Mormon Women, Traditionalists and Feminists: An Evolving Conversation

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.

I recently asked a non-LDS friend and scholar of religion and gender, "Which, of all the religions that you study, 'does gender' the best?" She thought for a minute and replied, "Often, the ones who 'do gender' the worst, are the ones who end up doing it the best." I knew what she meant, even before she finished her thought: "Women in traditional religions like Mormonism prefer the order, safety, and security of having carefully and strictly defined gender roles, even if it means giving up a semblance of equality."

Perhaps at no time in the Mormon experience are the competing narratives of gender more pronounced than right now. Attention to women's roles have only intensified since the 2012 announcement to lower the missionary age for women, which has been followed by other small, but significant changes. While Mormon feminists discussed these and other ways that the Church might expand women's ecclesiastical representation, Kate Kelly's Ordain Women movement went straight to the heart of the matter, by seeking to deal with the structure of male-only priesthood ordination. And yet, fewer than 8 percent of Mormon women desire priesthood ordination, according to the much-cited (but problematic) statistical survey by the Pew Research Center. Thus, Kelly's recent excommunication for her actions seemed to answer the question once and for all, being interpreted by some as an ecclesiastical referendum on the issue of female ordination, or at the very least on Kelly's public methods for trying obtain it.

But is the excommunication of an "outlier" feminist the final answer for reconciling gender tensions in the Church? Recent media attention to actions like "Wear Pants to Church," "Let Women Pray," and Ordain Women have exposed a deep rift between two potentially irreconcilable visions. Traditionalists argue that they've never felt unequal, and that any attempt to expose inequalities through public criticism of the Church or its leaders causes pain that is just as equivalent to the pain that Mormon feminists feel at their perceived unequal status, because, "[w]hen you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you're calling [the traditionalists'] entire worldview into question." (This division has been thoughtfully and charitably argued by blogger Eric Samuelson.)

On the other hand, Mormon feminists suggest that the institution itself is built upon a framework of historically-constructed gender inequality, wherein expectations of women's submission to male authority are present at every level, from the family to ward and stake governance, and the highest leadership of the Church. (I have explored a useful framework for understanding why some women prefer patriarchy and some women prefer equality here.) And positioned along this spectrum are self-proclaimed "moderate Mormon feminists" who seek a middle ground of faithful negotiation for changing policies and practices that they consider hurtful to women and girls. These voices are now coming to the discussion in important and productive ways.

The problem for historians as we try to weigh in on the place of Mormon women, is that it is impossible to separate current prescriptions for women from the tangled mess of Mormon history. Today's competing narratives of gender are linked to immense historical complications. Mormonism was, and always has been, a mixed bag for women. For example, by the 20th century, narratives about marital submission began to give way to more nuanced articulations of marital equality. Certainly by the 1970s, church leaders' statements almost universally acknowledged marital equality grounded in a kind of "separate but equal" framework, but consistent in the notion that "[i]n the home it is a partnership with husband and wife equally yoked together, sharing in decisions, always working together" (Boyd K. Packer, quoted in Valerie Hudson, "Equal Partnership in Marriage").

The 1995 "Proclamation" further articulated that separate gender roles in marriage are "by divine design," but with the caveat that "fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." The Church's teachings on egalitarian marriages represent the greatest concession to 20th-century notions of female equality, even while simultaneously holding onto words like "preside over," thus allowing it to retain aspects of hierarchical order in marriage. At the same time, the Church has demonstrated willingness to adapt to other societal changes for women, including more moderate statements on the use of birth control, greater encouragement toward higher education, shared parenting duties, and recent admonitions to include women more fully in church meetings and ecclesiastical councils.