Why Can’t Women Be Witnesses?

Are women’s perceptions less reliable than men’s? Does this policy not privilege the validity of male experience over female, signaling the stance that men’s perceptions should be accepted by the community as “truth,” where women’s experiences must be measured against men’s?

42 thoughts on “Why Can’t Women Be Witnesses?

  1. 1

    No, no, no. It’s because women are naturally so much more reliable in their perception than men are, that men need the opportunity to witness things in order to help them become as perceptive as women are.

    (I know this because I’m a woman and, therefore, very perceptive.)

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  3. 3

    Which policy are you referencing? Women do witness as full-time missionaries and more informally in the Mosiah 18 sense. They serve as witnesses in the endowment, though not in sealings. Are you referring to witnesses in disciplinary councils? I just wasn’t sure what particular sense of the term witness you’re thinking of.

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    The priesthood gives special powers to see things like hair or clothes floating during a baptism. If were not for these divinely refined senses, many would find themselves locked out by the gates of heaven because some priesthood-less less-sensible witness failed to notice such a crucial and necessary detail.

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  8. 8

    I love how every so often there’s a total non sequitur comment about the Troll 2 header pic. 🙂

    This no-female-witnesses policy annoys me. It means that mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters can’t participate in even that tiny capacity in major life events like baptisms and weddings.

  9. 9

    I just had to refresh 50 times to get to the Troll 2 header. After the first 20 refreshes, I was beginning to worry my lack of ordination was keeping me from being a witness of the header.

  10. 10

    This is an awesome conversation.

    TopHat, I think your divine superpower of motherhood finally kicked in. Though Melyngoch might argue that we just need more Troll 2 pictures.

  11. 11

    So women can’t bless or even hold their babies when said children are blessed in church.

    And women can’t baptize or confirm said children.

    And women can’t be official witnesses that said children were baptized (unless the record’s not kept properly and needs to be verified later in life).

    And women can’t bless/pass the Sacrament, except when the tray needs to get to the other end of the pew or served to a child who can’t hold the tray.

    And women can’t be official witnesses of temple sealings.

    And men can covenant with God but women covenant with their husbands

    But women can pray and give talks in church as assigned by their local PH leaders, and they’re incredible (the women are incredible – the men? maybenotsomuch). Plus women get to give birth and men can’t do that, so it’s only fair.

    Yeah, that sounds fair. or something.

  12. 12

    An anecdote I’ve always remembered from Women and Authority (citing Exponent II, I think):

    I had an “interesting” experience Sunday. The bishop, two of my daughters, and I were discussing the seven-year-old’s upcoming baptism, and the bishop wanted to make sure we would have proper witnesses. “Oh, we’ll all be there,” said one daughter, not realizing that he meant priesthood holders. He at least had the grace to fumble for words and then to blush when she finally caught on and said, “Oh, I keep forgetting we aren’t people at church.” —LINDA JONES, Utah, Vol. 1 (Fall 1990), No. 4

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    I have a testimony that if you are patient and hit refresh enough times, you too can have a witness of Troll 2 on this page. There might be some who don’t ever get that witness, but I know they’ll receive that blessing in the next life.

    Ok. I’m done. 🙂

  15. 15

    Oh, it’s not that females are not “people” at church.

    It is just that their perceptions are not reliable. They are faulty as witnesses.

  16. 16

    It is instructive that the New Testament has two witness testimonies of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. One was Anna, one of the few women actually named in the Bible.

  17. 17

    Good point, Dan!

    I have to disagree, though, that Anna is one of the few named women in the Bible. She’s one of the few named prophetesses. It’s really only Restoration scripture that has an extreme paucity of women.

  18. 18

    Following Dan’s point, it’s also notable that women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. And at least in the synoptic accounts, the male disciples failed to believe them. And thus in the contemporary church, we have a tradition of females as the definitive witnesses. (Oh, wait . . . )

  19. 19

    When I stopped to think about not being able to officially witness my childrens’ baptisms, I finally realized the agressiveness of the Priesthood/woman delineation. As a “record keeping people”, saying that a woman cannot have her name on an official church form and be documented as a adult witness, let alone perform the ordinance, it finally sunk in with me how much the church wants women to be silent. It’s more than just priesthood and lineage – they really don’t want to include women. In fact, they don’t even want a record that women were even there.

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    Ugh. I had never heard of this before – of course, only a man can have the authority to correct another man, to tell another man “wait, you didn’t do that right.”

