An Exchange on Women, Priesthood, and Feminism

By Courney Black, Maxine Hanks, and Elizabeth Harmmer-Dionne.

The following exchange consists of an editorial printed in the October 7, 2000 issue of the Boston Globe and a response, which the Globe, declined to publish.

BLACK AND HANKS: When recently asked, "will there ever be women priests in the Mormon church?" Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the Church, said in the Boston Globe: "in so far as I can see, no. The women have their place. . . . They have a voice in determining policy and doing many things in the church. I haven't found any complaint among our women. I'm sure there are a few, a handful somewhere who may be disaffected for one reason or another, but I've never seen any evidence of it."

With all due respect to our remarkable 90-year-old church leader, we find his words unfathomable in the face of reality. Many Mormon women have voiced deep dissatisfaction for generations, loudly and clearly, in print and in person, alone and in numbers. Thus we want to correct a misconception repeatedly set forth by leaders of the Church of Latter-day Saints in the media: We are not content; we do have complaints.

In fact, so many women have expressed dissatisfaction that every LDS leader is likely aware of these difficulties. For example, in 1988, hundreds of women contacted church headquarters asking why they couldn't participate in the priesthood blessing of their own babies. During the following years, women who tested this or other priesthood issues were censured or disciplined. From 1993 through 1995, some of these women were excommunicated.

Mormon women are in a bind. If we disagree, we reap trouble; if we relent, we lose our voice. These are our choices: to conform, to risk church discipline, or to leave. When our leaders say they "hear no complaint," it is because they have intimidated women into compliance. Few women will risk excommunication.

Still, if we say nothing, we support the false impression that we are content. And leaving is not a solution. Mormonism is more than a religion; it is a cultural heritage. To leave Mormonism is to leave our culture, our ethnicity, our life, our family, our inheritance. We and our grandmothers have built this church - creating the community, bearing the children, cooking, cleaning, caring for everyone, doing the daily labor necessary to make Mormonism work.

We carry the Mormon vision while denied the right to conceive it; we bear great responsibility for the success of our community without power to define our responsibility or ensure its success. This is disheartening at best, exhausting at worse.

Meanwhile, Hinckley speaks of a hundred Mormon temples "looking heavenward."

Mormons have built temples for 160 years. Like fine china crushed into the stucco of the first Mormon temple to make it sparkle, women have poured their lives and hearts into this church for seven generations. For a hundred years our grandmothers exercised religious voice and authority - giving blessings, creating policy, leading women's programs and publishing women's views.

Yet in our church today, all women's programs, leaders, and texts - even the leading women's speeches - are designed or governed by men. All church doctrine, theology, and policy are created by men.

While women may be included in "discussion" about issues and policy, the "decisions" are still made by men.

Thus, when women disagree with male leaders, we are often ignored or dismissed, marginalized or ostracized - until our religion feels less like home and more like another brick-and-mortar building.

This puts women in a position of having to choose between our conscience and our church, between our fulfillment and our heritage. We live in contradiction and dissonance, our hearts breaking.

Personal spirituality is the core of Mormonism. Yet men tread upon our religious freedom, intrude on our voices, and inhibit our relationship with god. Only we ourselves can determine if God is working through us. Men may deny the existence of female theology, but it remains for us to define.

We are not content to be denied our voice nor our decision-making power in Mormonism. Our intent is simple: to speak for ourselves and have our rightful place in church governance.

Meanwhile, church leaders continue insisting that women are happy in "their place."

We are joined by 50 Mormon women from around the world. More women are signing on every day, knowing that each will be questioned by church leaders warning her to retreat. Men do not speak for Mormon women. We speak for ourselves.

A Response

HARMMER-DIONNE: I read with interest (and some dismay) the editorial by Ms. Black and Ms. Hanks on Mormon feminism (Saturday, October 7, 2000). When one considers that the worldwide membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exceeds 11 million, fifty signatures "from around the world" to their petition is an underwhelming show of support. I can only assume that the Globe chose to print their editorial in the interests of fostering debate. Accordingly, I offer the following three points.

1. Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black do not speak for Mormon women.

