Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks
Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Connection
The history of Latter-day Saint women is spiritually vital, but it also reveals that things are not what they used to be. As LDS historian Linda King Newell expressed it, “the pendulum has made its arc from Joseph Smith’s prophetic vision of women as queens and priestesses … to Rodney Turner’s metaphor of women as doormats.”1 It would be fair to say that presently the pendulum is frozen at a certain place along that arc—a place clearly labeled “motherhood.”
Today, “Women have motherhood and men have priesthood,” or so the saying goes. On the surface this popular maxim seems a simple description of how men and women function in the church, but most Mormons realize it is also an affirmation that because women have motherhood, priesthood is for men only. In spite of this, LDS women are taught that women “share” the priesthood with their husbands. The 1991 Relief Society Study Guide2 explains this “shared” factor by defining motherhood as “an eternal part of the priesthood.” In other words, priesthood can be shared with women, just as long as all the “priesthood” part of it is reserved for men.
Although it has been challenged on this point by LDS feminists, the church insists that even though it does not ordain women to the priesthood, Mormon women are the equals of Mormon men. Motherhood and priesthood, it argues, is a partnership of equals with separate roles. Increasingly during the past fifteen years some  have identified the confusing mismatch in this arrangement, the fact that like apples and oranges, the two roles form an “odd couple,” whose union lacks the symmetry of partnerships like motherhood and fatherhood; motherhood and priesthood are different categories, how can they claim the clear partnership embodied in these naturally occurring couples? The church’s answer is that motherhood is priesthood’s equivalency because it is equally divine in purpose and function. In his 1989 talk, “A Tribute to Women,” Boyd K. Packer cited the “separate natures of man and woman,” describing the female role in exclusively maternal terms. “The limitation of priesthood to men,” he added, “is a tribute to the incomparable place of women in the plan of salvation … Men and women have complementary, not competing responsibilities.”3 His use of the word “complementary,” however, is perplexing, for motherhood’s natural complement is not priesthood but fatherhood. Moreover, if to be complementary means to mutually supply another’s lack, then the natural complement to the word priest is priestess. LDS doctrine supports this construction because a man cannot achieve godhood without being sealed to a wife, and in the temple ceremony this “wife” is a priestess, not a mother. Where in fact does this priestess fit? Why has the more obvious partnership of priest and priestess been overshadowed in LDS rhetoric by a holy alliance of motherhood and priesthood? How did such an “odd couple” get together?
A survey of Mormon writings indicates that motherhood and priesthood were first officially linked in the 1954 revision of Apostle John A. Widtsoe’s book Priesthood and Church Government. Speaking to the issue of male-female equality, the book stated that “the man who … feels he is better than his wife because he holds the Priesthood … has failed to comprehend the meaning … of priesthood … because woman has her gift of equal magnitude—motherhood … motherhood is an eternal part of the priesthood.”4 This reference to motherhood as something equal in magnitude to priesthood seems to be the first written source of many LDS statements on motherhood and its exalted partnership with God. Contemporary LDS rhetoric on motherhood bears its imprint, arguing that motherhood is what women have instead of priesthood. As a result of this logic, the word mother has become a kind of sacred title, like elder or bishop. Ironically, even women who are not  mothers, such as Eliza R. Snow and Ardeth Kapp, receive it as a matter of course. Through application of the title “mother,” Mormon women are named out of the priesthood.
LDS motherhood rhetoric generally appears whenever the church senses a challenge to separate sex-roles. An example is the previously cited talk, “A Tribute to Women,” in which Apostle Boyd K. Packer denounced the notion that LDS women have legitimate rights to priesthood ordination. It makes four standard arguments: first, that motherhood is woman’s divine and exclusive role; second, that the safety of the world depends on the enforcement of separate sex-roles; third, that evil influences are blurring these separate spheres; and fourth, that women are superior to men.
For Latter-day Saints, Elder Packer’s words are “scripture.”5 However, there is evidence that the ideas they express exactly match those of the secular world. Samples of secular motherhood discourse such as responses to women’s suffrage, statements of pre-World War II German leaders, and contemporary neo-conservative writings all reveal this startling similarity. The following comparative analysis of secular and LDS statements on motherhood is intended to show that church leadership has been heavily influenced by secular notions of womanhood and that these have obscured the expanded vision of women as queens and priestesses revealed by Joseph Smith.
