Mormon church has taken ‘baby steps’ toward greater gender equity, but LDS feminists say it’s time to lengthen that stride

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

As Russell M. Nelson ascended to the top of the LDS Church and its all-male hierarchy, the question came: What about women?

“We love ’em,” Nelson quipped at the Jan. 16 news conference announcing his presidency of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The 93-year-old leader (as well as his two counselors in the faith’s governing First Presidency) praised the mothers and daughters in their lives who had produced missionary sons and bishops and had served as “influencers” to the men.

The trio made no mention of single women in the global faith, presidents of the all-female LDS Relief Society, or the armies of women who work at every level of Mormon congregational life no matter their marital status. Nor did the three speak of recent strides by the church toward gender equity or even hint at the word “feminist.”

The imprint of such steps — and activism from the Ordain Women movement and other advocates — is clear, however, and reverberates across the world in LDS teachings, traditions and sermons.

The push is far from over.

As the church grapples with what to do about Mormon lay leaders — all men as well — who ask inappropriate questions during one-on-one interviews with young women and children, or how these men should respond when a wife alleges domestic violence (as in the recent Rob Porter case), the question echoes: Would greater male-female equality improve the outcomes?

What effect might the presence of more women in leadership have on the exodus of so many Mormon millennials, including feminists? Could it help soften the church’s policy and preaching about gay couples? Would gender equity in the ranks shore up failing marriages, alleviate social stigmas and bring more diversity to church practices and programs?

These shifts could happen, feminists argue, since Mormonism is a faith built on “continuing revelation.”

“We as individuals — as well as the institution of the church — are all still works in progress,” says Utah writer and artist Linda Hoffman Kimball. “We need a twinning of progress and patience.”

Retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham also sees a more balanced future.

The LDS Church’s pattern of patriarchy “has ancient roots,” Durham explains on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast. “The time will come when the particular structures which sustain the church in that path will change.”

It may be a long while for women to get into the Mormon hierarchy in a structured way, the trailblazing jurist says, and until they do, “I don’t think women will be adequately heard.”

The arc of history may “bend toward justice,” as civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. once declared, but in the case of Mormon equality, it may dip, curve, swerve and even backtrack on its way.

Emma Hale Smith, wife of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. Photo courtesy of the LDS Church

Rewriting the story

Hours before an April 1992 exhibit celebrating the all-female Relief Society’s sesquicentennial was to open at the LDS Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City, LDS general authority Loren Dunn walked through the displays to give his final approval. Dunn, a Seventy who died in 2001, was troubled, he said, by three quotes hanging on the walls.

The quotes were “too close to sacred temple rituals” in which women administer what are considered priesthood ordinances, Dunn said, so he yanked the placards from the wall, leaving obvious blank spaces.

At LDS General Conference that month, apostle Dallin H. Oaks discounted the idea that the women’s organization was ever intended to be coequal with the priesthood, which is open to all worthy Mormon males from age 12.

Oaks used historical sources to conclude that “no priesthood keys were delivered to the Relief Society. Keys are conferred on individuals, not organizations.”

At issue was a notation in the society’s 1842 initial minutes. It stated that Mormon founder Joseph Smith told the assembled women, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God.”

According to LDS historians, early Mormon women interpreted that to mean they were receiving a form of priesthood power.

However, sometime in the 1850s, male authorities changed the phrase in official church histories to “I turn the key in your behalf” — a major difference, researchers say, in emphasis and implications.

In the past decade, professional historians restored Smith’s original wording. The landmark volume “The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History” confirmed the original sentence, and the church’s official essay on women repeated it.

Plus, the early documents record Smith saying he had “something better” for women and would organize them “in the order of the priesthood after the pattern of the church.”

Even Oaks now acknowledges that what women do in Mormon temples, on missions or in their church assignments is a form of priesthood.

“We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their church callings, but what other authority can it be?” Oaks asked in 2014. “ … Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”

In 2015, Nelson himself urged Mormon women to “speak up and speak out” and seize their “rightful” place in their homes, congregations, communities and the church as a whole.

Many are doing just that. And those quotes hidden away from the 1992 Relief Society exhibit are now openly proclaimed in official church publications.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly speaks about her excommunication from the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

New kind of revolution

By the early 21st century, Mormon feminists seemed to go silent.

Unlike the 1970s, no planes were flying banners over the church’s semiannual conferences emblazoned with the words “Mormons for ERA.” Unlike the 1980s, there were no public invocations to Mother in Heaven. (While then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley did reference LDS teaching on the Divine Mother, he insisted members do not pray to her.) Unlike the 1990s, no one was disciplined by the church or fired from Brigham Young University for advocating equal rights.

As a movement within Mormonism, feminism “is dead or dying with our generation,” Claudia Bushman, historian and a former editor of Exponent II, a magazine for LDS women, told The Tribune in 2003. “Feminism is such a potent word, it’s been expunged from our vocabulary.”

It was not dead, however, just quietly moved online. Mormon women were whispering their concerns to others across the nation and even the globe on a new connector: the internet.

Blogs blossomed, including the somewhat-snarky Feminist Mormon Housewives, which provided an expansive forum to discuss everything from dirty diapers to doctrine, from loneliness to loss, from careers to callings, from blessings to baptisms — and, ultimately, back to priesthood and patriarchy.

The conversations often were private, personal and increasingly agonized as these Mormons wrestled with LDS teachings on ideal families, marriage relationships, and the place of members who don’t fit easily into the Utah-based church or its international congregations.

