Monday, October 7, 2013

Bystanding: Confession & Apology

The firs LDS Relief Society presidency.

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”                                                   

 --Martin Luther King  A Letter from Birmingham Jail

Ordain Women on their way to ask for admittance to LDS General Priesthood Session.

This weekend, I stood by while a group of brave women showed up in Salt Lake City to request entrance to the all-male priesthood session.  Though the women and allies of Ordain Women were denied access to the meeting, their actions definitively shaped the discourse of the October 2013 sessions of The LDS Church General Conference. Concerns about gender roles, and especially the roles of women,  were addressed in each session.  

The talks about women continued in the beloved and much defended Mormon tradition of benevolent sexism.   (Despite complaints by those who feel this stereotyping and limiting of Mormon women is damaging and offensive.)

These sermons were delivered by all men and only one woman.

None of the speakers, however, answered the main question asked directly by OW: will you pray for revelation about female ordination? Speakers fell back on explanations that were neither fully reasonable nor fully evidence based, even in the documents of our own history and scripture.  Some of the questions I wish we could talk about more explicitly and accurately include: 


Why was female ordination revoked (there was no acknowledgment in the meeting that early female ordination existed, despite the fact that anyone who can Google can discover this fact.) Instead, there was a tacit implication in several talks that the priesthood has always been held only by men.  I believe the wording was deliberately carefully vague in order to avoid statements that might later be challenged by facts of history.  Nonetheless, the implication that priesthood has only ever been held by men hung over the conference without explanation or evidence-based backing.

Where is the sin in asking for and expecting transparent, fully truthful explanations?  If the answer around female ordination is, “we really don’t know right now,” tell us.  If the answer is, “We believe Joseph Smith was wrong to allow women to ask him to start the Relief Society/receive revelation/inquire of the Lord about Word of Wisdom, etc.,” tell us.  If the answer is, “We think female ordination in the early days was different from female ordination now,” say that.  If the answer is, “It says here that only men should hold the priesthood.  We are going with that scripture rather than this scripture here for X, Y, and Z reasons,” please tell us.  If the answer is, “We don’t yet know how to address female ordination in a global church that we are only beginning to understand,” why not just say that?

Parsing words and being opaque can make listeners feel there is a need to cover up or hide.  Transparency shows confidence and belief in what you are saying.  On the part of members of the church, asking for clarity from God, leaders, or in discussion with other members implies that you care, that you want to know—how is this a sin?  We should not be afraid to ask, and we should be answered with full transparency.


Peoples of African descent (and their allies) asked the same question before 1978: will you inquire of the Lord for revelation concerning ordination for all worthy men?  Why were the priesthood privileges of men of sub-Saharan African descent revoked and then subsequently restored?  The revelation to restore priesthood to all worthy men occurred upon many petitions by Mormons concerned about equality to the prophets David O. Mckay and Spencer W. Kimball.  Members of the LDS Church asked McKay, and then Kimball, to inquire of God about this racist practice. Though priesthood privileges have been restored to "all worthy men," there has been no subsequent apology or explanation for why this racist practice was part of our church for so long.

In the October 2013 conference, we heard that the priesthood is God’s priesthood to be restored or bestowed when and where God wants it to be.  What is the difference between the restoration of the priesthood to all worthy men and what Mormons concerned about sexism in the church are requesting right now?  Why was it seemingly okay to ask about that, but not about this?  Why were African-American men able to "get a meeting" with the First Presidency while women have not been able to "get a meeting" about female ordination despite decades of petitioning?


What is our common definition of equality, and do Mormons really believe in equality? Do we agree on the definition of the word “equality” contained in the dictionary, basically:   “Being equal in status, rights, and opportunities?” If the answer is yes, we all agree on this definition, then we need to admit that our church is okay with inequality, and we need to explain why. 

In fact, I think we need to acknowledge that equality is not our primary goal, that it is secondary to other purposes, such as our belief that enacting separate gender roles is important to preserving order on earth and in the church.  9 and 1 are not equal.  They are different numbers, and they have different roles in different equations.  By definition, equal means same or exact in terms of quantity.  This fact of equality is quantitative.  Most discussion of gender roles in the LDS cosmology addresses qualitative issues.  Qualitative issues can not replace quantitative in discussions of equality. In true equality, both the quantity and quality of opportunity, status, and rights have to be the same, not 9 and 1, but 1 and 1, or 9 and 9 .  

