Women-and-AuthorityWomen and Authority
Re-emerging Mormon Feminism
Maxine Hanks, editor

on the cover: “Long overdue, Maxine Hanks’s collection of feminist essays examines the Mormon experience from a different angle, and suggests once more that women view the world differently from men. Setting aside Mormonism’s preoccupation with male-oriented, tradition-bound history and theology, these essays push into new territory in feminist theory and methodology and are a sort of coming-out party. Finally, it seems, Mormon Women’s Studies is coming of age.” –Martha Sonntag Bradley, Professor of History, Brigham Young University, co-editor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

“Authority, I have learned to question it. I now question my relationship to it after reading Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism. The courageous and creative voices within this book provide a new way of seeing women’s spirituality and authority—an exploration of ideas that is long overdue within the Mormon church. Women and Authority opens the door of discourse on Mormon women’s spirituality. This is just the beginning.” –Lynne Tempest, editor, network magazine

About the editor: Maxine Hanks is a free-lance researcher, writer, and editor residing in Salt Lake City. Previously she was employed by the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and the Missionary Training Center. She serves on the advisory boards of the Association of Utah Publishers, network magazine, and the Utah Historic Trails Consortium. She is a 1992 Research Fellow, Utah Humanities Council, and is completing a degree in Women’s Studies at the University of Utah.

title page:
Women and Authority:
Re-emerging Mormon Feminism
Edited by Maxine Hanks
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page:

dedication: To Ourselves
Cover Illustration: The Birth of the Goddess, marble relief, fifth century B.C.
Cover design by Connie Disney
Composed and printed in the United States of America.
Printed on acid-free paper.
© 1992 by Signature Books, Inc. All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trade mark of Signature Books, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism /
Edited by Maxine Hanks. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Women in the Mormon church. 2. Women, Mormon.
I. Hanks, Maxine
BX8641.W65538 1992
92-9048 CIP
ISBN 1-56085-014-0


Preface and Acknowledgements (see below)
Introduction (see below)
Prologue (see below)

Re-emerging Mormon Feminism
01 – The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven
02 – The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood
03 – Empowerment and Mormon Women’s Publications
04 – Historic Mormon Feminist Discourse—Excerpts

Mormon Women and Authority
05 – An Expanded Definition of Priesthood?: Some Present and Future Consequences
06 – Mormon Women as “Natural” Seers: An Enduring Legacy
07 – Non-Hierarchical Revelation
08 – Let Women No Longer Keep Silent in Our Churches: Women’s Voices in Mormonism
09 – The Grammar of Inequity
10 – Healing the Motherless House
11  – Personal Discourse on God the Mother
12 – Emerging Discourse on the Divine Feminine

Mormon Women and Priesthood
13 – Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Priesthood-Motherhood Connection
14 – Sister Missionaries and Authority
15 – Reconciliation
16 – Why Shouldn’t Mormon Women Want This Priesthood?
17 – Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843
18 – Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother
19 – Women as Healers in the Modern Church

Preface and Acknowledgements

[vii] An anthology is a good way to approach a complex and controversial subject. Answers to questions about Mormon women and authority may not be found in one perspective or pronouncement but in many simultaneous views and approaches. More than 150 voices speak in this book, with many more echoing. My hope is that these voices will urge more to speak and write, and that more books will further elaborate on the themes contained in this compilation.

I saw a need for this book as I observed diversity and repetition among the ideas and work of Mormon feminists. I wanted to bring feminist voices together to show that they and other Mormon women have much in common. I also saw a need for a broad approach to theology that would legitimize feminist voices that reemerge from one decade to the next. This anthology unites some of the feminist perspectives that have surfaced in Mormonism from the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the present.

Mormon feminism is ever-evolving; many feminist books, articles, papers and speeches preceded this anthology and many will follow it. I selected texts about priesthood authority and female deity that demonstrate an emerging feminist theology. I added a discussion of feminism to define terms and provide another context for Mormon feminist theology. Rather than a focused look at women and priesthood, this book is many voices discussing relationships among priesthood, authority, God the Mother, authorship, and feminism. Perhaps this broader approach is more responsive to women’s questions. Still, the central theme is authority.

A discussion of Mormon women’s relationship to authority is [viii] an intimidating task. I want to stress that this discourse is not about a power struggle; it is about women finding identity. This book is written for and about women; its purpose is to illustrate women’s religious equality, not to lobby or persuade. This is the kind of book I wish had been available when I was a young woman or a sister missionary; it could have made a significant difference in my struggle for identity within a male-identified religion and society.

This book coincides with contemporary trends among religious women in America and shows that Mormon feminism parallels larger feminist waves. Female clergy emerged in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Anglican churches. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began ordaining women in 1984. In 1989, when the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion met in Salt Lake City, a panel of Roman Catholic, Sikh, Jewish, southern Baptist, and Mormon women found a consensus: women are no longer waiting for approval from male religious leaders but are moving ahead with feminist theological investigations. This consensus was reaffirmed in a current book Megatrends for Women which predicts that feminists are reaching a critical mass and will make significant changes within traditionally male-dominated religions.

This book also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Relief Society (the women’s organization of the LDS church), conceived by Sarah Kimball and founded in 1842 by Joseph and Emma Smith. The book’s feminist voices remind us that the Relief Society once exercised authority and that “the Society should move according to the ancient priesthood.”

This feminist theology is not radical speculation, but it works within the scope of Mormon theology and history. I would call this collection a conservative Mormon feminist theology. These essays utilize historical, literary, theological, doctrinal, feminist, rhetorical, qualitative, and several other methodologies. The authors combine scholarly work with personal insight and conviction. A consensus here is that Mormon women should be involved in defining their relationship to religious authority. I have reprinted older, foundational feminist essays by Linda King Newell, Linda Wilcox, and Meg Wheatley to give them a wider audience. The essays by Lavina [ix] Fielding Anderson, Betina Lindsey, Todd Compton, and Sonja Farnsworth are reprinted to add dimension to the discussion. Published for the first time are essays by Edwin Firmage, Carol Lynn Pearson, Vella Neil Evans, Ian G. Barber, Dorice Williams Elliott, Martha Pierce, Marian Yeates, Michael Quinn, Margaret Toscano, and myself. And the two chapters of excerpted personal voices lend their diversity and immediacy to the discourse.

