Do Mormon women lack standing in their own faith?

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The issue of women’s roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been bubbling for a while, and it’s back in the news this week.

As Religion News Service reported, the Ordain Women advocacy group will be denied access to the Mormons’ all-male general priesthood session next month.

That latest news reminds me that we need to pull an important item out of our GetReligion guilt file — those stories that we want to cover but for whatever reason haven’t.

I’m referring to The New York Times’ 5,000-word, front-page Sunday story from a few weeks ago on the sea change brought by the Mormon church lowering its age requirement for female missionaries to 19 from 21:

DAEJEON, South Korea — Ashley Farr, once Miss North Salt Lake Teen USA, is the first in her family’s long line of Mormon women to become a missionary, and in December she embarked on her new life in this gray corner of Asia. She packed her bag according to the church’s precise instructions: skirts that cover the knee, only one pair of pants, earrings that dangle no longer than one inch, and subtle but flattering makeup, modeled in photos on the church’s website.

Sister Farr, as she now is called, had left behind the student entrepreneurship competitions she was helping to run in Utah and paused her relationship with her boyfriend, far away in the Philippines, as they served his-and-her missions. Ms. Farr, a finance student at Brigham Young University in Utah, believed proselytizing would not only please God but also give her the organizational and persuasive skills to succeed professionally. She rattled off all the things she wants to become: Intern at Goldman Sachs. Wife of a mission president. Chief executive of a fashion or technology company.

“A mother and a businesswoman,” she said in an interview on her first day, neatly summarizing the two worlds, Mormon and secular, in which she hopes to thrive.

On the surface, it’s a fantastic story filled with revealing details about the experiences of the female missionaries featured, and it’s bolstered by an excellent multimedia presentation — including photos and videos.

But while the Times story certainly is an important addition to the national conversation on Mormon women’s roles, the piece seems overly broad and scattered.

“The story of female missionaries is an interesting one, and though the age of service has changed, the rest of the story is similar to what it has been for some time,” a Mormon reader said in an email to GetReligion. “That story is a different story than the issue of women’s ordination, which is another issue altogether than dating rituals in the LDS Church.”

That same reader complained that the story contains an underlying assumption that Mormon women lack standing in their own faith and that it needs to change.

Yet the Times fails to take a close look at Mormon doctrine or history — both factors that would seem crucial to providing a grounding for such an assumption.

The story includes only one quote from anyone in the Mormon leadership structure:

However, the church will go only so far: Ordaining women as priests is out of the question because it is a matter of doctrine, leaders in Salt Lake City said in an interview.

“Culturally there’s an understanding that women’s roles are going to be more and more important, but doctrine is not going to be changing,” said Michael Otterson, who directs the church’s public affairs efforts worldwide. The new wave of returning female missionaries, he added, would amount to an “injection of really theologically well-trained women” and enrich the church “if they can make the transition back.”

While the story makes repeated references to the term “priest,” the Times doesn’t bother to elaborate on what that role encompasses in the Mormon church.

“That would have put everything in context,” the GetReligion reader suggested. “But they just came at it from a set of unexamined liberal elite assumptions.”

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Darren Blair

    As someone who is an actual member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?

    1. The video notes that some women want the right to have their daughters serve as ushers. In those congregations that I’ve been to, there was no such position. You will occasionally see someone wearing an “usher” badge if it’s a big event and there are a lot of people coming and going, but 9 for 10 the people who I’ve seen with the tags have been missionaries and/or prominent individuals. If a congregation maintains “usher” as a permanent position, then it’s likely a case-by-case basis.

    2. The video gives the impression that religious leaders periodically call people in to interrogate them about their sex lives.

    This is false.

    In reality, local ministers have what is essentially a checklist of questions that they are required to ask people whenever they are interviewed. This checklist covers a wide variety of topics, and IIRC only one or two questions are devoted to whether or not a person is following the church guidelines in regards to chastity.

    The rest cover such topics as “if the person has faith in the church leadership” and “if the person believes in the scriptures”. In other words, these are the types of questions that one would expect religious leaders of other denominations to be asking their followers from time to time.

    3. Interviews between clergy and the person being interviewed are typically one-on-one unless the specific circumstances call for a family-level meeting. This is done so as to protect the privacy of the person being interviewed. (In fact, individual buildings have white noise generators installed near the offices of the clergy to make life more difficult for eavesdroppers.)

    4. The RNS news article references the fact that the Priesthood session is being streamed live on the internet, but did not state if the Ordain Women group had a reaction to this. Oops.

    5. As noted in the comments for the RNS article, the group’s being asked to stay in the “Free Speech” areas would only apply if they intend to protest. If they just simply wanted to access Temple Square as everyday members of the church, then nobody would say a word. A good chunk of what’s going on is backlash caused by these people making public what should be internal matters.

    6. I note that neither the video nor RNS stop to discuss the Relief Society, the church’s womens’ auxiliary. The Relief Society has a long and storied history, but far too many articles on the “ordain women” movement within the church treat it as a non-entity.

    So both CBS and RNS dropped the ball on this one, albeit in different fashions.

  • SoundOn

    Do Mormon women lack standing in their own faith? No. The feminist movement is a popular one in today’s world and so it’s no surprise that the ordaining women movement is gaining traction with a media that loves to cover such worldly topics, but generally, women in the Church don’t even want the Priesthood. In the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, studies were quoted on attitudes among Mormons about women receiving the priesthood. Within Mormonism itself, there is a significant split by gender on this question. Findings showed that only 10% of Mormon women want the priesthood and 48% of Mormon men say they favor female LDS clergy. In other words men and women in the Church are content in their respective roles, but if anything men are more in favor of ordaining women than the women are themselves. Ordaining women is an issue brought up by critics and the media, but it is a non issue within the Church.

    • John Pack Lambert

      The most recent polling I have seen on the issue is that 90% of Mormon women and 87% of Mormon men favor the current policies on the priesthood.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Another complaint is that the writer of the article actually interviewed Sister Burton, head of the Relief Society, and thus arguable the leading woman in the church, and then almost ignored everything she had to say.
    On another hand, there are women like Valery Hudson Canseler, a holder of an endowed chair at the University of Houston and former professor at BYU who have very strong feminist ideas, and also think that the main problem with the “Ordain Women” people is that they do not understand LDS theology at all.
    LDS leaders teach of a Mother in Heaven. This is actually clearly spoken of in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” a document hated by liberals because it declares marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
    The times missed a lot of issues.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The Times opening mentioned the sister missionary they interviewed had among other asperations being “a mission presidents wife”. What they failed to discuss is that it is telling that she says mission president’s wife, and not bishop’s wife. THe former is an actual church position, with specific duties and assignments, and starting a year ago membership on a council, the later has none of these (although might include membership on a ward council in some cases, but only because the wife might hold a ward council position).
    Another problem with the article in the NYT is it talked of the inclusion of women in mission councils as if this was a major step for women. The reality is that for decades women have sat on ward councils and stake councils. Mission councils were the exception in not having women, and this has more to do with the complex history of missionary work than anything else.
    The reality of the Mormon Church is that there are many, many men like me who are teachers in the primary, who have as their immediate leaders in the calling the all female primary presidency. In fact, our numbers have increased since about 2002 when the church adopted a policy that men should never be assigned to teach primary classes alone, but always in pairs either with another male or with their wife.

  • FW Ken

    With a few changes, the NYT could have been talking about the ordination of women till the Catholic priesthood. The talking points are quite similar.


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