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.