Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 16
Why Shouldn’t Mormon Women Want This Priesthood?
Marian Yeates

[353] Historically Mormon men and women have engaged in discussions and disagreements about whether or not women may exercise priesthood.1 Within the past decade Mormon writers and theorists have raised the issue of female ordination to the priesthood. One recurring argument has been that women are as deserving and qualified as are men to hold and exercise priesthood. A basic assumption in most of these discussions has been that Mormon women want Melchizedek priesthood.

The denial of priesthood to women has been repeatedly issued by men who have ecclesiastical authority. Often this denial has negated women’s right to even ask about priesthood or discuss the possibility of ordination. In 1989 the Sunstone Symposium committee asked me to address a “question”: “Why Mormon Women Should Not Want This Priesthood.” This was obviously not a real question but a statement of denial or a kind of rhetorical question. The speakers on this panel, two men and one woman, were invited to explain why women should not want the priesthood.2

This “question” or statement of denial poses a set of assumptions reflecting the larger problem women face in the LDS church. First, the “question” assumes the existence of a singular entity named “Mormon women.” Further it assumes that this entity does hold or should hold a singular opinion on their relation to priesthood. Second, the “question” infers that “Mormon women” do not know [354] what they want and passively await counsel and guidance on the matter. This assumption illustrates that Mormon women are conditioned to living within a structure of hierarchical authority in which instructions flow downward to them from higher levels of decision-making authority from which women’s participation is explicitly excluded. Third, the “question” falsely suggests that women are granted some choice in the matter, implying that there is a possibility of dialogue on the issue. This is cruel fiction. More importantly, it veils the real questions involved in this issue, such as why “this Priesthood” excludes women and why the church enforces this exclusion?

In addition to these assumptions, I was bothered by the format of the session itself. I wondered why men were asked to speak in a session devoted to exploring why Mormon women should not want priesthood. It seemed to me that even under the supposedly liberal agenda of Sunstone, men were once again dominating the discussion of what women should want. That dominance was acted out in the session as the men spoke longer than their allotted time, leaving me virtually no time to speak. As I saw what was happening, I thought it ironic that the session was a mini-drama of the larger reality that Mormon women face in their relations with “this priesthood.” It seemed to me that I could just as well have been sitting in my bishop’s office or in sacrament meeting, where the dominant point of view is male.

I was also uncomfortable being asked to speak for Mormon women. As for those women who truly do not want the priesthood, I assume they already know why they do not and, having their own reasons, do not need further counsel and instruction. For those Mormon women who do want the priesthood, I respect their feelings as well, and I recognize that the repeated denial of priesthood is more than problematic for them and causes them to keep repeating the question: Why not? I cannot and did not try to answer their question. Instead I chose to rephrase the question.

My view is that there is another, more basic question that begs to be asked. My question is: Why shouldn’t Mormon women want this priesthood? Phrased in this manner, the question sets up a true interrogatory with Mormon women acting as agents, asking the question rather than being told once again what they should or [355] should not want. In this way Mormon women become free agents, exercising their right and responsibility to seek and define their own needs and place within a spiritual and temporal order. By exercising their right, they resist the position implied by the original question of being passively told by higher authority what they should or should not want.

Only by asserting their own authority to say what they really do or do not want can Mormon women begin to establish their subjectivity, explore their own spiritual nature, search out and define their own values. Through the process of developing subjectivity and agency, Mormon women take a healthy, necessary step toward fulfilling their individual and collective potential and toward achieving the “fullness of the gospel” for the church as a whole.

In speaking here of “Mormon women” as an entity, I realize I am making an essentialist assumption about female perspective—that it is genuinely different from male perspective. Post-modern criticism would argue that I should not make a solely essential or universal assumption, but that diversity among people and groups is mostly created by differences in race, class, age and experience.3 It is undeniably true that great diversity exists among Mormon women. While I recognize and respect women’s differences, I claim the essentialist position that in the church women as a gender-class occupy a common position structurally in relation to “this priesthood.” Men make up the governing body, while women exist outside of church governance. Men “have” the priesthood, women do not. No matter what their race, class, age, or experience, all women are structurally excluded, and the basis of that structural exclusion is gender.

I realize that perhaps many of my Mormon sisters do seek ordination into the priesthood. They perhaps have different questions to ask than I. The question or issue I want to address is personal: Why, as one Mormon woman, do I not want this priesthood?

The answer to my question is: I do not seek the priesthood because as a woman first and a Mormon woman second, I feel that my energies are better spent seeking my own feminine constructs or sphere through which I can express my female spiritual, emotional, and physical nature. By directing my efforts towards recovering and [356] revitalizing femaleness, I am better able to create a balance between men and women. Further I do not seek this priesthood because I resist incorporation into a male system already grossly over-extended and badly out of balance.

