Zelophehad’s Daughters

You Just Want the Priesthood

Posted by Lynnette

In blog conversations about a variety of Mormon feminist topics, someone will occasionally stop by to say something along the lines of, “Admit it. What you really want is the priesthood.” Or perhaps, “What’s next? Women demanding the priesthood?” (I’ve noticed that this has been a particularly frequent occurrence in the infamous FB discussions of All Enlisted’s proposals that women wear pants to church, and write GAs about women praying in conference.)

On the one hand, they may be on to something. There are certainly feminists who want women to be ordained. I’ll happily include myself in this category. You don’t have to look for hidden messages in various feminist causes I support in hopes of stumbling upon something incriminating. I’ll just tell you. But I also know plenty of feminists who are ambivalent or uncertain or even opposed to female ordination. And in general, I think it’s a bad idea to assume that you know people’s motives, or to pick through their statements in an attempt to discover “what’s really going on.”

There are additional reasons why this bothers me. One question I would ask is, why is this so scary? It’s brought up as if it will shut down all conversation and have people quickly retreating. If (some) feminists want the priesthood, that becomes an excuse to blithely dismiss all of feminism. A desire for female ordination is construed as the ultimate proof of someone’s unrighteousness, and accusations that those who advocate for this must be power-hungry, or are failing to appreciate the burdens of the priesthood, get freely tossed around. (Oddly enough, young boys nearing the age of 12 are actually encouraged to want the priesthood, without any assumption that this desire would reflect an unhealthy hunger for power. But I digress.)

And if feminists say that they’re not sure they support female ordination, or that this actually isn’t their goal in advocating some particular cause, the next question is, “well then, what do you want?” I think this is usually a sincere question, coming from a place of genuine bafflement. But I find it particularly troubling, because it suggests that the person sees the gender disparity with regards to ordination as the only potential aspect of the church to which feminists might object. In other words, it demonstrates a remarkable blindness to all sorts of male privilege in the church.

A couple of years ago, Kiskilili wrote a post about the question, “what’s your feminist linchpin”, or the issue that you see as most central? It was interesting to see the variety of responses. Speaking for myself, despite the fact that I would like to see women get the priesthood, that’s hardly the only thing I’d like to see happen. And I think other common feminist concerns are legitimate on their own terms, and not just as stepping stones on an inevitable path toward female ordination. In fact, I wouldn’t say that women getting the priesthood is even my primary feminist wish; I can all too easily imagine a version of female ordination that leaves women subordinate. And that’s what bothers me the most: the subordination of women, and the ways in which they are treated as less than full agents.

But strikingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone say dismissively, “oh, you just want to pray to Heavenly Mother.” Or, “you just want the temple ceremony changed.” Or, “you just want women to have more of an ecclesiastical voice.” People might object to those proposals, certainly, but they aren’t usually treated as the “real” feminist concern underlying everything  else—even though for some people, these issues might in fact be their primary concern. And when women who have concerns about feminism express them, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the rejoinder, “well, you just don’t want the priesthood,” as if that were inevitably the underlying issue.

This focus on priesthood often reflects, I think, a concern that the ultimate goal of feminism is to have women be the same as men. That particular accusation frequently accompanies the assertion that feminists just want the priesthood: such women, the argument usually goes, don’t differentiate between equality and sameness, and don’t appreciate the important role that women play. This is, of course, a topic that has been discussed ad nauseum. But even setting aside the discussion of why those assumptions are problematic, I think it’s a bit of a leap to go from wanting the priesthood to wanting to turn women into men. It’s worth noting that there are feminists who don’t actually want a male priesthood but rather hope for a female priestesshood, one which complements motherhood in the same way that priesthood complements fatherhood. I have some reservations about that one (partly for reasons mentioned above about female ordination not resolving my feminist concerns), but I do think it’s a good example of the possibility of women wanting the priesthood without wanting to eradicate gender difference.

In a nutshell, I do think gender and priesthood is an important issue. But it’s far from the only one. (And if you disagree with this post, I’m going to assume that you just want to take over this blog. Because why else would anyone raise any concerns? )

16 Responses to “You Just Want the Priesthood”

  1. 1.

    I am also for women having the priesthood, but I think you are right. If women are still subordinate, then nothing will have changed fundamentally. I am interested in exploring the notion of Heavenly Mother having the priesthood and of women having the priesthood in the next life. I feel that if women have the priesthood in the next life and especially if Heavenly Mother has the priesthood, then that changes the argument somewhat. We aren’t striving for something we shouldn’t have, but are anticipating something that we we can receive.

