A Couple Knots with Mormon Women and the Priesthood

Fairly recently, some Mormon feminists have generated a lot of discussion about women and the priesthood with a campaign for female ordination. Ironically, as some Mormon feminists lobby for integrating women into what’s been characterized as a patriarchal institution, other news outlets like the New York Magazine and the Atlanticand the HuffPo are debating what may be a growing trend in women choosing to leave the workplace to embrace the domestic sphere.

The differing views over ordination have highlighted once again the diversity within Mormon feminism (and the difficulty in using this umbrella term to meaningfully encompass them). I think the discussion has been fruitful, and in the hope of making it more so, I want to highlight a couple “knots” that I think we could consider as we all engage with each other’s questions and thoughts about female ordination.

So, for one: I have noticed that many of the arguments for ordaining women downplay the role of childbirth in efforts to paint women and men symmetrically. Because some traditional explanations for a male priesthood have appealed to women’s “motherhood,” advocates for female ordination respond by arguing that motherhood and fatherhood—not priesthood— is the proper pairing. Thus, equality requires that women be ordained to the priesthood just as men. While there’s no question that fatherhood and motherhood are equally important roles and identities, motherhood involves a component that fatherhood simply does not: birth.

As it stands, Mormonism gives pretty weighty significance to childbirth—often described as a unique co-participation with God. Most feminists dismiss these kinds of sentiments as hyperbolic consolation prizes for excluding women from the power structure of the Church. While comparing childbirth and the priesthood may be comparing apples to oranges, it seems equally unhelpful to say there’s no apple. In other words,  I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss the significance of childbirth. Women bear a weighty burden of pain, mortal risk, and sacrifice to bring a child into the world, even in today’s medically institutionalized world. While some feminists may not view childbirth as a spiritual act laden with holiness or sacrifice, I find such a view more theologically compelling than to grant childbirth as a mere act of biological happenstance too trivial to distinguish it from fatherhood. If childbirth is nothing more than biological happenstance, it seems to me that women got the raw end of the deal.

It would be more theologically satisfying to me that childbirth hold some meaning beyond biological cause and effect. What that meaning may be, I can’t personally speak to, not yet having had children. But many (not all) women have found it to be a spiritually transformative, incomparable experience–even with, or perhaps partly because of, the pain and sacrifice. To be clear: I am not arguing that a woman’s capacity for childbirth logically requires their exclusion from administrative or leadership roles; I am simply saying that feminist arguments aren’t doing women a service by ignoring it. There might be better rapport if they consider their fellow sisters and feminists who see childbirth—whether their own or their fellow sisters’—as a unique and sacred part of womanhood, their covenantal relationship with God (or perhaps Heavenly Mother), and their priestesshood.

Not only has childbirth represented a spiritually empowering and unique role for many women—it has also provided rich opportunities for Mormon women to practice ritual healing and anointing in the past. As is becoming more well-known, Mormon women performed healing blessings to their husbands, children, and other women, well up until the mid-twentieth century—but their primary area of ministration was for childbirth. Women performed washings, anointings, and blessings on those in labor or confinement. As another historian pointed out, Mormon midwifery was viewed as a sacred calling. By ignoring childbirth in an effort to prove that female ordination is a necessary equalizer, these feminists are cutting themselves off from one of their strongest historical ties to priest[ess]hood ordinances. And to me, it is a shame to sacrifice a rich and unique part of our heritage—and possibly, our future, if tides change again to bring these practices back—in what may be a hasty overcorrection.

Another issue that needs to be ironed out for a more productive discussion on female ordination, in my opinion, is the concept of priesthood itself. The sleek websites and self-evident sounding slogans belie the complexity of what ‘priesthood’ actually is. I’d go so far as to say I’m not sure many Mormons could really pin it down, though I’m sure they’d locate it somewhere in a web of service, leadership, power, hierarchy, sacrifice, ordinances, and administration. Many current feminists seem to treat the priesthood as an entire package deal that should simply be transferred over to women.

The concept of priesthood seems a bit too messy for such a tidy transferal. Priesthood seemed first tied to the legitimacy of ordinances; then it was used to identify ecclesiastical offices (like priest or high priest), with accompanying classification of priesthood and high priesthood. More ecclesiastical offices and new priesthood classes gradually formed, somewhat unevenly, and by correlation in the mid-20th century, priesthood, ordinances, leadership, and administration had snowballed into one inextricable mass. As Jonathan Stapley points out, Joseph also used the term “priesthood” to refer to a co-gender temple quorum (Quorum of the Anointed), as well as to denote a celestial network or family—what Stapley refers to as “cosmological” priesthood. Richard Bushman identifies Joseph even using the concept to describe a particularly congenial and uplifting dinner party—further evidence that Joseph’s usage of the term “priesthood” was more varied than we might expect. [1].

