Maxine Hanks’s 1992 anthology Women and Authority includes a chapter by D. Michael Quinn, provocatively entitled “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843.” Quinn makes it clear that he’s not arguing simply for what I’ll here call “soft” claims about women’s priesthood status, for example, that women hold the priesthood only “through temple marriage or through the second anointing” (368). On the contrary, he’s arguing a “harder” claim, that women actually held–and therefore, by the successive conferral of authority that authenticates Mormon ordinances, continue to hold–the Melchizedek priesthood completely independent of marriage, on the basis of temple endowment alone.
We might outline possible positions on this issue as follows:
(1) Women don’t hold the priesthood in any sense at all.
(2) Women hold the priesthood only through their husbands by virtue of temple marriage and/or the second anointing (“soft” claims for women’s priesthood).
(3) Women hold the priesthood independent of their husbands by virtue of the temple endowment (“hard” claims for women’s priesthood).
There are undoubtedly variations on these three positions (my own position turns out to be such a variation), but these are the major views of which I’m aware.
I’m not a historian by training, and thus I’m ill-equipped to assess Quinn’s use of historical documents and evidence. But it seems to me that women today clearly don’t hold or exercise the Melchizedek priesthood–at least, not in any sense in which we generally use the term. Women aren’t ordained to priesthood office and don’t perform priesthood ordinances, and that is, in general, what we mean by “priesthood.” I suspect much of the ambiguity about the issue stems from complexities in our use of the term itself, which seems to mean one thing in church government, while it has other meanings in relation to the temple. Whether we consider Mormon women to hold the priesthood depends, so to speak, on whether by the term we mean the church-government priesthood or the temple priesthood.
I think I can claim without controversy that women simply don’t hold the church-government priesthood, however we might interpret the temple priesthood (and I think it’s very far from clear how we should). Here for me, though, is the wrinkle: we routinely define the priesthood as the power to act in the name of God. If the women who officiate in temple ordinances aren’t acting in the name of God, in whose name are they acting? In their case I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that they must hold the priesthood, in some limited sense. I think the only reason we don’t term it such is that claims that women hold the priesthood, however routine they may have been in the early nineteenth century, are disharmonious with current church discourse and gendered understanding of the priesthood, and, like public discussion of Heavenly Mother, have become intensely politicized.
(Inevitable tangent: one of my favorite pieces of folk doctrine–the claim that women cannot be cast into outer darkness, that there are no Daughters of Perdition, a claim to which I once witnessed an entire gospel doctrine lesson devoted–indirectly ratifies this; the teacher and claimant made his only exception for female temple workers, who alone among women could be cast down to outer darkness, because their greater authority granted them greater responsibility.)
But to get back to informal demographic analysis: my very limited observations suggest that most Mormons adhere to position (1) above, with a much smaller group–probably a few quiet or not-so-quiet advocates in any given ward–adhering to (2) or (3). In general, the advocates of (2) and (3) I’ve encountered have tended to be liberal in their views of gender and of religion more generally and aware of such nineteenth-century practices as women anointing each other before childbirth. Adherents of (2) and (3) often, implicitly or explicitly, make their understanding of the temple and and/or historical practices the basis of a hope for women’s increased participation in administering priesthood ordinances and governing the church.
However, I’ve recently witnessed a Bloggernacle phenomenon, a small demographic shift in the advocates of position (2) and (3). While most such advocates undoubtedly continue to adhere the patterns described above, I’ve started to see women claim online that precisely because women already do hold the priesthood, no further conferral is necessary, and that genuine equality between men and women therefore obtains. In other words, what was once the basis of claims criticizing the status quo has now–perhaps–begun to be the basis of claims upholding it.
Michael Quinn was, of course, excommunicated in 1993, in part, some believe, for making precisely these sort of claims. I’m fascinated that a mere fifteen years later, his arguments and others like them have entered Mormon awareness to such an extent that they’re now beginning to be used to support traditional, conservative views of gender as well as more liberal ones. Will such claims ultimately become routine as the term “priesthood” is expanded to encompass uniquely women’s activities in order to preserve claims that men and women are equal–just as the term “new and everlasting covenant” underwent a dramatic redefinition post-Manifesto?
(I welcome all civil participation on this thread, asking only that commentators refrain from inappropriately specific discussions of temple ordinances. Violators will be subject to the verbal caprices of the Bouncer. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.)