Mormonism and women

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The status of women in Mormonism has been a source of public debate since before the death of Joseph Smith in 1844. Various denominations within the Latter Day Saint movement have taken different paths on the subject of women and their role in the church and in society. Views range from the full equal status and ordination of women to the priesthood, as practiced by the Community of Christ, to the Catholic-like patriarchal system practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), to the ultra-patriarchal plural marriage system practiced by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and other Mormon fundamentalist groups.

Early Mormonism[edit]

For its time, early Mormonism had a relatively liberating stance toward women. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, lived in and abided by a male-centered world; most of the early founding events of Mormonism involved only men.[citation needed] However, a number of women had significant supporting roles; for example, Smith's wife, Emma Hale Smith, served as a scribe during translation of the Book of Mormon and was the subject of one of the church's early revelations, which included direction to compile the church's first hymnal.[1] Emma Smith also served as head of the Relief Society, originally a self-governing women's organization within the church, which is one of the oldest women's organizations in the world.[2]

Mormonism rejected the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, which held that humanity inherits the sin of Adam and Eve in which they ate the forbidden fruit.[3] This sin was historically blamed on Eve, and was thought to be the source of women's submissive and dependent state. The second Article of Faith states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression."[4]

Other issues included the beginning of plural marriage, the gifts of the spirit as exercised by women, performing ordinances in the temple, and blessings of women by women.[5] For example, while en route to the Salt Lake Valley, the diary of a midwife named Patty Bartlett Sessions describes women giving each other blessings:

[W]e had a feast in the afternoon at sister Millers .... there we blessed and got blessed & I blesed [sic] sister Christeen by laying my hands upon her head and the Lord spoke through me to her great and marvelous things.[6]

Current LDS Church policy allows the act of giving blessings "by laying on of hands" to be performed by men only.[7]

Women participated in the Anointed Quorum and founded the Relief Society, among other projects in the early church.[8]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[edit]

The status of women in the LDS Church has been a source of public debate beginning in the 19th century, when the church found itself at odds with the federal government over its practice of polygamy.[9] Despite the legal and cultural issues related to the LDS practice of polygamy, 19th-century women played a significant public leadership role in Latter-day Saint culture, politics, and doctrine.[10] Some view the role of women in the 19th-century church as the zenith of women's institutional and leadership participation in the church hierarchy.[11][12][13]

Ecclesiastically, the church is firmly committed to traditional gender roles.

Women have a certain degree of authority in some areas, including a number of leadership positions, which include authority over children and other women, although these women leaders receive supervision and guidance by priesthood-holding leaders.[citation needed] Women are "endowed" with priesthood power, but are not ordained to priesthood office.[8] Though not considered clergy, women play a significant part in the operation of local congregations.[14] Women teach classes to adults, teenagers, and children. Women also organize social, educational, and humanitarian activities. Women may also serve as missionaries, and a select few may perform certain ordinances such as washing and anointing on behalf of women in LDS temples.[2]

Within and outside the church mainstream, there is a minority of LDS women who raise concerns regarding church policy and doctrine. However, any members who are viewed as publicly oppositional toward the church's current structure are often subject to ecclesiastical discipline, including excommunication for apostasy.[citation needed]

19th-century Utah Territory[edit]

In common with a number of other frontier areas, women took a more prominent role in Utah Territory than they would have in the East.[citation needed] Brigham Young taught:

As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large.[15]

Along with the promotion of women's rights in the secular sphere, women in Utah, like renowned poet Eliza R. Snow, spoke of women's equality in sacred matters.[2] This included the development of a Heavenly Mother theology.[16] Snow in particular spoke of equal status:

Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick? It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with almighty power.[2]

Snow also spoke of the need for women to stick together. She advised that women confide personal issues to the Relief Society president and her counselors, rather than the bishops.[2]

In the secular sphere, Utah Territory was at the forefront of women's suffrage; in 1870, it became one of the first states or territories in the Union to grant women the vote,[10] though the federal government reversed this decision in 1887 via the Edmunds–Tucker Act. Education and scholarship was also a primary concern for Mormon women.

The Relief Society was also a forum for women.[citation needed] Religious missions, like Bathsheba W. Smith's mission to southern Utah to preach "woman's rights", were launched.[17] The Woman's Exponent publication (the official publication of the Relief Society) published a 1920 editorial in favor of "equal rights before the law, equal pay for equal work, [and] equal political rights", stating that a women's place is not just "in the nursery" but "in the library, the laboratory, the observatory."

In 1875, Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells said:

Let woman speak for herself; she has the right of freedom of speech. Women are too slow in moving forward, afraid of criticism, of being called unwomanly, of being thought masculine. What of it? If men are so much superior to women, the nearer we come up to the manly standard the higher we elevate ourselves.

Late-19th-century Utah also had the most liberal divorce laws in the United States (and possibly the world) at the time. The laws were advantageous to women: any woman who insisted on a divorce got one. One of Brigham Young's wives divorced him and launched a lucrative career as a public speaker. The divorce rate in late 19th-century Utah came close to 30 percent. This divorce rate was inflated by people from other states seeking an easy divorce in Utah.[18]

20th and 21st century[edit]

In 1977, N. Eldon Tanner told the Church Coordinating Council that presidency of the Relief Society should be considered a partner with the Melchizedek priesthood.[19]

Other developments during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball included having young women advancements recognized in sacrament meeting and, in 1978, the First Presidency and Twelve issued a policy allowing women to pray in sacrament meeting. In 1980, the general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary were invited to sit on the stand with the male general authorities during general conference. In 1984, women spoke in general conference for the first time since 1930. Since then, women have spoken in every general conference. In 1978, a conference session specifically for women was added, initially two weeks before the October general conference, which was later changed to one week beforehand.[20] In the April 2013 general conference, women gave prayers for the first time.

