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Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, says LDS women experience a "tremendous amount of pain" over what they can and cannot do in the church. Credit: Scott Lunt
Mormon women seeking middle ground to greater equality
Feminism » Ordination may be a long shot, but activists see a middle ground to greater visibility and involvement in their faith.
First Published Aug 16 2012 06:32 pm • Last Updated Nov 30 2012 11:32 pm

For some Mormon feminists, there can be only one goal on the road to gender equality: priesthood ordination.

After all, every worthy male in the lay-clergy-run Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — starting at age 12 — is ordained in this priesthood. It is seen as a holy power, described as the authority to act in God’s name, yet given exclusively to men.

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At the same time, lots of LDS women are perfectly comfortable with the roles they believe God assigned to them, including motherhood and nurturing. They would not want, they say, to "hold the priesthood."

Now comes a third and, some suggest, growing group of women somewhere between these two poles.

They are not pushing for ordination, but they crave a more engaged and visible role for women in the Utah-based LDS Church. It is a role, they believe, their Mormon foremothers played — and one that could fit easily into the institutional structure without distorting or dismantling doctrine.

These women — some of whom consider themselves feminists, while others avoid that label — point to little changes that would pay big dividends: treating a stake Relief Society president much as her male counterpart and assigning her to be a regular speaker at stake conferences and in ward worship services; quoting more women in sermons and Sunday School lessons; selecting more women to speak and pray at churchwide General Conferences; letting women either conduct (or at least be present at) worthiness interviews for teen girls; choosing strong General Relief Society presidents and allowing them to serve longer and become more visible in the church; and permitting women to serve as mission zone leaders, ward clerks and other traditionally male positions.

Many of them agree that no meeting should take place in which decisions about women are made without a woman being present.

Talk about such changes is buzzing around the Mormon bloggernacle and was discussed at a recent gathering of FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research). It has spawned websites such as Mormon Women Project, which publishes interviews with strong LDS women from around the globe and the creation of a blog called Young Mormon Feminists by a Brigham Young University student. It has led to the revival of Exponent II, modeled after a 19th-century LDS women’s magazine, and was the topic of a monthly podcast that included the founders of several LDS women’s groups, including Feminist Mormon Housewives, LDS WAVE and The Power of Moms.

Next week, the church’s History Department is joining with the University of Utah and several other groups to sponsor a symposium, "Women and the LDS Church."

"There is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can or cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization," Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, said at the FAIR conference. "We need to pay attention to that pain. … The pain is real."

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These LDS women, McBaine said, are not trying to "eradicate the divine differences between men and women," but want to be "used, engaged, recognized and appreciated … in the broadest context of the Lord’s kingdom."

If Mormonism’s first generation of strong and charismatic female leaders had seen this era, the modern women wonder, what would they think has happened to their legacy?

Priests and priestesses » In the 19th century, many Mormon women had a strong sense of partnership within the priesthood. They were outspoken leaders of female organizations who oversaw their own finances, programs and publishing. They gave healing blessings to other women and their offspring. They spoke openly of women’s spiritual powers and being the offspring of heavenly parents — one of them God the Mother.

Mormon women were early suffragettes, forming alliances with national leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They were the first in the nation to vote and among the trailblazers to pursue professional careers in medicine, business and law.

Into the 20th century, LDS leaders such as Amy Brown Lyman commanded much respect, building hospitals and working on alleviating poverty and illiteracy. After World War II, Relief Society General President Belle Spafford helped with global aid efforts. She remained in that position for nearly 30 years, serving as president of the National Council of Women from 1968 to 1970.

In April, the Relief Society lost a strong, distinctive voice when its general president, Julie B. Beck, was released after just five years — a rotation that has become the norm for such positions.

Beck’s replacement, Linda K. Burton, declined to be interviewed for this story. Right now, there are no official female spokeswomen for the church.

For Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who teaches history at Harvard, this is Mormonism’s most pressing gender issue — what she calls "the great disappearance."

"I see articulate, spiritually aware, productive, loving and amazingly resilient women in my ward [congregation]. Every Sunday I hear their voices, listen to their talks, learn from their lessons, mix with them in meetings and in the foyer, and see them doing amazing things," Ulrich writes in an email from Boston. "But, for some reason, we get only token acknowledgment of women beyond the ward."

She has attended entire LDS stake conferences — which include members from several wards — in which "men did all the talking (except occasionally for the wife of the mission president)."

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