The Place of Mormon Women

Andrea G. Radke, Ph.D.
August 2004

The Place of Mormon Women: Perceptions, Prozac, Polygamy, Priesthood, Patriarchy, and Peace

In 1880, Louisa Barnes Pratt boarded a train in Salt Lake City for a trip to the East. Other passengers showed interested reactions to her presence, and she remembered that “As soon as it was announced that there were ladies from Utah in the Car, a curiosity was at once excited. Some few there were who would shun me. Others were attracted, would draw near, [and] show a desire to converse.”1 For those who especially wanted to debate the practice of plural marriage with her, Louisa attempted to engage in lively conversation, draw upon scriptural references, and finally, bear her testimony. Not the “silent, degraded woman” of nineteenth-century stereotypes, Louisa declared, “I found it the better way to avoid argument as much as possible, but would testify boldly to what I knew to be true.” Later on the same trip, Louisa met a Presbyterian clergyman, who, upon learning that Louisa was from Utah, was “very reserved and silent.” She remembered, “I could see prejudice in his eyes, and on his knitted browÖ” Like she had done before, she attempted to disarm her critic: “I took no trouble to draw him into conversationÖ”2

This story and others like it speak to the pervasive misperceptions and misunderstandings leveled at Mormon women throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. High-profile Mormon women spent much of the nineteenth century defending themselves to their critics-anti-Mormons, government leaders, first-wave feminists and women’s suffrage activists, and from the many “Save the Mormon Women” societies that proliferated around the country in the latter part of the century. Much like Mormon women today, nineteenth-century foremothers encountered great curiosity, criticism, and of course, prejudice for their place as women in a patriarchal religion that openly practiced plural marriage.3

President Eliza R. Snow, at an 1870 indignation meeting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, declared “The very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense.”4 Further, Snow offered one of the most famous defenses of the status of Mormon women, which rings just as appropriate today as it did in 1870.

Were we the stupid, degraded, heartbroken beings that we have been represented, silence might better become us; but, as women of God, women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, being truly their helpmates, we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should.5

Today, Mormon women continue to battle the misperceptions and stereotypes attached to them by critics of patriarchal Priesthood leadership and traditional gender spheres that seemingly limit female choice. I have attended numerous academic conferences where colleagues have wondered, “How can you be a thinking woman who accepts Mormonism?” and on one occasion, when told that I teach women’s history at BYU, one colleague reacted with surprise: “Do ‘they’ allow that?” These reactions suggest a pervasive stereotyping of Mormon women-usually associated with polygamy-that has clouded the reality and complexity of real Mormon women’s lives. Although the official Church has discontinued polygamy, outsiders’ criticisms of Mormon women have continued to link a culture of polygamy with so-called gendered oppression.

Following the 2002-2003 Elizabeth Smart kidnapping and rescue, various journalists tried to show exaggerated connections to a culture of male-dominated polygamy that made Elizabeth unwilling or psychologically unable to attempt escape from her captors.6 Reflecting poor journalistic integrity, these reporters only cited interviews of women on the fringes of Mormonism-either disaffected Mormon feminists or minority fundamentalist polygamists who are not associated with the official Church. As recently as late July 2004, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News linked the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping with Lori Hacking’s recent disappearance: “Salt Lake City is getting quite a reputationÖ Women and girls disappearingÖ It’s very strange.”7 While these reports may feed into readers’ desires for anti-Mormon sensationalism, they do not speak to the complete picture of practicing and believing Mormon women’s experiences.

Negative perceptions of Mormon women have become even more pronounced in recent years where second-wave feminist awareness has brought greater attention to gender issues in the Church. Especially since the 1970s, divisions have occurred over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, female exclusion from Priesthood ordination, prayer to Heavenly Mother, and women working outside the home. As other religions have attempted to reform their traditional patriarchies to include female leadership and even ordination, modern critics question how Mormon women would voluntarily participate in a patriarchal religion that excludes them from Priesthood ordination and leadership. Much examination of Mormon women’s status has viewed the female experiences through the lens of victimization and objectification.

And are the misperceptions justified? Since the earliest days of the Church, Mormon women have presented a great paradox to outsiders-on the one hand, polygamy and patriarchal leadership have portrayed Mormon women as the degraded objects of men’s power; on the other hand, LDS women have had early access to suffrage, healing, religious ceremonies, autonomous leadership in Relief Society, and access to coeducation at a time when much of the nation still struggled to accept the idea. The contradictions of Mormon women’s experiences continue to plague feminists-both in and out of the Church-religious critics, scholars, and Mormon women themselves.8

Today’s Mormon women attempt to balance their belief in a traditional religion while adapting and responding to the increasing pressure of gender awareness and change demanded by the modern world. Perhaps Valerie Hudson described this dilemma best when referring to President Hinckley’s statement in July 1997 that “[E]very man ought to regard his wife as a daughter of God, a daughter who is his equal, with whom he walks side by side.”:

Despite the plainness of these teachings by our prophet and our leaders, practices and beliefs are found in our communities that are not easily reconciled with the doctrine that God is no respecter of persons or of gender. Critics of our church see a sham of gender equality and assert that our religion discriminates against women. However, believers strongly oppose this criticism, trusting the prophet when he proclaims the quality of men and women before God. Yet the unbelievers ask questions that believers may find difficult to answer: How can one reconcile gender equality in the gospel with the impression that men appear to have more power than women because of their ordination to the Priesthood? How can one reconcile the early Church practice of polygamy with equal valuation of men and women? Why do scriptures seem to be about men only, with little or no reference to women? Why are we asked to live a patriarchal order, and what does this mean for those eternal beings, who, because of gender, will never be patriarchs? Will the inequality experienced here in fallen mortality continue on into eternity? What is the role of women in Zion and in the celestial kingdom? How do men and women stand before God?9

Hudson’s questions elucidate a significant dualistic problem for LDS women; one is the constant need to defend themselves from outsiders’ criticisms of their place in the Church, and the second is seeking ways to bring greater gendered awareness and progress within their own culture, especially where some unrighteous traditions and practices have perpetuated gender inequality.

Regarding this two-fold conflict for Mormon women, BYU law professor Cheryl Preston has drawn useful comparisons to women in other “traditional” or patriarchal religions, including Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestant Christianity, who have also felt secular feminist pressure to radically reform or reject their religions outright. Concerning outsiders’ criticisms that traditional religious women are oppressed, Preston has responded: “Such criticsÖdon’t speak to the breadth and depth of my experience.” Furthermore, secular feminist frameworks are not useful in understanding how women in traditional religions view their own liberation and spiritual gendered equality. Regarding the Mormon experience in particular, Preston noted that although there may be some individuals, who “in the name of religion, abuse powerÖ,”

that certainly does not mean that the religion itself, or its members generally, are sexist, or for that matter-that any thinking woman would recoil from Mormonism. Am I less of a feminist because I am deeply religious and devoted to this traditional, conservative organized religion?10

In response to increasingly tense debates over women in religion, Preston has suggested how “American and secular feminists, as outsiders to other religions, countries, and cultures, might help women in their struggle for empowerment and respect-without arrogance or insensitivity.” Further, Preston warns secular feminists to avoid the “age-old traps of arrogance, racism, imperialism and maternalism.”11 In other words, many Mormon women often feel frustrated at outsiders’ attempts to box them into simplistic categories of “traditional,” “silenced,” “oppressed,” or “angelic,” especially without truly knowing and understanding the complexity female experience within LDS theology and culture. From Mormon women’s perspective, the frustration boils down to a heartfelt and passionate plea: “Stop telling us that we’re oppressed! Instead, try to understand us as women of diversity.” Muslim scholar Riffat Hassan, in a dialogue with BYU Professor Donna Lee Bowen, expressed a similar frustration for both Muslim and Mormon women:

They say over and over that these Muslim women are so oppressed. I say, “Whose perception is that? Yours, or their perception of themselves? Do they perceive themselves as being oppressed?” They would also say to you, Donna Lee, that Latter-day Saint women are very oppressed. But, whose perception is that? That is what we have to ask. If a woman is happy and fulfilled in doing whatever she is doing, then do the people outside that tradition have the right to judge her, to tell her she is oppressed and make her feel devalued?12

Mormon women, like other religious women, find incongruence at times in what Riffat Hassan has called the “gap between theory and practiceÖ” suggesting at times a difficulty that women face in finding gender equality in their religions, especially when scriptures, doctrines, and cultural practices might suggest a hierarchy of gender within that religious tradition.13 However, Mormon women still seek ways of negotiating their gendered experiences within their established institution; of course, they deny any outside pressure to reject their religion outright, because “[i]f the feminist message is posited in a strict polarity between feminism and traditional religion, making women think they have to choose between the two, then many of the world’s women will choose their religion.” Here, Preston invites a useful comparison to the women of Islam. Quoting from Muslim feminist Azizah al-Hibri, “The majority of Muslim women who are attached to their religion will not be liberated through the use of a secular approach imposed from the outside.” Feminist Farida Shaheed also advised against making Muslim women reject the foundation of their faith: “[A] women’s movement needs to be perceived as rooted in the cultural reality of the society in which it operatesÖ [D]iscriminatory laws sanctified through Islam cannot be effectively countered with arguments which deny or discard Islam.”14 Thus, rejection of a woman’s religious framework will only create alienation and divisiveness. “A woman who is a practicing member of a religious institution is inevitably going to be hesitant to accept advice from someone ‘who does not understand her value system and her commitment to it.'”15

This paper is an admittedly apologist response to the question of Mormon women’s so-called oppression, but it is by no means a simplistic response to those who have honestly struggled with real and perceived gender inequity in their Church experiences, especially concerning patriarchy and priesthood, polygamy, ambiguities about Mormon female authority, and dictates about women’s traditional domestic roles. Many faithful women might feel sympathy with Valerie Hudson, an active Mormon woman, mother, and professor at BYU, who experienced her own gender struggle, when “[f]or almost a year and half she walked around as if the skin of her body had been rubbed raw by sandpaper. Things she never noticed before-even little things-caused her agony of soul.”16 I feel sorrow for the lament of some Mormon feminists-some disaffected and/or excommunicated-who have determined that the “fight for women’s equality in the Mormon church is over. Our efforts to change the institution have been almost fruitless. We haven’t changed a thing; in fact, women’s official status in the church is worse now than in the 60s and early 70s. We have no hope left.”17 While I do not share this attitude of response, I acknowledge the pain they have experienced in trying to reconcile the inequity-both real and perceived.

