Many discussions about women and the priesthood get muddled because they don’t pay attention to the fact that “priesthood” involves multiple doctrines and practices, with different rationales, functions, and histories. I thought it might be helpful if I separated the strands of priesthood and thought about them separately.
In the home. Priesthood is frequently mentioned in discussions of husband-wife relationships. What is perhaps most interesting about this strand is how radically the “priesthood role” has been redefined in recent years. See this post for an excellent example of this, but note that it isn’t just about two Ensign articles, but a much more broad-based shift. And this shift means that women have gained significant ground, from “follower” to “co-equal” in their relationship to the priesthood in the home. What is still a little confusing about “priesthood in the home” is that, presumably, a father without the priesthood should be doing exactly the same things (“provide, preside, protect”), so is there any sense in which we are using “priesthood” in the home as anything other than a synonym for “fatherhood”? And, if the husband and wife are supposed to be co-equal leaders of the home, what does it mean to say that the father presides and/or provides spiritual leadership? I don’t feel that I have ever heard a good explanation of this, and without this explanation of what “co-equal but one of you presides” means, we are open to accusations of “chicken patriarchy” or for using Orwellian double-speak. (My thinking on this is the “co-equal but he presides” line is the bridge between the old paradigm [presiding] and the new paradigm [co-equals], used so we can pretend that the doctrine isn’t changing.)
(Tangent: One defense of complementarianism [=the idea that men and women have different but equal roles] in the home is that it is necessary to foster the kind of interdependence that makes marriages strong. But I think we can sustain robust interdependence by focusing instead on the unique bundle of strengths and weaknesses that each partner brings to the table, even if those traits and talents don’t follow stereotypical gender lines. In fact, we need to do this ASAP if we want to convince anyone that marriage matters in a world where women don’t need protection from mastodons and can fund their own 401Ks.)
Ordinances. Holding the priesthood is seen as a necessity to perform ordinances (with perhaps a carve-out for the temple; I’d like to delve into this more, but this isn’t the place and I’ll ruthlessly moderate comments on this point). In this arena, women’s roles have become more circumscribed over time, as this article shows.
Church leadership. Virtually all church leadership roles are restricted to priesthood holders. The history here is complicated: on the one hand, I think correlation has caused women to have less say, since they no longer are independent in their operation of the auxiliaries (in terms of budget, curriculum, program, etc.) but, on the other hand, there is a huge emphasis recently on women being active participants on, for example, ward councils, which means that women have more of a voice. It is as if we have traded hard-but-limited-to-the-auxiliaries-power for soft-power-in-a-larger-sphere.
As a synonym for “men.” This one is verboten (see the first paragraph under III), but it happens all the time anyway. I would think that disliking this practice is not only a feminist issue, but one that would offend traditionalists by its assumption that “priesthood” isn’t anything special, but just, you know, a bunch of males.
As a focal point for male identity and/or shaper of “masculinity.” This arena is, I think, hard to talk about because it is so subjective and mushy. But there is no doubt that the priesthood actually performs this function in the church today. This is a tough one; every feminist worth her salt wants men socialized into a manhood that avoids the worst excesses of modern culture’s take on masculinity, but no one seems too excited about the idea that this only works because men get something women don’t. One idea that I have been chewing on: I have heard it argued that the practice of polygamy–even though not everyone did it and even though it was several generations ago–created a Mormon culture of strong, independent women because they had to function without a husband around most of the time. If you buy that argument, you might also think that we could dispense with male-only priesthood and still enjoy the benefits of male identity that it constructed in LDS culture.
Misc. I wasn’t quite sure where to place these strands:
(1) There are some callings that require the priesthood, but don’t seem like they would need to. I’m thinking of clerks and Sunday School presidencies.
(2) A whole grab bag of policies: Restricting full-time CES employees. Handling disciplinary councils differently. The requirement that a man attend all activities of the RS. Not calling mothers of young children as temple workers. The tradition of having men speak last in sacrament meetings. See here for a long list.
(3) Missionary service. So this one is obviously in flux at the moment. I’ll be interested to see what happens. I think that despite the (a) “required” (men) versus “welcome” (women) rhetoric, (b) 18 versus 19 age requirement, and (c) 24 months versus 18 months length of service, we’re going to see slightly more sisters than elders serving. I suspect this will have a huge effect as these RMs age into church leadership positions. I have noticed when I teach Gospel Doctrine that men have a lot more to say–more experiences to share, more knowledge of the scriptures, more familiarity with how the church works. I think this disparity shapes how we think about “the priesthood.” But I don’t expect that disparity to exist 20 years from now.
In thinking about these separate strands, a few things became apparent to me.
