From Mormon Women, a Flood of Requests and Questions on Their Role in the Church

The New York Times/March 6, 2014

By Jodi Kantor and Laurie Goodstein

Last year, when Kristy Money was planning a baby-naming ceremony in her Mormon congregation, she asked if she could hold her newborn during the ceremony, sitting or standing inside the circle of men who would bless her daughter.

“All I want is to hold my baby,” Dr. Money, a 29-year-old psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif., said she told her bishop. She said he refused, explaining that only men who hold the priesthood could participate. “I was heartbroken,” Dr. Money said in a phone interview.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose priests and governing authorities form an entirely male gallery of leaders, is facing a geyser of questions from women who want more participation and visibility in virtually every aspect of Mormon life. While many Mormon women say they are satisfied with the way things are, others want to hold the priesthood along with men, essentially erasing the faith’s long-held idea that God wants men and women to perform different roles. A third contingent argues for leaving the priesthood to men but raises questions: Why may male religious authorities ask women intimate details about their sex lives in meetings in which no other women can be present? Is there a reason why women cannot handle bookkeeping or finances for congregations?

In response to an article in The New York Times on Sunday, in which church leaders said they were interested in expanding opportunities for female members, Mormon women poured out requests: to be Sunday school presidents, to plan worship, to be allowed to teach seminary while they have children under 18, and to let their daughters serve as ushers.

“My husband’s group of young men recently trained to climb Mount Rainier together,” Jennifer McDonald, a 36-year-old clinical psychologist in DuPont, Wash., who supports women’s ordination, wrote in an email. The corresponding activities for young women were “quilting, making friendship bracelets, and hair styling,” she said.

Many asked that church authorities stop trying to inculcate chastity by comparing women who have had sex outside of marriage to “pieces of chewed gum, boards with holes nailed into them, muffins that someone else had already tasted,” said Elisa Koler, 29, a teacher and former missionary who stopped attending church because of concerns about how women are treated.

Though church leaders have recently taken small but significant steps, like lowering the age limit for female missionaries and inviting a woman to deliver a prayer at its central semiannual gathering, it remains unclear how extensively the all-male central leadership is willing to remake its rules and culture or begin to share authority. “As church leaders, we are keenly aware of these cultural issues and of course we are addressing them,” Linda K. Burton, the church’s most senior female official and president of its women’s auxiliary the Relief Society, said in a statement.

One of the most common requests from women is for other females to be present when discussing personal matters with male authorities — at interviews for admission to the temple, confessions of sin and disciplinary hearings, and discussions of traumatic events like rape or domestic violence.

“It is inappropriate under the best circumstances and dangerous under the worst circumstances to place a girl or woman alone in a room with an unrelated man to describe these personal and vulnerable situations,” wrote Julia Jarrett, a 28-year-old lawyer in Salt Lake City.

Several years ago, Allison Shiffler, a former missionary, confessed to church authorities in Provo, Utah, that she had had sex with her boyfriend, a transgression of the Mormon prohibition against premarital sex. Her bishop asked if she was on birth control, how many times she had sex, and if she had a history of masturbating, which is also against church rules.

“Talking to a middle-aged man about these things and being asked those questions made me not want to come back to church,” she said. Ms. Shiffler, 23 at the time, was disciplined by an all-male council, which she found equally upsetting. “It’s like being the harlot in the Bible,” said Ms. Shiffler, who has since been reinstated.

Other women described relating instances of domestic violence or sexual abuse to male authorities. Some of the women said the authorities had handled the situations well, encouraging them to contact law enforcement officials, but others said the experience would have been entirely different had a trained counselor, or at least another woman, been present. Rena Lesue-Smithey of Springville, Utah, now 32, recalled telling her bishop two decades ago that a teenaged boy had molested her. Because she had been wearing tight shorts, she believed the fault was hers and confessed it as a sin, which her bishop treated as such. He agreed with her request at the time not to tell her parents, and the older boy was never held accountable.

Even some former bishops say they were uneasy presiding over such intimate matters without other women present. “A bit uncomfortable, yes, more than a bit,” said Dean Bender, a 63-year-old therapist in Rocklin, Calif. Church officials declined to comment on the policy.

Together, women have also begun to spell out what it would look like for them to be more fully integrated into the church’s life and leadership. (The women who serve in roles from Relief Society president to the chief executive and president of the church’s publishing company said in interviews that they are often consulted by the church’s top leaders, known as “the Brethren,” but only these male leaders make the final decisions on matters affecting the whole church.)

Leaders of church women’s organizations should be present at all central decision-making meetings, said Neylan McBaine, a blogger who is considered a moderate on gender issues. Women should not be warm-up speakers for their husbands but should preach and publicly delve into central matters of doctrine, said Taina Matheson Price, a 32-year-old scientist in Provo, Utah. Though a woman recently gave a prayer at the church’s General Conference, the male speakers heavily outnumber the female ones. “If we are going to have eight hours of conference, we should have more than 20 minutes of women speaking,” said Emily Palmer, a 29-year-old graduate student in Eugene, Ore.

More than 1,300 Mormon women have signed a manifesto outlining specific changes. The document, titled “All Are Alike Unto God,” asks the men who run the church to consider women’s ordination, which officials in Salt Lake City say is out of the question. Only opening the priesthood to women can address the gender imbalance in the church, contends Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney in Washington who founded the Ordain Women movement. “Not only do Mormons believe the priesthood is the power of God, and can perform and officiate in miracles, but it’s also completely intertwined with the governance structure of the church,” she said. “There is no amount of incremental change, and no amount of additional concessions that the church can make to extend an olive branch to women without changing that fundamental inequality.”

When Dr. Money was told she could not hold her daughter, Rosie, at the church baby-naming ceremony, she held it in her home instead, and then signed up with Ms. Kelly’s group. Next month, when advocates of female ordination hold their latest protest, asking for admittance to male-only meetings at the church’s semiannual General Conference, Dr. Money will join them, with Rosie in her arms.

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