  22. 22

    Women can’t officiate or witness. So in official church contexts, women cannot be the actors, they can only be acted upon. We cannot baptize, but we can be baptized, can cannot seal, but we can be sealed. We can choose to receive an ordinance, but we cannot be agents of that ordinance.

  23. 23

    I am so happy to know that other woman are feeling the way that I do.
    Oh, and I stuck with it, kept clicking and got the troll. Yeah me.

  24. 24

    I’ve thought about this a lot. The first witness of Christ’s mission was the woman at the well. And, as Lynnette mentions, Christ trusted the woman, Mary, to be the first witness of His resurrection.

  25. 25

    Those of you who keep refreshing the page to find the Troll 2 picture should consider whether you are unrighteously aspiring to see trolls. Ours is not to challenge the random picture generator, but to meekly accept what it has chosen to bestow upon us.

  26. 26

    I’d just like to remind you all that while you may not be biologically eligible to officially witness a baptism or sealing, you can unofficially enrich your own life by witnessing the whole movie Troll 2, a film which passes the Bechdel test, and features a female bodybuilder. It’s all kinds of feminist! (Ish.)

  27. 27

    Refreshing the page did not reveal the Troll 2 picture. I was, however, edified by reading all of the random quotes. I think there should be more Hume.

  28. 28

    Okay, a slightly more serious comment (if I’m even capable of that at this point). I’m guessing the church explanation for the practice would be the standard separate-but-equal: Witnessing is a particular priesthood responsibility. It’s not that women don’t have equal perception, but that this task isn’t one that has been delegated to them. (Though did someone mention that women can confirm later that a baptism took place if it wasn’t recorded correctly at the time? That’s really interesting; I didn’t know that.)

    I figured that someone would come by to argue that point, but since no one did, I’ll have to argue with myself, just to keep things interesting. There’s obviously the whole feminist discussion about whether separate but equal can ever really be equal, and what it means that women can’t perform ordinances. But I’ve been thinking about this particular issue. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, compared to gender inequity that has a more direct effect on women’s lives. But this particular exclusion is in a way emblematic of the general ecclesiastical position of women–women’s experience and perceptions carry no official ecclesiastical weight. I imagine that on the ground, this isn’t necessarily how things play out–there are lots of bishops, for example, who really make an effort to consult women and genuinely listen to what they have to say. But in the end, that’s at the whim of the bishop.

    And it’s in that context that I find this particular practice unsettling. In terms of formal ecclesiology, women’s perceptions are irrelevant. They are ultimately unnecessary–the male leaders of the church can set church policy without any input from women whatsoever (even if they choose in practice to do otherwise). In such a structure, what women see can’t be assumed at the outset to be real (or at the very least, relevant). In order to attain that status, as Kiskilili pointed out, it has to be verified by a male. That’s a little depressing.

  29. 29

    Lynnette said:

    it’s also notable that women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. And at least in the synoptic accounts, the male disciples failed to believe them. And thus in the contemporary church, we have a tradition of females as the definitive witnesses. (Oh, wait . . . )

    Love it! I’m going to find a way to work this into a Sac Mtg talk sometime. Maybe I’ll begin by expressing my gratitude that the policy has changed and now women are allowed to be witnesses for baptisms. Then I’ll use your quote, then I’ll sit down and watch the bishop squirm.

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    I had never really thought about women not being witnesses until a year ago when my daughter and her husband had their adopted son sealed to them. Our family group arrived at the temple together for this happy occassion. My daughter and her family were whisked away to dress in white, along with the other grandma, who would be holding the baby on the altar, while my husband, my son and I were shown into another room to wait. Soon a temple worker came and ushered my husband and son out because they were to be the witnesses and I was left there alone, hoping that someone would remember to tell me when the ceremony was ready to start.

  32. 32

    Mike Quinn at Sunstone a couple of years ago, IIRC, gave a presentation on policy changes the Church could make with respect to gay members that would not involve changing any big ticket doctrine, just little annoying things that are really unnecessary. I thought it was a good idea and a good presentation. And the Church could similarly come up with a list like that vis-a-vis women. And on such a list the no-brainer first items could be letting a woman hold her baby while it is given a name and letting women act as witnesses to baptisms and other ordinances.