(1) It helped me articulate why the “priesthood : men :: motherhood : women” thing doesn’t work for me. (By the way, if you dig in the archives, you can probably find some posts where I defended this idea. I think I have changed my mind.) You may possibly be able to sell me on the analogy if we are talking about the “in the home” sphere only (but even then, you’d seem to be just using “priesthood” as a synonym for “fatherhood,” so what did it really accomplish?), but it seems odd to suggest that the analogy would have anything to say about, for example, ordinances. So if I ask, “why shouldn’t a sister missionary be able to baptize her own investigators?” and you answer, “because she’ll be a mother someday,” that’s pretty unsatisfying. Similarly, on the “church leadership” front, if I ask you, “why can’t a never-married 53-year-old woman be the Sunday School President?” and you answer, “Because she’ll be a mother in the next life,” well, I hope you can see how hollow that sounds.
(2) I wonder if changes in some but not all of these areas would be “enough” for feminists (a group that includes me)? And, would a “separate but equal” thingie be adequate? For example, if the YW were tasked with managing sacrament meeting music, handing out programs, visiting teaching with their moms, and providing a spiritual thought when the YM take the sacrament to a shut-in, would that work? What if the RS President had her own office (physical) and could extend callings without going through the bishop–would that be “enough”? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
(3) Your standard definition of “priesthood” is “eternal power and authority of God.” And when you look at the variety of functions listed above (home, ordinances, leadership), it makes a lot of sense to formulate the definition of priesthood this way because it makes sense of all of the strands (except for the male identity one; more on that in a minute.) The problem is that it raises the obvious question: Are you saying that women have no authority from God? (Seriously, if you were a missionary and an investigator asked that, how would you answer? Do you think women have no authority from God? Do you think women do have authority from God? Do you think women have a different kind of authority from God?) And regardless of how you answer, you’ve now got problems on the male identity front, unless you are comfortable with the formulation “to be masculine is to have God’s authority and to be feminine is not to have it.” On the other hand, think about D & C 121 . . . imagine if your stated goal was to make men as stereotypically feminine as possible. Could you possibly do better than to tell them that they were allowed to exercise the power of God if and only if they did it “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge . . . showing . . . love . . . full of charity . . . and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly”? Seriously, people, that sounds like something out of a florid Victorian book called Dr. Vetter’s Guide for Proper Young Ladies: An Exposition on the Attributes and Habits of Well-Bred Christian Girls or something.
(4) I was interested in the various historical trajectories of the different strands. “In the home” has been a huge win for feminists; “ordinances” has been a huge loss. Why are there different trajectories? Do you think they reflect the vagaries of various policies, or divine intention? (Tangent: I think a lot of what we heard about “eternal gender roles” in the 90s and onward had nothing to do with women per se and everything to do with positioning homosexuality as illegitimate. Feminism was collateral damage. But I can’t prove that.)
One more thought, although I admit up front that it is tangential to this post. I frequently see (mostly women) say something to the effect of “if only women truly understood their divine roles, they would not be asking for the priesthood (or any other change).” Let me tell you why I think the world would be a better place if this line were never, ever used again.
(1) It’s condescending and arrogant. (The Bad Part of me wants to jab my index finger into the speaker’s shoulder and say, “Well if you understood women’s divine roles as well as I do, you’d be bothered by them as well.”) And it isn’t even true: would we ever say, “If only you really understood the Word of Wisdom, you would instantly and permanently never be tempted to violate it again”? It also substitutes an assertion for an argument. (That is, what is it about women’s divine roles that actually explains why a sister missionary can’t baptize her own investigators?)
(2) It is precisely what Mormonism teaches about divine roles that makes the role of women in the Mormon Church so vexing. Think about it this way: if you took what Mormonism teaches about Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and mapped that onto a couple on earth, you’d get a stay-at-home dad and a mother who is–I don’t know–a medical resident or deployed to a foreign battlefield or maybe took a job in another country and so she literally never sees her children. (In fact, the kids can’t even Skype her.) So you need to explain how we (a) claim that gender roles are eternal and (b) see our Heavenly Parents in roles more or less inverted from what the Church teaches that mortal couples should occupy. Until this little chestnut is cracked, we need to stop acting as if all women would be content if they just understood better.
There are some days when I think there is probably great wisdom in the current priesthood ban and that it benefits men, women, children, and families. (I’ve always had this secret desire to write a short story where a group of hippie women are organizing their commune. They want to stomp out the evils of masculinity by re-imagining male identity, and they start by inverting traditional gender roles by having the teen boys in a role of menial, silent, domestic service, serving food to the weekly consciousness-raising gatherings) Then there are other days when I think a male-only priesthood is nothing more or less than a false tradition we inherited from a sexist culture.