Women are missing from some of our most sacred practices.
If you had known me four years ago, you would have known a largely traditional Mormon woman. I was married in the temple, had three kids, and we had attended the same LDS ward every week for 15 years. My husband and I had served in every kind of church calling, from Young Women President to activities chair. It is not an exaggeration to say that the ward house was our second home.
As I think about the way I have changed in the last few years, I realize that, though I am no longer at home in that ward house, and though I have lost the family that I thought I had there, I know that this is the first time my ward family is really seeing me. They knew me; we served together, we socialized after meetings, and even some of us got together as friends. They were lovely but it took something drastic—my absence—for them to see me.
That should come as no surprise to me.
We don’t really see women at all in our church. We are a community run on the labor of women—in the nursery, in the Primary, in the compassionate service program, and more—and depending on the ability of women to blend into the background of our environment. We count on the organist and chorister to be able to silently become part of the periphery of the chapel podium. We assume that women will prepare their babies and children for religious rites and ordinances only to be physically excluded from all of these precious moments. And we expect that women will plan activities and programs and conferences but will sit reverently while men preside and give the keynote address.
Recently, the Church issued a statement recognizing International Women’s Day, saying, “Limiting religious expression disempowers women from a broad range of faiths.” The statement continues: “A world where women are empowered to follow their conscience is a world of greater peace and possibility.” For too long, women in our faith have been expected to work quietly, directed and presided over by men; our experiences have been defined by the presence and approval of men; and women leaders are nearly indistinguishable in a sea of men. Our participation is mandatory, but our potential is limited.
In April, Ordain Women will have a social media action dedicated to highlighting the invisibility of women in our church. Inspired by the Elle #MoreWomen campaign we will be sharing photos from the LDS newsroom and stock photo collection. The photos will be paired with an altered version that removes the men.
One look at these photos and you will be struck by the overwhelming presence of men in our community. At baby blessings, at sacrament meeting, in leadership, women are outnumbered and, even more often, completely excluded. We hope you take the time to ponder these photos and ask yourself if they really look like a faith that empowers women and allows them to help bring about a world of greater peace and possibility. Then share the photos and ask your friends the same thing.
 I acknowledge men can serve in these callings, but they have been traditionally held by women in my experience and are the only callings that place a woman on the podium.
It’s nearly 18 months since the Elle UK #MoreWomen campaign and the photos are still fresh in my mind’s eye. The first photo I saw in this series was of Emma Watson at the United Nations: she is sitting, first surrounded by men, and then once the men have been photoshopped out, she sits alone. With the recent attention on Ms. Watson for her new film Beauty and the Beast the photo of her, a single figure in the UN chambers, has come back to me often.
If you haven’t had a chance to see the campaign, please take a moment to view the images and ask yourself if it isn’t time for us to see the possibilities of women in leadership?
Today is the 175th anniversary of the founding of the LDS Relief Society. When I was serving in the Relief Society Presidency of my local ward, initially as 2nd Counselor and then as Relief Society President, we (the wonderful women with whom I served and I) would spend countless hours planning an appropriate activity to commemorate and celebrate this day.
As with all the activities we planned, it was always our goal to hold an activity that would be enlightening, educational, encouraging, and enjoyable to all of our sisters. In so doing we were guided by the purposes of the Relief Society which were to “increase faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and seek out and help those in need.”
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 9th, I received a notification on my smartphone that the purpose(s) of the Relief Society had been updated. I quickly clicked on the article to see what updates had been made and found that the purpose now reads as follows:
“Relief Society helps prepare women for the blessings of eternal life as they:
- Increase faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and His Atonement;
- Strengthen individuals, families, and homes through ordinances and covenants;
- Work in unity to help those in need.”
When I read the updated purpose, I took great joy in the fact that the word “individuals” was added in the second bulleted phrase. In our local Relief Society, with its large number of members who were not married and/or who did not have children, we had been well aware of our individual members and had taken great pains to meet their needs. I felt that the addition of that word meant that, on a church-wide basis, there was a recognition that in focusing on families, the LDS Church had failed to recognize that there were “individuals” in the LDS Church who had needs.
As I have continued to ponder and pray about the updated purpose, I am happy to see that the “official purpose” of the Relief Society specifically references and acknowledges the existence of individual members. I pray that it is a sign that the spiritual and temporal needs of individual members will receive the full attention of the LDS Church and that they will no longer be made to feel as if they are somehow less valuable. So, I celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the LDS Relief Society and applaud what I hope and pray is a move by the women leaders in the LDS Church to make Relief Society more responsive to all the needs of women in the LDS Church.
In the midst of my celebration, however, there is a part of me that wonders how much good the Relief Society would be able to do if the Relief Society functioned as it was envisioned by Joseph and Emma Smith or as it functioned in the days before the Relief Society lost control of its budget and its agenda. So, as we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society, it is my fervent prayer that the organization that the LDS Church describes as one of the “world’s largest women’s organizations” will be allowed to function in that capacity and not as an auxiliary or an appendage.