  33. 33

    There is a preference for priesthood holders to be witnesses at baptisms, but it is only a preference — the First Presidency can waive it in any particular circumstance. Here’s an example where it was waived: Remember the video about the Italian fellow who found a Book of Mormon without the cover and waited his whole adult life for baptism? It finally happened after WW2 — the mission president from Switzerland, I think, was instructed to go find the man and baptize him the only witness was the mission president’s wife. Another example: In the scripture (Acts 8), Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch without any witnesses (as far as we can tell).

    I support the general rule for priesthood holders to be witnesses at baptisms, and the duty of the First Presidency of the Church to establish the rules that govern us. Where there is a real need for an exception to the general rule, the First Presidency can grant a waiver beforehand or ratify the action afterwards.

  34. 34

    Ji, if I have to get a waiver from the first presidency in order to act as a witness at my child’s baptism, even though there are 50 male priesthood holders in my ward who could easily do it, it’s 1. unlikely to happen since there are no extenuating circumstances that make it necessary for a woman to act as witness; and 2. essentially a meaningless argument because my experience and perception, as a woman, still has to be officially authenticated by a priesthood holder; as Lynnette pointed out, my witness still must be verified by priesthood holders even if it’s done in advance.

  35. 35

    But only the First Presidency can waive it? I don’t know whether to be relieved that it’s not a hard and fast rule or discouraged that exceptions are so rare and difficult to obtain.

  36. 36

    Rachel, the way I see it the possibility of a waiver is valuable in that it illustrates that there’s nothing inherent in the act of witnessing that precludes women from witnessing. Theoretically it would therefore be possible to have women function as witnesses without needing prior approval for every instance in which it happens.

    Of course, as I commented above, the downside of the waiver is that even in those circumstances a woman’s witness must be verified/authenticated by a priesthood holder. It just happens in advance in the waiver scenario. Until there’s systematic change throughout the institution allowing such things, the possibility of a waiver doesn’t really mean much about gender equity.

  37. 37

    2 points stick out to me about this:

    1. The Young Women, in their theme, specifically state that they are to “stand as witnesses of God in all times and in all places” so what does it say to them when they find out they can’t really be official witnesses of church ordinances.

    2. People argue whether or not women hold the priesthood in the temple, but since women are not even allowed to officially witness in temple sealings, this argument to me falls a bit flat.

  38. 38

    Our son was baptized in London, and a year or so later our ward back in Utah couldn’t track down the record. As his mom I had created an MSPub document for the program, and I was able to print it out and give it to our (Utah) bishop. This apparently sufficed.

    What the implications are regarding female witnessing, I could not say.

  39. 39

    I agree that it is very disturbing to think that not only can we not officiate, we can even be on the record.
    I do have a question though. When my (adopted) one year old was blessed, he refused to leave my arms. So I got to sit in a chair with him on my lap in the center of the circle. The bishop at the time (a wonderful feminist-leaning man!) just waved me forward and grabbed a chair for me. No biggie. So did he violate an official church policy? Or is that just another of those “extenuating circumstances” things? I have to admit, I feel even more special now either way.

  40. 40

    RasJane, I have a few friends who have done their baby blessings in their homes and have held their babies while their husbands offered the blessings. Their conservative family members didn’t have problems with it. I would imagine that most people would be just fine with the mother holding a baby for a blessing in Sacrament meeting when there’s extenuating circumstances. I’m not so sure they’d all be quite so open to the idea if it were just the mother asking to do it because she wanted to participate in some fashion (though perhaps some bishops would be). The difference is that in the first scenario, the mother is caring for her baby; in the second, she’s selfishly imposing herself into this ceremony. (not my opinion; I just think that’s how a lot of people would see it).

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    RasJane, I think that’s really cool. I’m glad you had such a mellow bishop.

    amelia, that’s a great example of the classic dynamic for women in the church: it’s okay for women to participate in a blessing (or for that matter, have a job, or serve as a witness, or preside in the absence of a male) as long as they don’t actually want to do it, but are only forced into it by unusual circumstances. Women end up expressing their faithfulness through a reluctance to play any significant role in ordinances.

  42. 42

    I love the idea of a woman being the “witness” to the resurrection. I, too, would love to attend when that talk is given. I was thinking about how the women in the NT have a more active role in participating in what Christ is doing than do women in the BOM.

    I just listened to the new podcast about gender and women in the BOM on http://daughtersofmormonism.blogspot.com/

    And it got me thinking and mulling. The idea of how much women are still kept from personhood in today’s church … well, it seems to be reflected in the BOM. Anyway …

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