I also celebrate with the multitudes of Mormon women who have found reason to rejoice in their status as women of spirituality, familial strength, purity, and leadership in the Church, in education, and in the world. We rejoice in the empowering personal revelation that is promised in the doctrines of our theology, and we rejoice in the words of female leaders like Ardeth Kapp, Sheri Dew, Chieko Okasaki, Marie Hafen, Patricia Holland, Elaine Jack, and others, who have reminded us of the immense power we possess as women of spiritual strength in a world of conflict and moral decay. Further, Mormons are often reminded by Jill Mulvay Derr of the empowering and historical sisterhood of the Relief Society, in spite of continued historical debates over the questions of female authority in the organization’s initial founding.18 Recent interest in the place of Mormon women is evidenced by the prolific numbers of publications that address Mormon women’s history, the story of Relief Society, biographies of significant Mormon female figures, sister missionary work, polygamy, the nature of Eve, women’s spiritual questions, sociological studies, and issues of importance to Mormon women like work, family, and education. Additionally, the annual BYU Women’s Conference, and publications like the Exponent II reflect the continued interest in addressing issues important to Mormon women.

Perhaps the best example of how women within the Church have provided very differing interpretations of their place within the Church is the editorial battle that occurred in the Boston Globe in the fall of 2000. Feminists Courtney Black and Maxine Hanks responded to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement that “I haven’t found any complaint among our women. I’m sure there are a few, a handful somewhere who may be disaffected for one reason or another, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it.” Hanks and Black’s printed response included the signatures of over fifty Mormon women and the statement that “With all due respect to our remarkable 90-year-old church leader, we find his words unfathomable in the face of realityÖ Thus, we write to correct a misconception repeatedly set forth by LDS Church leaders in the media: Mormon women are not content; we do have complaints.” Shortly following this editorial, Mormon feminist Elizabeth Dionne offered a rebuttal to Hanks and Black that “[w]hen one considers that the worldwide membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exceeds 11 million, 50 signatures ‘from around the world’ Öis an underwhelming show of support.” Further, Dionne expressed that she would be “shocked if more than one in 50 Mormon women would be sympathetic to the views or methods of Hanks and Black.” Instead, Dionne has seen the institutional Church as an inherently “feminist organization” that, especially for women in the international Church, “means teaching men to stop drinking, to become industrious, and to treat their wives and children with love and respect.” Further, the Church provides liberation to teenage girls by “creating a supportive community that shields them from sexual predation until they have the maturity to make self-realizing decisions.”19

In the face of such extreme divergence among Mormon feminists’ responses to gendered oppression, how does one attempt to answer outside critics’ charges that Mormon women are oppressed? The answers should not divide women into the two camps of “faithful women” who accept their prescribed roles without question, and “those apostate feminists” who challenge the very foundations of Church authority and priesthood ordination. Instead, I much prefer to approach this as a dialogue among women, each with individual methods of negotiation, acceptance or rejection, spiritual definition, and of course, feminism. As Dionne has noted, “Feminism is in the eye of the beholderÖ No one has the right to dictate the form feminism will take for any individual or organization, so long as women individually or within the organization feel that such feminism meets their needs and fosters their growth as women.”20 And while some women have chosen to leave the Church entirely, others have chosen acceptance and celebration of their roles as women, as defined by the Church, and by leaning on faithful negotiation rather than discontent.

Not only will this study respond to misperceptions about Mormon women from without the Church, it might also help the multitudes of “good, faithful Latter-day Saint women who have at some point felt a certain amount of pain because they are not always able to articulate a coherent vision of how they stand as equals with men in the Church and in the eternities.”21 Thus, the basic question for this work boils down to: Are Mormon women oppressed by the doctrines and institutional structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? How can intelligent and educated women reconcile participation in a male-led religion?

Mormon scholars have addressed these questions from a multiplicity of directions, including Priesthood leadership, temple worship, polygamy, missionary work, questions about Heavenly Mother and the nature of Eve, family planning and birth control, divisions caused by the ERA debate, and the purpose for higher education for women in the Church.22 While I cannot possibly deal with all of these areas, I am offering a few basic categories of consideration and response, with the help of some useful alliteration: Prozac, polygamy, Priesthood, patriarchy and peace.

Prozac-Mental Health and Mormon Women’s Self Perceptions

In responding to the question of oppression, it’s necessary to examine the most widely-used recent stereotype and then juxtapose that with Mormon women’s own sense of contentment. A widely-cited 1994 study claimed that Utah had the highest per capita female use of ProzacÆ in the nation.23 Because Utah is predominantly LDS, the studies argue that religion must play a factor in Utah women’s depression and anti-depressant use. Critics of the Church are quick to cite the study’s sensationalized (and problematic) conclusions as proof that Mormon women must suffer under the strains of patriarchy, early marriages, constant child bearing and voiceless acceptance of male dominance. Further, the internet has allowed for the continued circulation of this study, and it has become a popular sampling among mental health sites, anti-Mormon sites, message boards, and chatrooms. One widely-circulated study, by Kent Ponder, Ph.D., offers sympathetic suggestions to Mormon mental health professionals regarding the depression problems unique to LDS women, but Ponder still restates the statistic regarding Utah women and Prozac use.24

What these repeated Prozac studies have failed to show are the complex factors that might affect the use of Prozac and other anti-depressants; these include socio-economic status, level of education, number of children, genetic factors determining predisposition to depression, religiosity or non-religiosity (even among Mormon women born into the faith who are non-practicing), counseling services that accompany medication and the numbers of men who might also require medication and counseling. Further, the high percentage of Prozac use might reflect a greater awareness by leaders that encourages members to seek professional therapy and medication alternatives. Finally, Mormons’ abstinence from addictive substances might prompt depression sufferers to seek more legitimate forms of help.

In researching this topic I visited a message board for Mormon women on anti-depressant medication. Of sixty-four postings, only three cited gender as a significant determinant in the participants’ personal mental health issues, but most women expressed a defensive attitude about whether being a Mormon woman actually exacerbated their depression. One woman asserted: “I believe that having depression/anxiety/bi-polar or other mental disorders do not make us weak women. There are countless researches done that show that we simply have a chemical imbalance in our brains. They also show that that more often than not, it’s genetic.” One attributed LDS women’s avoidance of alcohol and coffee to the need to control depression through medication and counseling: “LDS women EXPERIENCE depression more acutely because they don’t go out and get drunk to mask their pain. Another example is they don’t drink coffee in the AM to minimize the fatigue that often accompanies depression.” Instead of dwelling on so-called gendered oppression, message board participants focused more on perceptions of medication use, hormonal imbalances, genetic predisposition, non-gendered shared experiences among those using anti-depressants, difficulties overcoming stress, and the need for greater sympathy and awareness by non-sufferers.25 Further, recent attention to increasing anti-depressant use among males- in and out of the LDS Church-has brought attention to depression as a non-gendered issue.

Since 1994 many sociologists and historians have attempted to respond to the “Prozac” study with quantitative and qualitative research regarding contentment and mental health among Mormon women. Although difficult to quantify, qualitative research regarding Mormon women’s contentment has been useful in challenging the stereotype. In particular, sociologists Sherrie Mills Johnson and Marie Cornwall have directly taken on misperceptions about Mormon women and depression. Cornwall’s prolific studies have shown that Mormon women’s life satisfaction issues are much more complex than stereotypical portrayals of the submissive and degraded female.26 Most recently, Johnson’s 2004 study determined that “LDS womenÖare less likely to be depressed than American women in general and show no major differences in overall life satisfaction compared to women nationwide.”27 By comparing a 1992-1994 survey of over three thousand non-LDS women and two national surveys of over two thousand LDS women, Johnson made successful comparisons regarding life satisfaction, contentment, and measurements of depression and self-esteem. In terms of life satisfaction criteria, including residence, work, friendship, health, family life and financial situation, “there were no statistically significant differences in response.” Further, although “[t]raditional women’s roles involved with marriage and homemaking have long been cited as part of the reason for the purported depression,” still “national women were three to four times as dissatisfied with their work as Mormon women.”28

Although Mormon women scored 10% lower on self-esteem, Johnson suggested that the findings “could be a reflection of the higher standards that are espoused” by the Church. However, LDS women claimed to only suffer from general depressive symptoms on average once a week, whereas non-LDS women experienced depressive symptoms “1.5 days per week.” Further, 62% of returned-missionary women and 52% of non-missionary women in LDS culture claimed happy marriages, as opposed to only 38% of non-LDS women. Although these findings should significantly alter “the characterization of LDS women as more depressed than others,” still “[t]he debate continues as to why anti-depressant sales are high in Utah. According to Johnson, “[t]o date, no conclusive evidence has been presented that proves that LDS women are more depressed or take more anti-depressants than other women.” Instead, Johnson stands by the “most significant finding of her study,” that “increased religiosity predicted increased life satisfaction and mental well-being.”29 This is supported by other sociologists of religion, who have suggested “a link between religious practices or involvement and better mental and physical health as well as reduced criminal activity among youth.”30

