The autumn General Conference of the LDS church is coming up in a couple of weeks. Conference is when our church leaders present ideas to the entire church congregation, via radio, TV, or Internet. Or you can go to the Conference Center in Salt Lake City to watch the conference live (if you have tickets, which is something I’ve never attempted to obtain).
Lately, whenever there is a general conference (there are two every year, one on the first weekend of April, the second on the first weekend of October), there is an upswing in people discussing their issues with the church. Topics such as gay marriage and the timing of a wedding versus a sealing are hot topics right now, but the biggest issue is whether or not women should be ordained with the priesthood.
The issues surrounding this topic are both central to the LDS faith and, because of the structure of the church, exclusive. So I write about this hesitantly because I’m certain not all of my readers will know the cultural references and why they run so deep.
For example, last December there was a loosely-organized movement for women to wear pants to church. I’m pretty sure that the world at large would think really? Why wouldn’t women wear what they want to church? The women who support the male-only construct of priesthood ordination argued that they wear dresses to church to show their respect for Christ, Heavenly Father, and the spirit within the house of God. The women who support the priesthood-for-all construct pointed out that it is mostly men who’ve been telling us that a dress is a symbol of respect, and that clothing itself, as well as what we associate with it, is a social construct.
Someone (and I confess: I cannot remember who, except for it was someone at church) said something during that time to me. "I’m guessing you’ll be wearing pants," she said, which gave me one of those internal chuckles. It made me wonder about how I project myself while I am at church, but it also made me wonder why she thought I would be so certain as to where I stand.
Because, I confess, I am not certain.
I will readily stand and call myself a feminist. Some of this comes from the things I learned from my mother. She taught me that gender should never be a thing that held me back. Sometimes she taught me the harsher side of feminism; I remember entire conversations about the weaknesses of men. Part of my feminism comes from my education, which some might find ironic considering I went to BYU. But I’ve always been drawn to women writing about women’s lives, and when I dug deep into my literature courses, that was the perspective that drew my attention. A few of my professors made snide comments about this tendency of mine, but my favorite professor wrote on one of my essays about the value of my perspective, especially within the LDS culture. (I still have that essay with his comment.) I do have to work hard at not spouting the man-hating side of feminism, and there are many, many men whom I admire. I don't think women are better than men, but I believe without restraint that women should have the same opportunities as them.
Labeling yourself as a feminist within the LDS culture tends to raise hackles. Members are swift to point out what the Proclamation states: "gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." But believing that people should have the same opportunities and choices, regardless of their gender, doesn’t refute the idea of gender as an essential characteristic. Part of being a feminist is that I am a woman and is that I have a belief in and an undeniable affection for women. (Wait: did that sound strange?) What I mean is that I think women can do amazing things by the traits of their gender (which, by the way, I see as being a balanced creation between identity and social construct) (and by which I don’t mean simply motherhood and cleaning the house) and that men have historically limited women’s abilities to carry about those amazing things.
So that is the perspective I bring to this discussion: I am an LDS feminist. Which means I do struggle with the constructs of patriarchy and I do see them. One example of this comes from an article I read last spring, in which Elaine Dalton (as the president of the organization for young women) said "I think that if people could sit (in those councils) and realize how into the details our brethren are, how aware they are of individuals, of issues, of trends, of things that are taking place that really affect families, women and children, they would be absolutely astounded as I am." I have not the smallest doubt that this is true—but I still think it is wrong that so few women ever actually see this happen. I believe that there is a difference between men making decisions in behalf of women and women making decisions in behalf of women, no matter how true and righteous the men’s hearts are.
But I am still not ready to say that women should have the priesthood. This is not because I think women would use it incorrectly, or would somehow taint it. I think that if women had the priesthood, they would wield it just as humanly as men do. (Meaning: not one of us will ever use it perfectly.)
On one side, I believe that men need the priesthood in a way that women don’t. Not because women are mothers. (That argument always makes me shake my head.) But because the ordination and the structure of the priesthood force men to act in certain ways that they might not otherwise. I believe that men are made into more nurturing, kind, and thoughtful men through the power of the priesthood. I believe that men need the priesthood for the way it changes them as much as their actions carried out with the priesthood change the people around them. I think that if women were to hold the priesthood, many men would feel like they didn’t need to work as hard to use the priesthood—and so they wouldn’t be changed in the positive ways that they could be.