I have been active in LDS congregations in Utah, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and England. I would be shocked if more than one in fifty Mormon women would be sympathetic to the views or methods of Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black (i.e., demanding female priesthood and publicly attacking church leadership). I had a casual acquaintance with Ms. Black while her husband was a student at Harvard Law School. I have no personal criticism of Ms. Black, but she did not represent women who form the backbone of the LDS Church. As Ms. Hanks has been excommunicated, neither does she represent a convincing spokeswoman for committed LDS women.

I, too, am a feminist. I graduated summa cum laude from Wellesley College, where I was named the Malone Scholar as the outstanding graduate in 1992. I am a Truman Scholar and have been involved at various times with our nation's political system. As a Marshall Scholar, I earned an M.Phil. in political theory from the University of Cambridge. I graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School and currently practice law as an associate with a prominent Boston firm. I sit on Governor Cellucci's Advisory Committee on Women's Issues and am active with the Boston Chapter of the Federalist Society. I have a supportive husband and two beautiful children. I do not make a practice of publishing my resume, but I believe it lends credence to the following statement: I am the type of committed, Mormon woman for whom Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black do not speak.

2. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a feminist organization.

Feminism is in the eye of the beholder. We had much cause to discuss this at Wellesley College when Barbara Bush spoke at the Commencement of the Class of 1990. No one has the right to dictate the form feminism will take for any individual or organization, so long as women individually or within the organization feel that such feminism meets their needs and fosters their growth as women.

Mormon women find emotional support and personal and spiritual growth within the LDS Church. The Relief Society, the world's largest organization of women, governed by women, provides a network through which we learn from, socialize with, and serve one another.

My younger sister is on a humanitarian mission in rural Ecuador. Feminism there (and in too many parts of the United States) means teaching men to stop drinking, to become industrious, and to treat their wives and children with love and respect. It also means teaching women that, as daughters of God, they deserve such love and respect.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Mary Pipher write that feminism for teen-age girls may mean creating a supportive community that shields them from sexual predation until they have the maturity to make self-realizing decisions. Adolescent Mormon girls have an independent organization entirely devoted to their support and growth. I and the vast majority of my Mormon friends arrived at adulthood with our virginity (and, more importantly, our psyches) intact. I am only thirty, but I have accomplished all that I have because of the sense of divine identity and purpose I derive from my Mormon identity and because of the lessons taught to me throughout my youth.

3. The mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to preach the gospel of Christ.

Contrary to the claims of Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black, Mormonism is not merely identity, ethnicity, or heritage. It is primarily an acceptance of the redeeming power of Christ's atonement and the making of covenants that help all of us return to Christ's fold. I, too, am a seventh-generation Mormon. My foremothers would be appalled if I were to allow squabbles over the temporal organization of the LDS Church to obscure the central purpose of spreading the message of God's love for us and His restored gospel and priesthood. They did not suffer persecution, privation, and death for the sake of a swell social community. They believed in the visions and teachings of the prophet Joseph, and they embraced the doctrines of Christ.

The argument of Ms. Hanks and Ms. Black is not without merit. LDS Church doctrine itself recognizes the problems of limiting the priesthood franchise: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." (Doctrine & Covenants 121:39) Providing women with a more active role in the priesthood would certainly ease any perceptions of unfairness in LDS Church policy. It could also ameliorate instances where undeniably good men nevertheless misunderstand the needs and desires of women.

However, the priesthood is sacred, and it is not the province of LDS Church leaders to extend such powers without explicit direction from God. Neither is it the province of Mormon women to agitate for such power, lest they trample on sacred things. When the time is ripe for women to exercise such authority, they will. In the meantime, we should appreciate the blessings of the priesthood rather than attempting to coerce God through public debate. (Technically, Mormon women hold the priesthood but do not exercise it. This is a complex theological discussion best conducted elsewhere.)

I would very much embrace a more active role in the priesthood, but for most Mormon women it is simply not an issue. Concerns over the priesthood must not obscure the redeeming purpose of Christ's gospel-not for me, not for Ms. Hanks, not for Ms. Black. After all, isn't redemption the ultimate form of feminism?

Courtney Black is a Mormon who lives in Seattle. Maxine Hanks was excommunicated for her book Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism. Elizabeth Harmmer-Dionne is a Mormon attorney in Boston.