The bloggernacle, as it was called, expanded exponentially and the voices grew louder.

In 2012, the church lowered the minimum age at which women could go on full-time missions from 21 to 19, prompting thousands of young women to put in their requests to serve.

A year later, a woman prayed at a session of General Conference for the first time.

Still, questions remained: Why are women taught not to wear pants to church? Why aren’t there more female speakers at conference? And why aren’t there any women on the top governing committees?

Then, in 2013, a new movement exploded into public consciousness: Ordain Women.

Led by returned Mormon missionary and Washington human-rights attorney Kate Kelly, OW participants dressed in their Sunday clothes and strode confidently to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, asking politely for tickets to the all-male priesthood session of the General Conference.

One by one, the marchers were turned away, but images of their gentle protest were carried around the world.

Within a year, church leaders excommunicated Kelly, but they could not blunt the impact of the drive for ordination — nor halt the debate about the possibility.

Since then, Mormon women have seen lots of “baby steps” toward gender equity.

Divorced women and mothers with children younger than 18 could now serve as seminary or institute teachers. Women were added to executive committees, alongside apostles.

“Before Ordain Women, even talking about whether Mormon women want the priesthood was taboo,” says April Young Bennett, a writer for Exponent II and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. “Since Ordain Women, church leaders have started talking about a more expansive, less gendered view of the priesthood.” That’s all good, Bennett says, but there’s so much more to do.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune LDS Genesis Group Choir rehearses.

Double the challenge

Bethany Cherry, a black Mormon feminist in Provo who works as a senior specialist at a community center, cheers all the advances toward gender equity.

But the discrimination she faces as an African-American woman goes beyond “not receiving callings or not being represented within leadership councils.”

“Black feminists are concerned about these same issues,” she says, “but also the racism we face and the racism our black men face.”

Unlike black boys and men who, for more than a century, were banned from being ordained, and black girls and women who were barred from LDS temples, white women faced no religious hurdles “because of the color of their skin or …[have had to] endure curses and racist ideologies,” Cherry says. “Feminism is usually dominated by the white female perspective and narrative, [leaving] out the experiences, stories and struggles faced by women of color.”

Black women do not have “the luxury of female representation that looks like them,” she says. “Although white women are severely outranked by the leadership of white men in the general authorities, they still are better represented than black women (there are no black women who serve in the general auxiliary presidencies),” and also outrank the number of black men in the hierarchy.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Then-Young Women General President Bonnie Oscarson speaks at the LDS General Women's Meeting at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, March 29, 2014.

What about singles?

Many never-married, divorced or widowed members feel invisible in a church that puts so much emphasis on marriage.

“We are treated as if we are not complete yet,” says Pumza Sixishe, a black Mormon in South Africa. “We’re not enough, despite what we are taught about individual worth, outside the marriage covenant. Fundamental doctrine teaches us that we are children of God, daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us. You are treated as if you are loved despite your singlehood.”

Highly educated, successful and single women “need to feel like they are in a safe space and not be made to feel ashamed,” Sixishe adds. “Education is not a blemish; a working woman, single or married, is not a blemish. Their contributions during Sunday school and Relief Society may revolve around work and the boardroom. They can be spared from the eye rolls of [elderly white women].”

The feminist movement “is almost nonexistent in the Mormon community here,” she says. “It’s a very traditional society that is comfortable with the status quo. … I’ve never met a Mormon woman here who wants to hold the priesthood. No one heard the call to wear pants [to church] a few years ago.”

Still, Sixishe says, she doesn’t know how the church can change these prejudices because they are “so entrenched.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks and Russell M. Nelson at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oaks was named first counselor in the First Presidency.

Seeking real changes

Though most Mormon feminists applaud any progress, some are losing patience.

“It’s still astonishing to me that policies and practices that affect the lives of millions of church members (at least half of whom are women or children),” Durham says, “are made by bodies peopled by men.”

Why, she wonders, should LDS disciplinary councils, for instance, be made up of all men?

“Judgment calls would be better,” Durham says, “if there were both genders” in the council.

The need for such equity has become more urgent, says Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia. “The church has been facing waves of demands from feminists for years — even generations — but there is something different now. Women want to see some real changes, not tokenism, not pedestals. … Incremental change is good, but … not enough for many people.”

Mormon women “want to see their talents put to use in their congregations and their voices heard. Faithful women want to teach doctrine and they want to be seen as equals,” Baradaran says. “They want to see more women and more people of color at the pulpit giving instruction. They want to see more strong female leaders. And they want the focus of women in the church to go beyond — much beyond — motherhood. … Not every woman can be a mother and not every mother defines herself solely as a mother. Most of us mothers do not. We are thinkers and readers and speakers and leaders, and we want to see ourselves reflected back in the text and images and in the leadership.”

Kimball, the Utah writer and one of the organizers of the grass-roots group Mormon Women for Ethical Government, joined the LDS Church in the early 1970s as a college student in Boston. She attended an Institute of Religion class whose members were researching their Mormon foremothers, their stories, chutzpah and accomplishments. One of those women, Utah’s Martha Hughes Cannon, the nation’s first female state senator, famously said, “All men and women are created free and equal.”

Kimball was inspired by the attitude of those 19th-century women as well as the descendants who admired them.

“These are the kind of women,” she says, “who exemplify what President Nelson meant when he recently preached, ‘We need women who have a bedrock understanding of the doctrine of Christ.’”

If this is what Mormon authorities mean by “feminist,” Kimball asks, “shouldn’t every church member be one?”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Martha Hughes Cannon at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018.