This background might complicate the statement, cited by many feminists, which Joseph Smith made regarding his intentions to “make of this Society a kingdom of priests, as in Enoch’s day.”  Enoch, an important prophetic figure to Joseph Smith, represented a holy utopia– not an administrative institution. I’m certainly not saying Joseph didn’t intend for women to have a kind of priesthood—I think the evidence suggests that he certainly did (and current temple rituals affirm women’s identities as priestesses). But it’s not clear Joseph ever intended their integration into the male priesthood. Again, I’m not using that as an argument that women should have not leadership or administrative roles. (In my personal opinion, I think it’d be helpful to differentiate those from priesthood, anyway). I simply don’t think that we understand enough about what priesthood even means at this point to argue women are historically entitled to the package of administration, leadership, and decision making that contemporary feminists are arguing for. Perhaps we should further explore Joseph’s less understood usages, or explore the idea of what a priestesshood could mean, as Nathaniel Givens aptly argued.

And in that spirit of exploration—and, well, since this entire conversation is rather hypothetical, given the only formal changes that can happen require a prophetic revelation—I’ll feel free to share a [highly abbreviated] vision that currently satisfies me, both spiritually and mentally. I have no illusions about it being the right way or the future way the Church will go. But a bit of personal theologizing isn’t a bad way to find peace, hope, and further questions to explore.

I envision a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are equal in goodness, love, and light. Who are interdependent, complementary, and equally engaged in the salvation of their children. They grant to their sons and daughters a priesthood and a priestesshood whereby they can actively develop the capacity to serve, sacrifice, love, and minister to their familiesliteral and extended—during a mortal education in agency and Zion-building. Women’s priestesshood includes the ordinance of physical birth, and men’s priesthood, the ordinances of spiritual birth of their children: baby blessings, baptism and confirmation. Jointly, men and women minister to their children. Jointly, couples also administer sealing ordinances, in representation of the divine couple newlyweds are striving to emulate. Priestesshood could also entail a stewardship over women (RS, YW), and priesthood, one over men (EQ, YM); where both men and women are concerned, both men and women can contribute.  Church administration could be detangled from priesthood and be viewed as a stewardship over the Church family, in which both men and women serve and bear the burden of administration.

I choose the word “burden” intentionally. Administration is a tedious necessity; ministration is godly service. Aspiring to church leadership and administration seems askew to me—but offering to help bear the burden so that both may engage in more ministry seems better. As a missionary, I felt bad for the elders who were so preoccupied with administrative work—and with their status in the hierarchical ladder of leadership—while I was left unencumbered to minister to our investigators and members, and any other person we could help and uplift. So, as a last note, before we all clamor for women to have the “priesthood,” it might be worth trying to reevaluate what priesthood is and is not, and what it could be and should not be. After all, Emma Smith—the first president of the women’s Relief Society, urged the women “that as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had been heretofore pursued.” That’s a spirit I think we can all get behind.


[1] Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 305.


