This is a collaborative guest post written by several young Mormon feminists.
Sheri Dew herself is a powerful woman. She is the CEO of Deseret Book, a church owned business. She was in the Relief Society presidency, helping to run and lead what has been boasted as the largest women’s organization in the world. She’s also a member of many advisory boards and founded a charity called Chapters of Hope, which provides children with books. In a popular video clip, Dew answers the question “What Do LDS Women Get?” She describes how a male interviewer asked her that question, and she both shocked and bowled him over with her response. This, by the way, is a compliment – in many interviewing situations, the female is talked over, interrupted, and condescended to, so it is a point of pride when Dew can hold her own.
This video clip, however, is misleading. She starts off by saying what she has “gotten” as an LDS woman.
· She was in General Relief Society Presidency
· She has written biographies about church presidents
· She has run an organization [Deseret Book] owned by the church for about a decade
Sheri Dew “Gets” to Be in the General Relief Society Presidency
Being in the General Relief Society Presidency is a position of leadership within the church. As a counselor, she spoke to all of the women of the church, advised on administrative decisions, and was a key representative of LDS women. We see that here in action in this video clip.
However, even the General Relief Society Presidency is under the umbrella of male leadership. In the hierarchy of general authorities, there is first the Prophet and president of the church, his two counselors, and the 12 apostles. In a way, this mimics the leadership of wards, where the bishop and his counselors are also above the Relief Society presidency in the pyramid. So while Dew was in a position of leadership, the final say in any decision came from a man above her. That man could also veto any decision. The General Relief Society Presidency is considered has the title of “General Auxiliary Leader,” not “General Authority.” This was particularly evident in the creation of the Proclamation to the Family, in which the RS president at the time was not involved in the process, and only became aware of the Proclamation after it was already completed (Page 136 of this link).
The fact that men are over women in the umbrella of authority is particularly poignant when we remember that in the very beginning of the creation of the Relief Society, it was a completely independent organization. Women made their own decisions regarding the organization without answering to men. They had the blessings of Joseph Smith (who in fact bestowed the mantle of authority on to Emma by ordaining her as the first Relief Society president), but then were free to handle their own finances and administrative details. The independent status of the Relief Society organization changed during the decade of 1960-1970. (Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society by Janeth Russell Cannon, p 340).
Sheri Dew “Gets” to Write a Biography
Dew was able to write and publish multiple books, one of which was a biography of President Ezra Taft Benson. This was also an impressive feat. However, in her clip she mentions only the biography, a book about a man. Four other recent biographies about presidents of the church (men) were written by women. LDS women have written about LDS women -for example, The Mormon Engima: Emma Hale Smith was written by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery. We should also note that most LDS women do not create and publish books (although neither do most LDS men). However, writing and publishing books is not exclusive to women of the LDS church. If we are boasting that LDS women “get” to write and publish books about prominent religious leaders, then we are woefully behind the secular and religious world.
Sheri Dew “Gets” to Be CEO of Deseret Book
We assume that she is talking about Deseret Book, the publishing house and religious bookstore is owned by the LDS church. This means, once again, that the Prophet has the final say and vetoing power. The church heavily influences all decisions made at Deseret Book. So even though being a CEO is an incredibly powerful position, it was very similar to being in the Relief Society Presidency. To be fair, most CEOs have a board of directors that always include men that they have to answer to.
Sheri Dew is the first and only woman to be CEO of Deseret Book. Being CEO of a large corporation is not something LDS women “get” – it is something Sheri Dew “gets.”
What Women “Get” in the Church
· Women pray in public worship meetings, teach, speak, expound doctrine, lead organizations (YW, children)
Women being able to pray in public, teach, speak, and expound doctrine is not unique to the LDS church. This statement is also misleading. Most modern members of the church are unaware that women were prohibited from praying in ward Sacrament Meetings from 1967-1978. Even though the prohibition of female prayers is now long outdated, some wards still only ask women to say the opening prayer, keeping the closing prayer reserved for male members. It wasn’t until 2013 that a woman ever prayed in General Conference – so a woman’s prayer had never once been broadcast to the entire worldwide membership of the church until this year.
