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For the first time in the history of my religion, women will offer an invocation or benediction at the LDS church’s worldwide General Conference, coming this April 6–7. This is an event whose importance is impossible to understate –or overstate.
Women have always been active participants in the LDS church. This began with the founding prophet of the church, Joseph Smith, who entrusted his wife, Emma, with leading the Relief Society, the women’s benevolent organization which for over a hundred years functioned in relative autonomy. Female members offered prayers, taught scriptures, tended to the poor and needy, provided blessings of healing and many other tasks.
Women have played critical roles in LDS culture and thought, producing our finest artists and poets. A female poet, Eliza R. Snow, is perhaps primarily responsible for advancing one of Mormonism’s more audacious doctrines, that of a mother in heaven at the side of God the father, penning a famous refrain:
I had learned to call thee Father/ Through thy Spirit from on high,
But until the key of knowledge/ Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal/ Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Despite their seemingly subservient status within polygamy, women have also been monumental figures in the political area, including their involvement at the forefront of the suffragette movement. Until the 1900s, female Mormons were arguably more politically powerful than their male counterparts, particularly culminating in obtaining declarations of equal rights for women, such as that enshrined in the Utah Constitution:
“Both male and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
Mormons owe much (if not most) of the high points of their history to their female membership.
But despite this history, women have never been and are not ordained to general leadership roles in the clergy of the church. Women are not permitted to serve in capacities considered the exclusive domain of the priesthood, which includes not only leadership roles but general administrative, financial and similar positions. And starting in the early 20th century, the external influence of women began to wane: the Relief Society lost its autonomy, shuttering its long-standing newspaper and folding its budget surplus into the then-struggling general funds of the church; women were discouraged from giving blessings of health as this became a priority emphasis for the priesthood; the “traditional” roles of mothers and caretakers were characterized as divinely appointed tasks and sole priorities.
As second wave feminism hit its stride in the U.S., the LDS church transitioned towards vocal anti-feminism. The jurisdictional boundaries of priesthood-exclusive activities expanded, so far that for a period in the 1970s women were forbidden from even saying the invocation and benediction –the opening and closing prayers –in the weekly services, or Sacrament Meeting. The church itself marshaled a considerable grassroots effort to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, considering the proposed amendment to be a threat to the traditional family values it considered divinely appointed. President Spencer Kimball, leader and prophet at the time, called upon members of the church to vote against the E.R.A.; some who spoke against the church on this issue, notably Sonia Johnson, were excommunicated. Petitions were circulated during worship meetings, sermons were devoted to decrying feminism, and the leadership of the church identified feminism as one of the chief evils of the world.
It would be inaccurate to say that the church’s position has softened since this time. The church still holds traditional family values very dear, as shown by its opposition to gay marriage as well as by more recent declarations such as the Proclamation on the Family. But the social demographics of the membership are shifting. Family sizes are smaller; there are larger numbers of single women, professional women and women with advanced degrees. At the same time, the influence of extreme political groups such as the John Birch Society have waned, and there is no current single political pressure like the E.R.A. to force the church into a corner. Today you can compare the discourse on marital relationships and roles versus that of decades past and be struck by enormous differences. Mormons now navigate an odd rhetorical mish-mash of traditional patriarchal discourse and equality, which some have coined “chicken patriarchy.”
Now imagine that you are a member of the LDS church and you hear rumors that women may be offering the prayers in the most important spiritual gathering of your church. It seems both unremarkable and extraordinary; both progressive and conservative; everything and nothing at all. Calling it “a good start” is misleading, because the real start happened in March 1842, and the fact women are praying in General Conference may lead to no institutional change whatsoever. I asked my wife if she ever noticed that women never gave the prayers in General Conference. Her response: “No. Who listens to the prayers?”
But still — this really matters. In a church run by patriarchy, women can feel that their opinions are irrelevant. If this is happening because church leaders are responding to recent letters and voices, that is a very good thing indeed. It reinforces my belief in my religion. As a female friend put it:
“We never doubted that God hears our prayers; no conference pulpit is necessary for that. But it also matters whether our voices are heard on earth.”
Steve Evans is an attorney and blogger living in Wisconsin. In 2004, Steve founded the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, where he is an editor and contributor.