    I thnk some sisters feel like women were given the priesthood when RS was first formed. Here is a quote from President John Taylor:
    WORK OF THE WOMEN.—A great deal of credit is due to our sisters. God has provided them as helpmates to their husbands, and it is the duty of the latter to cherish and protect those whom God has given unto them, and show them how to make themselves happy. Teach them—our wives and daughters—the pure principles of the gospel that the daughters of Zion may be lovely and shine as the light and glory of the age in which we live. Sisters, put away from you the vanities and frivolities of the world, administer to the poor and the afflicted. The sisters know how to sympathize with and administer to those who are poor, afflicted, and downcast; and let the brethren help them in their kindly ministrations.—JD, 19:142, October 14, 1877.
    John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, p.178
    I am glad there is a little spirit among our sisters, and that they dare say their souls are their own.—JD, 14:270, December 17, 1871.
    John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, p.178
    THE RELIEF SOCIETY.—We have here our Relief Societies, and they have done a good work. And people are desirous to know something of these organizations. I was in Nauvoo at the time the Relief Society was organized by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I was present on the occasion. At a late meeting of the society held in Salt Lake City I was present, and I read from a record called the Book of the Law of the Lord, the minutes of that meeting.
    John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, p.178
    WOMEN CALLED TO LABOR, TO EXPOUND SCRIPTURES.—At that meeting the Prophet called Sister Emma to be an elect lady. That means that she was called to a certain work; and that was in fulfilment of a certain revelation concerning her. She was elected to preside over the Relief Society, and she was ordained to expound the scriptures. In compliance with Brother Joseph’s request. Sister Whitney, wife of Bishop Newel K. Whitney, and Sister Cleveland, wife of Judge Cleveland, were selected to be her counselors.
    WOMEN HOLD PRIESTHOOD IN CONNECTION WITH THEIR HUSBANDS.—Some of the sisters have thought that these sisters mentioned, were, in this ordination, ordained to the priesthood. And for the information of all interested in this subject, I will say, it is not the calling of these sisters to hold the priesthood, only in connection with their husbands, they being one with their husbands. Sister Emma was elected to expound the scriptures, and to preside over the Relief Society; then Sisters Whitney and Cleveland were ordained to the same office, and I think Sister Eliza R. Snow to be secretary. A short time ago I attended a meeting in Salt Lake City, where Sister Snow and Sister Whitney were set apart. I happened to be the only member of the twelve in town at the time, the other members of the quorum being unavoidably absent. I went to this meeting and set apart Sister Whitney and Sister Snow who were two of those I set apart some forty years ago, in Nauvoo. And after I had done so, they reminded me of the coincidence. At this meeting, however, Sister Snow was set apart to preside over the Relief Societies in the land of Zion, and Sister Whitney, her counselor, with Sister Zina D. Young, her other counselor. I speak of this for the information of the sisters, although I presume they may have read of it in their paper, The Exponent.

    President Taylor had a lot of other things to say about the priesthood, things that perhaps speak to some of the subjects in the OP. Since he was there, and assisted in the settings apart, I would consider his position that the priesthood was not given to the sisters at that time to be telling. It seems as if some feminists today believe the question of sisters being ordained to the priesthood is of recent invention. Hardly. Sisters have been inquiring about it for 180 years, and my guess is they inquired about it from the days of Adam and Eve. Yet, barring some grand conspiracy, the answer has been unequivocally “no.” Now, are there some things sisters might do? ” But, except for the priests duty to baptize and bless the sacrament, and the priests’ and teachers’ duties to visit teach and to ordain, most assignments given to Aaronic boys in this century require no actual priesthood authority to perform. During World War II, for example, girls collected fast offerings. Women have also prepared the sacrament tables. President Heber J. Grant once authorized boys with no priesthood to pass the sacrament when ordained boys were unavailable.” These assignments, though generally a responsibility of the AP, technically were not considered priesthood functions. But all ordinances, and the execution of some offices, are strictly a function of priesthood. My guess is that if we ever find ourselves in a situation where there are no priesthood holders to perform the temporal tasks, then sisters would be requested to help out. But in most situations, leaders want the AP to perform those duties in preparation for the MPH.

  • C.

    Interesting take. I’m not sure I’d agree, though, that most Mormon feminists downplay childbirth. I claim the title of Mormon feminism and I certainly don’t! I do think it’s holy and theologically laden, but I don’t think it’s equivalent to administrative and decision making authority. If priesthood is not contingent on fatherhood, making motherhood a primary starting point of talking about women’s ordination is unhelpful and not correct. It also brings up a lot of the issues mofems have with the idea of role based doctrine that focuses almost primarily on the role of mother for women. That’s a long sidetrack though.

    You speak well (and much more eloquently than I could!) on the complexity of the priesthood, but one of my personal feminist quibbles with it (which you addressed, I’m just reemphasizing) is how it fundamentally ties gender to authority and offers no chance for a woman to ever be in the position of ultimate decision making and authority over a male. As long as priesthood is tied, as I believe it is, primarily to temporal governance rather than spiritual service and discipleship, in our manuals, our lessons, and our administrative practice, I think Mormon feminists have a strong argument for inclusion into it. Like you I’d like to see it decoupled from temporal administration, at least to the degree that it currently is connected.

    But I’m afraid I don’t really buy the argument that birth is an ordinance, much less that it’s equivalent to male priesthood ordinances. I don’t think that naming and blessing children is an ordinance that gives spiritual parenthood the same way birth does – a man does not become a father when he gives a blessing spiritual or otherwise. He too becomes a father through childbirth, a process he is involved with, but fairly minimally from a biological perspective.

    I really like your emphasis that the priesthood is so complex and that we don’t really understand it. Teaching a lesson on it in SS a few weeks ago I was struck but how much we simply don’t know about it – the dates for the restoration of the MelP are fuzzy, the meaning of the word has shifted significantly in our short history, and as you pointed out so beautifully, the ordinances, services, and responsibilities associated with it have been more or less in a state of theological and cultural flux.