With all that is happening in the world, a legitimate question can be raised as to why it even matters that the LDS Church has a “male-only” priesthood. After all, in the grand scheme of things, the 16 million members (or, to use the statistics of the LDS Church, 15,634,199 members) of the Church seem fairly minuscule when compared to the number of people who practice Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity.
Moreover, not only is the LDS Church, comparatively speaking, a “minority religion,” it is, despite its claims of being a worldwide church, still very U.S.-centric or, as some would say, very Utah-centric.
So, why DOES it matter if women are ordained in the LDS Church????
I have given this issue lots of thought and lots of prayer. I believe that there are many reasons it matters for those for whom the LDS Church is their faith home. There are also reasons that it matters for those who are no longer members of the LDS Church but still have ties to the Church, and for those who have never had any affiliation with the Church.
- It matters because in the “Mormon” corridor in the United States and especially in Utah, the LDS Church wields an enormous amount of influence on political issues and the disapproval of the LDS Church can be the death knell on issues like medical marijuana use.
- It matters because although the tenets and doctrine of the LDS Church extol and celebrate the importance of families, the LDS Church, as a general practice, excludes mothers from the circles when their babies are being blessed.
- It matters because although the LDS Relief Society is often touted as the largest women’s organization in the world, the Relief Society does not control its own budgets, agenda, membership rolls, or curriculum.
- It matters because although the LDS Church is preparing to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Relief Society, that number does not accurately reflect the period of time that the Relief Society has been functioning and the true history behind the suspension or disbanding of the Relief Society in 1844 is not taught; in fact, many LDS women do not even know that it was disbanded.
- It matters because no matter how many women or girls are baptized into the LDS Church, their baptisms cannot serve as the foundation for the growth of additional wards in the LDS Church.
- It matters because no matter how educated, skilled, or talented the women in the LDS Church are, most administrative positions are held by men and ALL major decisions are either made by men or have to be approved by men.
- It matters because although Elder David A. Bednar said in a talk at the April 2012 General Conference that “[w]orthiness and willingness—not experience, expertise, or education—are the qualifications for priesthood ordination,” he forgot to mention that being a male is also a qualification.
- It matters because in too many wards and branches in the LDS Church, women are told that they need to modulate their voices and speak in gentler tones.
- It matters because Mormon girls and young women are deprived of the opportunity to see and learn from women role models in their faith who can exercise real power.
- It matters because whole new generations of Mormon boys and young men are being raised in a culture that does not allow them to see or interact with girls and young women in their faith on an equal footing.
- It matters because there are MANY wards and branches that are in desperate need of more priesthood holders to serve as local leaders but because only men can hold the priesthood, ALL WOMEN, no matter how faithful and stalwart they are, are automatically excluded from consideration.
- It matters because, since the LDS Church does not use over half of its available workforce to the fullest extent, so much of God’s work is not being done because there are not enough hands to do the work.
It matters as long as any one of these conditions or situations exists and I will continue to work and pray for the day when there is true equality in faith in the LDS Church and all of my siblings, who have the desire and aptitude to serve, can be ordained.
 The discussion of why members of the LDS Church are not counted as Christians will have to wait for another day.
 I can personally attest to this phenomenon. My powerful speaking voice has helped me to achieve success as a trial attorney. However, during my service as Relief Society President in my local ward, my powerful speaking voice was viewed as such a liability by one of my local leaders that he took it upon himself to counsel with me about my voice.
“As your mothers and sisters in Christ, we are here to support you and bless you this day.”
Almost a year ago, my daughter sat in a camping chair on a beach wrapped in a towel, still damp with the water of the San Francisco Bay. It was chilly, but women from our ward and neighboring wards and a couple of family members surrounded her, shielding her from the wind, while I gave her a “women’s blessing” as part of her baptismal program.
I had wanted a more prominent role in her baptism than I had in her baby blessing. After discussion with my husband, we asked our daughter, “Would you like a women’s blessing or a parent blessing after your confirmation?” She said, “A women’s blessing,” though I don’t know if she knew exactly what that meant. Admittedly, I didn’t fully know either.
At our tithing settlement the previous December, I asked our bishop what sort of arrangements we needed to have for the baptism. He said all he needed to do was approve the program. A couple of weeks ahead of the baptism, I sent him a copy of our proposed program, with a women’s blessing listed after the confirmation. Shortly I received a simple response that the program was approved. I invited every woman coming to the baptism to participate. I wanted my daughter supported by all the important women in her life.
This was not the first blessing I had been a part of. I’ve participated in group women’s blessings for women needing comfort, where if anyone in the circle feels inspired they can add a few words. I have blessed my children when they were sick and my husband and I have done intimate 2-person naming blessings for our babies.
But it was my first public blessing and I was nervous, partly that I wouldn’t know what to say but mostly that no one would join me in the circle. After a full circle of men for her confirmation, I was afraid that none of the women would join in.
But my ward came out and came through for me and I am so grateful to them. We blessed her to know we supported her in her life journey and to find joy in it. The women who surrounded her are her Primary teachers, her future Young Women leaders. It was so meaningful that the women who do and will support her in life were able to do so on her baptism day. I hope she’ll never forget it.
