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.

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  • sarah

    @John – Amen! As a third wave feminist , I would have to echo those sentiments and feel most of the first and second wave also treasure there experience with the birthing process and motherhood as a very sacred experience which brings one closer to God… But still feel this is not equal to the priesthood. Priestesshood would be equal to the priesthood.
    The question is then, what about those women who cannot have children? What are you then implying? Are they not worthy women? Are they not able to have this experience because they spiritually aren’t worthy to have this?

    • Rachael

      Good questions, Sarah. As Jaime pointed out in her comment, birth could be one among many priestesshood ordinances. Women would continue to minister to their fellow sisters in the temple and in their stewardship over each other as women (in YW and RS) and minister with men in those areas which affect men and women generally. And of course mortal circumstances don’t always have a spiritual reason; they are a part of the mortal experience. Women who cannot or do not have children are no less worthy. Childbirth could still be personally sacred if they were able to minister to those in childbirth as they did in the early Church.

  • Jaime

    Rachael, thanks for this! I especially love your bit of theologizing at the end – what a vision! It would be a long road to implementing something similar, but I am feeling so hopeful after reading this. I particularly like how orienting the “spiritual birth” ordinances of priesthood in parallel to physical birth avoids the problem of what unique purpose men would retain in a unisex priesthood.

  • Jaime

    Which is not to fall into the motherhood = priesthood trap, I should clarify. What I like is that in the vision of priestesshood you describe at the end, one with a full complement of ordinances, birth becomes just one ordinance in which women can participate. Priestesshood could simultaneously sacralize birth and contextualize it as just one of women’s many opportunities to minister and administer.

    • Rachael

      Yes, that’s also exactly what I had in mind. Perfectly put.

  • Howard

    Please explain what you mean by calling birth and resurrection ordinances in this thread. Aren’t ordinances symbolic rituals? What do birth and resurrection symbolize? Aren’t they the real thing?

    • Rachael

      Thanks for the good question. While I am still trying to understand ordinances better, I’m not sure they serve simply a symbolic function. Does baptism bestow a real kind of “newness” of spiritual life? Does endowment bestow real spiritual power? Does a sealing create real welding bonds? Or are they just symbolic?

  • http://jenneology.blogspot.com Jenne

    I am so glad to see this post considering the topic in this way. I feel its definitely helpful for the conversation to see people willing to engage thoughtfully without throwing stones, so thank you. My feminist perspective is actually very much grounded in motherhood and activism related to mothering issues. The problem is the inflated value motherhood is given to the exclusion of other aspects of womanhood. I also see an effort on the part of feminists to be inclusive of women who are not mothers. They try to imagine an authority structure that doesn’t marginalize non-mothers. The logic goes: if a never married, childless woman deserves the priesthood in order to fully participate, then the married mother deserves the same. Are the mothers (who tend to be the voices dominating the discourse of Mormon feminism because of the high percentage of MoFems who are mothers) devaluing their motherhood in favor of being sensitive to their non-mothering sisters? I don’t know.

    I do know that my friends have a habit of calling me out when I put too much emphasis on mothering and as a result minimize the significance of fatherhood. I am a huge fan of Eve and the idea of birth being an ordinance. But I have one friend who always reminds me that I cannot neglect the role of Adam in the fertilization of the egg contained in the woman’s body–that without his contribution, there is no divine spark. It could be that we will not be able to appropriately find the male analogous role of pregnancy and childbirth until we re-situate fertilization into the equation. In that model, mothering is analogous to fathering, and bearing is analogous to begetting. Considering the cultural denigration of men as sperm donors, perhaps chastity talks would benefit from emphasizing the divinely important roles of fertilization and birthing.

    • JohnH

      Since Baptism is a new birth then we should not neglect the role of Eve in bearing the body which is being born again. In birth the water and blood both come from the mother while the spirit comes from God. In our new birth the water is any water, the blood is Christ’s, and the Holy Spirit comes from God through the priesthood holder. Neither birth nor baptism happens without the contributions of the other gender as one can not be baptised if one is not first born.

      • http://jenneology.blogspot.com Jenne

        JohnH, you nailed my reason for being such a huge fan of Eve. Your comment references the scripture from Moses where it says, “inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten–” one of my favorite scriptures.

