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? )
- 3 February 2013