Many individuals gave advice or assistance during preparation of this manuscript. Immense thanks and credit are due to Andrea Moore Emmett whose friendship and support sustained me through this project. Deep gratitude also goes to Vella Neil Evans, Diana Jean Wilson, Illa Goodey, Jan Tyler, and Claude O’Donovan for advice and assistance. I’m grateful to George D. Smith and Signature Books for this opportunity. I especially want to thank the Utah Humanities Council for supporting this project with a fellowship that funded the final months of work, with personal thanks to Cynthia Buckingham and Delmont R. Oswald. I am grateful to my parents Donald Max and Jean Poll Hanks for their support.

The main thanks go to the authors of this anthology for their research, insight, and writing that encourage feminist work in Mormonism. I also want to thank many others who helped in various ways: Linda Hunter Adams, Janice M. and David Allred, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Sherry Ruth Anderson, Peter Appleby, the Algie Ballif Forum, Ian G. Barber, Susan Barnum, Rachel Bassett, Lucinda Bateman, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Elouise Bell, Terri Belnap, Curt Bench, Joanne Betz, Peter Bleach, Pamela Bookstaber, Martha Sonntag Bradley, Kathryn H. Brooks, Vicki Burgess, Debra Burrington, Claudia Lauper Bushman, Brigham Young University Committee to Promote the Status of Women (VOICE), Brigham Young University Women’s Research Institute, Anne Castleton, Melodie Moench Charles, Melanee Cherry, Debbie Christensen, Paul Cole, Todd Compton, Brent D. Corcoran, Marie Cornwall, Karen Crist, Jill Mulvay Derr, Connie Disney, Lowell J. Durham, Dorice Williams Elliott, Jessie L. Embry, Erin and Mark R. Emmett, Lolita Emrazian, Eugene England, Rebecca England, Martha Dickey Esplin, Pamela Evans, Exponent II, Sonja L. Farnsworth, Cecilia Konchar Farr, Jim Faulconer, Edwin Brown Firmage, Jani Fleet, Kelli Frame, Leigh Fullmer, Rozan Gautier, [x] Jody England Hansen, Nadine R. Hansen, David and Susie Paxman Hatch, Patricia Hatch, Kay Henry, Heather Hirschi, Patricia Hopkins, Susan Howe, Mimi Irving, Jan Jacobsen, Tom Jensen, Arta and Catherine Johnson, Greg Jones, Steve Jones, Walter Jones, Reba Keele, David Knowlton, Betina and Jim Lindsey, Cathe Cameron Madison, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Julie McCabe, Brent Lee Metcalfe, Meridith Moench, Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter, Linda King Newell, Julie J. Nichols, Peggy Pace, Stephanie Pace, Dennis Packard, Shirley Paxman, Sue Paxman, Carol Lynn Pearson, Martha Pierce, D. Michael Quinn, Mary Stovall Richards, Allen D. Roberts, Tomi Ann Roberts, Karen Seeley, John and Jeanne Senulis, Carrel Sheldon, Katherine H. Shirts, John Sillito, Linda Sillitoe, George D. Smith, Ida Smith, Susan Staker, Kathryn Stockton, Lori Winder Stromberg, the Sunstone Foundation, Vern G. Swanson, Anna Smoot Taylor, Lynne Tempest, Liz Timms, Margaret M. Toscano, Julie Turley, Nancy Freestone Turley, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, University of Utah Special Collections, University of Utah Women’s Studies Program, Kathryn Waddell, Bryan Waterman, Suzann Werner, Meg Wheatley, Shelley White, Lynn Kanavel Whitesides, Benson Whittle, Linda P. Wilcox, Camille S. Williams, A Woman’s Place Bookstore, Jeff Wood, Claudia Wright, Marian Yeates, Carlan Youkstedder, and others whom I have overlooked.


[xi] Feminism has always existed in Mormonism. It makes sense that Mormon women would be feminists: within male-centered religion and discourse, feminism and feminist theology are necessary. Feminist theology currently is coming of age in Mormonism. What is feminist theology? To understand it, we need to define the terms “feminist” and “theology.”

Feminism often misunderstood or feared. Reportedly coined in 1851, the word “feminism” derives from the Latin femina, “woman,” and -ism, “theory, quality or philosophy of”; it means simply “the philosophy of woman” or “womanism.” “Feminist” appeared in 1894 in Paris and meant “woman’s advocate”. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal philosophy of equal rights and opportunities for women gave feminism the definition most often cited today.

Feminism is usually equated with the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s; but feminism is much more than the liberal feminist struggle for equal rights. Feminism is not simply one philosophy or movement, but many female idealogies, from goddess cultures, to medieval feminist texts, to nineteenth-century reformers, to twentieth-century post-modernism. Feminist theory now encompasses diverse historical and modern approaches for creating female opportunity, authority, discourse, and influence.

Not all feminists agree on theories or approaches; and most feminists do not belong in one category. The slogan “equality-versus-difference” has been used as a “shorthand to characterize conflicting feminist positions and political strategies.” Feminists who believe that “sexual difference is an irrelevant consideration” [xii] stress equality. Feminists who advocate “needs, interests, and characteristics common to women as a group” stress difference.”1

“Equality vs. difference” groupings and the variety of feminist theories provide useful contexts for understanding feminism. Several feminist theories have surfaced in America since the Revolutionary period including: liberal, cultural, socialist, psychoanalytic, existentialist, radical, and post-modern feminism.2

Antithetical to feminism is “republican motherhood,” the eighteenth-century doctrine of motherhood as a patriotic duty to bear and raise children. As feminism encouraged housewives to explore the public sphere, republican or compulsory motherhood3 “redirected women’s newfound political consciousness back into the home.”4

Liberal feminism (1790 to the present) advocated for women the same natural rights sought by men during the Revolutionary period. Liberal feminism advocated individual authority and reason, equality of the sexes, the right to vote, to run for political office, the right to seek employment or career, equal pay for equal work—in short the basic principle of equal rights for women. (This gave birth to the Equal Rights Amendment and the National Organization for Women. Liberal feminism was voiced by Abigail Adams, Mary Woolstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Sojourner Truth, and later Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Woolf. Twentieth-century liberal feminists still seek equality in male-dominated fields, such as politics and business.