The Divine Mother
The first claim of LDS rhetoric is that motherhood is woman’s divine appointment, inherited from Eve.6 Speaking as a religious leader, Ezra Taft Benson sounded perfectly natural as he opened his 1987 talk “To the Mothers in Zion”: “I hope that what I have to say … will bless you in your sacred calling as mothers.”7 Curiously, though, secular speakers have also defined motherhood as divinely ordained. For example, like many politicians who argued against female suffrage, in 1867 Senator Frelinghuysen of New Jersey referred to motherhood as woman’s “higher and holier mission.”8 In pre-war German discourse Josef Goebbels referred to motherhood as woman’s “highest calling.”9 Neo-conservative James Dobson, author of What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, also resorted to a divine reference. Genesis, he reminded his readers,  mentioned “two sexes, not one” for God had designed each gender with a specific purpose. In the case of women, that purpose was of course motherhood.10
Historically medical authorities also reinforced the idea of motherhood as women’s exclusive, God-appointed role—so much so that a New Haven professor announced in 1870 that it seemed “the Almighty in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus, and built up a woman around it.”11
Separate Sphere of Motherhood
The second claim of LDS rhetoric is that the safety of the entire world depends on the preservation of separate sex roles. LDS motherhood rhetoric has regularly appeared whenever the church has felt that the separation of gender-roles was being challenged. In the 1960s and 1970s, admonitions to eschew the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Equal Rights Amendment produced such discourse. In the 1980s the focus on working women left LDS women deluged with warnings to avoid the marketplace and remain in the home as mothers.12 At present this rhetoric has connected itself to the issue of women and the priesthood. It is argued that women not only should not but must not have the priesthood, since the survival of the world depends upon the separation of duties for men and women. According to Boyd K. Packer:
The well-being of the mother, the child, the family, the Church … of all humanity rests upon protecting [motherhood] … [Its] obligations are never-ending. The addition of such duties as would attend ordination to the priesthood would constitute an interruption to, perhaps an avoidance of, that crucial contribution which only a mother can provide.13
Secular motherhood rhetoric also commonly turns to the theory of separate spheres as a rationale for excluding women from traditionally male domains. The social title of “mother” perennially has been used to put women at odds with an environment outside the home and to define them out of the public sphere. It was once reasoned that because women are mothers, they could not (indeed must not) vote. As Senator McCumber of North Dakota argued in a congressional debate, men must protect women from the rigors of  suffrage because “Motherhood demands above all, tranquility [and] freedom, from contest, from excitement, [and] strife, [since] the welfare of the human race rests … upon that tranquility.”14 In pre-World War II Germany, it was asserted that because they were mothers, women could not (indeed, must not) be in politics. Josef Goebbels said: “When we eliminate women from public life, it is … not because we want to dispense with them, but because we want to give them back their essential honor … The outstanding and highest calling of woman is that of wife and mother, and it would be unthinkable misfortune if we allowed ourselves to be turned from this point of view.”15 Neo-conservatives like Dobson seemed to assume that all women have access to an adequate provider. Women should not work outside the home because the [mother’s] job “is of the utmost importance to the health and vitality of society.” To safeguard this “health and vitality” he suggested that seeking child care should be a punitive experience for these abandoning mothers.16
The third claim of LDS leaders is that evil influences are trying to blur the boundaries between the “separate spheres” into which God has placed men and women. Apostle Boyd K. Packer condemned “those who would press for a melding of the identities of men and women”17 and those “in the Church who have written doctrinal treatises trying to show that the scriptures provide for an exchange in the responsibilities of men and women.”18 These people are clearly “intellectuals”19 who have been led astray and are tempted by “the destroyer.”20
Anti-suffragist and neo-conservative rhetoric similarly targeted feminists for “trying to minify the differences between the sexes.”21 German rhetoric labeled women’s emancipation as “a message discovered solely by the Jewish intellect.”22 In other words the rhetoric follows similar patterns of identifying, demonizing, and condemning those who challenge the concept of sex-role separation.