Over the past thirty years or so, the consolidation of priesthood governance over the LDS church has exacerbated gender imbalance. The “correlation” of church programs in the 1960s and 1970s created a confluence of priesthood governance and general church functions. In an effort to streamline, modernize, and professionalize church administration, all programs were gathered-up and subordinated to the governance of priesthood. This meant a loss of autonomy for women’s programs and further silenced women’s voice in the church. Prior to priesthood correlation women’s and young women’s programs enjoyed a position auxiliary to priesthood which at least allowed women a separate sphere within which to operate.

For example the change in name from the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations to Aaronic Priesthood/Young Women’s Program reflects the absorption of the young women’s programs by the male priesthood system.4 While some might read this as an advance for young women within the system or an equating of young women’s importance to that of Aaronic priesthood holders of the same age, I would argue that the loss of critical distance has made it more difficult for women to articulate their own position, thereby ultimately adding to the gender imbalance. The loss of critical distance between women and men due to correlation has silenced women by inducting them into the priesthood system—not as full members but as female representatives for male authority. This induction in the name of correlation has not added more female voice to church governance. Rather it has diminished woman’s voice by creating a class of surrogates who mouth the singular, male-constructed script.

This shift to the male system was also dramatized by the replacement of Belle Spafford with Barbara Smith as president of the Relief Society in 1974. It seemed to me at the time that in this change something significant had happened to women in the church—a significance that I could not then name. Driven by a feeling of uneasiness, I arranged an interview with Belle Spafford in 1977. In my interview I asked her rather directly what this change [357] in leadership really meant, what difference it would make to women. To her credit Sister Spafford did not try to evade the meaning of my question. She understood the cause of my uneasiness.

Sister Spafford told me a story. She said that in 1950 she was asked to represent the Relief Society on the National Council of Women.5 She struggled with the decision for several weeks and then decided that it would be in the best interest of the Relief Society and the church for her to join with that organization. Having made her decision, she called a meeting with President David O. McKay to inform him of her decision to attend the conference. In the meeting she outlined her reasons, asking him to sustain her decision. He agreed, and as she prepared to leave, he called her back and said, “Oh, and by the way, Sister Spafford, it would be nice if the positions you present to the National Council of Women were close to the church’s position.” Having repeated President McKay’s remarks, Sister Spafford looked me straight in the eye and said firmly, “And that is the difference.”6 I understood her meaning to be that the difference was having the authority to make her own decisions and set her own course.

I think it is significant that the implementation of the Priesthood Correlation Program occurred during the same time as the rise of the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The structural silencing of women in the church occurred at the same moment in history when women elsewhere were beginning to find again their voices and assert their right to be heard.

The problem remains that the church badly needs more advice from women, and women need more meaningful and authoritative avenues for expression. I do not see that either of these needs will do anything but grow more acute in the coming years. It would seem that ordination of women to the priesthood would go a long way toward satisfying the needs of both parties. The ordination of women to the priesthood could probably achieve some important short-term gains for both women and the church. Although it is the simplest, most expeditious solution, I think that over the long term, it is not the best course to pursue. It is my feeling that short-term gains would threaten the more fundamental, long-term changes that must take place.

Rather than staying and working within a male, patriarchal [358] system, I feel that women must separate from it in order to begin the work of restoration—working to restore a female system which will create a balance with men. Ultimately I feel that this is the only course that will produce the substantive, radical changes which are becoming increasingly necessary, even urgent for the health of our church and society. Rather than a fine-tuning of the present, male system, I think we need a major overhaul. I see women’s ordination to Melchizedek priesthood as a kind of “tune-up,” when I believe what is needed is an overhaul of the vehicle or church system. I believe it is women’s right and responsibility to take the first step toward repairing the damage and restoring the vitality of female constructs and thus to lead the way to finding a lost balance. Once women reassert the authority of a female point of view, we will be able to renegotiate our “contract” with men from the strength of our own position rather than accepting terms dictated to us by men who currently define the terms and conditions for membership in “God’s kingdom.”

In seeking to create a viable female counterpart to male priesthood, I would like to focus on three words: complement, incorporation, and balance. I think that our goal should be a vibrant balancing act between male and female. The question then becomes: how can such a balance be restored or accomplished?

Those who favor ordination of women to the priesthood subscribe to what I call the “incorporation theory.” This theory describes a single system wherein the feminine is incorporated into an established male order that presides over public and/or private spheres. To use a familiar metaphor this would be comparable to grafting a new branch onto an old tree in order to increase the vigor of that tree. As a short-term strategy, the grafting may prove successful, but the long-term problem is that the branch may overpower the tree or the tree may overpower the branch. The problem with grafting is balance between two living things existing within a single system—two different plants thriving within a single tree.