On the other side, when only men are given the priesthood, there is a door added to women’s access to that priesthood. I know many people would disagree with me and would be swift to point out that women have access to the priesthood power through the righteousness of the men in their lives. This is true, of course; the power of the priesthood isn’t diminished because it came through a man’s work.
But it means that to gain access to the priesthood, a woman has to have access to righteous men. And despite what many people believe, not every LDS woman is surrounded by righteous men.
Let me tell a story to illustrate. Imagine a young couple who both hold the LDS faith. They get married in the temple. But through time, experience, disappointment, negative experiences, or a general falling away, the husband—the priesthood holder—stops being active.
The woman still loves her husband. She wishes, hopes, and prays that he will find his faith again. But until that happens, if she wants to have access to priesthood powers such as a priesthood blessing, she now has to go outside of her home to find them. She has to ask some other priesthood holder to do for her what her spouse cannot or will not.
She has to find a way to open the door that is closed to her by patriarchy. It has also been closed by her husband’s choices, I know. But it hasn’t been closed because of her choices. (Unless you want to question entirely her marriage to this particular man.)
It is a door she cannot open by herself because, as a woman, she doesn’t have the key.
The point of the story is that in an ideal world, a male-only priesthood works perfectly well. In the real world, it doesn’t. Families are imperfect, people make difficult choices, everyone experiences trials of their faith. A priesthood that is held by only one gender necessarily limits the other gender's abillity to experience that priesthood; I have to rely on a man's righteousness rather than my own. In an ideal world full of righteous men, perhaps that wouldn't matter. In the real world it does.
And also, there is this: Men get to experience things with the priesthood that a woman without it never will. Namely, the experience of giving blessings. This was a power that women in the early LDS church held, but it was taken away from them. And I confess: I do wish I could experience that. I don’t want the priesthood because I want power. I don’t want it out of a desire to rule anyone else, or because I dislike men, or because I don't believe in the prophet. I do want that piece of it, though, the ability to give a priesthood blessing, both because I would like to bless my children in that way (a mother’s blessing as opposed to a father’s blessing) and because I would like to know how it feels.
I would like to go through that doorway.
But honestly, it's not philosophical or religious or gender-specific ideas that bothers me the most in this topic. Instead, what disturbs me (deeply) when the female ordination discussion gets started is just how cruel women are—to each other. "I will wear a dress on Sunday to prove to those women that I’m following God’s law" and other statements are things I read on many a Facebook status update. Derisive statements about how those women discussing ordination are less faithful members of the church. Women placing themselves above others because "I am going to listen to the prophet, unlike some people." And my always-favorite comment, "I don’t need to have the priesthood because my husband has it."
That frustrates me because who has told women that they only need access to the priesthood through men? Men.
But even more frustrating is the assumption that many women make—that because she doesn’t feel the need to wield the priesthood, then no other woman should. Which is why, ultimately, I cannot say what my opinion on the matter is: because my opinion only applies to me. Because whatever cutting comments I could say to "those women" who think women being ordinated with the priesthood is pure __________ (silliness, pride, stupidity, vanity), I cannot say for them in their lives what is best.
I can only speak for myself, and for myself I will say this: I refuse to judge or look negatively on people whose opinions are different than mine. If you think that women should have the priesthood I don’t think your testimony is weaker than mine. If you think that women shouldn’t, I don’t think your testimony is stronger than mine. What I do think is that creating an us-versus-them dichotomy is just as damaging as anything else.
I wrote this earlier: I think women are amazing. We are capable of so much greatness. But we are not one sided; we are also capable of great cruelty. A specific sort of cruelty, even. (Both of my sons have, as soon as they started junior high, noticed and come to talk to me about the same thing: why are girls so mean to each other?) We judge each other—for weight or dress or opinion. For wealth or education or testimony (or lack of them). We like to think we grew out of it, that we left it behind in our ninth-grade gym lockers, but really: we didn’t. You need only read a blog post or an essay about, say, women being ordained with the priesthood. Read the comments that adult women make to one another and that is all the proof you need for our continuing capability for meanness.
Who am I to conjecture? But maybe that’s why men have the priesthood and we don’t. (Not that men are immune to judging others, but they are, let’s face it, far less likely to be mean to each other or to women in the way that women are mean to women.) Maybe until women learn to love—really, truly, unconditionally love—each other, like Christ wanted us to, we will never achieve our truest potential, whether that includes the priesthood or not.