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.

  • Kaylie

    I agree that pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding should not be diminished. I’m not sure how spiritual I felt about the hydronephrosis I experienced during pregnancy or the times my baby thought it would be funny to bite me while eating, but I can agree that there is a spiritual component to some of the physical aspects that are available only to mothers. Motherhood is so common that it’s easy to forget how miraculous it is. And it does annoy me when people downplay motherhood, or act like it’s no big deal to have babies. After bearing my children naturally, I was like, “Heck, yeah, I can do anything! Mount Everest is nothing to me now!”

    But I’m not sure that the spirituality of motherhood comes from the physical act itself. Yes, it can be a spiritual experience, but that’s because I made it that way, and God helped me, to be sure, but I bet there are plenty of atheist mothers who didn’t feel that way. I think different people draw different meanings from the same experience, and I think other people who haven’t had this experience can draw closer to God in other ways. Some people experience a heart-wrenching trial and draw closer to God as a result. But that doesn’t mean that I have to go through the same trial as my neighbor in order to find God.

    Here are some characteristics of an ordinance:

    1. Is available to everyone
    2. Is accompanied by ritual (both physical acts and exact wording of prayers)
    3. Can be done vicariously by those who haven’t received it themselves
    4. Is necessary for salvation
    5. Must be witnessed and recorded
    6. Is accompanied by very specific covenants from both God and the person
    7. Has the power to transform and to increase one’s commitment to God, if the recipient allows it
    8. Is voluntary

    With these criteria, the childbirth-as-ordinance argument falls apart. If the mother in this situation is the giver of the ordinance, (which would make the parallel match, since male priesthood bearers administer the ordinance), clearly God did not intend for every woman to participate. Since the post talks about the transformative power of childbirth for the mother, not for the child, you’re focusing on the mother’s role as a participant, not as a giver of the ordinance. If, however, you’re talking about the child as the recipient of the ordinance, it makes more sense, though I’m still not completely convinced.
    Great ideas in this post, though. I’m glad to see posts that reflect on doctrine and consider it deeply. I hope we have more of these. I also love the second-to-last paragraph. I, too, would love too see more cooperation and less hierarchy.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Kaylie! Your experience with childbirth sounds awesome.
      I agree that the spirituality of childbirth doesn’t come solely from the physical act (refer to my reply to Dave re this point) but I’m not sure why you see it as failing the “ordinance” test- though I’m curious how you compiled your criteria. (Not like the LDS Guide to the Scriptures is meant to be exhaustive, but it only says that ordinances “consist of acts that have spiritual meanings.”) Is sacrament an ordinance? Is it recorded or done vicariously? I’m also unclear about how you conclude that “clearly God did not intend for every woman to participate” in birth. I’m guessing you’re referring to women who do not or cannot have children, for whatever reason. I hope you don’t think that God is behind every disappointment or physical affliction we encounter in mortality; that’d be a rather depressing diagnosis for us mortals. If I am unable to have children, I could still recognize the model while simultaneously recognizing that I happen to be an outlier. I don’t think I need to rewrite the model every time I don’t fit it; I believe that God can compensate. I think God alchemizes our afflictions–not prevents them. In my hypothetical construct, I could be compensated by ministering to those in childbirth, as early Mormon women did (I view their ministrations as ordinances also, though I know there is some debate on that point) and ministering in the temple (which we do now) and participating in other aspects of the priestesshood/Church stewardship I sketched in my 2nd to last paragraph. (Also, to clarify-I was referring to women as givers of the ordinance, though I think givers as well as recipients are transformed).
      Thanks again for your thoughts!

      • RC

        According to the WHO recent stats show that “almost 50 million couples worldwide were unable to have a child after five years of trying.” That’s a lot of “outliers” that God is having to “compensate.” Not to mention those who aren’t trying because they’re not married or already know their reproductive parts don’t work. In your cosmology not giving birth to children is pathological and limits one’s spiritual power and progression. Women who do not give birth themselves can still achieve spiritual empowerment by tending to other women in childbirth. Seriously? This is your idea of “God alchemizing our afflictions”? Do you have any idea how decidedly unempowering it is to be around women talking about childbirth, giving birth, breast-feeding, and the like when dealing with infertility? And you’re imagining some ideal world that further glorifies the act of giving birth and channels women’s spiritual identity into not just their roles as mothers but the biological processes of motherhood? And women who don’t marry and have kids will be empowered by helping out in childbirth, too? And by spending their lives helping with their nieces and nephews? Feminists, including our 19th century foremothers who rejected much of this model, had a point.

