I’m encouraged that my church just released their long-awaited and controversial material on women and the priesthood. For too long, Mormon women have whispered about the fact our foremothers held a stronger institutional claim on the priesthood than we do today. However, as a feminist and heritage Mormon I am disappointed that these essays on Mormon women’s history–our history–include with the facts an authoritarian interpretation of those events that further keep women in their place. I wish the material contained less spin, less direct appeals to authority to enforce the status quo, so Mormon women could more freely judge our own history for ourselves.
I’ll never forget the first time I read Women and Authority, the book that led to Mormon feminist Maxine Hanks’ 1993 excommunication–especially how Zina Young (plural wife to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) and many others performed the same rituals I’d only ever seen men perform all my life. When I read it, pregnant with my second child, I laid the book on my belly, stared out the window in shock, and cried. That shock dissipated as I excitedly visualized what it would look like today if we reclaimed that authority once taken away, instead of deferring to the current customs of male-only participation church ordinances.
Reading about my foremothers sparked my interest in asking my priesthood leaders if I could simply hold my newborn baby and participate in her naming and blessing ceremony–the devastating denial of which launched my activism. I used my own body to demonstrate our desire for equality because I love Mormonism and my people. I wanted a more equitable future for my sisters and daughters.
Now, thanks to details that the LDS church has publicly released, we can discuss our history more openly. This is definitely a step forward and a move I celebrate–that said, as a psychologist specializing in Mormon women’s mental health, I would be negligent if I didn’t acknowledge how these new essays frame Mormon women’s history within clearly drawn conclusions meant to enforce obedience, appealing to authority to reinforce the patriarchal status quo. I don’t believe this is a healthy pattern to disseminate information, particularly for female members who are taught from a young age to accept benevolent sexism, be obedient, and defer to church teachings on traditional gender roles–sometimes at the expense of their inner voice.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the Relief Society (not just in the temple, but open in public) would be “a kingdom of priests,” and repeatedly used the word “ordained” to describe the authority he gave to women (many were his plural wives). These women used the same word to claim their authority when more patriarchal leaders threatened it after Smith’s death. It’s the same language we use today to describe boys and men receiving the priesthood: now a rite of passage for all males 12 and up. But the Church asserts in the essay “ordained” must have meant something lesser or different, simply because women are the recipients. As a matter of conscience, I cannot accept this argument. Also, admitting women used to give healing blessings (by laying on of hands and annointing), but we don’t now because it’s something that just the men should do (and quoting the church handbook barring this practice) is an appeal to authority I’m not comfortable with given the fact women in our history used to do what the handbook says we cannot.
Church leaders have every right to present their own materials however they please. However, I believe people like me who question the now-official interpretation provided in this essay have a moral obligation to heed their conscience rather than feel compelled to defer to authority. This is particularly relevant for Mormon parents and teachers, who are helping shape the minds of the church’s youth relative to these issues. I have discussed this elsewhere with regard to the polygamy essay/seminary manual, where I’m seeing a similar pattern of obedience-heavy tones to satisfy moral dilemmas. Critical thinking is paramount to adult moral development, and we need to teach the rising generation (particularly our young women) to trust their inner compass.
Our young women learn that patriarchy is God’s will for them. We sustain all-male centralized leadership as prophets, and all-male bishops as judges in Israel who have the right to judge our worthiness over personal measuring and counsel us. All boys, fathers, and husbands are taught God wants them to preside in the home. While women lead church women’s and children’s organizations, in all positions they are supervised by a male authority with veto power over their every decision. Thus, according to the new essay, women exercise priesthood authority (but not office or ordination) when they follow the counsel of their priesthood leader and/or serve under him.
In our weekly church practice, girls and women receive the same message. Every Sunday, we observe all males leading worship meetings and boys blessing and distributing the Lord’s supper. The cumulative message behind these day-to-day experiences is that men run the church, and we should trust them over our own intuition about equality. We see this hegemonic reinforcement in the newly released essay, culminating when the essay quoted the church handbook (which contradicts our own history).
While I do not agree with the official interpretation provided by the Church, my intent here is not to persuade to my view of historical events, but rather to make space for other women and Mormons in a faith transition/awakening who may similarly have questions. It’s up to every individual reading this to follow their own moral compass. If you agree with the Church’s interpretation, that’s great. If you find your inner voice leading you to a different conclusion, that should be fine, too. Sadly, that is not always the case, as women who publicly question the church’s official narratives and practices have often experienced shunning and discipline.
I would urge everyone to read all the original sources footnoted by the Church, study and meditate on all the material, and draw their own individual conclusions about women, authority, and equality. And don’t give up hope: each congregant sharing their authentic truth with another is–I believe–the key to Mormon mental health (current Mormons, transitioning Mormons, post-Mormons). As scary as that sounds, putting your authentic self out there makes all the difference. It’s time to speak up: listen to your inner voice and follow it.
Dr. Kristy Money received her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from BYU. She is a psychologist specializing in Mormon women’s mental health and navigating faith transitions/crises for individuals and couples. You can contact her or schedule a consultation here.