Cultural feminism (1840s to the present) asserted a matriarchal vision and distinct or essential female values and spheres, such as the feminization of nature, global peace, social reform, temperance, a female god, female healing, female clergy, birth control, and anti-patriarchy. Some examples were: Herland by Charlette Perkins Gilman; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible (1895), which spoke of a “Heavenly Mother,” female religious authority and priesthood; and later Margaret Sanger’s efforts to provide birth control. Liberal and cultural feminism constituted the “first wave” of feminism in America, between 1790 and 1920.

Mormon Feminism

[xiii] The first wave of Mormon feminism coincided with its American counterpart. Nineteenth-century Mormon women demonstrated liberal and cultural feminism in their writing and activities; this may have resulted from their own response to Mormonism, more than from a direct influence by American feminism.

Mormon feminism began with Emma Smith, wife of the prophet Joseph Smith. She “profoundly affected the development of [two] religious movements (Mormonism and the Re-organized church) . . . she became a force to be reckoned with, especially in financial and other practical matters affecting the Mormon church . . . she quietly but vigorously opposed the polygamous beliefs and practices which he [Joseph] sought to introduce into Mormon practice.”5 As first president of the female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Illinois, Emma was “elected” and “ordained” to preside over women in the church; she received “a portion of the keys of the kingdom.”6 Feminist assertions surfaced in the early Relief Society minutes. Emma Smith, responding to an 1842 letter from her husband and his associates which warned women against contrary preaching and practices, exhorted sisters to pursue monogamy and denounce polygamy. Eliza R. Snow recorded that Emma ended her comments claiming, “If there ever were any authority on this earth, she [Emma] had it—and had it yet.”7

Liberal feminist was expressed by Mormon women in a variety of ways. Through their labors to help build an ambitious religious society, Mormon women mastered a range of employment skills and professions and gained prominent places in the public sphere. They became merchants, politicians, and scholars; the University of Deseret, founded in 1850, enrolled women. Mormon women managed wheat and silk industries through four decades. Utah had a higher percentage of women doctors and midwives than any other U.S. state or territory; female doctor Ellis Shipp alone trained 500 midwives and practitioners. Mormon women published an independent women’s newspaper and young women’s magazine for four decades. Women were granted suffrage in Utah in 1870, nearly fifty years before the Nineteenth Amendment gave the vote to American women. Women’s grass-roots organizing regained the vote in Utah after the Edmunds-Tucker law rescinded it in 1887. Between 1871 [xiv] and 1920 Mormon women collaborated and traveled with eastern activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to lobby for national women’s suffrage. Liberal feminists included “woman’s rights woman” Sarah Kimball, publisher Emmeline B. Wells, suffragists Lucinda Dalton and Zina Y. Williams, and state senator Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon.8

Cultural feminism found outlets in the Mormon doctrine of a heavenly mother and female priesthood, implicit in Joseph Smith’s discussions of God, the temple, and priesthood keys. Eliza R. Snow described the mother in her 1845 poem, “Invocation: or the Eternal Father and Mother,” now one of Mormonism’s most loved hymns. Snow was widely regarded as a “priestess” and “prophetess,” as well as “presidentess” of the Mormon women’s organizations including the Relief Society. Founded in 1842, the women’s Relief Society showed much cultural feminism; it was a benevolent society as well as a self-governing “kingdom of priests.” Sarah Kimball, who first conceived the Relief Society, claimed upon its establishment that “the sure foundations of the suffrage cause were deeply and permanently laid.”9 Later in 1850, she emulated priesthood patterns by setting apart women “teachers” and “deaconesses.” In 1882 the Society established the Deseret Hospital, staffed by women. An influential Mormon text, The Women of Mormondom, by Edward W. Tullidge (1877), paralleled cultural feminism throughout; it explored feminist theology and feminine deity, advocated female priesthood and female prophecy. Other Mormon cultural feminists included prophetess and healer Lucy Bigler Young, missionary and healer Louisa B. Pratt, and author and missionary Susa Young Gates who wrote novels, doctrine, history and argued women’s rights.

What was the result of Mormon liberal and cultural feminism? Mormon women outperformed men in nearly every area of church activity. Near the turn of the century Joseph F. Smith admitted “The priesthood quorums . . . have become lax in their work and let loose their hold. While the auxiliary organizations have taken the right of way, the priesthood quorums stand by looking on awe-struck.”10 As a result, the Priesthood Correlation Program was conceived in 1908 to bolster male involvement in all aspects of the church, as well as to organize and streamline church structure in preparation for expansion.11 As correlation gained strength, women’s authority [xv] diminished. Priesthood leaders began referring to the women’s organizations as “auxiliaries.” Female priesthood ordinance work was discouraged, and by the 1930s it was forbidden. Tension grew between male priesthood leadership and feminists who were experiencing loss of authority and position. The correlation of male priesthood omitted and caused the demise of female priesthood. This gave birth to two binary-oppositions in the church: priesthood holders (men) versus non-priesthood holders (women); and feminism versus (republican) motherhood.

A potent symbol of Mormon women’s loss of power after the turn of the century was the release of Emmeline Wells as president of the Relief Society. Citing her “frailty and age,” President Heber J. Grant informed Wells he would release her. “Emmeline was stunned. None of her predecessors had been released, remaining in their office until their deaths.”12 This was a lifetime appointment, like apostle or prophet. “The humiliation of a release was unbearable. Compelled to prove that her mind was not dull, she recited to President Grant the history of the Relief Society from the beginning to the present in a pitiful effort to change his mind but to no avail.” He announced her release at general conference. Her spirit broken, Emmeline’s health failed rapidly. Her daughter wrote a reproving letter to President Grant to which he responded:

I had hoped that you … might become converted to the wisdom of the changes made in the Relief Society … that with the blessing of the Lord and your aid that I could reconcile [your mother to] … the judgement of all of the First Presidency and Twelve as the best and wisest thing to do, with love and blessings from all of the hearts of the brethren, for your mother, particularly, and for one and all of the good sisters of the Relief Society.13

Wells died the day Grant’s letter was written. Her daughter believed she died of a broken heart.