        • Rachael

          It looks like some of my other points escaped you. I’ll simply state one of my post’s original points, that for more inclusive feminist discussions, I don’t think childbirth should be ignored, nor should it be viewed as the sole determinant in women’s societal or religious roles. I tried to give a picture where birth is an ordinance among many and to give a vision that has connected the most “pieces” for me. It doesn’t “solve” all of them. I’m happy to hear your narrative or model that connects the most pieces for you.

          • RC

            You have not offered an inclusive vision of women’s spiritual power. You have created a picture of women’s priesthoodness that CENTERS around their assumed primary reproductive and social roles as mothers. Women are responsible for physical ordinances like giving birth. (Oh, and they can have roles over other women and children in the Church family. Thanks.) Those who are not in families or who are infertile can be “compensated” for their inability to participate in their primary priesthood role by attending to other women in childbirth. (Again, thank you. So glad that God has a plan to make up for us “outliers.”) I agree with Kylie’s appraisal of motherhood-as ordinance. And I, too, can believe that the physical act of childbirth can be spiritually empowering, just as I know that taking on the social role of motherhood is. But if the model you present connects the most pieces for you, then it seems to me that you learned well the narrative the church teaches in Young Women’s (and that appears in Bruce R. McConkie’s, thankfully out-of-print Mormon Doctrine–he puts a lot of significance in women’s physical roles as mothers, too). You might find a few more pieces along your life road. Good luck.

  • RC

    Really? Childbirth-as-ordinance may seem attractive. But then there are women like me who are mothers who did not give birth. And there are many women who will never be mothers. What type of spiritually empowering role is left for us? And the connection you make between the priesthood and men’s roles as fathers is problematic as well. Are non-parents doomed to a spiritual wasteland? Is spiritual power really tied up with biological and societal roles? This ultimately reminds me of the types of arguments that Valerie Hudson is fond of making. I wonder what Eliza R. Snow would say about this. I also wonder if our conceptions of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother as Father and Mother keep us from imagining ourselves and their and our spiritual power in different ways?

    • Rachael

      RC- I understand anyone’s frustration with a model in which some points will not perfectly align with our personal life. You might refer to my response to Kaylie above to understand how I deal with these inevitable snags, and where I reaffirm that women could, in my hypothetical/personal world where childbirth is an ordinance, find many spiritually empowering roles in a priestesshood that originates with family but extends to outward as well. Or you could look to Mother Theresa, who had no children (or formal priesthood, for that matter) and certainly held some spiritually empowering roles :)

      In response to your other question about spiritual power’s connection to biological or societal roles- I’m not sure I’m answering the question you meant to ask, but I absolutely believe that it is connected. I believe we are, more than anything, embodied, social beings, down to our deepest divine nature. It would make perfect sense to me that these bodies, made in the image of our Heavenly Parents and to which we will be restored, would be capable of spiritual power– and that our relationships, both in a literal and universal family, would be the recipients of our spiritual power. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your deeper question seems to be: is the family model we now sacralize the correct template for answering questions about spiritual power and divine responsibilities? I can’t say conclusively that it is. (Our checkered theological history wouldn’t permit it, though current Church teachings point that way, at least). But I hope it is and feel that it is- and know others who do, even without their own enactment of it yet. You certainly ask a fair question, though.

      • RC

        My deeper question is about the sacralization of the family model. I agree that current Church teachings point that way, although I think it tremendously significant that the Proclamation on the Family did NOT make it into the new revisions of the scriptures. In addition, our theology and theological history, as you note, is checkered. And the New Testament certainly doesn’t point that way. It seems you are like many in the Mormon faith who are deeply tied to a particular family (and gendered) model of spiritual being. It’s worth considering why many of our hopes and visions for future empowerment come from this model. As I suggested before, what alternatives might appear if we look for ways that spiritual power could be realized and practiced across the full spectrum of the human experience?