Leading organizations, such as the Young Womens program and Primary, is similar to being in the Relief Society presidency. Again, you are answering to men who are higher up in the hierarchy. But even more interesting is the fact that these leadership positions only allow women to be leaders over other females or children. The Primary Presidency does have authority over male Primary teachers, but the main subjects of the program are children. Women are never the directors of programs that are meant for men, or for men and women combined. Conversely, many male leadership positions are over programs meant for men and women combined – the bishopric, the stake presidency, all of the General Authorities, mission presidents, etc.
· Women are missionaries
Many religious sects have male and female missionaries. Again, are we boasting that we allow women to preach the gospel, that we entrust women to teach our doctrines? Does it not follow that we also do not entrust them to administer ordinances or lead groups of mixed genders?
· No organizations have as many women in as many teaching and leadership positions
I cannot think of any other organization that has as many women in teaching in leadership positions either. However, that is partly due to the sheer size and unification of the LDS church. Various Christian sects have women teaching and leading in their individually-run congregations. The Community of Christ, the Unitarian church, the United Church of Christ, and a variety of Protestant churches have more female leaders with far more influence over their congregations, including in key business positions. We may be more progressive than other churches that have a comparable size and unification to the LDS church, but less so than churches that are non-denominational.
Female leaders within the LDS church also have restrictions upon them, such as only leading other female groups or groups of children. Women are allowed to be Sunday School teachers, but not the Sunday School President, a role of leadership over all of the teachers. Women cannot be ward clerks or financial secretaries. We have lots of women in small leadership positions over children and women, but women do not hold the more authoritative and wide-ranging leadership positions like bishop, stake president, General Authority, etc.
· LDS women have more faith and devotion than other women
Honestly, I’m not comfortable with saying that LDS women are somehow better than our non-LDS sisters. We are all humans who make mistakes. We seek out spirituality and morality in different ways; just because we believe our way is the best or right way does not make us morally or spiritually superior. It also does not prove that women are equal to men in the LDS church structure or culture.
· The Church values, love, teaches, trains, and counts on women
The church also values, loves, teaches, trains, and counts on men, teenagers, and children. Again, this is not a unique position in our church. Many religious sects count on women even more so than in the LDS Church. In some churches, duties that we reserve only for men can be practiced by both women and men.
· Women and men are equal before the Lord – with Holy Ghost, receiving revelation, endowments, spiritual gifts, blessing of the Atonement
This is absolutely true. The scriptures say that God is “no respecter of persons.” But we as Mormons believe that our leaders, even if they are divinely appointed and receive divine guidance, are not perfect. As President Uchtdorf said in the last General Conference, our leaders have made mistakes. They are not infallible. Which means the will of God is not perfectly implemented in our current church structure and culture. Just because we are equal before the Lord does not mean we are equal in the church.
Both men and women in the LDS church “get” revelation (though men can receive revelation for women when they are in leadership positions over women – women can really only “get” revelation over a male when it is her own child. Because men and women are equal within a marriage, a woman cannot “get” revelation for husband just as her husband cannot for her).
Both men and women “get” the gift of the Holy Ghost, can receive endowments, have the same spiritual gifts, and can receive the blessings of the Atonement.
And men “get” the priesthood.
What Early Church History Women “Get”
· Emma Smith received revelation affecting scriptures
· Women were always allowed in the temple, even during times when women couldn’t vote
“This didn’t just start lately. In 1830 Emma Smith received a revelation where she was commanded to expound scripture. In 1842 Joseph organized the Relief Society. This was a time when women couldn’t vote, own property, money earned belonged to husbands. Prophet Joseph organized women. He kept going to RS to teach the women and to prepare them to the temple. From the minute endowments were given, women were included in receiving their blessings in the house of the Lord.”