Motherhood is Superior
The fourth claim of LDS motherhood rhetoric is that women  are superior to men. This claim of female superiority inevitably arises whenever the exclusively male nature of the priestly role is challenged. This superior nature is connected to the role of motherhood as an equivalent “calling” and is often presented as a well-intended reassurance. A good example of this was a 1989 address by Apostle Russell Nelson entitled “Woman—Of Infinite Worth.”23
Such reassurance may be welcomed by some Mormon mothers who complain of feeling undervalued. Nevertheless, a comparison to secular rhetoric shows it to be superficial, camouflaging the real issues with high-sounding praise.24 For instance, in an attempt to justify the denial of priesthood to women, Mormons commonly resort to the theory that women are “more spiritual” than men. Although this might seem like a unique LDS regard for womanhood, the evidence indicates otherwise. In fact glorification of womanhood is typical in rhetoric denying female participation in virtually all male-dominated spheres.
Author Kate Millett has illustrated how a similar type of extravagant compliment, which she called “chivalrous pretense,”25 was a regular feature of anti-suffragist speech. Opponents of women’s rights routinely portrayed women as beings so aggrandized that for them equality was superfluous. Victorian writer John Ruskin maximized this deception when speaking against female emancipation with the following flowery phrases: “Oh you queens, you queens! Among the hills and happy greenwood of this land of yours, shall the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; and in your cities shall the stones cry out against you, that they are the only pillows where the Son of Man can lay his head?”26 Using a rich concentration of royal, biblical, and sacrificial imagery he portrayed women as exalted creatures, partners (in some mystical way) with deity, and responsible for giving comfort and solace to the world. Women’s request for emancipation is made to seem trivial, framed by the illusion that women are in collaboration with God himself. Nevertheless, Ruskin has said nothing of any significance about the actual concerns of women.
Although women give birth because they have the required  physical equipment, Mormon rhetoric tends to express this ability as special talent which men can never master. The result, of course, is a meaningless, artificial compliment. For example, Boyd K. Packer reassured women that “in the woman’s part, she is not just equal to man, she is his superior! She can do that which he can never do; not in all eternity can he do it.”27 Even more revealing about the dubious nature of this praise was the fact that although his talk “A Tribute to Women” took sincere pains to stress gender equality, Elder Packer still felt compelled to make the following statement: “I have seven sons and three daughters, and that, I have often been heard to say, is about equal value.”28
In an attempt to make women feel special, James Dobson once noted that female animals die when they can no longer have offspring.29 One can imagine how exciting it is to know that God has let you live even though you have experienced menopause. Similarly Thomas S. Monson, of the LDS First Presidency, used the following anecdote to show that women are already so highly regarded, they have little need to concern themselves with the women’s movement: “I recognize that there are times when mother’s nerves are frayed … when she says, ‘My children don’t appreciate a single thing I do.’ I think they do appreciate you. One of the questions after a study of magnets at a junior high school was ‘What starts with “M” and picks things up?’ The obvious answer was ‘magnet.’ However, more than a third of the students answered ‘mother.’”30 Unfortunately, if “chivalrous pretense” is an attempt to insist that women have status when actually they have none, the rhetoric of the LDS community appears to follow secular patterns in attempting to do this.
If it is disappointing to see how the rhetoric of Mormonism matches secular rhetoric and shows no evidence of divine insight, it is far worse to observe that both in and out of the church the needs of mothers have long been patronized. Motherhood has been exalted, expanded, exaggerated, and misrepresented, not to improve its situation but to argue that women must remain under male control. Privileges which we now understand are beneficial to mothers such as political voice, equal employment opportunity, and higher education have in the past been denied to women under the guise of a concern for the motherly role. In harmony with this unfortunate  pattern and despite the church’s best intentions, LDS mothers have been offered a good deal of feigned love rather than “love unfeigned,” which is a characteristic of true followers of Jesus Christ.
Sacred or Secular?