        • Rachael

          This is in response to the last comment in the prior chain (since there are limited spaces per reply chain):
          I think if you read my post again, RC, you’ll notice that in my mind,the priesthood andthe priestesshood should both center on the family. So at least you can feel reassured that I’m being equally unfair to men who don’t have children of their own to baptize. In the model I think would make most sense, both men and women would serve in stewardships over their fellow brothers (EQ, YM) and sisters (RS, YW), and would both serve together to care for the Church as a whole, and for their fellow brothers and sisters outside the Church, obviously. I hope that clarifies some of your misperceptions of my view. In any case, that was an unabashedly hypothetical model. I have no doubt that the Church will continue to change, and whether or not it changes in the ways that make sense to me at the moment, I think there’s no shortage of opportunities to learn, serve, and love. I hope we can feel united on that point.

  • Melissa B.

    Amen, Rachel. My thoughts exactly, except you are much more eloquent.

  • http://www.withoutend.org Ms. Jack

    Personally, I am all for recovering and promoting the potentially spiritual nature of pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. I believe this is an area of theology that has been predominantly overlooked in Christian history because most theologians and pastors have been men, thus they have chosen to ignore something that has been outside the realm of their experience. A book that I have been reading and enjoying is Giving Birth: Reclaiming Biblical Metaphor for Pastoral Practice by Margaret L. Hammer (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994). It’s been a delight to read about those places in both Scripture and church history where birth is glorified or serves as a metaphor for sacrifice or triumph. I love that I believe in a book of Scripture which describes God “the Father of lights” as “giving birth” to us (James 1:17-18).

    What I dislike is the argument that it is acceptable to prohibit a woman from exercising her gifts and participating in ecclesiastical ordinances because some women can and do give birth. The OP is not making this argument per se, but many Mormons do make it. I must reject any system which subordinates women to men or restricts them from responsibilities that they would otherwise be perfectly capable of performing and points to childbirth as a justification for this treatment. In my view, such a system does not glorify and honor what women endure in childbirth; it places it in a gilded cage.

    Such systems also trouble me because they suggest that women’s bodies are superior to men’s, therefore men must be given something (i. e. priesthood) to compensate. I am not remotely suggesting that the ability to gestate new human life is not an amazing and wonderful thing. But sometimes, I wish I had 40-50% greater upper body strength and 20-30% greater lower body strength. I wish I did not have to worry about getting past the age where I will be able to have children, watching my chances of producing a healthy child tick down dramatically as the years go by. I would like to be able to own my 6’0″ height without the constant gawking at me because of how tall I am or having trouble finding clothes that fit me because my height is so atypical for my sex, and I’m sure many a shorter woman wishes she could have a taller physique. Neither men nor women have superior bodies. They are just different—and yet, no one seems to think that women deserve specific ecclesiastical responsibilities that men are barred from just because men enjoy those things and women do not.

    Furthermore, attempts at complementing priesthood-motherhood often ignore just how much men do participate in childbirth, and not just the procreation part. Anesthetic and analgesia, c-sections, forceps, and many other techniques that save lives and/or make laboring women more comfortable were invented by men. I’m guessing that the majority of us who have lived in the United States and Canada in the past two hundred years came into this world under the guidance of a male obstetrician or family physician. That they are not able to give birth has not stopped men from intimately and directly participating in it. I’m not sure the same can be said for LDS women and priesthood ordinances. If we can argue that a woman who is unable to give birth can be satisfactorily compensated by other methods, such as parenting the children of others, becoming spiritual parents, etc., why can we not acknowledge that men who are unable to give birth can be compensated for that without exclusively retaining the priesthood for themselves?

    As I said at the beginning of this post, I am all for recovering and promoting the spiritual dimension of birth. I think the history of LDS women administering childbirth blessings is inspiring and beautiful. I anticipate that my husband and I will have another child within a year or two, as a non-LDS Christian, I plan to ask my (female) pastor or another female Covenant minister to come and give me a blessing at the onset of my labor. I expect that the birth will be attended by a female doula as well as my husband and male doctor. I expect that the people at my birth will be reading to me the things from church history that both men and women have said about the power of birth. I hope it will be a positive and empowering experience.