  2. 2.

    This is an interesting analysis, Lynnette. I’m less charitable, but I guess I typically read the “You just want the priesthood” accusation as explicitly an attempt to shut down conversation rather than an attempt to make an actual point. Like you said,

    It’s brought up as if it will shut down all conversation and have people quickly retreating.

    The approach seems to be to jump to accusing people of wanting something that on the face of it is so absurd that they can’t be reasonably talked to about anything else. It’s kind of like when anti-Mormon Christians say “Well you think Jesus and Satan are brothers.” It’s supposed to sound so absurd that anyone who goes along with it is immediately discredited.

    But like you said, it’s not all that bizarre a thing to want.

  3. 3.

    Women wanting the priesthood is no more bizarre than men wanting the ability to bear children. I know the former is not a function of biology whereas the latter is. I have no clue why women don’t hold the priesthood in mortality, and based on my appreciation of things said in the temple, I think it is something they can anticipate receiving at some point. But I doubt men will ever be able to bear children. I’ve always wondered why we haven’t had a “First Vision” type experience involving Heavenly Mother. Perhaps the time will come when we will, and that experience will answer a bunch of questions.

  4. 4.

    Marvelous post, Lynnette. Thank you.

    …it suggests that the person sees the gender disparity with regards to ordination as the only potential aspect of the church to which feminists might object. In other words, it demonstrates a remarkable blindness to all sorts of male privilege in the church.

    This. Right here. This is the issue for me. Female ordination in and of itself would not necessarily address or compensate for other structural and cultural inequities.

    Ziff:

    The approach seems to be to jump to accusing people of wanting something that on the face of it is so absurd that they can’t be reasonably talked to about anything else. It’s kind of like when anti-Mormon Christians say “Well you think Jesus and Satan are brothers.” It’s supposed to sound so absurd that anyone who goes along with it is immediately discredited.

    Your interpretation of this is much more generous than mine. Rather than something said to shut people down because of its monstrous absurdity, the “you just want the priesthood!” accusation always seemed to me an indictment of apostasy, as in: “You just want the priesthood [which is obviously apostate], therefore any of your ideas, beliefs, and concerns are wrong and not worth addressing [you heretic].”

  5. 5.

    I’ve long thought that ordaining women to offices in the priesthood would not solve these gender problems. The real problem is a function of unrighteous male-privileged dominion built into the structure of the church that pushes a far more narrowly constricting role at women than it does at men. It’s enforced by both men and women. It’s not that women aren’t *ever* given a voice, but the only ones that are allowed to abide are the ones that support this status quo. This makes it appear to a cursory glimpse that we have unity in our community, but in reality, this apparent unity comes at a terrible cost of silencing all but the narrowly approved ‘kosher’ voices of our gender. It applies to uncorrelated men’s voices as well.

    Creating a broadly inclusive community has never been the strongest attribute of the LDS fold. Creating such, without a template (or perhaps dynamic leadership,) is a messy enterprise. I believe that creating this kind of community can only be successful when based on some of the less-scrutinized principles taught by Christ, such as giving up ones’ pet prejudices, or tendencies toward pharisaism. Sometimes I wonder if Christ cannot come until we better learn to do this.

    Ordaining women to the priesthood won’t automatically create the zion community that we [ought to] seek.

    Forgive my preaching to the choir here. I liked this post and it generated some thinking that I can’t express anywhere else.

  6. 6.

    I think people bring up female ordination “as if it will shut down all conversation” because it really does shut down all conversation. I’ve seen it happen. We are well-trained to hush people up if they express dissent. I don’t know if people are even consciously thinking that female ordination is absurd or apostate or whatever but there is such a stigma against women admitting to want the priesthood that we clam up if someone suggests that we do, which just makes mentioning female ordination a terrific strategy to use against us.

    I think Lynette models a wonderful way to deprive others of the power to silence us in this post. She openly and casually expresses that yes, she would like female ordination and goes back to discussing her main point.

  7. 7.