Brigham Young University (BYU), the LDS Church's flagship educational institution, has made several changes in its policy towards women. In 1975, the four-year, full tuition and boarding expenses presidential scholarship was changed from only being available to men to being available to an equal number of men and women.[19] BYU established a Women's Research Institute in 1978.[21] Among its directors over its 21 years of existence was Marie Cornwall. At the end of 2009, BYU restructured its Women's Studies Programs, freeing more money for research on women's issues by ending an institute staff, placing the Women's Studies Minor in the Sociology Department and thus putting all the money that previously was split between research and staff directly into research expenditures.[22]

In 2013, the church adjusted the leadership council in its missions to include a greater role by the wife of the mission president and by creating a new role, called "sister training leader". The new Mission Leadership Council expands the use of councils to govern the church at every level.[23][24] Also in 2013, the organization Ordain Women was established by LDS women who supported the extension of priesthood ordinations to women. On November 1, 2013, the church announced that beginning in 2014, a general women's meeting, conducted by the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations, will be held in connection with its bi-annual general conferences.[25]

Fundamentalist groups[edit]

Mormon fundamentalists are groups or individuals who break from the dominant form of Mormonism practiced by the LDS Church.[26] Since the mid-19th century, numerous fundamentalist sects have been established, many of which are located in small, cohesive, and isolated communities in areas of the Western United States, western Canada, and Mexico.[26] Mormon fundamentalists advocate a return to Mormon doctrines and practices which, they believe, were wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the law of consecration, the Adam–God doctrine, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon endowment ritual, and often the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.[26]

Plural marriage is generally considered the most central and significant doctrine separating fundamentalists from the mainstream Latter Day Saint movement.[26] In Mormon fundamentalist groups, women are typically expected or encouraged to adhere to a strongly patriarchal perspective on women's roles and activities and, in many cases, participate in plural marriage.[26]

Community of Christ[edit]

The Community of Christ has ordained women to the priesthood since 1984.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Church Historian's Press (July 1830), "Revelation, July 1830–C [D&C 25]", The Joseph Smith Papers (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) 
  2. ^ a b c d e Snow, Eliza R. (15 September 1884,), "To the branches of the Relief Society", Woman's Exponent 13 (8): 61  .
  3. ^ Merrill, Byron R., "Original Sin", Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Brigham Young University), retrieved 19 June 2012 
  4. ^ Articles of Faith 1:2
  5. ^ Hanks, Maxine (1992), Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-014-0 .
  6. ^ Sessions, Patty Bartlett (March 1996), "An Olive Leaf: We Blessed and Got Blessed", Sunstone 101: 80, retrieved 2008-06-28 .
  7. ^ Cameron, J. Elliot, "Priesthood Blessings", Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Brigham Young University), retrieved 19 June 2012 
  8. ^ a b Quinn, D. Michael (1992), "Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843", Women and Authority, Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-014-0 .
  9. ^ E.g. Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1862), Edmunds–Tucker Act (1887)
  10. ^ a b Bradley, Martha Sonntag (2005), Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights, Signature Books .
  11. ^ Cornwall, Marie (1994), "The Institutional Role of Mormon Women", in Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, Lawrence Alfred Young (eds.), Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 239–64 .
  12. ^ Iannaccone, Laurence R.; Miles, Carrie A. (1994), "Dealing with Social Change: The Mormon Church's Response to Change in Women's Roles", in Marie Cornwall et al. (eds.), Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 265–86 
  13. ^ Jorgensen, 2000, at 105
  14. ^ Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society, LDS Church, 2011 .
  15. ^ "Chapter 19: The Relief Society and Individual Responsibility", Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, LDS Church, 1997, p. 135 
  16. ^ Wilcox, Linda (1992), "The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven", Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books .
  17. ^ Hanks 1992, p. 318.
  18. ^ Gordon, Sarah Barringer (2002), Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-century America, University of North Carolina Press, p. 842 (supra note 203), ISBN 9780807875261, JSTOR 4141683 
  19. ^ a b Kimball 2005, p. 165.
  20. ^ Kimball 2005, p. 165–168.
  21. ^ "A Farewell Salute to the Women's Research Institute of Brigham Young University", SquareTwo 2 (3), Fall 2009 
  22. ^ Israelsen-Hartley, Sara (November 20, 2009), "BYU students decry demise of Women's Research Institute", Deseret News 
  23. ^ Walker, Joseph (April 5, 2013), "Sister LDS missionaries will have key role in new Mission Leadership Council", Deseret News 
  24. ^ "Church Adjusts Mission Organization to Implement 'Mission Leadership Council'", Mormon Newsroom, April 5, 2013 
  25. ^ "First Presidency Announces New General Women’s Meeting", LDS Church News and Events, November 4, 2013 
  26. ^ a b c d e The Primer, Helping Victims of Domestic Violence and Child Abuse in Polygamous Communities: Fundamentalist Mormon Communities, Utah Attorney General’s Office and Arizona Attorney General's Office, June 2006, archived from the original on January 27, 2013, retrieved June 29, 2010 


Further reading[edit]

  • Derr, Jill Mulvay, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, and Janath Cannon (2002), Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, Deseret Book, ISBN 9781573456043 .
  • Kimball, James N., and Miles, Kent (2009), Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations, White Horse Books, ISBN 978-0980140613 .