Mormon feminism about more than ordination

Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the general Relief Society Presidency, offers the benediction during the Saturday afternoon session of the April 2013 General Conference, making her the first woman to do so. Universe file photo.

Latter-day Saint women with an interest in feminism and the Church say there is a broad spectrum of interests in addition to the current initiative regarding the priesthood.

Ordain Women, a group asking LDS Church leaders to “prayerfully consider the ordination of women,” plans to stand in the ticket line outside the LDS Conference Center Oct. 5 before the priesthood session of general conference. The church has said it will continue to give all tickets for that session to men.

The gamut of perspectives

Previous movements like “Wear Pants to Church Day” in December 2012 and “Let Women Pray in General Conference” earlier this year opened dialogue about women’s roles in the Church. Separate from those movements, Ordain Women leader and BYU student Hannah Wheelwright acknowledges that Ordain Women “does not represent all Mormon feminism.”

“I would be hard-pressed to have one definition of Mormon feminism,” said Camille Fronk Olson, chair of ancient scripture at BYU. “Mormon feminists often define themselves differently. Descriptions can run the gamut. In a general sense, Mormon feminists care and work to promote women’s role and contributions in the Kingdom of God.”

Mormon feminism, then, addresses questions of women’s role in the Church and includes varying beliefs about the answers to those questions.

Some Mormon feminists seek women’s ordination to priesthood offices. Others have sought an elaboration of the doctrine of Heavenly Mother while still others emphasize that women already participate in priesthood ordinances in the Church’s temple ceremonies.

While many women do not advocate female ordination to the priesthood, some suggest women could have a stronger “voice” within the Church, said BYU history professor Rebecca de Schweinitz. Many have suggested that women could play a more active role in existing Church administrative and ecclesiastical structures and have advocated for gender equity in youth programs — including budgets and curricular materials.

Others feel that questions of Mormon feminism have already been answered and don’t see a need for the discussion.

In a radio interview on KUER’s RadioWest, Jenet Jacob Erickson, former BYU associate professor in the School of Family Life, said these discussions “miss the significant power of motherhood.”

“God has ordained unique and divine separate roles to protect that equality and interdependence so that each can fulfill a significant work that makes them equal. If we were to be the same, equality would go away,” she said.

BYU religion professor Camille Fronk Olson said while she does not support the ordination of women to the priesthood, she does see room for more gender equality in the Church.

“For most of my life, priesthood was used as a synonym for men in the Church, as if priesthood had legs and walked through the door,” she said. “I believe for the fullness of God’s power to be understood and felt requires men and women to be united and actively involved in the work of God. That might require some men to better understand and appreciate contributions of individual women and stop being patronizing and condescending toward women. It may also mean that some women better appreciate contributions of men and not interpret those contributions to mean that women are inferior to men or that God doesn’t care for them as much.”

Olson said she hopes to see women do more with the opportunities currently given to them.

“We haven’t always heard women in the past. And sometimes women are not prepared when they’re asked to speak. We’re getting more and more opportunities to speak,” she said. “Let’s be prepared with some thoughtful, prayerful, doctrinal, sound responses that reflect the way that the power of God is manifest in us.”

Mormon feminism at BYU

Wheelwright said the Church “doesn’t know I exist,” meaning she has not been approached by her Church leaders or by BYU administration. “I think a lot of people think I have a red target on my face because I’m a BYU student,” said Wheelwright. But she said keeping quiet about these issues has greater consequences than her standing at BYU.

When asked if there are consequences for BYU students supporting female ordination, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said students should use “wisdom and discretion” and are expected to abide by the Honor Code.

Throughout BYU’s history, “we have had those who identified themselves as feminists — men and women,” Jenkins said.

Today, the feminist community at BYU includes Feminist Family Home Evening, a group Wheelwright leads in discussing feminist issues. The Provo chapter of Feminist FHE sees about 15–40 people each Monday, most of whom are BYU students.

“Some people are just discovering these issues and thinking about them for the first time,” Wheelwright said. “Some people come to just vent and have a safe space for support. Some people have already thought and researched and studied these issues and just come to meet like-minded people.”

Raw emotion and the bottom line

Wheelwright said after she “outed herself” in support of female ordination, she received less-than-friendly responses and received “tons of messages on Facebook from people who just want to lash out at me.” She also filters personal insults from her blog, Young Mormon Feminists.

Strong opinions are common in the comments section of many blogs and news sites. The same is true where the topic is Mormon feminism.

“I think that priesthood questions are particularly emotional for a lot of people because it gets at the questions of what we are supposed to be doing and what God wants us to do in a way they’ve never had to grapple with,” Wheelwright said.

Part of the discomfort in acknowledging the efforts of Mormon feminists and groups like Ordain Women is dealing with a paradox, said Neylan McBain, founder of the website the Mormon Women Project. That paradox, she said, is that Church members “continually assert that we know everything, that the Church is true the way it is today and we know the prophet speaks for God, but we come from a restoration that comes from questioning.”

Similarly, religion professor Barbara Morgan said asking questions is something she wishes more people would do, but in a respectful way. “If we all treat each other as seekers and not doubters, regardless of what we’re saying, what a difference it will  make in our conversations,” she said.

While the central purpose of Ordain Women is to ask Church leadership to “prayerfully consider the ordination of women,” Ordain Women leaders said they are “in it for the long haul” and don’t plan to leave the Church — even if the answer on the priesthood question is “no.”

“I have never considered leaving the Church,” said Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women. “I consider Mormonism to be my home, and (Ordain Women) has reinvested me in the Church and the gospel in a brand new way.”

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