Stace Hucks Christianson and Janiece Johnson have further examined the valuable connections between religiosity and contentment. Johnson constructed an e-mail survey and received responses from more than 750 women-of different ages, education levels, and marital status-on contentment and religiosity. On a scale between 1 and 10, with 10 reflecting the “highest level of contentment,” the average rating was 8.7. Only 50 women “rated their contentment between 1 and 5, and 724 between 6 and 10.”31 Johnson further examined women’s diverse written responses that accompanied their numerical rankings, and discovered similar findings to Stace Christianson’s 1997 thesis on Mormon women and empowerment.32 Both Johnson and Christianson determined that Mormon women who feel empowered have successfully negotiated a strong sense of well-being and contentment, even within the structure of a patriarchal religion.33 Women in both studies expressed satisfaction in belonging to a religion that values “traditionally female characteristics and experiences,” which “generally stood in contrast to their perception of the world outside the Church.”34 Particularly for convert women, they felt a great contrast between their self-worth before conversion, and greater sense of personal value and esteem following their conversion. One convert noted:

Since joining the church at the age of 24, I have gained an understanding of my true potential and calling in life, as a wife and mother, as a daughter of God. Being able to leave behind the idea that a woman is worthless unless she can compete with a man in the business world has been very liberating and satisfying to me. It feels right to be where I am and to be doing what I am doing now. I have also felt equality within the church that I didn’t outside the church.35

Many women cited greater access to spiritual power, opportunities for service, and development and growth that came with Church callings. Others referred to the Church’s higher regard for motherhood as extremely empowering, since Mormon women “perceive that motherhood is undervalued in society at large yet in contrast the Church validates their perception of the import of a mother’s role.” Finally, most women cited the faith and knowledge of their divine purpose as empowering, or “[b]eing taught and internalizing for myself that I am truly a daughter of God.”36

Christianson’s thesis outlined findings similar to Johnson’s regarding women’s empowerment within a patriarchal religion. She hypothesized that

Within any patriarchal religion the presence of women seeking empowerment has potential for intense conflict. Yet, I hypothesize that there are women within this order who feel empowered because of the value that the church places on traditionally female characteristics and because of the sense of connection that LDS women feel toward other LDS women, their ecclesiastical leaders and family members.

In other words, Mormon women find added empowerment in a religious culture that embraces femininity and motherhood, especially as they perceive the outside world as increasingly rejecting these traits for women. Christianson further examined the processes by which Mormon women have negotiated their voice and choice, even in a male-led religion:

The fact that some women have been able to empower themselves within the patriarchal system suggests several things. First, it undermines popular notions of patriarchy as inherently destructive or as only capable of oppression. It also presents a more complex picture of the society that patriarchy creates. In the lives of these women whose marginal status should make them casualties of the system, it may be the very characteristics of patriarchy that have facilitated their empowerment.37

Christianson’s study separates Mormon women’s experiences into three important categories: the “Empowered,” the “Unempowered,” and finally, those “Processing Empowerment.” Of the sample, 24% of all three groups “had experienced depressionÖ[and] all of them sought professional help.”38 For Christianson, the most significant category included the majority women who were “processing empowerment,” or those working through the empowerment process through personal belief and faith, personal revelation, and relationships with family and ecclesiastical leaders. Christianson cites various factors that affected women’s sense of empowerment, which included the occurrence of life-altering experiences, personal belief systems of personal progression and faith in God-and the ability to challenge personal belief systems that don’t match individual experience-the importance of personal revelation, and finally, the negotiation of empowerment through relationships-both familial and ecclesiastical. Other factors included education level, knowledge of doctrine, returned missionary status, work experience, experiences in Church leadership positions, and age, “because the younger the woman the more empowered she will feel, because her culture has validated the experience of womenÖ[and] she would have grown up with the questions and answers from previous generations of women who challenged traditional gender issues.”39

In conclusion, qualitative studies have demonstrated that Mormon women do not suffer from depression on any significantly greater level than their national counterparts. No study has successfully shown that Mormon women have a higher rate of anti-depressant use than other women. Any assessment of life satisfaction needs to reject monolithic representations of Mormon women’s so-called tendency to depression, and instead reflect diverse factors such as age, education, genetics, and access to counseling services and support networks. Like women in other patriarchal religions who have felt happiness and contentment because of their relationship with God and their sense of divine purpose, Mormon women have “found solace, inspiration, nurturance, sustenance, and spiritual growth.”40

Polygamy and Its Legacy

Polygamy remains one of the most controversial issues surrounding the historical LDS Church and the place of Mormon women within that religious culture. In spite of Church leadership’s attempts to distance the Church from its polygamous past, outsiders’ historical memory remains remarkably sharp and persistent on this point. Perhaps what most plagues the Church is a continued association with modern polygamy-by journalists, historians, feminists, and documentary filmmakers. Further, the continued practice of polygamy by so-called “fundamentalist” or fringe groups in Utah and throughout the West brings greater attention to the legacies of nineteenth-century polygamy for the mainstream Church population in Utah. The issue begs two important areas of consideration-historical polygamy and modern polygamy. First, how could the Church have practiced something perceived by the outside world as so demeaning to women? Second, why does a predominantly Mormon political leadership in Utah currently look the other way in regards to modern prosecution of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws?

Historical Polygamy

Many historians have sought to go beyond attempts at reductionism and stereotype, by examining the complexity of polygamous practice for the nineteenth-century Church. Much to the disappointment of observers then and today, “Contrary to popular nineteenth-century notions about polygamy, the Mormon harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos, did not exist.” Historical research has quite successfully exposed many of the misconceptions, stereotypes and realities of nineteenth-century polygamy.41 Although some Mormon believers might be dismayed to discover the extent of discontentment and unhappiness Mormon wives admitted privately, still many Mormon critics are just as disappointed to discover the admitted happiness, political and financial independence, and the shared congeniality of “sister-wives.” Then, just as today, “the image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than in accurately portraying plural marriage.”42 Because polygamy was dedicated to “propagating the species righteously and dispassionately,” plural marriage “proved to be a rather drab lifestyle compared to the imaginative talesÖdripping with sensationalism, demanded by a scandal-hungry eastern media market.” Even reporter Rebecca Johnson admitted disappointment in 2003 when the polygamist wives she interviewed for her Vogue article did not confess to sharing the same bed with their husband-all at the same time. Indeed, sensationalism continues to feed the American public’s desires for exotic sexuality associated with the Mormon culture.

Historians have examined the many complex aspects of polygamous practice, including the purposes for the practice, the realities of domestic living, the contentment felt by some wives and the immense depression and disappointment felt by others. Indeed, the historical realities of polygamous practice transcend any monolithic stereotyping by either Mormon apologists or sensationalistic critics. As I often tell my students, just like monogamous marriages, there were good polygamous unions-defined by love and respect-and bad ones-defined by abuse and loneliness. There were also practical, economic marriages, non-sexual unions, marriages of convenience, and a significant number of divorces-a distinctly progressive practice in marital law, especially within the context of anti-divorce attitudes in nineteenth-century America. To understand Mormon polygamous practice, most historians agree on the necessity to separate Mormon marital ideology from nineteenth-century ideals of romantic, companionate marriage. Instead, polygamy was directly related to a commandment to raise and nurture children in righteous homes.

Many critics of the Church have inaccurately attributed the doctrinal roots of polygamy to the Book of Mormon. On the contrary, as taught by the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob, polygamy is forbidden, except when expressly commanded by God for the purpose of procreation, which is also consistent with the polygamous practice by Old Testament patriarchs-these instances support the idea that God has certainly commanded polygamy at various times in the Judeo-Christian past. For Mormons, however, the specific doctrinal roots of polygamy lay in the revelations received by Joseph Smith and published as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Divorced from nineteenth-century ideals about romantic love and companionate marriage, Mormon ideology accepted polygamy as a commandment necessary for bringing righteous spirits into the world and raising them as part of the Kingdom of God.

Historians have brought attention to the complexity of determining the numbers of polygamous relationships in nineteenth-century Utah. Kathryn Daynes and Richard Van Wagoner have elucidated the demographics of plural marriages-estimating that somewhere between 20% and 40% of Mormon families were polygamous in the nineteenth century, depending upon geographical location and decade. Van Wagoner has cited Stanley Ivens’s 1956 study that showed that among polygamists, “66.3 percent married only two wives, 21.2 percent married three, 6.7 percent married four, and a scant 5.8 percent married five or more women.”43 Daynes’s demographic studies of Manti, Utah, show higher percentages of marriages with three or more wives than Ivens’s study had shown, and smaller percentages of marriages with only two or more wives. “The percentage of polygamists with five or more wives during their lives was 13.3 percent, while 16.7 percent had four wives, 32.7 percent had three wives, and 37.3-slightly over one-third-had just two wives.” Although these statistics suggest greater numbers of marriages with three, four, and five or more wives, Daynes makes it clear that “[a] majority of Manti polygamists had only two wives at a time, although many had several wives over their lifetimes.”44 These statistics appear to represent Church-wide marital statistics, and show that the stereotype of large Mormon harems was a historical rarity.

Another difficult reconciliation for modern members of the Church, and especially for Mormon women, has been the repeated early declarations by Church prophets and apostles regarding the necessity of plural wifery for salvation. Indeed, most nineteenth-century leaders clearly defined “Celestial Marriage” as polygamy, according to Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Today, of course, Church leaders completely divorce the doctrine of Celestial Marriage from any suggestions of polygamy, in fact, even reinforcing the grave dangers and consequences of adultery in any form; and further, practicing polygamists-if discovered-are promptly excommunicated. However, for the nineteenth-century Church, many members and even a few leaders surprisingly remained monogamous, in spite of a Church-wide culture that firmly linked polygamy among the most stringent requirements for salvation. For example, Apostle and First Presidency Counselor Anthon H. Lund remained monogamously married to his wife, Sarah Ann “Sanie” Peterson, as a condition of their engagement that he would never take another wife.45 Monogamy did not preclude him from high Church leadership and even the opportunity of serving as counselor to three Church presidents.