      • Rachael

        Great point, JohnH. Corey and Jenne’s comments below cites a wonderful scripture in support the ordinance-natured, interdependent acts of spiritual and physical birth.
        Jenne, interesting thoughts about fertilization; I’m not sure I’d see begetting as analogous to bearing, but I see the point about interdependence as very significant.

        • http://jenneology.blogspot.com Jenne

          I think its important to acknowledge that analogous in this case doesn’t necessarily mean equal. A woman cannot be pregnant without the contribution of the male, yet she bears the brunt of the toil and responsibility in getting the baby into the world. However, they are equal partners (by divine design) in that process even though the male can only provide support as he sustains her in that work. When breastfeeding is factored in, his sustaining role continues for 1-2 more years as the child slowly begins to be able to look to him for more of the nurturing previously only provided by mother. In my personal experience, I am blessed in greater abundance as my husbands plays a more active role in the early days of my children’s lives. There are distinct differences for a short period of time that become less and less as the children mature, and yet at all stages, we still act as equal partners.

  • Dave K.

    Rachel, thanks for your thoughtful consideration of this issue. I am a male supporter of female ordination. I think open discussions such as these are critical in moving forward as a people on this issue.

    A few critiques. First, as much as I value childbirth, it is simply inaccurate to describe it as an ordinance – particularly a priesthood(ess) ordinance. No authority from God is needed to conceive (or inseminate), much less to give birth. Priesthood can only be handled on principles of righteousness. But children can be brought into the world by the most evil of women (and men). As appealing as this connection may be, it is simply false. There are no requirements of authority or righteousness to give birth.

    Second, whatever specialness is attached to the birthing process (and I believe it considerable), that event is temporary. The work women do to the exclusion of men lasts at most 9 months. But the priesthood is eternal. Men will be giving their children blessings a million years from now. But the birthing happens only once. My worry is that, if women’s unique role is time-fixed, then as time goes towards infinity, their importance goes towards zero. Not very appealing. Of course, many assume that some sort of “spiritual child birth” will take place in the eternities, but we have no scriptural support that spirit creation bears any resemblance to physical childbirth in mortality. And even if it did, we would have to assume that process was also time-fixed, not eternal, again leading to the conclusion that women’s unique roles are not of eternal significance – they happen only once.

    Third, a big driver of the current debate is the changinge nature of women’s roles. Because of longer lifespans, contraceptions, and an inceasingly populated world, women spend much less of their lives pregnant than did previous generations. Looking around my congregation, I see only 2-3 women pregnant at any point in time. Yet 100% of the men can be priesthood holders 100% of the time. If childbirth is really an equalizer, it is becoming less of one as women spend less and less of their lives pregnant.

    Last, ironically, very often it seems that the driving force for excluding women from the priesthood is that men are excluded from childbirth. But why do we chose exclusion of women from priesthood to be the equalizer? Why not say “women cannot each chocolate on Thursdays” or “women cannot learn latin” or anything else? There is no natural tie between priesthood and childbirth. If we really feel sorry for men’s exclusion from childbirth, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a ritual father/child bonding event – say a month excursion away from mom when a child turns 8. For me, that already happens because when each of my children were born, I held their tiny hand through the cleaning/health inspection period immediately following birth. My wife could not do that; she was recooperating in bed, exhausted. Only I could maintain physical and emotional contact with the child through those first tramatic moments away from Mom as nurses poked, gave shots, and shined bright lights into their eyes. But even though I had those moments with my children and my wife could not, I feel no need to exclude myself from other events in order to make things equal. So why the sense that we need to exclude women from priesthood to make men equal? I just dont’ get it.

    • Heidi

      Nothing more to add — just wanted to thank Dave for this response. Sums up my thoughts in a much more complete way than I could have done.

      • Rachael

        Thanks Dave, for your thoughtful opinions. However, I think it would benefit you and Heidi to read my post again, as well as the comment thread. I think you both have misunderstood a couple things– 1) I have not said birth is an “equalizer.” (I said it’s apples to oranges). I simply said it shouldn’t be ignored (for all the reasons I outlined). 2) I have not said birth is the only ordinance women participate in. It could be considered as one among several aspects of a woman’s priestesshood and stewardship.

