Insider/outsider language in President Hinckley’s "there’s no agitation" statement

In a 1997 interview with Australian reporter David Ransom, President Hinckley said that there was “no agitation” for women to receive the priesthood. Ordain Women cites this comment in their FAQ as a motivation for agitating for ordination. (Dane Laverty also earlier cited this comment as his rationale for his similar project, Agitating Faithfully.)

I’ve seen some argument in the Bloggernacle about what President Hinckley meant when he said this. OW’s FAQ calls it a “challenge” to agitate. Opponents of OW have responded that of course he didn’t mean that he wanted people to agitate for ending the female priesthood ban. He was just pointing out a simple fact: nobody was agitating.

I think a useful way to think about this argument is to consider President Hinckley’s comment in the framework of insider language versus outsider language. Here’s the transcript from the website for Compass, the show the interview aired on. (I’m not sure why, but Ransom’s comments are labeled as “RB.” Also note that I’ve just copied and pasted: the substitutions of there for their are in the transcript, as well as the “???”)

RB: At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church. Why is that?

GBH: That’s right, because the Lord has put it that way. Now women have a very prominent place in this Church. They have there own organisation. Probably the largest women’s organisation in the world of 3.7 million members. There own ???. And the women of that organisation sit on Boards. Our Board of Education things of that kind. They counsel with us. We counsel together. They bring in insight that we very much appreciate and they have this tremendous organisation of the world where they grow and if you ask them they’ll say we’re happy and we’re satisfied.

RB: They all say that?

GBH: Yes. All except a oh you’ll find a little handful one or two here and there, but in 10 million members you expect that.

RB: You say the Lord has put it that way. What do you mean by that?

GBH: I mean that’s a part of His programme. Of course it is, yes.

RB: Is it possible that the rules could change in the future as the rules are on Blacks ?

GBH: He could change them yes. If He were to change them that’s the only way it would happen.

RB: So you’d have to get a revelation?

GBH: Yes. But there’s no agitation for that. We don’t find it. Our women are happy. They’re satisfied. These bright, able, wonderful women who administer their own organisation are very happy. Ask them. Ask my wife.

GBH: Are you happy? (to his wife…)

Mrs. H: Very happy! (laughs)

I think it’s pretty clear that President Hinckley was using outsider language when he said there was no agitation for ending the female priesthood ban. He was talking to someone who was clearly an outsider, and the whole way the interview was framed was to make Mormonism more understandable to outsiders. In using outsider language, President Hinckley was engaging in a little PR, trying to paint the Church in positive terms in response to questions that might make it look bad.

What OW opponents pick up on when they argue that President Hinckley wasn’t calling for agitation, I think, is that what he said here, to an outsider, is out of line with the type of rhetoric that gets directed to insiders, to women inside the Church. For example, here’s President Hinckley again, but this time addressing the General Women’s Meeting prior to October 1985 Conference:

Count your wonderful blessings. Do not worry away your lives with concerns over “rights,” so-called, but move forward, concerned with responsibilities and opportunities.

Or here’s President Packer in April 1998 Conference:

You sisters may be surprised to learn that the needs of men are seldom, if ever, discussed in priesthood quorums. Certainly they are not preoccupied with them. They discuss the gospel and the priesthood and the family!

If you follow that pattern, you will not be preoccupied with the so-called needs of women.

Or Elder Ballard last year in Education Week:

Now, sisters, in speaking this frankly with men, may I also exercise a moment of candor with you. While your input is significant and welcomed in effective councils, you need to be careful not to assume a role that is not yours.

The insider rhetoric directed to women tells them that they’re incredible, and full of moral force, but also that it’s important that they not stray from their assigned roles. Any needs or rights they have beyond those associated with their assigned role are imaginary. Certainly they have nothing they should be contributing at a general level to the Church.

In the end, then, I think both OW and its opponents are correct. OW’s opponents are correct that President Hinckley’s comment is difficult to take completely at face value, given that it flies in the face of so much insider Church rhetoric directed at women. But OW is correct about what its face value is. Even if it was only in the service of trying to make the Church look good, what he said clearly suggested that if there were agitation to end the ban, it would be taken into account by Church leaders in thinking about the issue. And even though it is outsider language, I think it’s probably not completely spin. If, for example, the Q15 had already prayed about it and decided that God’s will was that women never be ordained, or if President Hinckley thought the Q15 would never take members’ concerns into account, I don’t think he would have said what he did. It might be spin, in other words, but I suspect it was grounded in some truth.

Even as outsider language, President Hinckley’s comment gives me hope that the female priesthood ban can one day be ended. I suspect that he said what he did about the ban and about agitation largely (or entirely) because he thought it would look good to present the Church as being open to changing sexist practices and responsive to its members’ concerns. It might not be too big a leap, though, from realizing that these things not only look good, they actually are good, and should be put into practice.