A survey of philosophical ideas reveals the roots of the theory of separate spheres. Plato may have allowed for female participation in the public sphere, but Aristotle’s view of women as mere incubators for male sperm took precedence. Even in recent history thinkers have interpreted women’s role as one of monolithic maternity. For example, eighteenth-century theorist John Locke said that women’s reproductive function made them unfit to govern.31 Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined an ideal society in which the female was “mother” and the male was citizen.32
Nineteenth-century England added much to the idea that women were primarily mothers. Victorians portrayed mothers as untouched by something so vulgar as sexual desire. Husbands were to be viewed, as if they were “children of larger growth.” This purified motherly element was to be “the salvation of the world.”33
In the 1880s biologist Patrick Geddes contributed his combination of social theory and scientific discovery. Looking through a microscope he observed sperm flagellating wildly around a passive ovum. This, he claimed, verified the temperamental differences between the sexes, for nothing could alter something determined at the lowest form of life. He was successful in promoting a theory that since women are the moral superior of men, they must raise the children or society would never progress to a higher level.34
Repeatedly nineteenth-century rhetoric assumed that women were extensions of their reproductive functions and thus belonged to a special category. Observe how the following legal decision strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel in order to make inequality appear to be perfectly just: “Citizenship,” it proclaims, “does not mean suffrage … Women are citizens but a special category of citizens whose inability to vote does not infringe upon their rights as citizens or persons.”35
Traditionally Genesis has been used to prescribe an exclusive maternal role for women. Eve’s title as the “mother of all living” is  translated into “denial by motherhood.” However, the Old Testament can also be used to question this approach. For example, in ancient Israel the daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses with what must have seemed a radical request. “We feel,” they petitioned, “that we should be given land along with our father’s brothers.” According to the Book of Numbers, Moses did not bring up the issue of separate spheres but without further ado took their case before the Lord. And the Lord replied to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are correct. Give them the land …”36 Here God’s simple affirmative is in sharp contrast to motherhood discourse and its constant equivocations.
From Priesthood to Motherhood
Today few Latter-day Saints challenge the partnership of motherhood and priesthood, although the Standard Works say virtually nothing about it. On the other hand the temple ceremony refers to women not as mothers but as priestesses. In addition LDS scholars have found much evidence that Joseph Smith viewed women as priestesses and have shed considerable light on the relentless process that distanced women from their rights to this title and participation in the rituals of healing and other gifts of the spirit.37 But the question remains: how did motherhood come to fill the vacancy left by Zion’s disappearing priestesshood? A closer look at the evolution of motherhood rhetoric occurring both in and out of the church might yield an answer.
In creating the female Relief Society, Joseph Smith organized it to be self-directing, saying it should “move according to the ancient priesthood” and adding that he would “make of this society a kingdom of priests.”38 Joseph’s statements made no connection between this priesthood and motherhood. The effect of his words expanded women’s views of their spiritual and ecclesiastical power. Their documented participation in the rituals of prophesying, healing, and blessing the sick emphasized their priestly duties in a very real way. However, after Joseph died his generous descriptions of what women had were replaced by frequent references to what they did not have. The result appears to have been a complete reversal of his intentions.
 For example, in the 1850s Brigham Young said that “women can never hold the priesthood apart from their husbands.”39 Although phrased in negative form, this statement clearly expressed the belief that women held the priesthood, albeit “with their husbands.” In the 1880s John Taylor built upon the negative approach, saying “it is not the calling of these sisters to hold the priesthood, only in connection with their husbands.”40 This statement diminished the link by suggesting that male priesthood was a “calling” while female priesthood was not. Then in 1907 Joseph F. Smith severed the association completely. “A wife does not hold the priesthood with her husband,” he asserted,“ but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him.” 41 Thus were women gradually detached from any genuine sense of priesthood.
Still LDS sisters valued their inclusion, however evanescent, and attempted to be forthright about it. The results were often depressing. Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency publicly corrected and characterized as doctrinally naive those women who expressed confidence in a legitimate priesthood connection: “There [is] a revival among … the sisters of the idea that they hold the priesthood. Sisters … have said to me, ‘But I hold the priesthood with my husband.’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘What office of the priesthood do you hold?’”42 When LDS women expressed faith in their own priesthood empowerment, their words backfired, resulting in numerous official statements chastising them and depicting them as buffoons.43 The discourse shows that women’s sense of priestly privilege was an enduring one. Inevitably, however, the discouraging atmosphere took its toll on their confidence and vision. Eventually the definition of priesthood completely excluded them. By the 1940s women no longer participated in blessing the sick or administering to others, except rarely and in secret.
