Women and the Mormon Church

In the Mormon faith, gender roles are ordained by the church. Fathers preside over the family and hold the priesthood. Mothers are primarily responsible for nurturing the children.

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

I think the role of women in the LDS Church and in LDS theology is something of a paradox. To an outsider what is most immediately apparent is that the priesthood is limited to men and that there are no women who officiate in the church. Even an institution like polygamy seems to privilege the man over the woman.

Yet at the same time there are many threads in Mormonism that move very, very sharply in the opposite direction. It is clear, for example, that the Mormons were ahead of their time in emphasizing the need and the desirability of women obtaining an education. They gave the vote to women, and women, in fact, ended up being the first to exercise that vote in the state of Utah before the Congress took it away again when they didn't like the way they used that vote.

Then theologically, there are even more profound ways in which women are clearly put at a position of absolute equality and mutuality with men; for example, the centrality of the family and the absolute conviction at the heart of Mormonism that a man cannot be saved or exalted independently of a woman nor a woman independently of a man; that it is the perfect union of those two that constitutes a unit that can proceed all the way to salvation. There is the emphasis in the Book of Mormon on the culpability of men for much of the sexual immorality that prevails in any given society.

Then perhaps most importantly, Mormonism is probably fairly unique in believing that Eve was a heroine and not a perpetrator of a great crime for which the entire human race will forever bear the scars. We venerate and revere Eve for the courage of her decision. So I think that ultimately, any religious faith that believes that women ultimately can progress to inherit all the forms and status and privileges of godliness is a religion that is very, very empowering to the woman as much as to the man.

Try looking at it from the other side: … Might some women feel inferiod because they don't have the priesthood?

I don't think there's a substantial number that I'm aware of, but there may be some women who are less than happy with their status, especially when one considers that that status shifts from time to time. There has been a bit of a pendulum swing. There was a time, for example, when the Relief Society, the organization of women in the church, had greater autonomy, control over their own budget, their own magazine and so forth.

The church has moved in some ways to redress some of those concerns. Women have been given a role in General Conference for the first time in recent years. It's also true that women form a part of those councils that deliberate with the bishop at the ward level and have great input. Yet there may be some who will forever see the denial of the priesthood as an impediment to full equality and participation in the church. But of course the doors are always open in a church that believes in ongoing revelation. ...

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

On its surface the Equal Rights Amendment was very simple -- just a couple of sentences, as I recall. But somehow that had a ripple effect within Mormondom that sent a shockwave of fear to the highest level, that if this were to pass, these are the consequences. Some of it's ludicrous -- that we won't have separate bathrooms anymore -- but some of it was more visceral than that, and I think it threatened, or was perceived to threaten, the very core of the way Mormonism is structured as a patriarchal society. ... I don't know that it was a rational response. I don't think it was. I think it was a visceral response. But it was certainly effective in killing it. There's no question about that. ...

The level of church involvement [in blocking passage of the ERA] I think is still somewhat ambiguous, but I believe it stepped over the line -- that you had overt activities in fund raising using the name of the church, using church facilities in some cases, that helped to defeat the amendment in those states. It was not our finest hour. …

As a constituency just like any other constituency in this country, the church certainly is allowed to have a voice in politics. The question is, how far into political versus moral issues should that voice extend? That's always going to be a floating boundary, because something that to one group is a political issue to another group is a moral issue. ...

You've heard enough from your feminist women friends about what their -- I'm going to use a strong word here -- grievances are. What are some of them that resonate with you?

... Specifically, anybody who is going to be called to a church position, male or female, is going to be called by a male. Any policy decisions that are made at a local or general level usually are going to be made by the men, often without any consultation [with] the women. The proclamation on the family was made public without prior consultation to the general Relief Society presidency. It surprised them, and I think it disappointed them, having spoken with a couple of them. That's what I mean. The representation needs to be there. They need to be included and to feel that their voice makes a difference.

Margaret Toscano
Margaret Toscano is a classics professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism.

On the one hand, I don't want to criticize any of my sisters that feel happy in the church, and yet on the other hand, it's been very hard for me to feel condemned because I had certain feelings. It wasn't like I became a secular feminist first and then I wanted to drag this all into the church. For me, my feminism started because I loved my religion and because I read the Scriptures and because I wanted to be a good person. It was in the process of that spiritual quest that I became the feminist and started questioning roles. I only questioned roles because I felt so negated as a woman who had desires for spirituality and for intelligence.

That for me is maybe one of the most painful things, is that it was the fact that I wanted to be such a good Mormon that really led me to the thing that they excommunicated me for. …

I think all women in America feel that tension between [working and staying at home]. What I see as different in Mormon culture is what's at stake. In Mormonism, you're told that your very eternal salvation and the eternal salvation of your children is the thing, that if you somehow make a false move -- am I going to mess up my kid forever because I worked that job? Not just in this life -- they may take drugs or something -- but will they lose their eternal salvation? That is a horrible burden that you face, that I am responsible for this. Women feel that very keenly in the church. …

People keep assuring me in the church that really, men and women are equally valued. As I keep hearing, everybody says, "Well, we have different roles, but our worth is the same." Well, recently I was told a story. ... There was a mother that got up and told a story where her boy asked her the question, he said, "Are boys more important that girls?" And she said, "Why in the world would you think that?" And he said to her, "Well, Heavenly Father and Jesus are boys, and boys get the priesthood and girls don't." Well, the mother went on to tell him and assure him that really, men and women are equally important in the church. But I like this story, because this little boy, at 8 years old, he saw messages that were telling him that there was a difference in the treatment. ...

For me, finally, the bottom line is that the present structure of the LDS Church does not allow a woman to develop her full personhood, and no matter what authority you quote to me to contradict this, for me, the basic teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the notion of the worth of the individual soul. And I believe that the present structure of the church damages women's sense of worth.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

Whether the Mormons had different reasons from the evangelicals and the conservatives [for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment], I don't know. What they brought was authority. What they brought was a voting bloc.

When the Mormon Church decided to officially oppose the amendment and mobilized its believers, it made a significant difference in at least three states. So I don't think they contributed anything to the intellectual argument, but they made a tremendous political contribution, if you want to call it contribution.

How did they mobilize? How do you mobilize a group of Mormon women?

Well, the first stage in the process was to designate the issue a moral issue and therefore a legitimate basis for the Church to speak out on. And then when the Church speaks and says, "We oppose the ERA," for a lot of people there's nothing else you need to do. The difficulty there is that the people may just sit home saying, "Oh, the church is against the Equal Rights Amendment; I will stay home "

I've heard stories of women who would get together based on an ecclesiastical connection; they'd say, "Oh, well, let's all go up to the state capital and put on 'Let's stop the ERA' buttons or something like that." The church is very careful on the use of its buildings for politics. The news reports about it have been quite open on that. They're very careful and don't use their own money; they use private money in these battles.

So I assume that's what happened with the ERA, what we've seen happen with gay marriage. They solicited actions by people who were in a position to make contributions, and those people made contributions. Then individuals whose affinity [was] based on a congregational connection then were exercised politically to go to the capital and to demonstrate against it. Many were sincere; I don't want to deny that. [But] again, their arguments weren't persuasive to me. ...