"Nice job taking a hit on your church by complaining about ordination. Did God discriminate against men when he gave women vaginas? Why can't men have babies? So why can't your daughter pass the sacrament? Or be a prophet? I guess that too must be oppression of the woman right?"
[Q]uestions like these are the ones I've gotten aplenty after my three-soundbite appearance in the Mormons in America special.
The lesson I take from my experience this week is that just raising the question of ordination brings out incredible anxiety and defensiveness and even meanness in LDS people. And it is a question our boys and girls, young men and women, will come to naturally as they develop and grow and learn more about our faith tradition. My six year old and eight year old ask me this question. I refuse to make them feel that it is wrong to ask.
There are many LDS women I've met who have told me plainly, "Yes, I think women should be ordained." They've done so with a simple sense of conviction that has stunned me. Most of the women who have told me ordination matters to them are temple-attending and fully active.
I think Mormonism is capable of providing some uniquely powerful answers to that question of women and priesthood. Gender has a uniquely powerful symbolic role in our faith tradition, and a complicated one. It's not an issue of black and white, "vaginas" vs. priesthood. I do think LDS women hold and exercise a form of priesthood in our temples. And I think that Mormon history provides us plenty of evidence that the "men have priesthood, women have motherhood" rationale is not even faithful to our own doctrine. It's not even correct. Last night, when I was reading my copy ofThe Beginning of Better Days—a Deseret Book-published collection of minutes from the first meetings of the LDS Relief Society in 1842; please buy yourself a copy and study it—I about dropped my book when I saw how and how much the Prophet Joseph talked to these early women about priesthood. He told them that the Relief Society "should move according to the ancient Priesthood," and, yes, he "turned the keys" to them to govern their own Society. And I cheered when Emma Smith declared that Relief Society would "expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls"—that "when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief." Her boldness was instructive and exemplary. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere in these sermons did Joseph Smith tell the Relief Society that their capacity to gestate and bear children was the equivalent of a male-only priesthood. So I don't think that simple answer reflects doctrinal truth, and I won't be using that explanation with my own daughters.
I think of Emma Smith's grand sense of the Relief Society's purpose—her bold "ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no river wide enough" attitude–and I do believe that as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes LDS women today are operating in an constricted sphere of activity. In his sermon to the Relief Society, Joseph Smith himself noted that women tend to be "contracted in their views" and should be more "liberal in [their] feelings." I wonder if in our post-Proclamation on the Family LDS world there has been a contracted overemphasis on narrowly-defined gender roles, an emphasis that doesn't fit the reality of many women's lives and can in fact distract us from the "extraordinary occasions and pressing calls"—as Emma Smith put it—of our times.
So starting today, I have a new definition of Mormon feminism. A Mormon feminist is a person [updated: from "woman"] who thinks that all people should have the opportunity to love and serve God with all their might, mind, and strength—regardless of gender, race, or sexuality.
That means that women and girls around the world and regardless of faith tradition will have access to the basic rights and resources (including freedom from abuse and access to contraception and education) they need in order to exercise agency and stewardship in their own lives and the lives of their families. This means that women and girls around the world and regardless of faith tradition will be able to use the full range of their skills and abilities—not just their reproductive systems–to advance the work of God on earth. And this means that men and boys, women and girls will be supported when they ask the very basic questions about God and gender that people have been asking for millennia—the questions that allow us all to disentangle human culture and philosophy from the workings of God. At the very least, no one will get shamed, or isolated, or subjected to excommunication—real, virtual, or imaginary—just for asking honest questions and factual observations.