    Thanks for your input on this. I seldom comment, but I always appreciate your thoughtful approach and inquiry into rough territory.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for your thoughtful pushback and additions, C. Just to clarify- I’m not trying to make any equivalencies between physical birth and administrative/decision-making authority (as I said– it’s rather like apples and oranges). My main point was that birth is, both historically and experientially, a sacred realm for many women that shouldn’t be sidelined in discussions about womanhood, spiritual power, priestesshood, and ordinances. As for birth being an ordinance- I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be, really. Also, I think Ruth’s comment below makes an interesting point about where to locate a starting point for both priesthood and priestesshood: family- not the Church. Hence, I defined both primarily in terms of their familial function, and secondarily, by their Church function. As for birth’s parallel with baptism- I find Christ’s play on words with physical birth and spiritual birth (baptism) in his conversation with Nicodemus to have potentially interesting implications for the parallel. From my understanding, though many Mormons have interpreted 3:5 to refer to baptism and confirmation, other commentators have understood the Greek to be referring to physical birth (by water) and spiritual birth (by baptism). Just fun food for thought! Thanks for joining in on the conversation- I really appreciate your input.

  • ruth

    Thanks for this one, Rachael. I have also found in my ‘personal theology’ a need to explain the men’s and women’s roles, and their unity, in terms of pre- and post-mortal existence. I’m not sure if you meant to go this far here, but it makes sense to me to talk about birth and resurrection both as priestly/priestessly ordinances, not to mention the amount of united and personal effort and reflection required to create a situation in which people actually want to live, together, forever. Additionally, though I understand that the debates about priesthood have to do with all of the structures of the church and its people, I find that discussion go better, and make more sense, when they start with familial structures and allow the church’s institutional adminstration (wards, branches, missions, districts, stakes, etc.) to be seen in practical terms as an extension and support for communities built on families and other personal associations. Of course it doesn’t solve all of the debates, but it makes much more practical, logical, and experiential sense to me that way.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for those ideas, Ruth. I haven’t thought of resurrection or marital/familial effort as ordinances. I think you make a strong point about starting the discussion with familial structures and viewing the church as a practical extension. I think more and more Church discourse is emphasizing that trajectory– where families are primary, and all programs and institutional duties are supportive structures for the family. I also think that an interesting extension of that idea is that as familial culture becomes more centered on co-parenting and egalitarian marriage, as I think it is with this generation, then the Church admin/institutional structure will change as well. With men becoming more involved as fathers and husbands (which the Church is also emphasizing more), I think it would make sense for women to start shouldering more of the secondary stuff.

  • John

    I thought this was well reasoned. I think it fairly calls into question the ideological frames we use to understand priesthood . The church seems to be slowly doing some things to address inequalities. Young girls now have activities at the same time as cub scouts, the mission age etc. But there are still some questions here. What are the equivalent rites of passage for girls in the church?” “How do we account for individuals whose talents lie beyond narrowly prescribed roles?”

    For that matter, I think those roles can be narrow for men as well. Not all of us make enough money to be the sole bread winner of a large family unit living in a nice house in the suburbs.

    I also think it would be interesting to question the reasons for a patriarchal priesthood order in the church. If it is god’s will that women have the priesthood and men don’t, then I can’t argue with that. But if priesthood is actually more fluid than that, which there is room in both our church’s history and in the scriptures to suggest that these things are not static? What are the reasons for maintaining status quo?

    Also I think the author is right to question what exactly priesthood is, since it appears the rights and duties of priesthood have changed significantly over the years. It is not clear to me why priesthood office is needed for many of the administrative roles in the church, passing sacrament, sunday school presidency etc. To me it seems that we could address some things about sharing the administrative responsibilities in the church without ordination. But I do see the argument on the other side. Women can often feel pushed aside at times. Many don’t and feel comfortable with the gender norms and roles in the church when others do. I think this is because experiences, political leanings, talents, dispositions, and cultural development precondition people to perceive themselves and the world differently. I can’t blame them for that. I am similarly biased in my views. I think it may be more useful to examine why some women feel unequal to men in the church than whether or not women should receive ordination.

  • Maxine Hanks

    Rachael, I’m so glad to see you problematize and rethink priesthood in these ways. (I made some of these same points in an interview, appearing soon). Complexity is indeed the word for priesthood, especially for women’s access to priesthood or divine power and authority. Historically women have experienced some degree of access to both aspects of “priesthood” (power and authority) in a variety of ways. Also, I agree that motherhood doesn’t equal fatherhood although they are equivalent terms or labels (I opined on this the ’90s—the demands of pregnancy and birthing and motherhood). I view motherhood as an avenue of divine power, a partnership with God in the creation of life. If that’s not priesthood, I don’t know what is. Yet, motherhood is not the only avenue of divine power and authority or “priesthood” accessible to women (again, we agree).