Second Wave Feminism

In the twentieth century, feminism evolved and diversified into a wide spectrum of approaches, all grouped into the “second wave” of feminism in America. Mormon feminism trends again coincided with U.S. feminist movements, but emerged in at least three “Mormon waves” or “generations.” Mormon feminism be[xvi]came an important counterbalance to the rise of Priesthood Correlation.

Socialist feminism in the U.S. (1900s to the present) combined Marxist principles with liberal feminist ideals of equality. It located women’s oppression in the dual problems of gender relations (inequity) and capitalism (oppression via labor, wage, class), using both feminism and Marxism to rethink female spheres. Socialist feminist Emma Goldman sought women’s and working class rights; other social theories about patriarchy and the nuclear family critiqued family ideology, politics and division of labor. The work of Gerda Lerner and Angela Davis fall into this category.

A Mormon parallel to socialist feminism was a kind of social feminism that occurred as prominent and academic church members embraced American social movements (1910-1940s). During and after World War I church members interfaced with emerging national relief and social work organizations. Mormons such as Amy Brown Lyman developed large social projects. The church Social Advisory Committee pioneered a number of social programs between community and church.14 During this period Mormon social feminists gave birth to Relief Society Social Services, social programs and curriculum (linked to church welfare and social services), the Primary Children’s Hospital, and other community projects. Some of the women involved in these programs were Louie B. Felt, Louise Y. Robinson, May Anderson, and Emily Smith Stewart; years later Esther Peterson and Belle Spafford had great impact with social projects and reforms. During the 1940s social historians Juanita Brooks and Fawn M. Brodie reevaluated the past with an insight that helped give birth to revisionist history or “the New Mormon History.”15 Also, the literature of Virginia Sorenson and Maurine Whipple critiqued Mormon patriarchal culture: Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels revealed some negative aspects of Mormon culture through a woman’s eyes; Whipple’s The Giant Joshua critiqued nineteenth-century polygamy through the reflections of a female character caught in its degrading lifestyle.

Psychoanalytic feminism in the U.S. (1920s to present) arose to address Sigmund Freud’s androcentric theories about psychology, identity, family, psycho-social development. Freudian feminism critiques the male construction of psychology, as did Betty Friedan’s [xviii] The Feminine Mystique. It also uses object- relations theory to explain how single-gender parenting affects child development and thus constructs gender relations in larger society. Psychoanalytic feminism is seen in works by Karen Horney, Nancy Chodorow, Sherry B. Ortner, in Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism, and Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.

Existentialist feminism in the U.S. (1925 to the present) came from the French philosophical movement and elaborates on the concepts of “difference,” “being,” and “the other.” It uses discourse and text as tools for rewriting and deconstructing philosophical institutions, and is best represented in Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex. Within Mormon culture, psychoanalytic and existential feminisms were not explored much until the 1970s when they began to surface in literature, sociology, and women’s studies classes at Brigham Young University and other Utah schools.

Radical feminism in the U.S. (1960s to the present) was developed by feminists in New York and Boston partly as a reaction to sexism among liberals in the “new left.” Rather than seek equal opportunity in male-dominant systems, radicalism seeks women’s liberation from patriarchy and male discourse through creation of female systems and discourse. It seeks women’s control over their own bodies and lives, as in women’s healthcare and laws against sexual harassment and pornography. It defends a distinct or essential femaleness and female perspective, echoing the nineteenth-century cultural feminist view of male/female difference. It theorizes feminine approaches to knowing, as in feminist theology, female archetypes and development of feminine spirituality. Radical factions within radical feminism include female separatism and lesbianism. Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Kate Millet, Sonia Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marilyn French, Catharine MacKinnon, and Gloria Steinem are radical feminists.

Coincidental to U.S. radical feminism, the LDS church Priesthood Correlation Program began its final push (1960-1980) to place women under the male structure. The Relief Society magazine was discontinued by priesthood directive in 1970. With President Belle Spafford’s release in 1974, all Relief Society funds, operations, and curriculum were brought under control of priesthood correlation committees and male leaders. The result of priesthood correlation [xviii] was a stream-lined but all-male authority.

Mormonism’s third feminist wave surfaced in the early 1970s, energized by a rediscovery of 1870s Mormon liberal feminism, and influences from U.S. feminism; it also responded to the decline of women’s power in the church. Mormon feminism found expression in and outside the church: feminist writing in Exponent II, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and Sunstone; Brigham Young University’s Women’s committees, women’s studies courses, and Women’s Research Institute; the Mormons for ERA; the Utah International Women’s Year committee; the Alice Louise Reynolds forum; and increasing feminist and revisionist histories of Mormon women and Mormonism. In addition, feminist retreats such as “Retrenchment” and “Pilgrimage” were formed. Prominent Mormon feminists during this wave included Algie Ballif, Helen Stark, Jan Tyler, Joanne Thomas, Beatrice Marchant, Carol Lynn Pearson, Reba Keele, Christine Durham, Grethe Peterson, Sonia Johnson, Cheryl Dalton, Alice Pottmeyer, Linda Sillitoe, and others. Feminist history appeared in work by Leonard Arrington, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Claudia Lauper Bushman, Judith Dushku, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Cheryl Lynn May, Vicki Burgess-Olsen, Linda P. Wilcox, Linda King Newell, Jill Mulvay Derr, Audrey Godfrey, and Susan Staker.

Male church leaders responded to Mormon feminism with unprecedented emphasis on the nuclear family and patriarchal authority during the 1970s, drawing heavily on republican motherhood discourse. The church opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, organized and funded efforts to defeat it. Tensions between male correlation and feminism reached a crescendo at the Utah International Women’s Year conference in 1977, then peaked in the excommunication of Mormons for ERA president Sonia Johnson in December 1979. These events divided Mormon women as nothing in Mormon history ever had: they polarized feminists and non-feminists, fragmented feminists from each other, and left emotional scars still evident to the present.

Post-modern feminism in the U.S. (1968 to present) uses academic post-modern and post-structural critiques of Western philosophical structures. Post-modernism uses “deconstruction” to analyze and displace the binary oppositions and meanings that keep [xix] cultural structures in place. Post-modern feminists include Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva.