Surely this situation begged for some sort of reconciliation—a way of explaining women’s divine role which would confirm the church’s exclusion of women from the priesthood and still not deny the role of priestess revealed in the temple ceremony. The merger of motherhood and priesthood into a team of separate but equal partners satisfied both these needs. Despite its incongruous conjunction, the pair was greeted as perfectly logical. An explanation for this lies in the fact that the concept of religiously sanctioned mothering  was already deeply entrenched in convention. Mothers were commonly viewed as the moral guardians of society. As one historian explained it:
Traditionally, women have been constrained by religiously sanctioned social roles … and have been regarded as the moral guardians of society … The ideology of “true womanhood” that grew out of medieval Christianity and courtly love placed woman on a pedestal … While subordinate to her husband and submissive to him, a woman was to be the high priestess of her home, protecting her husband and children from the secularizing influence of society.44
In secular rhetoric motherhood was regarded as a sort of priesthood anyway—but one never connected with the exclusively male priesthood of traditional religion. As one turn-of-the-century writer described it, “Motherhood demands of woman her highest endeavor … it demands of her that she become a physician, an artist, a teacher, a philosopher, a priest.”45 Certainly such words described a creature who transcended the world and whom “the world” indulged with meaningless professional titles; a creature who stood upon a pedestal of “chivalrous pretense”; a de facto priestess with ordination by lip service only. In the post-World War II era when the trend of “ultra-domesticity” refocused intensely upon the domestic scene, the reputation of this ideal woman was celebrated at a fever pitch, creating what author Sylvia Ann Hewlett called “the most powerful Cult of Motherhood ever seen.”46
In the 1930s women were told to reserve affection so as not to spoil their children, but in the 1940s the advice was noticeably reversed. Now they were to immerse the child in an all-encompassing maternal passion. Descriptions of this new exaggerated mother bordered on the mythical and deific. So much was expected of her that a single false step in her mothering might cause such terrors as impotence or homosexuality later in life.47 Since the centuries-old concept of the domestic priestess had been a perfect launching place for post-war obsession with “ultra-domesticity,” the two ideals had merged easily, forming a fashionable, new super-matriarch. Though her pedigree was secular, she seemed ethereal enough, bathed in the glow of both trend and tradition. Certainly she was a flourishing influence in the early 1950s when LDS leaders settled on a definition of motherhood as a gift “equal in magnitude” to priesthood.
 One can easily see how the church, needing something to replace the fast-fading vision of its emancipated spiritual female, mistook this conveniently submissive impostor for its own. Thus Mormonism found a way of excluding the priestess while seeming to include her, and women were neatly released from the embarrassing business of defining their own connection to priesthood. Ironically “mother” would now do that for them and then give birth to Mormonism’s oppressively domestic and popularly conceived model of womanhood known as “Molly Mormon” and “Patti Perfect.”
An idea absolutely germane to the partnership of motherhood and priesthood is that of sex-role separation, a secular concept which has been mistaken for one that is divine. This is illustrated in an article entitled “Mom-at-Home,” which appeared in the October 1989 Ensign, official periodical of the LDS church. Quoting President Benson, this article uses a passage from Genesis to make its point: “The Lord’s way to rear our children is different from the world’s way … in the beginning Adam—not Eve, was instructed to earn bread by the sweat of his brow. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother’s place is in the home, not in the marketplace.”48
The use of scripture to support the idea of separate spheres for male and female is powerful, presented as it is through the voice of both scripture and living prophet. But the casual reader might not notice two things. First, the idea of eliminating the woman from the work force does not contradict conventional wisdom but coincides with it. Second, a casual reader might not notice that President Benson’s example describes Adam and Eve after the “fall.” It was this fall which caused separation and separate spheres. Why, one might ask, should a fallen and corrupt gender model be raised up as an ideal for the “redeemed” membership of the church? And if this verse is meant to command rigid social roles for men and women, what is said about Eve contradicts the church’s stated belief that woman are equal to men. If taken literally the words of the passage—“in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children … thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee”—would obligate the church to forbid anesthesia during childbirth and exhort male members to dominate their wives. The church does neither. In fact the church’s interpretation of the Garden of Eden story evokes Eve as a wise and empowered agent whose independent decision sets the  plan of salvation in motion.