Historians have also examined other complex, controversial, and even surprising aspects of polygamous life, including women’s financial and educational independence, contentment, divorce, child rearing, courtship rituals, post-Manifesto polygamy, and Joseph’s polyandrous marriages in Nauvoo. The post-Manifesto period in the Church proved a difficult transition for members and Church leaders alike, and historians have examined post-Manifesto marital plurality as one of the most controversial areas of LDS historical study, especially since members are often told that the Church quit practicing polygamy “cold turkey” in 1890 upon receipt of President Wilford Woodruff’s revelation. And yet, the end of polygamy-whether gradual or abrupt-was an important transition in the modernization and Americanization of the Church. Thomas Alexander has demonstrated that not until the mainstream Church repudiated polygamy-first in 1890 but especially following the second Manifesto in 1904 and polygamy trials in 1908-did the Church’s image successfully begin to improve and internationalize.46

So how do modern Mormon women reconcile a historical and doctrinal past so clearly linked to the importance of polygamous marriage as a requirement for salvation? Perhaps Valerie Hudson has offered the most lucid explanation-that polygamy is the exception to the rule of monogamy, only commanded in specific times for the purposes of raising children and creating a unique and unified bond among members during times of outside threats. And although Celestial Marriage was clearly interpreted by nineteenth-century Mormons as equivalent to plural marriage, today most Mormons accept an interpretation of the Celestial Marriage doctrine to mean the priesthood sealing of one man and one woman in eternal marriage. In other words, Celestial Marriage can have two possible principles or applications-either monogamous Celestial Marriage as the rule, or polygamous Celestial Marriage as the exception-only when directed by God.47

Winking at Modern Polygamy

Observers outside of Utah see the state as a place where polygamy is still tacitly accepted by Utah legislators-predominantly members of the LDS Church-who have neglected law enforcement and prosecution in this area.48 But the reasons for laxity on polygamy enforcement in Utah are much more complex than some sensationalist portrayal of Utah as a fringe, fundamentalist state. As Martha Bradley has shown, prosecution often leads to greater problems like displaced children and wives as wards of the state, difficulties proving polygamous cases, and very damaging public relations fiascos. For instance, the 1953 Short Creek raids backfired as photos of crying children being torn away from parents were published in the newspapers.49 In fact, the 1953 Short Creek Raids were so damaging to Utah and Arizona, no anti-polygamy prosecutions were brought by the state of Utah until the 2001 Tom Greene case. Some accused Utah of capitalizing on the Greene case in the midst of Olympic attention, in order to soften Utah’s fundamentalist and polygamous image.

Since Greene’s case, state prosecutors have felt greater pressure to enforce child sex laws and welfare fraud. Recent attention to incest, child marriages, and even sexual abuse of young boys has added to pressures on the legislature to prosecute felony child abuses cases in polygamous clans, and hopefully the state of Utah will find better ways to prosecute these crimes, while still respecting the marital privacy of consenting adults. In most outright polygamy cases, state officials maintain the difficulty of prosecution, because of ambiguous documentation and the separationist culture of some groups. Any raid of these groups has the potential of a Short Creek result, or even worse, a possible and devastating Waco scenario.

Furthermore, the reality of polygamy within the American legal structure has received new attention in recent years, as legal theorists have suggested the possibility of overturning the anti-polygamy rulings of the nineteenth century as violations of the constitutional guarantees to free practice of religion. Groups like the Liberation Front and even the American Civil Liberties Union have weighed in on the side of freedom of polygamous practice. Polygamy discussions have reached international proportions, as immigrant groups from the Middle East and Africa bring parts or all of their polygamous family structures to the United States, with the desire for legal familial recognition. The debate is-or should be-no longer related to outdated attempts at anti-Mormon persecution; rather it is becoming more about adapting to world cultures, freedom of religious practice, and immigrant rights in the new global culture. What is truly staggering in the polygamy debate is the continued sensationalist images of Utah and its majority population with polygamous practice, and also the immense hypocrisy of outsiders’ criticism of polygamous relationships as they exist in Utah, while at the same time embracing non-monogamous sexuality in the media, the Playboy mansion, and even in high political offices.

For the purposes of Mormon relations to polygamy, it must be clearly stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse, condone or sanction the earthly practice of plural marriage. But the relationship of a predominantly Mormon and non-polygamous culture, and the between 30,000 and 70,000 polygamists in Utah is much more complex. The Church officially supports the anti-polygamy group Tapestry Against Polygamy, which offers sanctuary and relief aid to women and children who have escaped from abusive polygamous relationships. And yet, the Mormon-dominated state government is willing to set aside anti-polygamy enforcement and prosecution because of much-needed law enforcement resources elsewhere.

Regarding the future of the Church’s doctrinal relationship to polygamy, it seems unlikely that polygamy will ever be reinstated in the earthly institution, even if the Supreme Court reverses the anti-polygamy rulings of the nineteenth century. The risk for more negative hype is simply too great. And regarding the Church’s continued cultural associations with polygamy, those are unlikely to subside either, because of the Church’s past. Unfortunately, Mormon women continue to be associated with the fringe polygamist groups in isolated areas of Utah and the West, a stereotype only perpetuated in the wake of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. This continued proliferation of anti-Mormon and anti-polygamy sensationalist journalism is entirely dependent upon journalists themselves-they must be more willing to reject tabloid reporting in favor of honest, factual and objective portrayals of the realities of modern Mormon women’s lives-indeed most of us are not polygamists. Further, journalists must also give fair attention to the realities and complexities of modern polygamous practice, without the negative stereotyping and connections to the mainstream body of Mormon women.

Priesthood and Patriarchy

The question of why only men can hold the priesthood is central to many of the debates regarding the place of women in the LDS Church. First, most accept and recognize that all members-regardless of gender-are beneficiaries of the blessings of the priesthood through saving ordinances and priesthood blessings. The question at hand is that only men hold the rights to officiate in the priesthood and also to serve in priesthood leadership positions. The fact that so many scholars, Church leaders, feminists, and religionists have explored answers to this issue shows its centrality within the discussion of women’s place in the Church, and also shows that a conflicted dissonance exists within these valid attempts at explanation and understanding. Some women and men choose to live with the dissonance because they are more concerned about the daily aspects of living the Gospel than any perceived gender inequities. The attempts to answer this question show respondents’ valid efforts to bring together scriptural doctrine, historical interpretation, social realities, and essentialist theories. Each woman in the Church finds a unique and individual application helpful to her own concerns; furthermore, most women in the Church are comfortable with the sacred and divine assignations to their calling of Mother, and do not desire the priesthood, although Stace Christianson’s study showed that even “Empowered” women or those in the “process of empowerment” admitted to questioning at least once why women do not hold the priesthood. All responses are valid-both those who struggle over the priesthood question and those who have found peace-because these represent individual spiritual reconciliations. Most valid studies reject the trite folkloric responses of “Men may be the heads of their families, but women are the necks that turn the heads.” And “I do hold the Priesthood-every night in bed.” Perhaps less flippant, but still damagingly simplistic, are the common cultural responses of “Why would women want the priesthood? They have enough to do already.” Or “Women have the built-in ability to be Christlike, while men need all the help they can get.” These responses only further divert the serious question at hand by perpetuating gender stereotypes and shallow simplifications.

Some feminist historians have argued that women have always held the priesthood, by virtue of the Relief Society organization, which they claim Joseph Smith intended as a “kingdom of priestesses,” with women receiving ordinations and performing temple rites.50 Further, historians hearken to nineteenth-century Mormon women being ordained as healers with power to anoint and lay on hands for healing the sick.51 As to whether the Prophet Joseph intended the Relief Society to ordain women to the Priesthood, Jill Derr has shown that Eliza R. Snow and Bathsheba W. Smith remembered that the intent of the Relief Society was never to actually ordain women to the Priesthood. When John Taylor spoke in Salt Lake City in 1880 on the Relief Society, he recalled that “when members of the Relief Society presidency in Nauvoo were ‘ordained,’ they were not ordained to priesthood offices, but received blessings that set them apart for their sacred callings.” Upon hearing this, both Eliza R. Snow and Bathsheba Smith indicated their agreement with President Taylor’s statement by nodding their heads.52 Regardless of whether Joseph intended Priesthood ordination for women, he was still extremely far-seeing regarding women’s accessibility to spiritual gifts and power. Todd Compton has shown that Smith’s inclusion of women in the temple ceremonies was actually a far-seeing and progressive step for women’s religious involvement in the 1840s, especially in the context of biblical exclusion of females from temple rites.53

Regarding the question of gender and priesthood, most Church leaders and members embrace the ideology of a Priesthood/womanhood dichotomy for men’s and women’s separate and distinct roles. Women share in the Priesthood sealing ordinance by virtue of their temple marriages and covenants, but the rights to officiate in priesthood offices or perform sacred ordinances are designated only to men. An interesting aspect of this explanation is the use of essentialism to explain women’s exclusion from the priesthood, but in two separate ways. One claims that since men are more righteous and capable, they get the rights to Priesthood leadership; for instance, Brigham Young made this statement to women: “Respect the power of the Priesthood while it is upon your husbands. Women have not the degree of light and knowledge that their husbands have, and they have not the power over their passions.”54 A more common essentialist argument refers to the inherent goodness of women, that since men are inherently less righteous than women, they need the priesthood for more help toward salvation. Although both essentialist arguments are flawed at their suggestions of the inherent moral superiority of one gender over the other, still the “women-as-more-righteous-so-they-don’t need-the-priesthood” remains the most culturally accepted-even if doctrinally inaccurate-explanation for female non-ordination in the Church. And Church members are often more willing to accept the idea of women’s inherent goodness that precludes the need for female ordination to hold the Priesthood. Today, no Church leader would suggest that men have the priesthood by virtue of superior morality and capacity; Mary Stovall Richards has successfully exposed the difficulties of this “inherently deficient male” thesis: Many “argue, for example that spiritually superior women do not ‘need’ to hold the priesthood but defective men doÖ This contention also denies the justice and mercy of the gospel by condemning half of humankind as innately flawed.”55

The doctrine of “separate spheres” or the dichotomy of Priesthood/motherhood remains the most common explanation for female non-ordination to the Priesthood. Regarding any man who “arrogantly feels that he is better than his wife because he holds the Priesthood,” Elder John A. Widstoe’s condemned such sexist thought by reminding men that “the Lord loves His daughters quite as well as His sonsÖ[and] woman has her gift of equal magnitude-motherhood.”56 President Spencer W. Kimball offered one of the most comprehensive statements on gender equality within the framework of the priesthood/motherhood separation of spheres:

We had full equality as his spirit children. We have equality as recipients of God’s perfected love for each of usÖ . Within those great assurances, however, our roles and assignments differ. These are eternal differences-with women being given many tremendous responsibilities of motherhood and sisterhood and men being given the tremendous responsibilities of fatherhood and the priesthood-but the man is not without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord {see 1 Corinthians 11:11)Ö . Remember, in the world before we came here, faithful women were given certain assignments while faithful men were foreordained to certain priesthood tasks. While we do not now remember the particulars, this does not alter the glorious reality of what we once agreed to.57

However, for some, the Priesthood/motherhood dichotomy is problematic as a false one in regard to men’s and women’s separate roles. Harrison and Richards have called this notion “that for mortal women motherhood is the parallel to priesthoodÖequally spurious, since all women are not mothers; fatherhood, not priesthood, is the male counterpart to motherhood. Furthermore, motherhood and fatherhood are bestowed on the righteous and the wicked alike.”58 In spite of these and other scholars’ difficulties with the Priesthood/motherhood polarity, most in the Church actually appreciate that the doctrine of motherhood is celebrated for its divinity and spiritual power, especially in a world where second-wave feminism has often belittled women’s maternal roles. Mormon women often express a sense of empowerment for the religion’s regard and acknowledgement of the sacred mothering influence. Further, recent statements from both male and female LDS leaders have broadly expanded the definition of motherhood beyond some limited image of childbearing and redundant domestic chores. Instead, women’s roles within “motherhood,” regardless of marital or even maternal status, can be all-inclusive to mean leadership, kingdom-building, and nurturing-inside and outside of the home for teaching, spiritual gifts, and contributions to the Church’s growth.

Sheri Dew has taught that “[w]hen we understand the magnitude of motherhood, it becomes clear why the prophets have been so protective of woman’s most sacred role. While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning.” Those “layers of meaning” for motherhood include other important contributory gifts:

Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality, righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhoodÖ Motherhood is not what was left over after our Father blessed his sons with priesthood ordination. It was the most ennobling endowment He could give his daughters, a sacred trust that gave women an unparalleled role in helping His children keep their second estate. As President J. Reuben Clark declared, motherhood is “as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the priesthood itself.”59

This expansion of the definition of motherhood has been an important new discourse for Mormon women, and further highlights the Church’s emphasis on each woman’s responsibility as the “primary nurturer” in their families.

The most useful responses regarding the question of women and the priesthood are General Authority statements that simply say “we don’t know.”60 Elder Neal A. Maxwell declared “We know so little, brothers and sisters, about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood. These were divinely determined in another time and another place.”61 Herein, Maxwell insinuates a “we don’t know” approach, while at the same time reaffirming the rhetoric of divinely-instituted divisions between priesthood and motherhood. This approach is appealing to many women because it offers a humble openness to continuing revelation; further, there’s not as much of a sense of authoritarian silencing on the matter for those who continue to struggle. President Gordon B. Hinckley has declared “A few Latter-day Saint women are asking why they are not entitled to hold the priesthood. To that I can say that only the Lord, through revelation, could alter that situation. He has not done so, so it is profitless for us to speculate and worry about it.”62

Regarding more nuanced understandings of what the priesthood is, President James E. Faust has provided an important reminder that “the priesthood is not gender; it is blessings from God for all at the hands of the servants he has designatedÖ Priesthood is the righteous power and influence by which boys are taught in their youth and throughout their lives to honor chastity, to be honest and industrious and to develop respect for and stand in the defense of womanhood. Priesthood is a restraining influence.”63 Again, Faust’s statement acknowledges what Elizabeth Dionne also celebrates in the priesthood as a “means” for “teaching men to stop drinking, to become industrious, and to treat their wives and children with love and respect.” Further, non-Mormon feminist sociologist Lori Beaman has called attention to Mormon women’s sense of empowerment in the Priesthood, that “LDS women report that the priesthood ensures that men take family life seriously. Rather than imposing a hierarchy that places men above women, the priesthood (at least to some Mormon women) ‘keeps men in line.'” Beaman of course contrasts this notion with secular feminists’ wariness at the so-called equality of gender relationships in LDS culture: “To those of us on the outside, the priesthood seems to be a blatant institutionalization of patriarchy.” But, rather than allowing her outsider-feminist perceptions to judge Mormon women with finality, instead Beaman validly reaffirms how the women themselves perceive their own oppression or liberation: “From the perspective of some LDS women, it [the Priesthood] offers help rather than oppression.”64

Other responses to the priesthood question include the “eventualist” approach; in other words, that the Lord has not yet revealed a change in priesthood ordination, but may in the future or in the next life. Further, Mormon authorities have often elaborated on the potential for women to share fully and equally in priesthood power with their husbands in the next life. For instance, Elder James E. Talmage wrote that “It is not given to woman to exercise the authority of the Priesthood independently; nevertheless, in the sacred endowmentsÖwoman shares with man the blessings of the Priesthood.” Talmage then hints at a greater sharing of priesthood in the next life: “When the frailties and imperfections of mortality are left behind, in the glorified state of the blessed hereafter, husband and wife will administer in their respective stations, seeing and understanding alike, and co-operating to the full in the government of their family kingdom.”65 Additionally, Joseph Fielding Smith gave hopeful promise that “Women do not hold the priesthood, but if they are faithful and true, they will become priestesses and queens in the kingdom of God, and that implies that they will be given authority.”66

And finally, increasing attention has been devoted by scholars and Church leaders to the most important question of equality in marriage. Helpful statements recognize the importance of marriage as a union for celebrating men’s and women’s differences, while functioning within “the larger realm of ungendered priesthood” for ultimate equality and godhood.67 General Authorities commonly warn men against the dangers of unrighteous dominion, or what President Howard W. Hunter has labeled as the problem of a husband trying to “operate independent of or without regard to the feelings and counsel of his wife in governing the family.”68 Boyd K. Packer’s counsel to husbands is commonly cited as the proper model for shared leadership in the home. “In your family when there is a decision to be made that affects everyone, you and your wife together will seek whatever counsel you might need, and together you will prayerfully come to a unified decision. If you ever pull priesthood rank on her you will have failed in your leadership.”69 Boyd Peterson has suggested that the priesthood role for men in the home is a greatly liberating one for males:

The priesthood gives a man the critical opportunity to feel needed by his family-to feel that he is essential; that he alone can provide his unique love, guidance, and blessings through righteously exercising the priesthood. Priesthood can make a man a distinctly male parent-not an emasculated “Mr. Mom,” but a Mr. Dad, who is both male and emotionally committed to his family. In a day when single parent-mostly fatherless-families are becoming increasingly common, the priesthood helps Mormon men feel an irreplaceable connectedness with their families, placing them as “head,” or perhaps more appropriately “primary servant.” And consequently placing them under greater condemnation for abrogation.70

Through varying interpretations of the understanding of priesthood doctrine and practice in a gendered sense, members, leaders and scholars are able to better negotiate men’s and women’s eternal and equal relationships. Further, many scholars have also provided useful research and ideologies for better understanding of equal gender relationships with the framework of the Gospel and the priesthood.71

The basic structure of male Priesthood authority will not change at any time in the near future. Still, within the framework of male leadership, various changes in women’s inclusion have occurred in recent years, showing Church leaders’ and members’ willingness to negotiate and adapt for greater female participation. So it might be fair to say that while the Lord’s organization is unchanging, some of the cultural trappings of gendered separation that have restricted female involvement are changing, and continue to change. For example, on an institutional level in the past twenty to thirty years, women’s sphere in the Church has more greatly expanded. Women can now pray in Sacrament meeting, speak at General Conference (there are usually one or two from the women’s general auxiliaries who speak at every Conference), and serve as Gospel Doctrine teachers, stake public affairs directors, and ward and stake activities chairpersons. Further, greater numbers of women serve full-time missions-and increasingly without the sexist, anti-sister stigmas associated with unattractive physical appearance and/or inability to marry; some sisters even serve as district leaders for all-female districts. Observers might note the ever-increasing numbers of full-time female professors at the Church’s universities, and even the appointment of Sheri Dew as the CEO of Deseret Book-these represent a beginning step in the important recognition of women’s intellectual, business, and political contributions to various Church institutions.

Furthermore, although not yet perfect in practice, the Church has recently sought to place the Young Womanhood Recognition Award on equal status with the Eagle Scout Award for young men, and many congregations now hold recognition ceremonies for young women that parallel the Eagle Court of Honor. Ward buildings include the bulletin-board plaques for both Eagle Scouts and Young Women awards that offer them a more visible equal status. Church policy now demands that both the yearly scout camp and young women High Adventure camp are allowed the same funds, time, and resources, although the differences in young men’s and young women’s programs are still being ironed out within local units. And on the primary level, the “Achievement Days” program has become for 8- to 11-year-old girls similar to what the Cub Scouting program is for primary-age boys.

Aside from these institutional and cultural changes that suggest greater female inclusion for all age levels, some Mormon feminists have argued that recent Church policies on social issues have reflected a greater awareness of socio-economic differences, international members’ concerns, and gendered sensitivity. For example, Church directives regarding the use of birth control have softened from the language of all-out condemnation, as represented by Joseph Fielding Smith’s stern warning that “[t]hose who attempt to prevent their offspring from coming into the world in obedience to this great command, are guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in the category. There is not promise of eternal salvation and exaltation for such as they.” to a much more mother-friendly statement from the General Handbook of Instructions: “The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.”72 The temple recommend interview also reflects increasing attention to spousal and familial issues, especially accountability for treatment of family members; even more recently, one recommend question holds divorced members responsible for child support and alimony payments as a point of worthiness to enter the temple. Furthermore, child and spousal abuse cases receive much more serious and compassionate attention by bishops and stake presidents than in years past. These changes in policy and language show how men and women, members and leaders, have successfully combined greater gendered and social awareness that result from modernization, scientific studies and even feminist awareness, to the priesthood-led decisions and policies of the institutional Church.

