Friday, October 11, 2013

A Few Thoughts about Ordain Women and Priesthood Session

As anyone in the Mormon/Utah News Bubble knows by now, last week a group of around 150 women sought entrance into the male-only Priesthood session of LDS General Conference. The women, representing an LDS feminist group called Ordain Women which calls for female ordination to the male-only priesthood, were turned away by friendly but insistent ushers. What will happen next remains to be seen, but the event sparked many reactions ranging from sympathetic to dismissive; the debate has occasionally been rancorous but there has also been thoughtful discussion from all sides.  My feelings the broader issue of ordaining women to the priesthood are a complicated and not settled, but I want to address one particular argument I've heard several times, that the women of OW were somehow out of line for attempting to enter or disrupt a space reserved exclusively for men.

I remember about a year ago being asked by the bishop via my wife to attend the weekly Relief Society meeting in our married student ward so there would be a priesthood holder there. Why he asked me I never learned; I hardly knew him and held no leadership callings, but I guessed he was desperate and so I went . That night was the first time I truly understood how the requirement of male priesthood presence in practically all female church activities was awkward and even invasive, and I was the invader. I don't remember the activity itself because I spent the whole time on my phone writing this. Since then my thoughts on that night have clarified: my “presiding” at that activity was more than pointless, it was subtly demeaning to the women who actually ran, conducted, and attended it. The idea that my presence lent the occasion some sort divine approval it would have otherwise lacked seems ridiculous, and part of me now wishes I'd have declined to participate regardless of the stress it might have put on the bishop. Relief Society is (or should be) a female space, and a damned good one too. Any male involvement in should be at women's invitation, not assumed or required.

I guess that makes me a feminist, or a feminist ally. Some Mormons blame feminism for trying to eradicate differences between men and women, but that perspective lacks understanding. I and all the feminists I know believe that there are absolutely differences between men and women, but those differences have always been filtered through changing cultural values and can vary by individual. Because of that I'm not comfortable distilling gender differences into rigid, universal "complementary" roles which insist that women must do certain things and men must do other things for harmony to exist. Still, if anyone wanted to criticize contemporary feminism for claiming that men and women are utterly alike, I'd join the attack...if that brand of feminism actually existed in any meaningful sense.

It's because men and women are different that I believe exclusively male and female spaces can benefit everyone involved. Priesthood Session is a wonderful place for men to be taught by men about manly things. Some of my favorite General Conference memories are of attending priesthood with the guys (and eating out afterwords). I am entirely sympathetic to arguments that there should be spaces in the church for men only, and I understand why same people are troubled by women trying to join a traditionally all-male space. I've even heard arguments from women expressing misgivings about losing the girl time afforded by the guys attending Priesthood Session. It makes sense that people would feel threatened by the idea of losing "their" space, even if 150 women is just a drop in the bucket.

But so many of the arguments I've heard against the OW action have been incredibly myopic. Yes, Priesthood Session has been (and maybe should be) masculine at its core. My problem is that, as I learned the night I attended Relief Society, we as a church deny women any formal equivalent to our precious all-male space. Thanks in part to our correlated, hierarchical organization, “priesthood” in the church is at once universal, omnipresent, and intertwined with the Mormon male experience. It is governance and identity. Priesthood is Authority is Maleness.

Because everything we do must have the imprimatur of Priesthood/Maleness, we institutionally deny the possibility of the kind of female space that men take for granted. Every "female" space in the modern church--Relief Society, Girl's Camp, even The Home--ought to be attended and presided over by men, we are taught. I'm not arguing that having men in female spaces is necessarily bad, unhelpful or unwanted; but men are there primarily because we don't recognize the validity of female activities unless there’s a male presence. The female space does not exist independent of the male; in some sense the male presence creates the space. The reverse is simply never true, which is why a lot of arguments that men and women in the church are somehow "equal" miss the point. Of course we're institutionally unequal: it's by design! Authorized male spaces exist when men, acting with priesthood authority, establish them. Authorized female spaces exist...when men establish them. There's a dissonance there. Any female space for LDS women established by women must necessarily exist outside the church, and I can understand why some women aren't satisfied with that. As one philosopher said, the status is not quo.

So, what do we do? I've read compelling arguments from men and women on both sides on whether women should hold or seek the priesthood, and that's not something I'm going to get into today. I am, however, very uncomfortable with the conflation of priesthood, power, and maleness, and I'm happy to undermine that. I believe that there should be some separate spaces for men and women, and that Priesthood Session has been a positive thing for men in the church. However, I support Ordain Women precisely because it makes people uncomfortable to imagine women  invading a traditionally male space. Maybe that will start a conversation about why we take the opposite situation, which happens every day, for granted.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful perspective. I don't know that I see female ordination as a must/ultimate goal for myself as a feminist, but I am extremely grateful to the brave women from OW and the questions they are asking. I am hoping it will lead to more conversations like this one. One thing that struck me the other day when thinking about the topic of women in the church: Women represent women (and sometimes children), but men represent everyone. There is no space in the church where I am not the "female representative" or I represent a group as a whole that involves men and women. This is not the case for a man. Sometimes I long to just be a person in the gospel, with talents, skills, and experience that doesn't put me in a gender box.

    1. Thanks, your comment reminds me of Deborah Tannen's essay on Marked Women, Unmarked Men, with the whole assumption that the male perspective is somehow the default or "neutral" one. Good stuff, thanks for the feedback.

  2. Amen. The horrifying subtext of our practice is that maleness is sanctifying, femaleness is contaminating.

  3. In our ward out here in the mission field, men are not considered to be "presiding" at or participating in Relief Society meetings, or lending any sort of legitimacy to those meetings. It's considered a safety factor. The men don't attend or participate in the actual meeting, but are in the building to make sure that we can meet safely without any outside interference.

    Our ward building is in a nice suburban area northwest of Boston, but there are other wards in Boston that need security that men can provide.

    Is it possible that you misunderstood the invitation to "attend Relief Society," when it meant "please be in the building to provide security"? I don't consider such presence to be invasive at all - it's a blessing!

    1. I'll grant that's a novel argument, if not a remotely convincing one.