Counter to the “incorporation theory” is what I term the “complement theory.” This theory seeks a dual system in which men and women each preside over and define separate systems within a mutually supportive and working relationship. Rather than both working within a single system where men define and preside, the [359] “complement theory” necessitates a critical distance between men and women from which true dialogue can take place. It prescribes a mutuality between men and women, where both recognize that neither possesses everything but that wholeness is achieved through collaboration. From a starting point of separation, growth takes place simultaneously as the female aspect disincorporates itself from the male aspect and takes its place as a valid half of a larger whole. Rather than a single tree, there are two trees. And the larger whole becomes an orchard. Collaboration or “cross-fertilization” occurs between the two trees. Both live and grow individually, independent of each other, but are mutually dependent for the production of new seeds and new life.

The suffrage movement in the early part of the century illustrates both the success and weakness of the incorporation theory. Women won the vote in 1920 with passage of the 19th amendment. No one can deny that this was a tremendous victory after seventy-two years of struggle. Yet without being a female-based social vehicle, the vote itself has done little to change the material condition of women over the long term.7 In seeking the vote reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton foresaw that the vote would do no good unless it was used to implement other reforms across the broad continuum of issues. The advantage of the incorporation strategy as it applied to suffrage was that it allowed women to gain access to existing political power. The disadvantage was that once incorporated into the male system, women became part of that system and so have had difficulty establishing their interests as separate or different from men’s.

What in fact did happen was that when women gained the vote, they tended to vote with their husbands and to a great extent failed to achieve the balance they hoped to create.8 By adopting male values, by imitating male methodologies, by taking up male discourse in the incorporation process, women gained ground in their similarities with men but lost sight and power of the critical distance needed to assert their own voice. Thus the woman’s movement became female bolstering of the male system.9

A second problem I see with the “incorporation” theory is the danger of strengthening a system which has traditionally advocated and exploited the subordination and oppression of women. The incorporation theory argues that women’s inclusion within the [360] system gives them access to power which would eliminate both subordination and oppression. This argument naively ignores the operational mode and history of the male system, which holds more danger than power for women. By adding their support to a male system which subordinates them, women are complying in their own oppression. Women’s complicity is not only foolish, it has been historically tragic.

The book of Genesis dramatizes the way in which a male system originates and operates. Adam’s first act, which significantly takes place before the creation of woman, is to name all things. In order to name anything, to attach a symbol to stand for a real object, there must be a difference between objects. Adam did not know that he was a man, or he knew a lot more about what man is after Eve was created and he could see the difference. It is Eve’s presence that allows Adam to define himself. When Adam saw Eve he named her, and in that act he created a relationship between them in which she was incorporated into male creation as “the mother of all living.” By naming all things, Adam (man) was given symbolic dominion over the earth and all things thereon. By exercising the power to name, Adam assigned to Eve a role, a function, and a position relative to his. The power to name, given to Adam, is the power to act in the name of God. This power became known as “this priesthood.”

According to Jacques Lacan, a French psychologist and post-modern theorist, the formation of any symbolic system such as language or priesthood begins with recognition of difference.10 Within the system of symbols, any difference between objects is given a name and assigned a relative value. The act of naming creates hierarchy between objects, signifying the privilege of one over another. When symbols and differences originate from a male perspective, such as with Adam, women are assigned value relative to maleness. Lacan described the phallus as the privileged signifier in Western culture. In a very real sense the symbolic order which is the foundation of western male systems is literally written by the male body, while thus underwritten by the female body.11 Therefore, the male system will always, and must always, hold woman in an objectified, subordinate position in order to exist. As much as well-intentioned men may wish to share power within the male [361] system, Lacan’s theory sends out a clear warning that this simply is not possible. The very system into which women seek entry is predicated upon their objectification and subordination. Thus short-term gains may be won, but in order to maintain difference and thereby retain privilege, the male system will eventually readjust and old patterns will ultimately repeat themselves, making long-term gains for women impossible.

As long as women seek acceptance within a male system, I believe that their efforts to make real, female-defined changes will be frustrated. They will forever chase a mirage on the horizon, pursuing an image that recedes as they draw near. Returning to the historical example of women’s suffrage, the dream of women voting as a block strong enough to inform the American political process remains an empty promise seventy-two years after winning the vote. Since passage of the 19th amendment, only fourteen women have served in the U.S. Senate, the majority of them acting for their husbands; 117 women have served in the House of Representatives, but that number represents only 1 percent of the total house membership.12 The American political process remains what it was intended to be from its inception—a men’s club in which women can only be exceptions or tokens.

