The Movement to Ordain Mormon Women

Why the struggle over priesthood for women looks so different in the LDS Church than it does among Catholics.
Kate Kelly, founder of the group Ordain Women, speaks to the media before leading the march into Temple Square. (Natalie Dicou)

A women’s movement is beginning to challenge the traditionally patriarchal Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the last weekend, some 400 Ordain Women supporters, marched together to Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City to request tickets to Saturday night’s twice-a-year, all-male priesthood meeting held at the 21,000-seat LDS Conference Center.

These women didn’t carry placards or chant slogans. Instead, wearing their Sunday best, they formed a line, and, one by one, asked for admittance. Each woman was rejected in turn.

Kate Kelly—the D.C.-based human-rights attorney and devout Mormon who in 2013 founded Ordain Women—led a similar action six months ago at the October priesthood meeting with a group less than half the size. Men in suits and ties were on rejection duty that first go-round. Media photographers shot the episode as women approached the doors, only to be rebuffed. PR-wise, it wasn’t a shining moment for the Church, and on Saturday, a woman was tasked with refusing admission. The Church had meanwhile already announced that media would not be welcome to capture the scene.

Realistically, priesthood for women might be generations away. The Church is led by great-grandfathers—prophet Thomas S. Monson turns 87 this summer, and the next in line is 89—and the religion has a natural aversion to change. Until 1978, black people weren’t allowed to be ordained as priests, serve as missionaries, or be sealed for eternity in the temple. And while the Church presently endorses monogamy, it still teaches that men will be able to have multiple wives in heaven and that plural marriage could be reinstated on earth if the prophet gets a revelation from God giving the go-ahead.

There’s another reason the priesthood debate is different for Mormons than, say, for Catholics. The women who marched to Temple Square last weekend weren’t asking for the right to join a special society of highly trained elders. In the LDS Church, priesthood power is not held by career bishops, reverends and high-ranking officials. Young men are allowed to receive the priesthood as early as age 12.*

It’s a nuance that news outlets typically fail to make clear in their “Mormon women seek ordination” headlines. Priesthood-for-women supporters say they are asking for certain spiritual privileges that only men have. They say they want to be allowed to bless their children when they’re sick or need counsel. 

See, at the local level, congregations or “wards,” are run by everyday members, all the way up to the presiding officer, the bishop. Without “holding priesthood keys,” women not only can’t give blessings and baptize—they can’t help with the ward’s “nuts and bolts” tasks, such as collecting tithes, allocating funds for activities, deciding what will be taught on Sunday, serving on disciplinary councils, conducting temple worthiness interviews, etc. Women lead the Relief Society, the Church’s organization for women, and Primary for children, but even then only to a point—ultimately the bishop has the final say.

“Equality is necessary for healthy, well-functioning relationships and communities,” says a statement at OrdainWomen.org. “In a lay church, we rely on the talents and abilities of our members. To underutilize, dismiss, or impede the contributions of half our membership is self-defeating.”

Kelly says she felt the crushing weight of this defeat while serving her mission in Barcelona. After pounding the pavement to find and then teach the gospel to investigators, she was left on the sidelines when it came time to baptize the new members. That job went to a male missionary who had done none of the legwork she’d done.

And yet Kelly still believes she belongs to God’s true church—and so do hundreds of active Mormons of both sexes who submitted testimonials on OW’s website. These are people who grew up singing the treasured LDS hymn “I Am a Child of God” and live with the peace of mind that if there’s an illness in the family, the Relief Society will be at the door in a jiffy with a piping-hot pot roast or casserole. Kelly says her faith brings her closer to Jesus Christ, that the church has made her the person she is today, and that no matter what happens with the movement she is spearheading, she will continue to be a faithful member. Instead of ditching Mormonism for its flaws, she’s working to improve it from within.

Mormon feminists also point to the LDS teaching that God is both male and female. That is to say, Mormons don’t just believe in Heavenly Father but Heavenly Mother, too. She is the wife of God the Father and the spiritual Mother of humanity, a Goddess in her own right. Heavenly Mother is rarely discussed—she’s a topic “too sacred” to speak about—though “Heavenly Parents” are referenced on occasion.

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Natalie Dicou is a writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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