“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.