In the July 1992 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Eleanor Smeal described her frustration with the political process:

It doesn’t matter if they’re Democratic or Republican. It doesn’t matter if they’re liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter if they’re pro-labor or anti-labor. What matters to them is that there’s a card game in the back room and you women don’t know where it is. Democratic, Republican, liberals and conservatives are all playing cards back there. They’re afraid if they let you in, you’re going to find their card game and you’ll say, “You shouldn’t be back here playing cards: you should be out there working,” because that’s what wives and mothers always do.

It is the reality of the card game in the back room that supporters of the incorporation theory often fail to see or deny.

Ultimately, the difference between incorporation and complement centers on this question: Who defines? Within incorporation theory men exercise the power to define woman’s nature, woman’s role, and the terms and conditions under which women participate. Under the complement theory women define themselves. This is a [362] right that we must take unto ourselves if we are ever to reach adulthood in society or in the church.

If “incorporation” is a problematic and ultimately frustrating strategy, then those of us who seek the female complement face an equally difficult problem: we do not know what we are looking for. We have no models, no scripture, not even much idea that what we seek exists. We are literally groping our way in the dark for something with no specific pattern or knowledge. Personally I sense only a vague restlessness pressing me to look beyond that which I can see, that which I can know, that which I can articulate. It feels as if there is something “out there,” some force drawing me forward. Whatever I seek seems to exist beyond intellect, beyond language, beyond rationality. And that is the problem—how do you gain access, and further, how do you implement something that exists “out there” and resists incorporation into language and culture?

Either way it is tough going. Personally I feel that women have little choice but to set out along a difficult, unmarked path to find a new way—a way of proceeding that is female-defined. And who knows? As we progress we may be surprised at what we find. We may discover that what we seek is much closer, much more accessible than we now imagine. Perhaps we will discover not an external construct but an internal process. We may cease to expect that a body of new scripture must be revealed from a higher source to guide us but find that new light and knowledge come from within us. Rather than hierarchy which sets one above another, we may find contiguity and connection. Rather than a theology subordinating the present to a future event, we may come to value the day-by-day processes of life. Rather than fixed forms, we may find fluidity and motion. Rather than boundaries, separations, and divisions, we may find wholeness. Rather than mechanistic constructions, we may discover organic processes unfolding, growing, continually transforming life. Who knows? We may just find what we seek, and then from that position we can rejoin our brothers to create a unity of wholeness.

I believe that Mormon women must try to find their own way to spiritual power. The easier way may leave us unfulfilled, but the more difficult way is still worth trying. I know that I want to keep looking and trying.


Marian Yeates is a Ph.D. candidate in history and women’s studies at Indiana University. She earned M.A. and B.A. degrees in English with a minor in women’s studies at the University of Utah. She is the mother of five boys and currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana. “Why Shouldn’t Mormon Women Want This Priesthood?” was presented at the 1989 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium.

1. Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Cultural and Historical Perspective, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Paul and Margaret Toscano, Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990).

2. “Why Mormon Women Shouldn’t Want This Priesthood?” panel discussion, 1989 Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City.

3. For a discussion of post-modern feminist criticism, see the essays in Feminist Studies (1989).

4. Change from YMMIA/YWMIA to Aaronic Priesthood MIA announced 7 April 1973; change discussed in Church News, 14 Apr. 1973.

5. National Council of Women was a body of women representatives from organizations across the United States.

6. Author’s interview with Belle S. Spafford, spring 1977.

7. See Ethel Klein, Gender Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 17.

8. William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Practical Roles, 1920-1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 25-47.

9. Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 99-114.

10. Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, trans. David Macey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). See Lemaire’s discussion of Lacan’s notion of “Spaltung,” 72-77. She is discussing Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, ed. and trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 65-72.

11. Jacques Lacan, “The Meaning of the Phallus,” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the “ecole freudienne”, eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1982), 74-85.

12. In Atlantic Monthly, July 1992. Also, Life magazine reported in June 1992: “[O]nly two women in the U.S. Senate. Just three states have female governors. And only one supreme court justice—ever—has known what it means to bear a child. . . . Harriet Woods, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus predicts that at most 15 more House and 5 more Senate seats will be filled by women come November. ‘In the completely unlikely event that all 186 female congressional candidates win, the 51 percent of Americans who are women would still be impossibly underepresented’” (Lisa Grunwald with Allison Adato and Melissa G. Stanton, “If Women Ran America,” Life, June 1992, 37, 40-41, 46).