So what does the coupling of motherhood with priesthood really mean for the contemporary church? It means that the “plain and precious truth” of motherhood as a simple but authentic partnership with fathers has been buried in the perennial rhetoric about a partnership with God, which is revived whenever traditional views of women are challenged. While this rhetoric seems to protect female needs, in reality it has protected male authority and denied women what is properly theirs. This rhetoric points to church leaders seemingly unaware that they have been influenced by “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” The theory of “separate spheres” is secular not sacred.
It is sadly ironic that even as feminism has alerted us to women’s equality with men, the expanded vision of womanhood revealed by Joseph Smith has been resisted and diminished by his own followers. Mormon women, despite their rich tradition of the priestess, have lost much through the teaching that motherhood and priesthood are a sacred marriage of complementary spiritual roles. There will be much to gain if Mormons realize that this union is really a “secular” marriage, a “marriage of convenience,” and that motherhood and priesthood are an “odd couple” nurturing a passel of illegitimate theological ideas.
Sonja Farnsworth is pursuing an M.A. in communications studies at San Jose State University. She and her husband have four daughters and live in San Jose, California. “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Connection” was originally published in the Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 2 (Mar. 1991).
6. Some have equated this mandate with “compulsory motherhood.” “A continuing theme in Mormon discourse is a notion of compulsory motherhood, euphemized as every woman’s ‘duty,’ ‘first calling,’ ‘sacred obligation,’ or ‘full measure of creation.’ While feminism confirms motherhood as one of many opportunities for women, patriarchy advocates motherhood as women’s mandatory duty.” Maxine Hanks, “Compulsory Pregnancy,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter, Feb. 1992, 9.
12. President Gordon B. Hinckley: “It is my opinion that the … ever increasing number of mothers out of the home and in the workplace is a root cause of many of the problems of delinquency, drugs and gangs, both male and female.” See Salt Lake Tribune, 24 Feb. 1990. Linda Ellerbee accused Apostle Hinckley of “scapegoating women” by blaming working mothers for family problems. She said,
If poor mothering causes delinquency, then poor fathering is ok, right? … It’s pretty to think that if only women could be made to stay home the family would function properly and then everything else that’s wrong with society would go away … It’s also oversimplistic, immoral and most of all inaccurate. Changes in the family are the result of other changes in society, not the cause. Research also shows that most social problems including teen pregnancy and substance abuse occur at all socio-economic levels and in every type of family constellation … more than 60 percent of women in Utah work, more than in any other state and yet while women earn 65 cents for every dollar earned by men nationally, the women of Utah still earn a whopping 54 cents. In other words, they have a problem in Utah, they do. Is there a connection between those sorry figures and the attitude expressed by Mr. Hinckley? What do you think? (Salt Lake Tribune, 11 Mar. 1990).
18. Ibid. Elder Packer mentions the deceived nature of those who express disagreement with the leadership, ending with a terse scriptural warning: “Cursed are all those who lift up the heel against mine anointed … and cry they have sinned when they have not.”
19. One important area of feminist research in the field of psychology is “object-relations theory.” Simply stated the theory suggests that single-gender parenting (i.e. full-time mothering) contributes to gender identification imbalance—a root cause of gender-related social problems. Dual-gender parenting is theorized as a way for children to develop healthier identification and interaction with both sexes.
24. An anonymous Mormon woman wrote a response to and critique of Russell Nelson’s speech. She said, “As I listened to your talk, I said to myself, ‘This brother lays roses at our feet, but has no understanding of women. He is skirting the problem, and does not understand women’s issues nor has he studied women’s history.’ Let me propose to you that were you to wake up tomorrow morning as a woman, you would see how infinite your worth really is.” See “A Sister Waiting For Zion,” Mormon Woman’s Forum Newsletter, Mar. 1990, 5.