    I simply draw the line at taking other responsibilities and opportunities away from women because some of us can give birth.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ms. Jack. Just to clarify– I explicitly said that women’s capacity to give birth should not be viewed as a logical justification for them not having leadership roles or other responsibilities. in fact, I’m really only critiquing a common feminist counterargument to traditionalist arguments, in that I see childbirth as part of the collateral damage in responses to traditional arguments against ordaining women to the priesthood.

  • V Hudson

    Very well put. You might be interested in one of the most eloquent essays I have ever read about the ordinance of birth, which was written by Analiesa Leonhardt, and can be found here:

    The ordinances of the First Tree are no less important, divine, or powerful than those of the Second Tree. An ordinance is “a physical expression of a spiritual reality,” and women preside over certain earthly ordinances, offering them to all those who are worthy among the children of God, just as men preside over certain earthly ordinances, offering them to all those who are worthy among the children of God. But there is a sequence to the giving of these ordinances: the ordinances of the First Tree are given and received first. We have all accepted those ordinances, and we therefore give them short shrift. Our eyes are on the Second Tree at this stage in our life. We cannot now remember the momentous choice involved in deciding to hearken or not to hearken to the daughters of God . . .

  • Kaylie

    My ideas on what qualifies as an ordinance didn’t come from any source other than my observation of the things they have in common. In my mind, sacrament isn’t really a separate ordinance since we always refer to it as a renewal of our other covenants. And I think you’re absolutely right that God doesn’t create our afflictions, such as childlessness.
    If you’re saying that ordinances can be as simple as an act that brings us closer to God, you could call almost anything an ordinance, right? So, in your view, why do we even have to have ordinances such as baptism that are sanctioned by church authority in order to bring us closer to God, when we could do almost any act by ourselves or in our families, in relationships as you mention, and that would help us draw closer to God? Is that where you see the feminine role, as being a sort of priestesshood of relationships, whereas the male priesthood is more formal?
    This is a genuine question, BTW. It’s very interesting to me, as women have been asking these questions about the priesthood, that these questions cause me to reflect so deeply on what priesthood and ordinances actually mean and what their purposes are. I haven’t been one to call for the priesthood in the past, but the recent calls have caused me to research some things, learn some things, and ask questions I’d never thought to ask before. So, great discussion!

    • Rachael

      Great questions, Kaylie. I think you are striking one of the core issues, which is, what are ordinances for? That’s a great topic for a whole separate post, but Terryl Givens discussed this topic at a past symposium, if you’re looking for more material to mull over. I don’t think an ordinance is any act that brings us closer to God– I do think covenants and some kind of recognized authority (though how that recognition is manifest is a different question, I think) are necessary. After rereading Stapley and Wright’s paper on ritual healing, I was struck by how ambiguous the word “ordinance” is, if perhaps not to the same perplexing degree as priesthood.

      As for your other question about the feminine role– I have considered that demarcation and think it’s an interesting possibility. But it’s a double edged sword that feminists have been struggling with for some time (a few centuries, at least). By creating a sphere unique to women, it seems you make them indispensable and irreplaceable- but you also, in a way, limit them (and same with men and their sphere). By eliminating any gendered spheres, you remove those limitations, but in a way, have made men and women, as categories, at least, dispensable and interchangeable. Unless we believe that gender differences emerge no matter what the sphere, so men and women can inhabit the same spheres while contributing different perspectives, and so on. What I’m not sold on is this idea that the only difference between men and women is their physical organs. That seems quite simplistic and reductive. In any case, I’m also enjoying the exploration of more questions and hope to make more of a dent in the literature and history on these topics in the future.There’s a lot to read and consider! Prudence Allen has done quite a bit on the history of complementarity.

  • Agkcrbs

    If not all women can bear children, not all men can hold or exercise the priesthood; ‘worthiness’ is not always easily reducible to a voluntary choice. But many, many young men will cease to value the priesthood if all it does is equalise them with achievement-minded young women. On the whole, women already enjoy a degree of spiritual superiority; are they so thirsty for power, or so permanently enraged at long-extinct secular oppressions, that they would stoop to robbing their struggling brethren of the last point of special duty pulling them back from the natural corruption of their gender? May your free speech all remain imaginary, who, without the hearts of servants, first redefine service as social status, then seek to exalt yourselves.