that He would never allow any prophet to lead His church astray, and NONE of our prophets have. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been men in positions of authority – such as bishops and stake presidents, and maybe even a couple of members of the seventy, who have made mistakes and abused their power – but none of our prophets have led this church astray, and all of them have had great respect for women. I believe that many women in the church would find it ridiculous for men to start brow beating them in public because they aren’t allowed into the relief society. Or if we started claiming that we have just as much right to hold the power of creation in our own wombs. Just because one role seems more powerful or desirable here on earth, doesn’t make it true. Our purpose is to learn to appreciate what we are given, use our God given gifts for grace and the benefit of all, and trust that the Lord knows what He is doing – not to tear down things and rebuild them in our own images for our own desires. Maybe women should hold the priesthood, but do you really think that you are proving your worthiness by tearing down the church to get it? Do you really think that the Lord will be bullied into giving the women of His church the priesthood, just because you form a group, and publicly proclaim your desires for it? If you truly believe that you should have those priesthood keys, then pray and have faith that you will receive it, for there is no other way to get it, and you will only continue to defecate on the Lord’s true gospel if you keep trying to get it like this. Just my two cents ladies. I hope you have had an open enough heart to hear the truth of this. We all have our crosses to bear, and maybe this is just one of yours. If the voice in your head is telling you to do this, it is not coming from the Lord, because if the Lord wanted this to happen, He would share it with the prophet, who would then share it with the rest of the members. New revelation happens every year, and our church is better and stronger for it. If what you are preaching is true, then it will come in the Lord’s time, and not when you want it to happen.

    • Dollie

      I want to say something. I have read in many comments, “if the Lord wanted this to happen He would tell His Prophet, not you” I disagree with this being the only way God would let something happen. I believe each person, from the Prophet to the most poorest woman in our faith, is worthy enough to be the vessel in which great change could come. To me, hearing that God would only tell the Prophet about great things is very saddening, because I grew up being told that all of us were capable of being told and helping bring amazing change upon the world. In your way of thinking, the slaves should have just prayed about it until God decided it was time to free them. and the women who wanted to vote should have just been submissive and waited till the men said that they’d been told by God that they were allowed to. God helps those who help themselves. He does not want us to sit there, asking “how about now” every 5 minutes. He wants us to become part of the change, and through us bring it. That is how God works-through His people.

  5. Ron Madson

    Yes, yes, and yes. “While ordaining women would have obvious positive ramifications for some, I’m more committed to the idea of de-privileging the priesthood as an institution of power and authority over subordinated others.”

    Me too. No mediators, no filters. In Lehi’s dream he first followed a man dressed in “white robes” aka priesthood which led him into darkness and dead end. Only when he called upon God directly did he find the tree of life. “He employeth no servant there..’ and neither should we.

    I agree that IF giving women the “legally” administered priesthood helps reduce its status then let the diluting begin.


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