2014 Religious Trends
Joseph Smith on Mormon Women and the Priesthood
Rather than organizing the Relief Society according to male priesthood rankings, Joseph divested that prerogative to Emma as part and parcel of the priesthood key he turned over to her. "If (emphasis mine) any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us." The Elect Lady chose not to implement the male pattern. It is very possible that Emma preferred the more horizontally orientated structures of female co-operation and friendship, to appropriating a male model dependent on verticality and hierarchy.
However, the full development of the Female Relief Society was curtailed amidst the contention between the First Elder and the Elect Lady over the issue of polygamy. Brigham Young's daughter, Susa Young Gates observed: "The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet in those first meetings have never been granted to women in full even yet." (See Cheryl L. Bruno, "Keeping a Secret: Freemasonry, Polygamy, and the Nauvoo Relief Society, 1842-1844," Journal of Mormon History [Fall 2013]: 176.) As a fuller, more accurate LDS history is excavated, there is an increasing feeling of loss and a consequent unease about women's position in the current church structure together with a hunger for the rights and privileges committed to Presidentess Emma Smith, and the Female Relief Society on Thursday, March 17, 1842.
The historical record thus suggests that Joseph and Emma's original vision might not entail the ordination of women into the male organization. It would entail restoring the Female Relief Society to its original autonomous status, and restoring to women their role as full collaborators with their male counterparts in the administration of the church. Some moves in this direction are under way (such as the changed role and ages of female missionaries, the enhanced role of women in church councils, the combined general meeting of the Female Relief Society together with her auxiliaries—the Young Women and Primary, etc.). To the impatient, these steps may seem miniscule. But they are steps in the direction of recognizing and expanding the prerogatives of an effectual priestesshood that may have been implicit in Joseph's founding vision.
Fiona Givens recently retired from directing the French Language program at Patrick Henry High School, in Ashland Virginia. Besides education, she has worked in translation services, as a lobbyist, and as communications director of a non-profit. She and her husband, Terryl Givens, co-authored The God Who Weeps (October 2012).