It’s time to ask the tough question: is Mormon history even helpful to the Ordain Women movement?
Like Joanna Brooks has said, this cause isn’t one that burns deeply within my soul. If President Monson told us tomorrow that women could be ordained to be “Elders” or “High Priestesses,” I would cheer along with everyone else. If it means that women would get their share of anti-porno talks and dating chastisements, I’m all about lovingly retiring the pedestal–and then burning it in the quiet of the night. I can think of “binders full of women” right now who would run my Elders’ Quorum meeting more competently than I ever could. In that sense, I can confidently say that I’m in support of the Ordain Women movement.
So my comments are not about the rightness or wrongness of Ordain Women. I’m more interested in how movements like this are conveyed to the public. Is it because we find them intellectually compelling? Emotionally validating? Or personally liberating? Perhaps D–all of the above. I’m interested in the mythology of it. Joseph Campbell defined mythology as “a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” What gives Ordain Women activists the punch and power that gets women out of their seats and standing in front of the Conference Center?
Whenever a political movement is taking root, it must have a story, a past, and a narrative arc. Nations seek to legitimize their existence and rise using military exploits, great leaders, important texts, and villains. Ordain Women, like any social movement, is no different. It too needs to craft its narrative. And herein lies my reservation. It is entirely reasonable for them to seek out historical precedent to justify what they are trying to accomplish. Heck, I do the same thing when trying to justify the most ordinary of daily activities. History isn’t merely the telling of stories; it often forms the cores of our value systems that enable us to make decisions. So what is Ordain Women’s narrative? Does it have one? Does it need one? Some have cogently argued that it doesn’t–that women ought to receive priesthood office based on the truth independent of any historical narrative. As Michael Barker has said with characteristically profound simplicity: “it’s the right thing to do.”
For years, Mormon feminists have pointed to Joseph Smith’s potent 1842 comments suggesting that the Relief Society was to become “a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day.” They draw on Joseph Smith’s approval of women administering blessings of healing to suggest that Joseph Smith in fact intended women to hold the priesthood in the same way that men did. They were to become their own “kingdom of priests,” hardly distinguishable from the men. And these feminists are not wrong. Joseph Smith did have big plans for Mormon women. Neither he nor Emma thought of the Relief Society as a cute book club or a sewing group. “We are going to do something extraordinary,” Emma Smith told her sisters of the Relief Society.
But historical analogies come with a lot of baggage, much of it awkwardly-shaped and burdensome to carry. It’s useful for the purposes of the tete-a-tete of polemics, but it leaves us wanting. For the two years after Joseph Smith’s comments, there is, for better or for worse, no evidence that he ever ordained a woman to the office of Deacon, Teacher, Priest, Elder, or High Priest. So whatever Joseph Smith meant in 1842, he had something else in mind.
But if not that, then what? All the evidence suggests that this something else was the endowment. Some twenty years after the fact, Sidney Rigdon recalled of the temple ritual that “Emma was the one to whom the female priesthood was first given.” In 1843 Brigham Young said that three women were “taken into the order of the priesthood” when they received their endowment. In February 1844, William Clayton said that Jane Bicknell Young was received “into the Quorum of the Priesthood” when she received her endowment. Patriarch John Smith later blessed Martha Turnbow that she would be “clothed with the Power of the Holy Priesthood [to] be able to redeem thy fathers house.” Bathsheba Smith, George A. Smith’s widow, later noted that Joseph Smith “wanted to make us, as the women were in Paul’s day, a kingdom of priestesses.” Her recollections accord almost verbatim with the meeting meetings available, making it virtually certain that Eliza R. Snow recorded Joseph Smith correctly. The records of women administering blessings don’t give us what we want; the Doctrine and Covenants identify healing blessings as spiritual gifts, and you don’t need man-parts to enjoy those (all above quotes come from D. Michael Quinn’s essay: “Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843“).
But what does this mean for Ordain Women? It unfortunately means the usefulness of the above narrative is limited. While it could potentially serve to promote greater female involvement in the Church–after all, it does suggest that the endowment was intended to give women a line of authority independent of their husband–it falls short. As much as we would like to use it to justify ordination to priesthood office, the most we can do is use it to justify the administration of temple ordinances to women independently of their husbands. And that is basically where we are now.
So to where do we turn? Mormon history gives us some tantalizing tidbits, but like most appetizers, they only whet our appetite. We can turn to the large corpus of feminist literature from theorists and activists (looking at you Nancy Chowderow, Elaine Showalter, and Sonia Johnson). But such avenues are often not very attractive to conservative Mormons who are seeking to stay true the institutional Church established by Joseph Smith and upheld by subsequent prophets. In the time of greatest need, Mormon history fails to deliver on an issue important enough for the Church Public Relations staff to risk alienating moderate Mormons and energizing Mormon feminist activists. It’s frustrating, but it’s a hard fact to overlook. We simply cannot draw on Mormon history to prove the legitimacy of Ordain Women. Yes–indeed YES–to support equal access to public institutions. YES to promoting economically independent women. But on this key issue, we’re left without the evidence we crave so much.
What options remain for the case of Ordain Women? There’s a rich history of gender inequality among our people (and American society) as manifested in something as simple as a Ward Potluck where the Relief Society is just expected to make all the food because that’s what women do, right? (Right, the Relief Society nods, having been taught from their youth). Our gender norms can be stumbling blocks; in 1987, Boyd K. Packer said that we can’t move ahead when we’re still living in a 1947 church–something no less true when we talk of gender relations. Or maybe it doesn’t need to be about the priesthood at all. Maybe it has less to do with priesthood ordination and more to do with validating those women (and men) who don’t identify with the “Men Do Things While Women Fawn Over Them Model”–a group that happens to make up the better part of our Church membership not only in the United States but also abroad.
Whatever one feels the “real issue” to be, we can only get there through dialogue, not through kvetching and alienation. But here we are, faced with enraged feminists, offensively-defensive mainstreamers, and moderates deeply disturbed as they see their friends pull out the claws. “Psychic energy,” we have. “Affective art work,” this is. Ordain Women has captured the imagination, hopes, and dreams of intelligent and articulate people–people who deserve to be addressed as serious thinkers. But whatever the legitimacy of Ordain Women, we don’t need a new historical narrative in order to follow the example of the manual laborer from Nazareth who entrusted his most intimate secrets not to the political zealots, fishermen, and revenue agents but to ordinary women in ordinary places.