Evangelical Equality

04.11.134:45 AM ET

Mormon Women Face Off Over Right to Priesthood

A group of Latter-day Saints women are squaring off against their more traditional sisters over the right to get ordained.

On Saturday, as thousands of Mormons attended the male-only priesthood session at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, 100 or so women gathered at the University of Utah to talk about gender equality within the church.

The organizing campaign, called Ordain Women, began building steam in March. It’s made up of devout Mormons who are frustrated that women remain “excluded from nearly every position of clerical, fiscal, ritual, and decision-making authority” in one of the country’s fastest-growing religions.

“In a lot of ways Mormonism is not stuck in the 1950s, it’s stuck in the 1850s,” says Kate Kelly, an international rights lawyer in D.C. who founded Ordain Women.

Within the LDS church, all men are inducted into priesthood at age 12, which gives them the ability to administer blessings and baptisms and hold administrative and upper leadership positions. Women “are not permitted to take part in any of the decision-making, leadership, or clerical rituals,” Kelly explains. “You would never have a woman bishop. You would never have an apostle or prophet as a woman.” She says that allowing nearly 7 million Mormon women to hold positions of power in the church is an “essential to equality”—a change that would align the church’s policies with the gender equality in our 21st-century society.

But such change may be slow to come by—particularly since it has to arrive via an intervention by God. Specifically, the Divine Father must impart a revelation demanding female entrance into the leadership to the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, who would issue a new decree.

Still, this tall order isn’t impeding Kelly’s campaign from catching steam. So far, on the Ordain Women website—which pulls inspiration from the ubiquitous “I am a Mormon” ads—60 Mormon men and women have contributed personal profiles (with 29 more waiting to be edited) explaining why they are advocating for a female priesthood. In less than a month, the site has been viewed more than 180,000 times. And after Saturday’s meeting, Kelly said she was thrilled that a number of people who joined in to end the silence surrounding female ordination.

But the biggest hurdle facing Ordain Women is, well, Mormon women.

“It is very difficult for Mormon people to separate priesthood from maleness,” Kelly says. “If you ask a woman, ‘Do you want to hold the priesthood?’ She’ll say no, because it’s essentially the same thing as saying, ‘Do you want to be a man?’”

Research supports this resistance to change. In late 2011, a Pew Forum report found that 13 percent of Mormon men think women should be ordained as priests, while only 8 percent of Mormon women felt the same way. A year before, research done by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, similarly found that 90 percent of Mormon women are opposed to females holding the priesthood—while only 52 percent of men felt the same way. The authors conclude that “Mormons, especially Mormon women, appear to be the only substantial holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership.”

This viewpoint is apparent on Mormon.org, the church-sanctioned website, which poses the question in its FAQs: “Why don’t women hold the priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Below, commentators unanimously agreed with the given answer, a quote from the late Gordon B. Hinckley, a former president of the church, who explained that “women do not hold the priesthood because the Lord has put it that way ... The men hold the priesthood, yes. But my wife is my companion. In this Church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side.”

One poster likened women holding the priesthood to men having babies. Another wrote: “The simple answer is women don't need it.” Within the Mormon community, women are overwhelmingly accepting of the ban on joining the clergy and are proud of the leadership roles they do hold, such as in the Relief Society, an all-female body of the church designated for philanthropy and education. As polls and subjects interviewed for this article acknowledge, the majority of Mormon women seem to not believe their role is any less important than that of a man, and if they do, it isn't openly discussed.

Kathryn Skaggs, who runs the popular blog “A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman,” says she doesn’t believe female priesthood is an issue in the church, especially “when you understand complementary roles women and men play in the church.” She stresses the that male-female relationships in religious contexts are different than in social ones like in the workplace and require a different set of characteristics. She doesn't have an issue with the women who want the authority to administer blessings, but says the type of advocacy Ordain Women is implementing “divides” the Latter-day Saints community and believes it’s wrong to use “outside forces to change things on the inside that I believe come from God.”

But to Hannah Wheelwright, an outspoken 20-year-old sophomore at Brigham Young University in Utah, the gender disparity is excluding “half of God’s children” from decision making and leadership. It’s a realization that came to her two years ago. “I was just reading in my Scriptures one night like a good Mormon girl,” she says. “I remember just stopping as I was reading and thinking, wait a second, God, do you really think I’m lesser? Maybe women are really important, but are they actually just second-class citizens in God’s world? And of course, I don’t believe that.”