However, to a few Mormon feminists, these changes have not come soon enough or to the degree desired. Some continue to question why certain “non-Priesthood” callings, like Sunday School presidencies, are given only to men, or, as Boyd Peterson has noted, “I believe too many of the Church’s bureaucratic functions have been assumed to be the sole province of the priesthood. This causes much of the resentment that is harbored by women against their brothers in the Church.”73 Additionally, some have even argued that the strong female independence and leadership that Mormon women enjoyed in their nineteenth-century Relief Society institutions and programs effectively ended with the modern correlation program of the Church. For example, correlation in the early 1970s took financial and institutional autonomy away from the women’s organization; Jill Derr has demonstrated how this transition “intended to smooth the way for international expansion and management and give full institutional support to LDS families, [but actually] had unintended consequences for women-further diminishing any sense of female leadership and collective identity, and focusing even more narrowly on woman’s role in the home.”74 A commonly-cited example of this was the end of the Relief Society Magazine, which some feminists have criticized as “the monolithic explanation of male control over the female voice.”

However, Tina Hatch has offered an alternate explanation that since the Relief Society Magazine was an admittedly Utah-centric and ethno-centric publication, the “end of the Relief Society Magazine can equally be interpreted as a necessary phase in the Church’s efforts to reach and represent a far greater number of men and women worldwide.”75 Although feminist Mormons have criticized correlation as reducing Mormon female power, others see it as effective for the inclusion of millions of non-American members-both men and women-to a greater collective and unified Mormon consciousness and participation. Further, correlation has promoted a pooling of the Church’s resources for the expensive translating processes necessary for international growth. Most recently, the 1997 decision to “create a joint lesson manual to be used by Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood” was seen as an important progression for gendered sharing, especially in terms of doctrinal instruction. President Hinckley heralded the change: “This is a momentous day. We will finally have brothers and sisters walking side by side out into the future. This will change the outlook of men and women. Let’s get it done.”76 Furthermore, under President Hinckley’s direction, leaders have increasingly emphasized the importance of professional, artistic, and practical education for women, while at the same time embracing the importance of motherhood.

These gendered negotiations are reflective of what Cheryl Preston has described as faithful women and men working within the structures of their religious institutions for greater gender equality. “Some women continue in their commitment to traditional organized religions-religions in which there has not yet been much room for movement on gender issues-and they also continue their commitment to feminist aspirations for improving the status of women.”77 Thus, for women in patriarchal religions, these may include a greater acceptance and encouragement for females to pursue higher education, the incorporation of gender-inclusive language, the emphasis on female and male sacrifice as an indication of religiosity, scriptural interpretations that highlight the role of female characters, negotiation of modesty for protecting women’s virtue, and finally, the embracing of female groups-like the Relief Society-that provide women a religious and social support network.78

Perhaps most significantly for Mormon women’s inclusion, Elder M. Russell Ballard has sought to expand the role and influence of female ward leaders in his much-cited works on ward councils. Elder Ballard declared one of his main purposes in writing Counseling With Our Councils as “to encourage priesthood leaders to invite the sisters to more fully participate in developing solutions to the difficult problems confronting members of the church.”79 When Ballard encouraged one bishop to “ask the sisters for their ideas,” the result was “like opening the floodgates of heaven.” 80 Elder Ballard has spoken and written on numerous occasions regarding the importance of female auxiliary leaders’ inclusion in ward and stake council decisions, and his encouragement appears to be taking root in units all over the Church.81 Many women in Janiece Johnson’s study related these important directions for female inclusion on ward levels: “We seem to have fewer traditionalists (in the worst sense of the word) in California. Women’s viewpoints are expected and encouraged in my stake. Elder Ballard’s repeated teachings on church councils [are] permeating all the meetings.” And another woman noted, “In Church Service as an adult, I have had only the most positive experiences interacting with the Priesthood leaders. I feel that my efforts in my calling are appreciated, and that my suggestions are taken seriously.” And finally, “the attitude in my ward and stake is very favorable toward women. My bishop and stake president have been very interested in hearing what the women in leadership positions have to say. I have felt heard and validated.”82

Thus, Priesthood leaders and women leaders find methods for working out women’s participation and leadership, in what Stace Christianson has called a “negotiation process in which men holding administrative positions shared their authority with women whom they were serving. These kinds of relationships led to a cooperative agreement to empower LDS women.”83 Furthermore, this process of women’s inclusion in leadership is not simply a matter of women passively being “granted” more participation by male leaders; instead, it is becoming more common for female ward leaders and members to proactively approach male priesthood leadership with ideas, suggestions, concerns, and possibilities for conflict and organizational resolutions.

On a personal level, when serving as a Relief Society president in a singles’ ward, the bishop invited me to attend all Priesthood Executive Committee (PEC) meetings, a distinctly non-conformist practice, since only priesthood leaders are to attend. For over a year and a half, I attended PEC as a full participant in that committee’s decision-making process. Although not officially condoned in Church leadership manuals, and probably subject to criticisms and raised eyebrows by more traditional members, that sharing of leadership and counsel by a bishop with his young Relief Society president represented what Christianson has described as the “negotiation processÖin which men shared their authority,” and what Cheryl Preston has described as women working within the accepted, institutional structures of patriarchy for increased gendered equality.84

Where unrighteous dominion has occurred or continues to occur, Stace Christianson has shown how women have sought to negotiate within the structure of patriarchal leadership to reject improper dominion. Necessary to this effort is women’s ability to separate doctrine-which they perceive as unchanging-from culture, traditions, and/or practices, which they determine as changeable and subject to outside influences. Christianson cites the particular use of what she calls “separation strategies,” or the “importance of being able to distinguish church doctrine from other beliefs in the churchÖ This led empowered women to understand that what a church leader said was not always doctrine, which led to the separation of a church ‘priesthood leader’ from just ‘a man’ and his beliefs.”85 For example, most women in Christianson’s study cited the importance of personal revelation in determining the level of their empowerment and their ability to find personal happiness. And surprisingly, 76% of respondents claimed that when confronted with the difference between a local priesthood leader’s instruction and an answer received through personal revelation, they would follow the revelation.

Although the dissonance that might come from a conflict between priesthood leadership and personal revelation is not necessarily commonplace, still women sometimes have need for working within priesthood structures to find their empowerment. For example, one mother recalled how “her daughter had a strong spiritual experience telling her to go on a full-time mission. Yet when her daughter went to talk to her Bishop about going, he told her that she needed to stay home and focus on getting married.” The mother recalled, “I told [her]Ö ‘Just because he’s the Bishop and says something, does not mean that he was inspired to say that.’ It’s simple. I feel like I have a right to know whether that was inspiration or not.” In the end, mother and daughter went to the stake president and “he encouraged her to serve.”86 These examples are not meant to show that all Mormon women are citing personal revelation as a random justification for trumping priesthood leadership. Instead, where some women have perceived unrighteous or inappropriate leadership, they take advantage of structures that afford them adaptation and a feeling of empowerment. Thus, men and women in the Church find opportunities for gendered awareness and reciprocation, by working within the Church’s existing framework. According to Cheryl Preston, “Feminists are not unfamiliar with the notion that they must be pragmatic. Perhaps in this situation we must pick and choose our battles to ‘win the war.’ Women can let some sexism slide so that they can still be a part of the religious community/practices, and still make a stand for changes.”87 In the end, this process is more empowering than the divisive alienation resulting from revolutionary calls for immediate and radical institutional change.


As I have struggled, prayed and pondered over this question of women’s place in the Church, I have had moments of incredible peace and resolution, but I also have experienced moments, like Valerie Hudson, where I felt as though my skin was “rubbed raw by sandpaper.” I feel sorrow with my sisters who have failed to reconcile the real and perceived gender inequality they have faced within Mormon culture or even from Church leaders. I lament the loss of intelligent and spirited Mormon women who have chosen complete separation from the culture and religion of their birth and youth because of the dissonance. To them and to others who have considered this separation from the Church, I echo the plea of Linda Hoffman Kimball:

I have seen in recent years many of the church’s best and brightest baling out-or being forced to bale. This is a cause of great heartbreak and loneliness. Here is my advice to those who are considering this route: To the extent that you have been affected and have a say in the matter, don’t go. Don’t go. If for no other reason than that I need youÖ . As for me, I have seen the deep image-felt that pulse, that divine juice-beneath the sometimes majestic and sometimes morbid details on the surface of church experience. Because I have seen, I am tethered to this place whether I “like” it all the time or not. I remain here by choice, by commitment, and by covenant.88

I recognize that for every positive story of gendered awareness in the annals of Church lore, there are negative stories-bishops that told abused wives to “accept their fate and the authority of their husbands” or young women counseled not to go on missions because “that’s not a woman’s place.”89 Depending upon what stories are cited or what framework for judgment is applied, it can be easy to interpret the Church’s experience and history as misogynistic and oppressive. However, for myself and many other friends, colleagues and acquaintances, we choose not to see our experiences through those lenses. Instead, we recognize that the Gospel itself is the source of our liberation and empowerment, for as Elizabeth Dionne has noted, “After all, isn’t redemption the ultimate form of feminism?”90 Certainly, cultural changes have occurred over time and many still need to occur, but our hope lies in the ultimate equalizing doctrine of Christ’s love and redemption for all his sons and daughters. If we did not see it that way, then we would not choose to stay. We are not sell-outs. Daily and weekly we see so many examples of increased gendered reciprocation within the context of the Church and its culture that give us cause to hope.