  1. Ziff, very interesting analysis. I wonder whether the use of insider/outsider language is becoming more difficult to pull off because of the internet and easier access to information.

    In this day and age, claiming that women are incredible and that they are not agitating clashes more obviously with the role-enforcing statements of apostles and the excommunication of Kate Kelly. The dissonance is now felt more deeply because it is so easy to place the insider/outsider languages in relief, viewing one right next to the other.

    So it seems that something most give. Either the Church will begin to reconcile the insider language with the outsider language, or else we will increasingly appear hypocritical and disingenuous.

  2. Did your earlier analysis pick up Packer’s “so-called needs of women”? Wow, that one phrase makes me surprisingly angry.

  3. So-called rights and needs. Sigh. I suppose it’s easy to dismiss women’s rights and needs when you’re not a woman and don’t really know anything about their rights or needs. Yet another reason why women need not just an equal voice, but an equal vote in the church. It seems it’s the only way to give them fair and adequate representation. But the way things are set up, they’d probably just pick women who would agree with them on everything and nothing would change anyway. It’s statements like these that make me feel hopeless.

  4. A while back, I quoted Hinckley saying that “there is no agitation for that” at a conference with a large number of women’s advocates who were older than me present, and they laughed out loud. Apparently, there was a great deal of agitation in 1997, and these women remembered it. Your post demonstrates that the brethren were aware of that agitation too, since they were counseling women in the church to shut up about their “so-called” rights and needs, in spite of what they said in news interviews.

  5. “But the way things are set up, they’d probably just pick women who would agree with them on everything and nothing would change anyway.”

    That certainly has been my experience outside of church, in the workforce and having female supervisors who don’t share my views about my desires to have flexibility in my scheduling, etc. The university provost who asserted the policy that there was no need to have a hold on the tenure clock for childbirth was a woman.

    So yeah, merely having a woman in a decision-making position is not a guarantee that any of us would agree with a new way of doing things.

  6. I agree with your analysis, Ziff. It’s historically and doctrinally consistent for agitation to precede revelation. And it’s interesting that Pres. Hinckley said that just after Ransom mentioned the priesthood change for black men (something there was definitely agitation for). I’m still despairing, though, because in general I think the corporate Church is more concerned with having things look good than actually be good. This is a church that spends big bucks on advertising, but won’t even read letters from it’s membership.

    P.S. Packer’s and Ballard’s quotes make me really angry. I just had to say that.

  7. Thank you, Ziff!!!!

    I think there are a lot of ways to justify OW from a believers perspective. Very predictably, I don’t accept most of them, but I can at least understand and respect many of those reasons. The appeal to GBH’s “agitation” remark is very much not one of these reasons.

    OW is not a pet-peeve of mine, but any such appeal to that agitation remark most definitely is. In the end, I think such a desperate move makes the group look less rather than more justified and it would be better for their goals (from my perspective) if they didn’t use it any more.

    “Even as outsider language, President Hinckley’s comment gives me hope that the female priesthood ban can one day be ended. I suspect that he said what he did about the ban and about agitation largely (or entirely) because he thought it would look good to present the Church as being open to changing sexist practices and responsive to its members’ concerns.”

    This all sounds about right to me.

  8. This is a reasonable way of looking at it. I doubt President Hinckley was intending to pose an activist challange by his comments, maybe he just didn’t realize his words when viewed by women who desired the priesthood would imply and even invite such a challenge. I think top down, one way communication also invites agitation so perhaps without intending to President Hinckley created an opening for bottom up communication whereby agitators dialog with the church PR dept.

  9. Ziff, I read it this way too, and I don’t love that OW use it as they have, because it requires a kind of wilful taking Pres Hinckley at face value, when that’s not really what he meant, and they should be context-aware enough to see that. But I like even less that Pres Hinckley (as others do in outsider communication) says a thing he doesn’t *really* mean at face value.

  10. they should be context-aware enough to see Yes, but if we hold them responsible for this awareness shouldn’t we also hold President Hinckley responsible for being aware of the implication of his words? If no agitation requires no action what does agitation require? It requires something right? While he may not have meant to specifically invite agitation, as a Prophet he should be held accountable for the power of his words shouldn’t he? It seems to me we need to be consistent, if we hold OW responsible we should hold the Prophet responsible as well and if we give the Prophet a pass then we should extend a pass to OW too!

  11. This post does a good job of putting a finger on what has always bothered me about OW’s use of this phrase. Put into context with everything else I have ever heard from church leaders (as an insider)…the implication derived from this quote just never rang true for me.

    I honestly have come to the exhausted conclusion that women’s rights within the church is a lost cause. We must either embrace or reject the orginization as it is. Now to decide which is the right choice….


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