Wheelwright spoke at the Ordain Women event Saturday, and when she was announced as a current BYU student, one blogger described that “audible gasps of surprise and comments about her bravery came from throughout the audience.”

Speaking out against the Mormon church is historically risky; rabble-rousers are not looked upon kindly. On campus, Wheelwright hosts a weekly discussion night called “Young Mormon Feminists,” but she says there’s a stigma against women seeking priesthood and that they are often painted as power-hungry. “I’ve seen a couple people talking about me, saying, ‘Hannah just wants the priesthood,’” she says, adding that no one would disparage a young boy with similar ambitions. “It shouldn’t be something we shame people for.”

Patrick Mason, an associate professor of religion and Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains that church leadership doesn’t react in accordance with public opinion. “It’s not going to scramble because of this website,” he says. And Mormons are often skeptical of bottom-up approaches to change, believing that God will let his will be known. “Mormons care a lot about cohesion and unity. They put real value on unity and not rocking the boat,” he says. “They’re tolerant of people with different views, but not when those people are outspoken and especially not when people are perceived as criticizing the leaders of the church.”

In the wake of a number of high-profile excommunications of Mormon feminists in the early 1990s, Kelly says that being kicked out of the church for this sort of advocacy is “a very real possibility.” But she doubts it will happen—and Mason notes that “the church is very cognizant of its public image right now.” Though, they both acknowledge that in tight-knit Mormon communities, ostracism wouldn’t be an uncommon side effect from joining an advocacy campaign such as Ordain Women.

Kelly stresses that her advocacy and the other group members’ doesn’t reflect her devoutness. “We believe in the prophet; we believe this will come from God,” she says. “We are just urging our leaders to prayerfully consider this and to basically demonstrate to God that we are ready for this change.”

It wasn’t until 1978 that, upon revelation from a higher power, the LDS church lifted a ban on blacks holding the priesthood. “We just want the same declaration except for one that says: ‘Now the priesthood will be extended to all worthy members.’” Kelly says. “Ordaining women, to me, is an act of faith. We have faith in the church that it can change and will be more inclusive, we have faith that others will join us.”

When LDS President Hinckley was asked in 1997 if the rule barring women from priesthood in the church could be adjusted in the future, he replied: “He could change them, yes. But there’s no agitation for that.” Over the past few years, female advocates in the LDS community have gotten increasingly louder. Hinkley’s line was the catalyst for a group in favor of women leadership, called Agitating Faithfully, which formed in 2011 and has signed up nearly 350 members. In January a group called Let Women Pray sent 1,600 petitions asking the church to allow women to lead prayers at the General Conference.

And despite its top-down tendencies, the LDS leadership may actually be listening. This past Saturday at the church’s semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, a woman took the role as prayer leader for the first time ever, offering benediction in front of 21,000 attendees. The next day’s session opened with a women leader offering prayers. A day earlier the church announced the creation of a new missionary role: sister-training leaders who will work with young recruits alongside men on the councils. On the same day, it released a video of three of the religion’s most powerful women discussing issues, including the concern over women holding the priesthood. “We can have equality having different roles,” said Relief Society president Linda K. Burton. She also noted: “I don’t think women are after the [priesthood] authority,” but that women are more drawn to the blessing role that the position includes. “They know this is an issue right now,” says Skaggs. She calls both the video and the prayer offerings “unprecedented,” but says she didn’t notice buzz about it at the conference or in her social-media circles.

Meanwhile, the church has offered its own response to the Ordain Women movement: “There is nothing in the scriptures which suggests that to be a man rather than a woman is preferred in the sight of God, or that He places a higher value on sons than on daughters. The worth of a human soul is not defined by a set of duties or responsibilities,” Jessica Moody, a church spokeswoman, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “The practice of ordaining men to the priesthood was established by Jesus Christ himself, and is not a decision to be made by those on earth.”

But Kelly believes this is an opportune moment for a religion that has long been branded with outsider status. “I think this is a really ripe time for a lot of changes in the Mormon church, because we’re in the public eye due to the election, the Book of Mormon musical, and a lot of things about Mormons in pop culture,” she says. “It’s a good opportunity ... for Mormons as a whole to see how outsiders view our religion. It’s an opportunity to really start opening up.” Despite the recent female advancements in the church, Kelly remains prudent in her forecast of how the quickly the LDS church can evolve its policies, saying: “I think this is going to be a long-term effort, and I think it’s going to take a lot of time for people to change their minds.”