        On other points, I disagree with you not necessarily because I have something more authoritative to say, but simply because I don’t think we know enough about what priestesshood is or how its ordinances could differ (or about ordinances, authority, etc. in general) to say what can or cannot qualify as an ordinance For example: must authority be formally granted? Or can it be bestowed from a Heavenly Mother on her covenant daughter in a more intimate, unmediated, and less formalized way?

        As to your next point: I’m not saying that every birth is an “ordinance,” just like not every bath is a baptism, and not every piece of bread is a sacrament. The difference is in the covenants as well as the authority; they sanctify the mundane and thus make ordinary an ordinance.

        Your second point: I’m fascinated that you would treat the priesthood/priestesshood quantitatively rather than qualitatively. It seems to make more sense to me to measure both by their effects– not the length or repetition of the ordinance itself. I can assure you that priesthood ordinances take no more than a few minutes, in my experience :) But the effects of both kinds seem obviously of more duration.

        Your third point I also addressed in another comment– namely, that as family dynamics shift towards more egalitarian co-parenting, I think it would make sense for the Church admin. structure to shift as well so that women can shoulder more the administration side so that men and women can devote more time ministering to their families (literal and extended).

        Your last point: I think our language betokens a different approach to this entire question. To me, this is not about exclusion. It’s about family. I think the trajectory of the Church is increasingly emphasizing the central importance of family and the auxiliary importance of the Church. Hence, in my construct, I framed priestesshood and priesthood in terms of family, and then extending outwards as needed throughout the Church family. Perhaps if you revisit my last couple of paragraphs, you’ll see why the idea of “excluding” men from birth or “excluding” women from priesthood doesn’t make sense to me. I think there is something beautiful about unique and interdependent spheres in which men and women collaborate for the building of families and of Zion.

    • JohnH

      “no scriptural support”
      Actually it is pretty clear from these:

      D&C 132:19 :” to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”

      D&C 132:63 :”and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.”

      That women really will “bear the souls of men” in the eternities, which is an eternal thing and not temporary. Further, the power of God is that of creation and childbirth is the process of creation with a spirit provided by God meaning that in childbirth women are in fact excercising a power that God has given them, regardless of their worthiness to do so. Bearing a child is part of being a mother, and being a mother is not something that needs to start at childbirth because it is something that is eternal and one can be a good mother without ever being able to have children and one can be a bad mother despite having children. I suppose that is sort of simliar to how one can have the priesthood and it to be to ones condemnation.

      Birth is not temporary any more then baptism, death, the atonement, or ressurection are temporary. Birth is just as much a saving ordinance as any of the other ones as through it we move from being spirits to being a living soul now capable of experiences and progression which we were not previously. It just as much as baptism is a fundemental shift in our nature and existence, and just as much as baptism, death, or ressurection; birth is something which everyone which has kept their first estate must and will pass through (otherwise one wouldn’t have kept their first estate). Baptism is the natural link to childbirth.

      As for blessings, they are not saving ordinances but given to help, heal, and comfort us and as noted in the OP, Women have given blessings previously in the church, and still may, but generally we follow the plan as laid out by the Lord currently of sending for the Elders to administer to the sick.

      As for chosing to exclude women from the priesthood, have you forgotten that the priesthood is the power of God given to men to act in His name? That a man must be called of God as was Aaron by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands, to hold the priesthood? I am completely unaware of any revelations from God laying out the ordination of women to the priesthood and their roles and offices therein which we, as a church have chosen to ignore. It is not our choice to offer women the priesthood or withhold it; God hasn’t revealed everything on the subject, not even what was clearly had in previous dispensations of the gospel but it is up to Him, not us, to reveal the great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

  • Corey Wozniak

    fantastic post.
    I particularly are drawn to this re-configuration: “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.”
    It is clear from scripture that male ordinances follow, and mimic the female ordinance of birth: “That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory” (Moses 6:59)

    I think that it would be a great blessing for feminists to re-conceptualize birth in this way. You’re great!!!