It is actually incorrect that women were “included” “from the minute endowments were given.” The very first endowment was administered on May 4 or 5 1842 in Joseph Smith’s store in Nauvoo. Nine men received their endowments, but not a single woman. It wasn’t until the Celestial marriage ceremonies began a year later that women began to receive their blessings in the house of the Lord. Even then, women only received endowments with their husbands, while a few men were endowed without spouses present.
We often forget (or never hear) as members that the ban on black men getting the priesthood up to 1978 was also combined with a ban against black women and men entering the temple up until the same point. This is an issue of racial inequality and not gender inequality, but it is still something that affected many Latter-day women and should not be forgotten. Dew’s claims are not inaccurate because Joseph Smith did not start the ban on People of Color receiving the priesthood. or entering the temple, but it was enacted by Brigham Young soon after in 1852. For over a hundred years in our church history, a group of women were not allowed in the temple.
“This was not forward thinking: this was prophetic,” Dew says. We seem to think that the early church was somehow revolutionary in their treatment of women. In fact, the Seneca Fall Convention on women’s rights, seen as the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, was held in 1848. Industrialization gave way to women fighting the idea that their only sphere of influence was a domestic one; many women’s organizations were founded before and after the beginning of the Relief Society. Around the same time and place as the founding of the LDS church, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Free-Will baptists were beginning to allow women to pray in public as well as hold some leadership positions. Women’s limited place in early church history was not prophetic so much as a sign of changing times.
Women “Get” Motherhood, Men “Get” Priesthood
· Women bear and rear children
“Think how every soul must come through the selflessness of women. Women are at the center of the Plan of Salvation – that is a privilege and an honor.”
Yes, women can obviously gestate and men cannot. However, both men and women rear children. Both men and women are parents with equal responsibilities.
The ability to be pregnant is not something LDS women “get” – it is something every woman with the biological ability to conceive and carry a child gets. It is unclear what Dew means by “women are at the center of the Plan of Salvation.”
This line implies that while men “get” the priesthood, women “get” motherhood. That is doctrinally incorrect: the only equivalent to motherhood is fatherhood. The priesthood is non sequitur to this companionship – it refers to administrative and decision-making roles within the governance of the church, and has nothing to do with reproductive and child-rearing capabilities. As Sonja Farnsworth said in a presentation of her paper “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Concept” at Sunstone, the motherhood-priesthood union “lacks the symmetry of partnerships like motherhood and fatherhood.”
We also need to be clear here on exactly what it means when men “get” when men are ordained to the priesthood. Within the LDS church, priesthood holders are the only ones who are allowed to perform sacred ordinances that are necessary for salvation. Having the priesthood is also a prerequisite to holding many leadership callings, lots of which include the decision-making body and the managers of finances. Having the priesthood enables you to be an a position of authority over groups of both men and women, a privilege denied to women.
Dew has vaguely outlined many blessings and opportunities women “get” in the LDS church. Many of her suggestions have been misleading, mainly because they do not include the full pictures. It’s easy to believe from this video clip that LDS women “get” a lot compared to women in other religious sects. But this simply is not true. There are churches that are less progressive when it comes to female equality, but there are many churches that are far more progressive. So while some women belong to churches where they “get” less than LDS women, many belong to churches where they “get” more.
The picture is also incomplete because of the lack of men mentioned anywhere in this video. Dew never tells us what LDS men “get” other than the priesthood. She also fails to mentions that being ordained to the priesthood opens up many opportunities that LDS women are simply barred from. Every one of the items that Dew says LDS women “get” is also something that multiple LDS men have “gotten.” The one exception is that men cannot bear a child – a condition that obviously isn’t limited to LDS men. LDS men “get” so much in the church that the list of their privileges needs its own blog post.
If women and men were really equal within the LDS church, Sheri Dew wouldn’t have been asked that question in an interview because it would be apparent for everyone to see, regardless of their relationship to the church. If women and men were really equal within the LDS church, Sheri Dew wouldn’t need to prove it.