I often get asked by men AND women, “But, what will men do if women are ordained?” This question has always troubled me because I believe it assumes that priesthood is somehow a zero-sum thing; that if it is shared, it is reduced. I cannot accept the idea that the foundational authority of my faith is limited and I do not believe that the power that our Heavenly Parents used to create all existence is finite. NO. The power of God is infinite and should be shared and spread to all who are worthy.
My vision of the church culture after women are ordained is one of equal participation in all things. Young women would help bless and pass the sacrament; mothers would stand with fathers while babies are blessed; sister missionaries would help baptize and confirm new members; women would sit on the stand, presiding over congregations and providing spiritual guidance.
So, what will men do if women are ordained? They will stand next to us, they will listen to us, they will sustain us.
I have been thinking a lot about my outspokenness within my faith. I have always believed that parity for women is possible. I have had faith from the minute I wrote my profile that women would get the priesthood. It would happen and that it was morally necessary for the health of our LDS community and sustainability of Mormonism. I still believe that now more than ever. Mormonism should be leading the way in equality for women. We teach our sons and daughters from their first nursery songs that they are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Parents and that they too will grow up to be divine. LDS women know that they are equal to men. I believe that women will become leaders in ALL areas of the world and religion is no exception. The reason I have faith in such a bold statement is simple…. the first place I ever saw true leadership was in my home ward during Primary.
After the Women’s March a few weeks ago (you know the one, there was no doubt a contingent near you) there was this Facebook post making its way around the internet equating that grand action with attending Relief Society. It was quite the leap.
I’m going to set aside how grossly self-congratulatory the deification of Relief Society is here. This woman’s need to claim moral superiority is a topic for another day. What I take the most issue with is her central claim that the Relief Society is the largest and longest-standing women’s organization in the world. It’s not just an absurdly arrogant claim; it is entirely untrue. The Relief Society can’t even boast that it is a women’s organization at all.
Let’s back this up and go over a basic timeline of Relief Society history.
The Relief Society of Nauvoo was founded in 1842. The way this gets discussed in church, you’d think it was because the Lord decreed it so right at that time. The reality is that women’s organizations like this were very popular at the time, and Mormon women were far from the first to form one. What is noteworthy is that, at this point, it was entirely a women’s organization. They had their own membership rolls, leadership, and they paid dues.
The Relief Society of Nauvoo was disbanded in 1844. I’ve learned that this will come as a shock to many–especially given that the church celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Relief Society in 1992. Alas, it had not been around for 150 years because in 1844 it ceased to exist for quite awhile. It was disbanded because women like Emma Smith were using the organization to speak out against polygamy and Brigham Young wasn’t having it. (True story. Check it out in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society.)
Women’s coalitions started popping up in local wards again in 1851. In 1866 they made it official again. For some time it is a pretty amazing organization. They join the National Council of Women, fighting for suffrage. They build hospitals. They start holding their own general conferences. They build their own buildings, and they create their own manuals. They have their magazines.
But then something happens.
They lose their buildings, and they lose their magazines. The church takes ownership of the hospitals and co-opts their conferences. Before you know it, instead of having their own meetings and their own budget and their own agenda, they are meeting in a three-hour block of church that is presided over by men who grant them meager budgets and approve/dictate their agendas. No longer do women even run this organization on their own. Can it be called a women’s organization if women do not own it?
It is referred to as an auxiliary. It is supplementary to the organization to which it belongs. Can it even be called a women’s organization when it is just an auxiliary to a larger one that is run entirely by men?
And here’s another kicker. In 1971, all adult women in the church became members of Relief Society. You can have been baptized at the age of 8, stopped attending church at the age of 13, and five years later when you turn 18, your name gets moved from the Young Women rolls to the Relief Society rolls. Can you boast the numbers of an organization that has no opt-in or opt-out procedure? Can you boast the numbers of an organization that has no control of its own membership rolls?
Can you boast the longevity of an organization that stopped being its own organization fifty years ago?
I submit that you cannot.
This post originally appeared on Rational Faiths.
What about women who don’t want the priesthood? Why aren’t you satisfied in your role? Women already hold the priesthood so why do you need it?
I love and respect the women of my church. I am the granddaughter of a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and I am proud of my pioneer ancestors. I fully understand the concerns of women who do not want the priesthood—many of whom are already stretched to their limits with family and church commitments—seeing priesthood ordination as yet one more demand on their time.
In response to this question, I first say that women who do not feel the call to ordination should absolutely not feel obligated to be ordained. I do not believe ordination should be required for any member who does not feel called to its duties. As children of Heavenly Parents, we are born with divine natures and individual worth; we should be allowed to take the unique talents and gifts we are given and use them in service.
In addition to this, I believe that women must acknowledge that the very same stress they feel at the thought of ordination is already felt by men and boys in our community. Mormon men are forced to carry the burden of leadership by themselves, even though they have busy lives with family, work, and community responsibilities pulling at their time. Imagine the work we could do, the miracles that could be accomplished were we to truly be equally yoked, with double the number of priesthood holders in our church.