Contemporary Mormon feminism (or fourth wave) began in the mid-1980s and seems broader and more stable than third wave Mormon feminism; it includes the full spectrum of feminist approaches. Three prominent areas of focus are: theological discussion of a mother in heaven and female priesthood (as done by the Mormon Women’s Forum and Margaret Toscano); social and historical research on Mormon women (as done by Marie Cornwall and Jessie Embry); and post-modern feminist critique (as done by Dorice Elliott and Cecilia K. Farr). These and related topics have prompted increasing discussions in non-church settings at Sunstone symposia, Mormon Women’s Forum, women’s studies programs in Utah (including BYU) and the women’s retreats in Utah, the Midwest, New England, and California. Paradoxically, as feminism has been suppressed in the church, it has grown and evolved in the larger Mormon culture.

Each of Mormon feminism’s four waves had different rally calls: for first wave liberal/cultural Mormon feminism it was woman’s equality and suffrage; for second wave social feminism it was social reform; third wave Mormon feminists rallied to women’s history and the ERA; fourth wave Mormon feminists seek women’s authority an discourse.

Two conclusions emerge from a review of Mormon feminist texts: Mormon feminists say some of the same things over and over again, yet there is no unifying feminist consensus—we must validate our diversity. Contemporary Mormon feminists are often accused of being “radical.” Unfortunately, the consistent task of Mormon feminists has been nineteenth-century liberal/cultural feminism: Mormon women are still engaged in a feminist battle that is over one hundred years old. As Mormonism clings to nineteenth-century world views, Mormon feminists (as well as Mormon doctrine and theology) continue to struggle within nineteenth-century male discourse.

Authoritative discourse is not easy to alter. This helps explain why twentieth-century Mormon feminists repeat the rhetoric, texts, and causes of their liberal/cultural great-grandmothers. Mormon [xx] women, as Josephine Donovan put it, “keep reinventing the wheel.”16 Historian Gerda Lerner says this problem occurs because women have been unable to connect their work together in a continuous historical tradition; feminist work is born and then buried again with each new generation.17 Journalist Susan Faludi attributes the problem to feminist backlashes—the authoritative dismantling of feminist agendas by the conservative establishment.18 Both problems—the gaps in women’s authoritative discourse and the rise of feminist backlashes—exist in Mormon feminist history. Both can be seen in repeated struggles between feminists and male priesthood leadership, especially in the 1840s, 1910s, 1970s, and 1990s.

My sense is that current Mormon feminists are trying to overcome generational gaps and authoritative backlashes. Mormon feminism is building on the previous work of its feminist foremothers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, striving to move beyond old battles by assuming feminism as a basic given and exploring new territories. In all their diversity Mormon feminists seem to know that one feminist view, one strategy, one struggle is not enough. They are refusing to reinvent the wheel.

Women and Authority

Organizational theory cites three types of authority: formal, informal, and personal.19 Formal authority is the power of position within a structure such as president, director, bishop or Relief Society president. Informal authority (indirect authority) operates independently of the structure, as with advisors, experts, scholars, professionals, coalitions, charismatic personalities, friends, and relatives who have influence without having a title or position in the organization. Autonomy or personal authority is the ability to advance personal knowledge or views in the organization.

All three types of authority are necessary for organizational health. Formal authority in the LDS church generally is tied to male priesthood; women find limited administrative positions in women’s auxiliaries and programs, public relations, and non-ecclesiastical departments. However, the church condones women’s indirect or informal influence: wives, relatives, specialists, and advisors might [xxi] influence a close associate at any level of the church.

One example of indirect authority was Emily Smith Stewart, daughter of church president George Albert Smith. President Smith was troubled by poor health and lived with Emily during his years as apostle and president. She managed his affairs, represented him, handled interviews and paperwork, and thus performed some of the work of church president. (President David O. McKay similarly relied on his close personal secretary, Clare Middlemiss.)

Denying women formal authority while encouraging their indirect authority sends a clear message of inferiority and invalidation. It also causes women to seek power indirectly, behind the scenes, such as manipulation. At any level, two styles of decision-making may occur: hierarchy allows leaders to make decisions for those organizationally below them; while consensus or group decision may invite participation of those affected by decision.

Autonomy or personal authority is encouraged by Mormon theology and doctrine yet is generally ignored. On the personal level, women and men alike may experience frustration with authority and decision-making in the church; but women additionally struggle with a complete lack of representation in the all-male priesthood leadership. Church vote or “common consent” could utilize personal authority in decision-making. Women’s revelation and authority are suppressed in the church; yet they still emerge in the culture and feminist theology. Personal authority grows more important in women’s lives when the church fails to meet their spiritual needs.

The relationship between formal and personal power was addressed by French philosopher Michel Foucault, who envisioned them as integrated aspects of an enormous web of relations. He thus derived a third dimension of authority or power as a larger dynamic which is self-existent; a network within which we are both recipients and executors, all related in a “genealogy of power.”20 This is not unlike the Mormon notion of priesthood or power of God as transcending organization and accessible to all. Foucault has theorized discourse and language as the mediators of power and authority. this means discourse can be a powerful strategy for creating or altering authority. Different genders, social classes, and philosophies [xxii] may have conflicting approaches, vocabulary, and shared meaning; but they all use discourse and text.


Many people are put off by the word “authority” and its acquired connotations. Authority has some positive connotations in Mormonism, but the concept is related to men; the notion of authority for women often leads to a discussion of how power corrupts. Authority and its root word author come from the Latin auctor—“to create”, and augere—“to divine, create, increase,”; the suffix -ity means “the condition of being.” Authority, or author-ity is author-ship—the act of creating, from auctoritas—“creator.” It may be more empowering to consider female authority as authorship and creativity. If discourse mediates power and authority, women’s best strategy may be to create new discourse. Along with female author-ity or authorship, it is important to consider edit and editor. Both come from the Latin eder from ex = “out” + dare = “to give”—“to give out, publish, put forth.”

Historically women have been prevented from authoring, or from being credited for authorship; yet they have often been used as “editors.” It is destructive to be prevented from authoring (creating) or having a voice, especially if one is constrained to “edit,” or facilitate another’s voice. Historian Gerda Lerner believes that women cooperate in such suppression. Her theory is illustrated in Mormonism, where “women have collaborated in their own subordination through their acceptance of the sex-gender system. They have internalized values that subordinate them to such an extent that they voluntarily pass them on to their children.”21 Thus women may participate in the creation of culture but not visibly or credibly—they lack credit for their contribution. Whether our cultural discourses and systems reflect anonymous female perspective or no female perspective at all, the effect is the same—they are silenced.