    The Gifts of the Spirit heightened women’s access to divine power, including the ability to bless and heal. The Relief Society was described as women’s own form of priesthood, which they could choose to pattern after the men’s offices (“If 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.”). Joseph distinguished women’s priesthood from men’s, yet he also depicted them as similar (“the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood”). Both were viewed as preparatory orders, and ecclesiastical or priestly offices — lesser to the higher priesthood or fullness, in the temple. (“He would ordain them to preside over the Society–and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church.”) The Anointed Quorum or Holy Order of the temple was a higher priesthood that integrated men and women into one order, distinct from ecclesiastical authority (as you also noted).

    I interpret Joseph as instituting both–separate female/male orders, and an integrated order (plus a “patriarchal order” and Brown/Stapley’s “cosmological order”). Joseph also linked women’s priesthood to two other orders in two dispensations prior to and after the orders/dispensations of Melchizedek and Moses (Aaron). Joseph said “he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day – as in Paul’s day – that it is the privilege of each member to live long.” Joseph said “priests” not “priestesses” thus equating women’s priesthood with men’s, or signifying the R.S. as a preparatory or priestly class, distinct from the higher priesthood of the temple. I think Joseph knew what he was doing, and intentionally linked the R.S. or women’s priest-ness to the order of Enoch pre-dating Melchizedek’s dispensation, and to the Christian order of Paul & Jesus post-dating Moses’ dispensation–thus invoking a more complete Restoration of dispensations. Although Joseph links Enoch and Paul to long-lives, both have implicit meaning beyond that definition. Joseph clearly cites two different orders for women’s priesthood.

    I see the Church preserving Joseph’s and Emma’s original vision, letting it unfold, reveal itself–which I see echoing in our vision, and in the vision of all the feminists, and in the vision of all the sisters who don’t use that label. Our shared history and our shared Mother seem to be speaking through us all.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for bringing so much of your research to the discussion! You’ve shown the complexity of the priesthood at a new level– it looks like there is a lot of work to be done for us to understand all its facets. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on it– thanks for referencing your past work. I agree- it is wonderful to see ripples and shifts as more members explore these issues.

      • Maxine Hanks

        I think you’re brave and deeply analytical in your tackling the complexity of women’s priesthood, I was impressed to see you take this on, and do so well with it. Yes, I think it’s unfolding. Thanks for provoking me to come out and chat today. ;-)

  • John

    After thinking about this article for a while, I want to push back on your characterization of Feminist Mormon women. In my experience most of them aren’t 2nd wave but 3rd wave feminists. They value motherhood A LOT. Many are midwives and doulas, and I think they do value birth as you seem to argue they minimize in the third paragraph. As a father who was very involved in the birth process with my wife, I feel her birth was, while perhaps not equivalent, VERY life changing and empowering for me to participate in. I think how you feel about this has more to do with attitudes about authority and the fallibility/infallibility of the Patriarchal Priesthood of this church. I have found very intolerant views levied at feminist Mormons who want ordination and their male allies. This intolerance is understandable from an orthodox perspective. People feel anger at dissidents for not respecting the executive authority of the prophet and that traditional religious patriarchy and conservative Mormon cultural values are under attack.

    • Rachael

      I’m glad that you see so many feminists valuing motherhood; I hope by saying that I’ve seen “many feminist arguments” sidelining childbirth, it hasn’t been construed as a characterization of all Mormon feminist women; that wasn’t my intention. I’m delighted you had such a life changing experience with the birth process. Thanks for the thoughts!

  • JohnH

    Given Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, Anna, Priscilla, Pheobe, Noadiah, Syntyche, Euodia, and Junia then I think it is fairly certian that we don’t have everything on Women and the priesthood. They all appear to hold roles similar to that of High Priests (or Seventy (Priscilla) or Apostle (Junia), if the translation and traditions are to be believed in that). Some of them had leadership over the entire nation, or of kings and the high preist (so a Bishop), or over their entire church unit. The roles of prophetesses don’t appear to include Aaronic priesthood functions, which makes a lot of sense given the epistles of John and Paul as to what Baptism is.

    • Rachael

      Good examples, JohnH. Yes, I think there is a great deal more for us to understand about those women and their roles that could illuminate much in this discussion.