As I sat one Sunday in a Gospel Doctrine class taught by a female teacher-a returned missionary and stay-at-home mother of two little boys-I looked around at the small classroom of pupils, which included her husband (who sat caring for their youngest son while his wife taught), many returned missionaries (including seven returned sister missionaries; I counted), a member of the bishopric (who also was helping in the care of his youngest child), the Relief Society president (a divorced mother of one daughter), and numerous others. As this diverse group of men and women sat and listened and learned at the feet of an intelligent and inspired woman of God, I had one of many fortunate “moments of epiphany”-to realize that this indeed was the Gospel and the Church at its very best: Men and women learning together from the scriptures of the saving power of Jesus Christ, feeling equality in the hope and joy of his redeeming grace, recognizing that he is, as he has promised, “no respecter of persons.” A few weeks later, I was again blessed with another positive “gender moment,” as the same group of people (with a few differences) again sat at the feet of the Gospel Doctrine teacher-this time a young Navajo sister, wife, mother of one daughter, and caretaker of her elderly parents-who helped the group again feel unified with teachings from the scriptures and relevant experiences from her culture and her people. I thought to myself, “in how many places in the world would you find this scenario-a group of people that included college professors and city councilmen-learning at the feet of a Navajo sister?” The liberation was overwhelming-we were not “Anglo” and “Navajo” or “men” and “women,” or “educated” and “un-educated,” but children of God, renewing our faith in the Lord’s redemptive teachings and love.

Most Mormon women would define themselves as Mormons who happen to be women, rather than women who happen to be Mormons. This is an important distinction, since most Mormon women acknowledge finding liberation in the atonement of Jesus Christ, with its genderless hope for redemption and eternal life. Our faith allows us direct access to God, through personal revelation, prayer, a relationship with Christ’s atoning grace, and individual application of scriptures. Like Linda Kimball, “I don’t think of myself as a woman in the context of the gospel. I think of myself as a person. I don’t think of myself as a woman getting ready and going to church on Sundays. I think of myself as a person getting ready and going to church on Sunday.”91

Mormon women collectively desire that the world may see them for the complexity of their spirits, desires, aspirations, and personalities. We are not a stereotype! We are not symbols of fundamentalist gender oppression. We are teachers, professors, nurses, doctors, athletes, artisans, journalists, singers, gardeners, poets, authors, and businesswomen. But first we are daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, and most importantly, we are “women of GodÖ[who] not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should.”92 Sheri Dew has also responded to the stereotype of Mormon women: “For though some would portray us as dowdy and dominated rather than the dynamic, radiant women we are, no woman is more persuasive, no woman has greater influence for good, no woman is a more vibrant instrument in the hands of the Lord than a woman of God who is thrilled to be who she is.”93

Even more empowering are the words of general authorities who have recognized that the status of women throughout world history has often been degraded, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ can be the most liberating tool for gender inclusion. Most recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley has declared, “Notwithstanding this preeminence given the creation of woman, she has so frequently through the ages been relegated to a secondary position. She has been put down. She has been denigrated. She has been enslaved. She has been abused.” And yet, according to Hinckley, some of the greatest “characters of scripture have been women of integrity, accomplishment, and faith.” Furthermore, Hinckley reminded men to exercise the priesthood only “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41-42). Further, Hinckley called for the greatest regard toward women:

How thankful I am, how thankful we all must be, for the women in our lives. God bless them. May His great love distill upon them and crown them with luster and beauty, grace and faith. And may His Spirit distill upon us as men and lead us ever to hold them in respect, in gratitude, giving encouragement, strength, nurture, and love, which is the very essence of the gospel of our Redeemer and Lord. 94

For Apostle James E. Talmage, this hope for ultimate and eternal gender equality must extend to the next life, for “Then shall woman be recompensed in rich measure for all the injustice that womanhood has endured in mortality. Then shall woman reign by Divine right, a queen in the resplendent realm of her glorified state, even as exalted man shall stand, priest and king unto the Most High God. Mortal eye cannot see nor mind comprehend the beauty, glory, and majesty of a righteous woman made perfect in the celestial kingdom of God.”95 And then our hopes for eternal and divine gender equality will be ultimately and completely fulfilled, as righteous daughters and sons of God discover the embracing love of Jesus Christ and salvation in his kingdom.


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1 Louisa Barnes Pratt, The History of Louisa Barnes Pratt: Being the Autobiography of a Mormon Missionary, Widow and Pioneer, edited by S. George Ellsworth (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998), 322.

2 Ibid., 323.

3 Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992).

4 Emmeline B. Wells, “Pen Sketch of an Illustrious Woman,” Women’s Exponent 9 (1 February 1881): 131, Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, edited by Claudia L. Bushman (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1976), 32.

5 Eliza R. Snow address, “Great Indignation Meeting,” Deseret News Weekly, 19 January 1870. See discussions of this famous speech in Jill Mulvay Derr, “Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question,” Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896, edited by Carol Cornwall Madsen (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1997), 76; Ivan J. Barrett, Heroic Mormon Women: True Stories from the Lives of 16 Amazing Women in Church History (Salt Lake City: Covenant Communications, 1991); and Mormon Sisters, 31-32.

6 Rebecca Johnson, “A Question of Faith,” Vogue (June 2003): 74-84; Jan Jarboe Russell, “Elizabeth Smart’s Case is Symbolic of an Ugly Little Secret,” San Antonio Express-News, March 23, 2003, 1H; James O. Goldsborough, “A Visit to the Land of Moroni, Kolob, Orem, and Nephi,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 September 2002, cited in Johnson, 92-93.

7 Bill O’Reilly, http:[email protected] (26 July 2004).

8 For the most comprehensive scholarly works on the contradictions in Mormon women’s experiences, see Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant; Madsen, ed., Battle for the Ballot; see also Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987); and Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997).

9 Valerie Hudson Cassler, “Ariel’s Question,” in Cassler and Alma Don Sorenson, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, 4.

10 Cheryl Preston, “Women in Traditional Religions: Refusing to Let Patriarchy Separate Us From the Source of Our Liberation,” 2; paper presented at Perspectives: LDS Women in Twentieth Century Conference, Joseph Fielding Smith Institute For Church History, 20 March 2004.

11 Preston, 4 and 22.

12 Donna Lee Bowen, “Inside the World of Islam,” in Dawn Hall Anderson, Susette Fletcher Green, and Marie Cornwall, Women and Christ: Living the Abundant Life: Talks Selected from the 1992 Women’s Conference Sponsored by Brigham Young University and the Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1993), 196.

13 Bowen, 194.

14 Azizah al-Hibri, “Islam, Law and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights,” American University Journal of International Law and Politics 12 (1997): 1-3, quoted in Preston, 22-23.

15 Rodney W. Burgoyne and Robert H. Burgoyne, “Conflict Secondary to Overt Paradoxes in Belief Systems: The Mormon Woman Example,” Journal of Operational Psychiatry 8, no. 2 (1977): 42, quoted in Preston, 23.

16 Alma Don Sorenson and Valerie Hudson Cassler, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion (Springville, Utah: CFI, 2004), x..

17 Vickie Stewart Eastman, “On Being a Mormon Woman,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (Fall 2003): 209. This conclusion echoes other Mormon feminists. See Hanks, ed., Women and Authority; and Erin R. Silva, “Matriarchal Patriarchy: Some Thoughts Toward Understanding the Devaluation of Women in the Church,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Summer 1994): 139-141.

18 Historians have argued over whether the purpose of the Relief Society was for female Priesthood ordination or simply for female authority in temple rites “under the direction of the Priesthood.” See Derr, Women of Covenant and D. Michael Quinn, “Mormon Women have had the Priesthood Since 1843,” in Hanks, ed., Women and Authority. See also Margaret Toscano, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Spring 1994): 219-26. This question will be examined at a later point in this essay.

19 Elizabeth Dionne, “Latter-day Saints’ Feminism is much Stronger than Many Want to Acknowledge or Believe,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 October 2000, AA6.

20 Dionne, “Latter-Day Saints’ Feminism,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 October 2000, AA6.

21 Hudson, xi.

22 Much of the recent discourse of Mormon feminists centers on demanding a greater acknowledgement of the role and importance of Heavenly Mother or God the Mother, especially for reifying Mormon women’s true divine relationship to female deity. See numerous essays in Women and Authority. Others have examined the complex and often contradictory discourses on the nature of Eve and her responsibility in the Fall. Beverly Campbell, Eve and the Choice Made in Eden (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003).

23 The original Prozac study is actually difficult to locate. I have found some citations which date the study in 1994, while others place it back in 1989. KSL reporter Louise Degn had produced a documentary entitled “Mormon Women and Depression” in 1979, before the issue of anti-depressant use was receiving national attention. Degn’s documentary, however, did not deal specifically with Prozac, nor did it conclude that “Mormon women had a higher rate of depression than non-Mormon women.” Lisa Riley Roche, “LDS Church ‘Out in Front’ on Issues,” Deseret News 11 August 2002;,1249,405023472,00.html (accessed 7 December 2004).

24 Dr. Kent Ponder, “Mormon Women, Prozac, and Therapy,” 2003; See and (accessed 17 November 2004).

25 “Depression and LDS Women” discussion on LDS BeliefNet.Com; postings from 7/16/04 and 07/20/04;; (accessed 2 August 2004).

26 Marie Cornwall, Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, first paperback edition (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

27 Carrie A. Moore, “Study Elevates LDS Women,” Deseret Morning News, 2 April 2004;

28 “Expert: Mormon Women Less Depressed,” USA Today, 2 April 2004;

29 Moore, “Study Elevates Mormon Women.”

30 Byron R. Johnson, “Reviewing and Clarifying the Role of Religion in Reducing Crime and Delinquency,” 65 December, Federal Probation 49 (65 December 2001), in Preston, 27; see also Daniel Judd, “Depression, Youth Suicide and Divorce: Fables and Facts About Latter-Day Saints,” Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center Newsletter 14 (September 1999), republished in Judd, Religion, Mental Health and the Latter-day Saints, vol. 14 in Religious Studies Center Specialized Monograph Series (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999). Judd’s findings conclude that the “incidence of depression among LDS women is ‘nearly the same, if not lower than, for non-LDS women.'”

31 Janiece Johnson, “Patriarchy and Contentment: LDS Women’s Religious Experience, 1970-present,” in Summer Fellows’ Papers, 2003: Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, edited by Claudia Bushman (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, 2004), 97.