Discourse is larger than us; it is culture. “Discourse is not a language or a text but a historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories and beliefs.”22 Discourse is the cultural conversation that defines our beliefs, our bodies, our texts. For example, separate gender spheres, male priest[xxiii]hood, stereotyped femininity, or republican motherhood are “discourse.” “Text” is a speech, books, rally, art, dance, a body—anything that speaks a perspective within a larger cultural discourse. As women, we live in male discourse—culture that speaks a male perspective. We may write a feminist “text” or perspective within a masculine discourse without substantively altering that discourse. This has happened in Mormonism, as well as in every other male-dominant culture: women’s texts are born into an incompatible or unsympathetic male context, and fade; this explains why women’s perspective repeatedly disappears in culture. Mormon women are trying to have a voice in male conversation.

Movements, such as Mormonism, feminism, Mormon feminism are discourses—larger than the individuals creating and participating in them, such as Joseph Smith or Sonia Johnson. Within them, individual authority collaborates with the authority of the larger discourse. Discourse creates and mediates the web of relations that includes but transcends our involvement.

Because feminist texts emerge and re-emerge without altering male discourse, women either need to alter the male discourses that enfold them or create female/feminine discourse. For example, this anthology attempts to capture an emerging female discourse that composed of many Mormon feminist texts. Because authority in the LDS church exists in male discourse, Mormon women have struggled for and lacked authority. They have also lacked identity: women are always either conforming to or resisting male perspective, male identity. Many women have found the cost of living in male perspective to be too high. Our task is two-fold: What strategies can women use to resist and alter male discourse? How can women create female discourse? I propose four approaches: Deconstruction, Editing, Authoring, and Mysticism.

Deconstruction, defined by Jacques Derrida and his followers, alters cultural discourse by exposing its foundation, usually a binary-opposition or privileging of one group over another, such as priesthood/non-priesthood. First, one exposes the binary terms or power relationship, such as priesthood/motherhood equation point out by Sonia Farnsworth. Next the two terms or roles are reversed to show their interdependence (as in Elouise Bell’s essay “The Meeting”). Third, the opposition dissolves or fragments into a spectrum, [xxiv] as in Ian Barber’s view that Mormon women, children, men, and ethnic minorities all exercised spiritual/priesthood powers in early Mormonism. Deconstruction effectively revises discourse.

Editing is a less drastic, slower revision of discourse; it modifies discourse without changing the structures. Editing is a way of positioning oneself within the discourse, not escaping it, but modifying it. The election of women to Congress and the efforts of some Mormon feminists to “change the system from within” are examples of “editing.” Editing is liberal feminism—striving for increased female influence, working toward equal participation and rights within male-defined systems and structures. Authorship is communicating a perspective through a “text” or discourse. As authors, we either create text that contributes to existing discourse or text that belongs in a different context, a different landscape. “Every woman has known the torture of beginning to speak aloud … occasionally falling into loss of language, ground and language slipping out from under her … It is in writing, from woman and toward woman, and in accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus, that women will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence …”23 When men create, there are many masculine discourses ready to receive their work into a context. Women often have the double challenge of finding their female voice and then also finding a context that will legitimize their voice. This is difficult: many women do not realize they need a female discourse or cannot connect to one. It is not enough to create female text; we must also find or create female discourses that will give our texts, our voices cultural meaning and authority; such as mother in heaven theology, women’s priesthood, and Relief Society. Or by uniting female voices together into a network or web that speaks a group perspective, such as Exponent II or this anthology. We must be aware of other feminists’ work in order to network, unite perspectives, find historical context, connect to our tradition, locate or create a visible place in culture. We must see our own voice as an integral part of women’s discourse to give both a lasting presence.

Some post-modern feminists move beyond male discourse and male language by articulating mystical experience. Mormon women [xxv] may have an immediate access to new discourse by writing their mystical experience of the divine feminine. Experiencing the divine, the mystical, resides outside of language, and therefore escapes male discourse; expressing this mystical experience in any type of text or art, emotively, spontaneously, can begin to approach a whole new feminine discourse. Experiencing and attempting to describe the unspeakable can create a discourse of the infinite; it can capture impressions in the space between all oppositions, between that which is constructed for us and that which we see as self-existent.

Emerging Feminist Theology

Theology, or simply the way we view God and our relationship to God, is the foundation of our religion. Mormon theology evolves: our concept of continuing revelation, absence of formal creeds, and inconsistency of doctrine through decades and diverse prophets allow Mormon theology speculative and dynamic freedom. Still, LDS scripture and authoritative male discourse are used as theological controls. Our authoritative discourse shows a lack of feminine theology; yet feminine deity is implicit in Mormon theology.

Mormon theology establishes the existence of a mother in heaven equal in glory and power to a father. Linda Wilcox notes that “little if any theology has been developed to elucidate her nature and characterize our relationship to her.” For Mormon women, this gap between a dual-gender theological blueprint and an exclusively male theological construction communicates an authoritative omission of femaleness in our religion. This has translated into a multitude of social, psychological, religious, and emotional problems for Mormon women’s identity. Freud saw only two options for female identity within male discourse: powerlessness (“castration complex”) or male identification. Expecting women to worship only male deity is asking them to identify with the male body. To escape being defined by a male body and perspective, women seek female/feminist theology.

Feminist theology is simply woman’s philosophy of God and her relationship to God. It is revisionist theology; it reveals the feminine in our view of God and priesthood. Why undertake Mormon feminist theology? Because we see cannot separate ourselves in the image [xxvi] of God. Because we cannot separate our social life from our beliefs—as Joseph Smith illustrated, one theologian can affect our lives for generations. Because Mormon theology, history, and doctrine need to be reevaluated in light of women’s participation, resistance, and perspectives. Historically, male perspectives have prevailed over women’s concerns; thus men’s efforts in history and theology are treated as if they are the complete story—as if male authorship is ultimately correct. This may be why today’s male church leaders believe and behave as if they have all the authority.

