OW’s Kristy was among those interviewed for a recent New York Times article on Mormon women who are questioning their role in the LDS Church. She responds to questions and criticisms that arose in discussions following its publication. Kristy’s OW profile can be read here. LWS
The recently published New York Times article, “From Mormon Women, a Flood of Requests and Questions on Their Role in the Church,” has been received with varied enthusiasm among Mormons. Those in the LDS community—both men and women—who are not comfortable with Ordain Women or Mormon feminism in general, seem to have some common questions and criticisms of the piece. They express frustration that women’s roles in the Church were understated by those of us who were interviewed about our faith for a worldwide audience. To facilitate mutual understanding, I’d like to highlight some of these questions and criticisms and offer a few words in response.
Women can hold their babies during blessings. At least, that’s what I thought. The Church Handbook of Instructions, however, specifically states that “only Melchizedek priesthood holders may participate in naming and blessing children.” I’d heard about women who 10-20 years ago held their babies during blessings that took place in Mormon churches, and I watch deacons hold the microphone in the blessing circle all the time, even though they don’t have the Melchizedek priesthood. So I thought my request to hold my baby during her blessing was reasonable. After all, I’ve often heard of fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers who are invited to participate in the blessing circle even though they are not members or are inactive. I’ve been told it’s a way to help them feel the spirit again, feel important, and be included. In fact, for that very reason, my husband’s inactive uncle joined in the circle when he was blessed, and my brother-in-law, who left the Church, was approved by the bishop and invited to be in the circle during my first baby Evie’s blessing. I’m an active, temple-recommend holding woman who has served a mission for the Church and held callings, and I’m the baby’s mother. Surely there had to be a place for me to participate in her blessing? But I was denied that experience. It is quite clear from lds.org and photographs the Church uses in its curriculum that this is what men do. Note, especially, the lds.org site on priesthood blessings. All the images are of men exclusively, even when they’re doing things women theoretically could do, like holding a baby during a blessing or being a witness at a baptism. And I’m not alone in wishing I could have held my baby. Other Mormon women and men feel similarly.
Women with children under 18 can’t be seminary teachers. This, of course, is not true. My early-morning seminary teacher in South Carolina for all the years I attended was a mother of four and an inspiration to me. However, she was an unpaid teacher, and seminary teaching was her assignment/calling. What the NYT piece was referring to is the Church Educational System (CES) policy that women who are mothers of young children cannot be hired to be paid seminary teachers. They can, however, teach seminary as unpaid volunteers. When a paid, female seminary teacher becomes pregnant with her first child, she is fired. My friend April confirmed this policy by calling the director of the Church Educational System in her area. Read his response in her article here. Many outside of Utah have been surprised to learn that the Church employs and pays seminary teachers who teach release-time seminary during school hours. I do not think it is fair that my amazing Sister Marsh, who woke up every morning while it was still dark and for seven years volunteered her time to teach us the gospel, could not be hired by CES if she were to apply for a job with a paycheck to do the same thing in Utah.
Bishop’s interviews are fine the way they are. Some have criticized the article’s description of how problematic it can be for a girl or woman to meet one-on-one with a male church leader behind closed doors to discuss topics of a sexual nature or to be disciplined and judged by an all-male church council, where her sexual history is laid out. I think a follow-up CBS interview with Jodi Cantor, one of the NYT journalists who wrote the story, is significant: Ms. Cantor notes that most women she talked to weren’t saying that the policy should be completely abandoned. They only asked that another woman be present. I believe this reflects Mormon women’s general feeling that their male leaders are good people. They are our fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and friends. And we know that most leaders have our best interest at heart. We also know what it feels like to want to fulfill a calling to the best of their ability, and given current church rhetoric, that can include being privy to very intimate details. Bishops and stake presidents are instructed to inquire into the full extent of a sexual transgression in order to decide what discipline a member might require. Members are encouraged to confess sexual transgressions to their bishops, with guidelines that encourage them to disclose those acts about which they feel guilty. I believe it’s helpful, however, to recognize some of the consequences of such policies, detailed here and elsewhere. It is particularly poignant when boundaries are violated, leading to unnecessary embarrassment, further trauma for victims of abuse or, in extreme cases, perversion or loss of faith.
Women can be ushers. True. People have correctly pointed out that they have seen female ushers at general conference sessions in the Gonference Center in Salt Lake City. I, too, have seen them while attending sessions there, both with my family and as part of a BYU choir. I was thrilled to see these women! However, this is not common in our local wards and stakes. Most wards only have male ushers/greeters, because it is a task laid out as a responsibility of Teachers in the Aaronic Priesthood. Like the general conference exception, this is not the case everywhere. I was called as a ward greeter in my BYU ward and loved my calling! That’s the only time I saw that happen on a local level, though, as there were no 14-year-old boys in my singles ward. I believe a direct policy or instruction to bishops from church headquarters directing leaders to call girls and women to be ushers at the local level is an important step, and I am encouraged by the fact that this is already happening at the Conference Center. Recently, Neylan McBaine suggested calling women to be ushers. She also suggested that portraits of the women’s general presidencies should be hung in church buildings along with those of the male general authorities. This was done recently in the Conference Center. I’m encouraged by these initiatives to give women more visibility and hope they signal more to come throughout the Church.
What if the answer is no? One of the most common questions that supporters of Ordain Women are asked—and that many asked me after seeing my comments in the NYT—is: What will you do if President Monson directly addresses Ordain Women in general conference and says, “No”? I believe OW’s Kate Kelly said it best a day after the NYT article appeared. She wrote:
“My philosophy is much the same as Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego in Daniel 3:18. They had no doubt that the Lord would deliver them from the fiery furnace & a full expectation that it would happen, ‘But if not…’ they said, their faith in the Lord would continue on unwavering. I feel the same way about Ordain Women. I have no doubt in my heart that women will someday be ordained, but…if…not, I will still remain faithful. I don’t think that pure hope indicates a lack of faith, quite the contrary. I think it illustrates a true and unwavering desire.”
I echo Kate’s faith and determination. Like the prophets of old and my pioneer ancestors, I will press forward with faith in every footstep, as I walk with my baby daughter to the Conference Center on April 5th and wait in the standby line for the priesthood session. Please stand with us there.