32 Stace Hucks Christianson, “Mormon Women’s Sense of Empowerment,” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1997).

33 For other studies on Mormon and other women’s negotiations within patriarchy, see also Martha Nibley Beck, “Flight from the Iron Cage: LDS Women’s Responses to the Paradox of Modernization,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1994); Debbi Christensen, “The Developmental Process of Mormon Women,” Sunstone 14 (1991): 9-13; for women in other patriarchal religions, see Debra Kaufman, Rachel’s Daughters (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991); and Judith Stacey, Brave New Families (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

34 Johnson, 98.

35 Contentment Survey, 34 years old, married, Georgia; cited in Johnson, 98.

36 Johnson, 99; and Contentment Survey, 29 years old, single, Utah; in Johnson, 99.

37 Christianson, 29.

38 Christianson, 33-34.

39 Ibid., 31.

40 Lucinda Peach, cited in Preston, 25.

41 Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986); Kathryn Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Lola Van Wagenen, Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Polygamy and the Politics of Woman Suffrage, 1870-1896 (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, 2003); Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997); Sarah Barrigner Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); see also J. Max Anderson, The Polygamy Story: Fiction and Fact (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1979).

42 Van Wagoner, 89.

43 Stanley Ivens, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Western Humanities Review 10 (Summer 1956): 229-239, in Van Wagoner, 91.

44 Daynes, 129.

45 Jennifer L. Lund, “Out of the Swan’s Nest: The Ministry of Anthon H. Lund, Scandinavian Apostle,” Journal of Mormon History (Fall 2003): 77-105.

46 Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

47 Valerie Hudson Cassler, “Polygamy,” Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, 200-201; for a discussion on the changing interpretation of the plural marriage doctrine-from the “required for salvation” to the “only when commanded by God” interpretation, see Alexander, 72-73.

48 “Inside Polygamy,” Investigative Reports, A&E Television, 2004.

49 Martha Sonntag Bradley, Kidnapped From that Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993).

50 See Derr, Women of Covenant and Quinn, “Mormon Women have had the Priesthood Since 1843,” in Hanks, ed., Women and Authority. See also Toscano, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Spring 1994): 219-226.

51 Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Beecher and Anderson, 111-150 and “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (September-October 1981): 16-22; and Betina Lindsey, “Women as Healers in the Modern Church,” in Hanks, Women and Authority, 439-460.

52 Derr, 49.

53 Todd Compton, “‘Kingdom of Priests’: Priesthood, Temple, and Women in the Old Testament and in the Restoration,” Dialogue 36 (Fall 2003): 41-59; for more on the empowerment of women through temple ceremonies, see Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Beecher and Anderson, Sisters in Spirit, 80-110.

54 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 5:267.

55 B. Kent Harrison and Mary Stovall Richards, “Feminism in the Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 36, no. 2 (1996-1997): 187. Boyd Peterson has also succinctly questioned the “superiority of women” thesis: “Apologetic talk about how the priesthood was a compensation to men for women’s inherently superior spirituality did little to alleviate my concerns. I suspected the theory was designed to put women up on pedestals where men could worship qualities women never could live up to, the result being women feeling perpetually guilty and men feeling self-content. Furthermore, if women are inherently more spiritual than men, then Heavenly Father’s most precious creation, human life, is half defective.” Boyd Petersen, “The Priesthood: Men’s Last Best Hope,” Sunstone (March 1998): 10-15.

56 John A. Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1939, rev. ed., 1954), 89-90, quoted in Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” Beecher and Anderson, Sisters in Spirit, 140.

57 The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 315-316; quoted in M. Catherine Thomas, “Women, Priesthood, and the At-One-Ment,” Spiritual Lightening (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 48-49.

58 Harrison and Richards, 187; see also Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Beecher and Anderson, 140. Newell also questions the dichotomy: “Equating motherhood with priesthood requires one to ignore fatherhood in the equation. Thus, anything traditionally considered ‘male’ in the church came to be attached exclusively to the priesthood, and this emphasis stressed-even magnified-the differences between the sexesÖ All this aside, the role of fathering is being stressed more and more by church leaders, moving us closer to the model that Grethe Peterson describesÖbrotherhood-sisterhood, motherhood-fatherhood, all functioning in the larger realm of ungendered priesthood.”

59 Sheri L. Dew, “Are We Not All Mothers?” General Relief Society Meeting; September 2001;,5232,23-1-225-37,00.html (accessed 9 December 2004). See also “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign (November 1995): 102.

60 For “we don’t know” statements, see William J. Critchlow, Jr., Asst. to the Council of the Twelve, “Women and the Priesthood,” Improvement Era (December 1965): 1120: “Dear SisterÖ I do not know. I’m not supposed to know. Sincerely your brother, Wm. J. Critchlow, Jr.,” and later, Critchlow restates, “Priesthood is the power of God, presently and purposely denied to women for reasons which he has not revealed. And when he whose business priesthood is wants the sisters to hold it, he will let his prophet know; and until then, there is nothing we can do about it.”

61 Neal A. Maxwell, “The Women of God,” Ensign (May 1978): 10.

62 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Ten Gifts from the Lord,” Ensign 15 (November 1985): 86, quoted in Harrison and Richards, 187.

63 James E. Faust, Finding Light in a Dark World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2004), 133, italics added. Not only is priesthood “not gender,” it is also not a plural noun, as some members are prone to use it as a collective definition for all men in the Church over age twelve. Instead, those who hold the priesthood should be referred to as just that: priesthood holders or bearers of the priesthood.

64 See Dionne, “Latter-Day Saints’ Feminism is Much StrongerÖ” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 October 2000; also, Lori G. Beaman, “Molly Mormons, Mormon Feminists and Moderates,” Sociology of Religion (Spring 2001), LookSmartFindArticles;; (accessed 9 December 2004).

65 James E. Talmage, “The Eternity of Sex,” YW Journal 25 (October 1914): 602-603, quoted in Thomas, “Spiritual Lightening, 49-50.

66 Bruce R. McConkie, comp., Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:178, quoted in Thomas, 50.

67 Grethe Ballif Peterson, “Priesthood and Latter-day Saint Women: Eight Contemporary Definitions,” in Beecher and Anderson, Sisters in Spirit, 267.

68 Howard W. Hunter, “Being a Righteous Husband and Father,” Ensign (November 1994): 49. Further, leaders often remind men that priesthood authority can and should only be exercised by virtue of “gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41)

69 Boyd K. Packer, quoted in Carlfred Broderick, One Flesh, One Heart: Putting Celestial Love into Your Temple Marriage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986), 31-32.

70 Boyd Peterson, “The Priesthood: Men’s Last Best Hope,” Sunstone (March 1998): 10-15.

71 For the best scholarly and doctrinal discussions of Gospel-centered gender equality, see Harrison and Richards, “Feminism in the Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and Valerie Hudson, “A Reaction to ‘Womanist Theology’ by Linda E. Thomas” paper presented on 9 February 1999 at Brigham Young University, copy in possession of the author; Hugh W. Nibley, “Patriarchy and Matriarchy,” (FARMS), reprinted from Old Testament and Related Studies, vol. 1, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1986), 87-113; see also Bruce and Marie Hafen, “Women, Feminism, and Gender,” The Belonging Heart (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994).

72 Melissa Proctor, “Bodies, Babies, and Birth Control,” Summer Fellows’ Papers, 2003: Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, edited by Claudia Bushman (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, 2004), 118, 128.

73 Peterson, “The Priesthood: Men’s Last Best Hope,” 2.

74 Derr, “‘Strength in Our Union’: The Making of Mormon Sisterhood,” in Beecher and Anderson, Sisters in Spirit, 195; for other discussions on the impact of correlation on the Relief Society, see Derr, Women of Covenant.

75 Tina Hatch, “‘Changing Times Bring Changing Conditions:’ Relief Society 1960 to the Present,” in Bushman, ed., Summer Fellows’ Papers, 2003, 44.

76 Gordon B. Hinckley, in Relief Society, Minutes, April 1, 1996, Cherry B. Silver, “International Women in High Relief, 1990-1997: The Something Extraordinary Era of Relief Society History,” unpublished manuscript, quoted in Hatch, 55.

77 Preston, 10.

78 Ibid., 36-37.

79 M. Russell Ballard, Counseling With Our Councils: Learning to Minister Together in the Church and in the Family (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), ix.

80 M. Russell Ballard, “Counseling with our Councils,” Ensign (May 1994): 24; (accessed 17 November 2004).

81 M. Russell Ballard, “Members are the Key,” Ensign (September 2000): 8; (accessed 17 November 2004).

82 Survey Respondents, cited in Johnson, 10.

83 Christianson, 68.

84 Christianson, 61; and Preston, op. cit.

85 Christianson, 61.

86 Christianson, 69.

87 Preston, 49.

88 Linda Hoffman Kimball, “Being a Mormon Woman or ‘Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?’Ö Isn’t That Enough?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (Fall 2003): 215.

89 For a collection of experiences with Church leadership or culture that made some Mormon women feel marginalized as a gender, please refer to “Historic Mormon Feminist Discourse-Excerpts,” in Hanks, ed., Women and Authority; this collection is excellent for the diversity of Mormon women’s voices, including Mormon feminists who try to show areas where Mormon cultural limitations at times prevent us from achieving the full gendered equality that is promised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

90 Dionne, “Latter-Day Saints’ Feminism,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 October 2000.

91 “Kerry,” quoted in Christianson, 57-58.

92 Eliza R. Snow address, “Great Indignation Meeting,” Deseret News Weekly, 19 January 1870.

93 Sheri L. Dew, “Stand Tall and Stand Together,” General Relief Society Meeting, October 2000;,5239,23-1-138,00.html (accessed 9 December 2004).

94 President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Women in Our Lives,” Ensign (November 2004); at,5232,23-1-479-26,00.html (accessed 21 December 2004).

95 James E. Talmage, “The Eternity of Sex,” YW Journal 25 (October 1914): 603, quoted in Thomas, 50.

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