In recent years many Mormons have come to agree that the female or feminine needs to fully emerge in Mormon theology, doctrine and church structure. What has been speculated but not decided on any official level is how that should be done. Should female theology come from the leading body of male apostles and prophets? If so, why has this not happened in 160 years’ time? Should female theology emerge through women’s consciousness? If so, how does this integrate with male leadership? Is it already happening? And how are women and men responding?

While many in the LDS church are content to wait decades for these questions to resolve themselves, others see harm in waiting and have moved ahead to develop women’s theology. For church leaders, a female theology would require additional revelation, doctrine or scripture. For scholars, it means developing concepts women’s priesthood and Mother in Heaven within historic and theological frameworks. For many members expression of the divine feminine is an expression of personal experience with God. I would hope that all three approaches could converge in a collective or holistic expression of the feminine. Formal, informal, and personal authority could combine perspectives to develop Mormon feminist theology, doctrine, and policy. Ultimately, the development of feminist theology and restoration of women’s authority in the church may depend on the Relief Society reclaiming its authority.

Currently, I see at least four basic Mormon feminist theological approaches. First—a liberal feminist or “affirmative action” theology where the attributes of male deity are logically extended to the female: god/goddess, father/mother, son/daughter, priesthood/priestesshood. This expands on Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century materialist, Newtonian expression of God. Second—an intuitive, essen[xxvi]tialist, female-defined theology or feminine system rather than a modified male system. This uses cultural and radical feminist views of the divine mother as unique and archetypal. Third—a view of God and Christ as having both male and female qualities, transcending gender. Some see Jesus as an androgynous being, simultaneously male and female; others see a feminized male Christ who inscribes feminine feeling within a male body. Fourth—a post-modern approach that does not confine God to our understanding of bodies or gender but seeks expression of the divine feminine through the mystical. This approach asks, what is femaleness? Women who want to escape male construction of femaleness, and at the same time transcend biological femaleness, seek an infinite understanding. Post-modern feminist Luce Irigaray theorizes femaleness “mirroring” or grasping the simultaneous sameness and difference of women; God is the “infinite set of imprints of female bodies.”24


Mormonism defines priesthood as the power of God. Mormon women receive priesthood power (or power of God) in several ways: through exercise of spiritual gifts such as blessings, healings, and prophecy (beginning 1830-1832); through Relief Society priesthood keys (1842); through the temple endowment (1843); through the call to preach the gospel (1850); and through temple marriage. Baptism and confirmation also convey God’s power to exercise gifts of the spirit, such as testimony, visions, and blessings. Put simply, the church conveys priesthood power to women yet insists that women do not have it and cannot use it. Permission to use priesthood is granted only to men who are “ordained” to a priesthood office; women are not “ordained” but are “set-apart” to church positions as the means of conferral of priesthood to women.

Mormon women exercised the power of God in the church for 100 years. Nineteenth-century Mormon women administered some priesthood powers and ordinances. After the turn of the century women’s exercise of priesthood power was discouraged and ultimately revoked, while men’s priesthood exercise was expanded. If the momentum of women’s nineteenth-century priesthood had been maintained, their priesthood may have been included in priesthood [xxviii] correlation and women might be exercising their priesthood power in the church today.

As women access their priesthood power and male church leaders forbid them to exercise it formally, more women may look beyond church avenues to find expression such as giving blessings. Sometimes women feel they must choose between church approval and spiritual growth. Women reclaiming priesthood power tend to look outside church structure for contexts that support them, such as women’s blessing circles, retreats, and feminist organizations.

Formal church activation or ordination of women’s priesthood power has been suggested by Mormon feminists for decades. If this were to happen women might not sense possession of something new but rather a loosening of bonds, a new freedom to use something they have always had, a spiritual liberation. Ultimately, the reactivation of women’s priesthood powers may not be a matter of ordination but of women reclaiming their own authority.

The modern church has claimed that male Priesthood Correlation is the means of establishing zion—a society of one heart with God. Perhaps creating zion is a simple thing—the creation of equal partnership between men and women in the church. Just as Priesthood Correlation was necessary to prepare for the present growth of the church, the restoration of the female to Priesthood Correlation may be necessary for future growth. The church may not be able to grow into zion without feminism. Neither patriarchy nor feminism are zion; feminism modifies patriarchy to make zion possible. Zion is a way of being, a way of living the kingdom of God within.

The struggle of all feminism, including Mormon feminism, is the expression of female perspective in personal “texts” and cultural discourse. Feminism is trying to balance culture by altering male dominance to create an inclusive society. Feminism is complex because culture is complex; there are many different feminisms and feminist theories. No one answer or strategy can solve all problems or imbalances between men and women. There are feminist strategies for relationships, the domestic sphere, the work place, theology, and so on. As male church leaders continue to define all policy, doctrine, theology, female roles and even feminism, feminism will continue to urge women and men to be self-defining.

The following authors do not all agree; this book does not [xxix] provide one answer. It raises many questions, identifies many problems, and offers positive possibilities. There is no single unified Mormon feminism or feminist theology; rather, a complex hybrid attempting to combine many parts into wholeness. I hope readers will find their own conclusions, their own revelations, and exercise their own author-ity.

Exposure to many views enables us to shift and choose what we believe without being trapped in one particular view. We are all a composite of many -isms, many moments of personal revelation, choices, and results. We sift many strategies to find our own. We are all continually identifying what we reject and retain–of our own upbringing, culture, academic training, theology, customs, relationships. The challenge is to keep these as personal decisions and authorship rather than surrender our voice to another’s, no matter how prevailing their text or discourse may be.


1. Joan W. Scott, “Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference,” in Conflicts in Feminism, eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990), 138.

2. See Josephine Donovan, Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1988); and Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989).

3. Maxine Hanks, “Compulsory Pregnancy,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter, Feb. 1992.

4. Sarah M. Evans, Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 57-58.

5. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 6, xi.

6. See Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 80.

7. Vella Neil Evans, “Women’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse: A Rhetorical Analysis,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985, 70; Eliza R. Snow, Relief Society minutes, 9 Mar. 1844, 51.