    “How ’bout we get rid of that “give” language in the sealing ordinance?
    No, not good enough. We still have that hearken language in the Endowment.
    “Okay, we’ll get rid of that, too.”
    No, still not good enough because husbands preside in the home per POTF.
    “Okay, we’ll get rid of that.”
    Still not good enough. I got a patriarchal blessing instead of a matriarchal blessing.
    “Okay, we’ll knock out the idea of patriarchal blessings out all together.”
    No, we want to pray to Heavenly Mother.
    “Okay. We’ll incorporate that into our doctrine somehow.”
    No, still not good enough. We want to serve in Bishoprics, Stake Presidencies, Quorum of the 12, and maybe President of the Church one day.
    “Sounds like you want the priesthood.”
    No. Now you’re mansplaining.

  8. 8.

    Okay – that was sort of tongue in cheek. It seems like most Mormon feminist issues do in fact revolve around the patriarchal order of the church. There are certainly feminist issues that cut across society at large, but I really can’t think of any feminist issue at church that doesn’t ultimately end at the door of priesthood. Theoretically, if women were ordained it would open all doors to all positions. It doesn’t mean we’d see women immediately serving at the highest levels of leadership (how long will it be before we get a black apostle?) but it would be a start.

  9. 9.

    Nickel, I agree that the role of Heavenly Mother is a crucial part of the priesthood discussion. As you say, if HM holds the priesthood, that would give us an entirely different perspective on the question. Which is part of why I find our lack of knowledge about her so frustrating. Is the motherhood/priesthood parallel an eternal reality? I hope not, but at the moment, what we’ve got is HF exercising priesthood as well as fatherhood, and HM . . . being a mother? (Maybe? A strikingly quiet mother.) It’s not very encouraging.

    Ziff, I do think you’re on to something, with it sometimes being brought up as something so bizarre that no reasonable person will entertain it. (Women wearing pants? What’s next—women wearing priesthood?)

    Anony,

    Women wanting the priesthood is no more bizarre than men wanting the ability to bear children. I know the former is not a function of biology whereas the latter is.

    I’m not sure I follow you here. From my perspective, men wanting the ability to bear children is qualitatively different than women wanting the priesthood precisely because the former deals, as you say, with biology.

    (Tangent: unless the priesthood is somehow tied to having a Y chromosome? I’ve occasionally heard the apologetic that the priesthood counters testosterone, or male aggression, etc. I disagree with it, but it’s one reason that people have floated to explain male-only ordination.)

    I’ve always wondered why we haven’t had a “First Vision” type experience involving Heavenly Mother. Perhaps the time will come when we will, and that experience will answer a bunch of questions.

    I like that. Stealing this question from my sister Kiskilili (I think), what would happen if Josefina Smith went out in the woods to pray?

    Galdralag,

    Female ordination in and of itself would not necessarily address or compensate for other structural and cultural inequities.

    Exactly!

    Your interpretation of this is much more generous than mine. Rather than something said to shut people down because of its monstrous absurdity, the “you just want the priesthood!” accusation always seemed to me an indictment of apostasy, as in: “You just want the priesthood [which is obviously apostate], therefore any of your ideas, beliefs, and concerns are wrong and not worth addressing [you heretic].

    Heh, I have to admit I’ve encountered that one. In my experience, it’s part of a line of thought along the lines of, “Either Joseph Smith was a prophet or he wasn’t. And if the former, you’d darn well better be happy with the way things are!”

  10. 10.

    MDearest, that’s a really good point about the apparent unity that comes when only certain voices are allowed. It’s ultimately unsustainable, I think.

    (And thinking about this question more—what does it mean when we talk about Zion as being one heart and one mind? I don’t think that ideal is supposed to be a bludgeon to get people back in line when they have different ideas, although it does get used that way. On the other hand, I do appreciate that we do have to have some boundaries if we’re going to exist as a recognizable community. How, then, do we balance unity and diversity? I think it’s a real tension, but I think it’s worth holding it as a tension, rather than collapsing it into either a Borg-like unity as the true ideal, or an assertion that everyone can just believe what works for them. One of the intriguing theological assertions about the Trinity, which I think would hold true in LDS depictions of the Godhead as well, is that it’s not simply a unity—it’s a balance of unity and diversity. I like that as an ideal.)

    Thanks, April! I’ve seen this shut down conversation as well. And that’s a good point about the stigma. For a woman to say that she wants the priesthood is pretty much asking to be labeled as power-hungry, not appreciative of gender roles, etc.—which makes it hard to have much of an actual conversation.

    End Patriarchal Order, that’s a fair question. Do all feminist desires eventually lead back to the issue of priesthood? I can say that I know a fair number of feminists who would like to see various things changed in the church, but for a variety of reasons, don’t want the priesthood—which is one reason why I’m cautious about making that assumption about anyone. And I don’t think that every feminist wish is tied up with the priesthood (wanting gender-inclusive language, for example, or wanting to pray to Heavenly Mother, or more practical concerns like equalizing opportunities for YM and YW.)

    But it’s true that the various issues which trouble feminists are intertwined. And as I’ve mentioned, it’s the patriarchal structure (in all the ways that that’s manifested), that bothers me the most. I’ve already argued that priesthood ordination for women wouldn’t necessarily alter that structure. But what about the reverse? Is it possible to imagine a church free of patriarchy in which women were still denied the priesthood? Or are the two inseparable? I’m actually not sure what I think about that one.

  11. 11.

    Pretentious Latin correction here: ad nauseam, not ad nauseum.

    It’s about all my undergraduate degree is good for.

  12. 12.

    “Is it possible to imagine a church free of patriarchy in which women were still denied the priesthood? Or are the two inseparable?”

    This is a good question. I think when we talk about the Priesthood it is useful to separate the leadership opportunities from other duties of the Priesthood (primarily ordinances). Thus the question becomes: Is it possible to imagine a church free of patriarchy in which women were still denied leadership opportunities? I don’t think that it is. But the question of whether we can have a church free of patriarchy in which women are denied the ability to administer ordinances is a more tricky one. Would women have to be able to administer the same ordinances to be free of patriarchy? Or would Priestesshood involve different ordinances? I don’t know. But it is definitely harder for me to answer that question.

  13. 13.

    I have been “starting” the Finding Heavenly Mother project for about 5 years, even though it was just launched in December. One of the wonderful things that has come from that is that I have found that just as many men are sincerely interested in knowing Heavenly Mother, and are actively searching for her.

    So, in asking if we need a “Joseph Smith” type revelation regarding Heavenly Mother, I think that my answer would be that we don’t need one person to look for her and receive a single revelation. I think that we need thousands, maybe millions of people actively seeking our Heavenly Mother through study and prayer. There is little that we know of her through scripture, and the project is not about creating new scripture about Heavenly Mother. (I have found in conversations with other authors and participants on the FB site that there are many people actively praying for additional prophetic revelation and scriptures about HM, but that is not the focus of the project.)

    We hope that through people sharing their own thoughts and experiences, that relate to Heavenly Mother, that we can essentially build a repository of testimony and experience. Since it started, I have been amazed at how many people who are active Latter-day Saints, are willing to share their experiences praying to or about HM, who have a personal relationship with Her, and who were drawn to the church specifically because of our doctrine containing Heavenly Mother.

    While we may feel that we do not have a lot of information about Her, we have more than any other religion (at least that I am aware of) and we have a framework for receiving personal revelation. That combination, I believe, gives us a starting place to individually, and as a church, go about the process of Finding Heavenly Mother.

  14. 14.

    Forgive me. I’m a binge blogger/commenter. But I love your writing and the way you articulate important issues. Fiona Givens at the Sunstone Christ Conference this winter answered the question about women holding the priesthood with another question:

    “Well, that’s what we are promised, isn’t it?” – referring to temple ordinaces. She left it at that. Boo-yah, Sister Givens!

    Between that and this:

    “I think Lynette models a wonderful way to deprive others of the power to silence us in this post. She openly and casually expresses that yes, she would like female ordination and goes back to discussing her main point.” . . . I feel more relaxed about the whole situation. God bless you . . . oh, and the fact that you refer to the Borg makes me love you even more.

  15. 15.

    Ms. Jack, I’m always flattered when I write such a good post that the only thing to which someone objects is my spelling. ;)

    Beatrice, I like that distinction between priesthood as exercised in an ecclesiastical setting versus a ritual setting. Like you, I think it would really be hard to have equality without equality in the former. But I’m still working out what I think about the latter. Honestly, if the only function of the priesthood were to perform saving ordinances, I think the disparity might bother me less. Though I’m thinking that perhaps the ideal, if we want to maintain a gender split, would be to to have men perform ordinances for men, and women for women. (And obviously there are some hints that this could be the case.)

    Julia, that sounds like a great project. I too have been interested to see just how many people have had experiences involving Heavenly Mother.

    Melody, thanks! I have to laugh, because at times I’m also a binge blogger. I’m glad you liked the post.

  16. 16.

    […] including: “If you only understood your role as a woman, you would be happy.” and “Admit it. What you really want is the priesthood.”  One that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the phrase, “Men and women are just […]

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