8. Judith Dushku, “Feminists,” Mormon Sisters, ed. Claudia Bushman (Cambridge, MA: Emeline Press, 1976), 176-96.

9. Lola Van Wagenen, “In Their Own Behalf: The Politicization of Mormon Women and the 1870 Franchise,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24 (Winter 1991): 33.

10. Jill Mulvay and C. Brooklyn Derr, “Outside the Mormon Hierarchy” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Winter 1982): 24.

11. Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1985), 75-78.

12. Carol Cornwall Madsen, “A Woman in Victorian America,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985, 405-407.

13. Ibid.

14. See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 126, 152-55, 182-85.

15. See D. Michael Quinn, “Introduction,” The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), iii.

16. Donovan, xii.

17. Gerda Lerner, speech, Salt Lake City, 1992.

18. Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women (New York: Crown, 1991), 46-59.

19. Derr and Derr, 21-43.

20. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 98.

21. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 234.

22. Joan W. Scott, 135.

23. Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, eds., The Newly Born Woman (University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 92-93.

24. Luce Irigaray, “La Mysterique,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 191-202; also Kathryn Stockton, “Bodies and God: Poststructuralist Feminists Return to the Fold of Spiritual Materialism,” Women’s Studies 576, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

[xxxi] Shekhinah. Shekhinah. The word simply popped into my mind like an uninvited guest and wouldn’t go away. At times it seemed to disappear, but then it would come again, quietly, this strange word—Shekhinah. It seemed to be waiting patiently for me to pay attention to it. After hearing it in my mind for three days I tried saying it out loud. “Shekhinah.” It had an interesting sound. And when I said it, I felt a soft tug somewhere deep inside.
I began to ask my friends if they knew what it meant. It sounded as if it could be Hebrew, but although I knew some Hebrew, it was not familiar to me. When my husband and friends were unable to help, I tried the library in our small town but found no answer there either. Shekhinah. Shekhinah. It was becoming more insistent now, demanding my attention.
Still puzzling over what it could mean, I was sitting in my bedroom one morning when my friend Joan hurried through the door. She strode across the room and thrust a book into my hands. “Let’s try this,” she said. I glanced down at the blue cover on which the word Kabbalah was written, and turned to the index. Running my finger quickly down the S column, I read, “Shekhinah: the feminine face of God.”

The words sent shock waves rippling down my spine and goose flesh bristling on my bare arms because I realized at once that the Shekhinah was not an uninvited guest at all. She had been announced to me with great ceremony in a powerful dream a full month earlier.

In the dream, I happily soar high above the clouds on a great golden dragon until I wonder, “Is this all there is?” The dragon [xxxii] immediately descends to earth, alighting at the side of a jewel-like temple on a large body of water. I want to enter the temple, but I’m afraid to go in alone. I turn back to the dragon, hoping it will come and protect me. But this temple is human-sized and the dragon will not fit through the door.

I begin to climb the stair to the entrance anyway, and now I see a ferocious temple guardian with bulging eyes looming menacingly in the doorway. Black dogs snarl on either side of him. With uncharacteristic bravery I continue walking, and as I stride through the door the guardian and his dogs evaporate as if made of fog.

Once I’m inside the doorway, an old man with long robes and a white beard emerges from an inner hallway to greet me. Without actually speaking, he lets me know that his name is Melchizedek. He is wearing a handsome dagger with a handle of turquoise and jade, and as soon as I notice this he presents me with a matching dagger, indicating that I am to wear it on my right side. Then he motions me ahead of him. It is clear that he expects me to lead the way.

I step into the long hallway with a high ceiling and red tiles on the floor. Walking slowly, we eventually come to a pair of polished wooden doors at the end of a corridor. I open them silently and lead the way into a large, empty room. A plain wooden stage is set against the far wall. At the back of the stage is a built-in cabinet. I approach the cabinet and pull open the doors.

I am dumbfounded by what I see. Rolled onto finely carved wooden poles is the most sacred object in Judaism, the Torah. I learned as a child that the Torah contains the five books of Moses written on parchment by an Orthodox scribe, and that if even one letter has been written incorrectly, the Torah cannot be used. I have never actually seen a Torah close up or held one, since these privileges were permitted only to men when I was growing up. But now I lift this Torah carefully out of its cabinet and cradle it to me tenderly as if it were a baby.

Then I notice something unusual. Instead of a mantle of velvet covering the scrolls, or a simple ribbon holding them closed, the Torah has been sealed shut by a dark round blot of red wax. I look at Melchizedek. “This is a very special Torah,” he says. Pulling out his dagger, he breaks the seal and rolls open the scrolls. They are absolutely blank. “The Torah is empty,” he says, “because what you [xxxiii] need to know now is not written in any book. You already contain that knowledge. It is to be unfolded from within you.”

“What is this Torah for?” I ask.

My question seems to set in motion the next sequence of events. Without speaking Melchizedek lifts the Torah and lightly places it inside my body, from my shoulder to my knees. I accept this gratefully, feeling my body as a sacred vessel.

At once, a great commotion breaks out behind us. Spinning around, I see that the room is now filled with long-bearded patriarchs wearing black coats and trousers. They’re holding hands, laughing, singing and dancing jubilantly around the room. They pull me into their celebration. As I dance I seem to see Moses, King David and King Solomon, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They too are dressed in black coats and trousers, dancing with such heartfelt abandonment that I catch their joy and am filled with it. Ecstatically we whirl round and round the room, laughing.

Finally the dancing stops and I ask, “What is this all about?” Melchizedek answers, “We are celebrating because you, a woman, have consented to accept full spiritual responsibility in your life. This is your initiation as one who will serve the planet.”

As I wonder what this means, he continues, “And you are not the only one. Many, many women are now coming forward to lead the way.”

“But who will be our teachers?” I protest.

“You will be teachers for each other. You will come together in circles and speak your truth to each other. The time has come for women to accept their spiritual responsibility for our planet.”

“Will you help us?” I ask the assembled patriarchs.

“We are your brothers,” they answer and with that the entire room is flooded with an energy of indescribable kindness. I am absolutely confident in this moment that they are our brothers. I feel their love without any question. They say then, “We have initiated you and we give you our wholehearted blessings. But we no longer know the way. Our ways do not work anymore. You women must find a new way.”

The Feminine Face of God
(reprinted by permission of the authors and publisher, Bantam Books)


Feminist Mormon Housewives