Or am I misunderstanding the definition of "equal"? (As opposed to the "feeling" of equality.)

Most people who lived through “separate but equal” have agreed that there is no such thing as "separate but equal."  Dr. King says, “Segregation is morally wrong and sinful.” As a church, though, we continue to hold on to this notion of “separate but equal," without a fully articulated defense of how “separate but equal,"  in the case of gender, operates as simply “equal" in the case of the LDS church. "Separate but equal" is the main rebuttal I've heard given over and over again by those who do not believe inequality exists in the Mormon church.  I want to know how those holding this view believe that "separate but equal" can work in some spheres and not in others.

If you are white and you don't feel discriminated against, you can't claim there is no racism.  Personal experience can't determine whether  equality exists in a system or institution.  Only weighing and measuring can accurately tell us whether or not equality exists in any particular realm.

Private institutions have the right to determine how much equality they will enact, and individuals have a right to participate or not participate.  I mostly wish we could be more honest about how much we value equality in our religion.  If we feel it is less important than other concerns and purposes, we should admit that and explain why, not continue to claim, against reason, that there is no inequality in our organization.


For months I’ve been trying to work out why I continue to be a bystander on this issue of female ordination.  For months I’ve been feeling guilty for acting like (and being) the “white moderate” Dr. King talks about, the one who is worse than the out and out bigot, the one who has an investment in the status quo and therefore upholds the status quo, the one who covers up the ugly boil of injustice so it cannot heal in open air. 

Why did I not speak out and show up at the OW event?


I’m tired and scared.  On a daily basis, the balancing act of children, work, and church leaves me feeling like I could fall off the tightrope at any moment if anything tips slightly or goes even slightly awry.  Maybe I felt like I couldn’t take the emotional fall-out of involvement in such an event—an event that would surely take a large emotional toll on my psyche.  The difficulty of living in an all-Mormon community when I have such strong objection to inequality takes a daily toll on me.  The pain of misunderstandings and differences with the most beloved people in my life, all Mormons, is something hard to explain to those who say, sometimes in honest bewilderment and sometimes in angry callousness:  “Then why don’t you just leave?”
Beginning in my teen years, I was upset about inequalities for women in the church, and was shut down by mansplainers in leadership meetings when I raised issues of sexism and gender discrimination in the youth organization.  I watched my feisty Laurel teacher also get shut down when she tried to defend me. Eventually, I stopped talking, at least publicly. 

I suppose I wasn’t sure I could take the shut down one more time. 


I’m conflicted about ordination.  Let me be clear:  I am not at all conflicted about the righteous act of questioning and inquiring of the Lord and our leaders for clarification on issues we don’t understand or want further light and revelation on.  I am in full solidarity with the women who attempted to attend priesthood on Saturday, October 5th 2013.  I believe the act of doubting, questioning, and searching for answers is following the model Joseph Smith set forth when he received his first revelation, and then subsequently organized the church to allow for a hybrid theocratic and democratic institution.

I am conflicted about what priesthood is, what it means to hold it, and about my personal connection to it.  What would it look like to ask a sister or mother to give me a blessing?  I can’t even imagine.  And perhaps because I have a more ecumenical notion of worthiness, I don’t want to think that some of my sisters are more worthy to bless me than others simply because they have followed a checklist of church and temple attendance, adherence to word of wisdom and tithe paying, and have been ordained.  Many of the sisters I know who bless me the most are not “worthy.”  They are not and have never been Mormon, or they are what we call “apostate”.   The sisters who seem most worthy to me are those who bless others because of their goodness, tolerance, wisdom and love.  Some of the best women I know would be worthy to hold the priesthood, and some wouldn’t. In short, I don’t place priesthood power above the power of good behavior, whether or not you drink a cup of coffee in the morning. 


I still haven’t worked out the whole gender roles thing.  Being of the generation of second wave feminists, the generation who is feeling around in the dark for how to enact a more equal society, I feel quite muddled at times.  I was raised in a very traditional household, and I am myself a rather traditionally hetero-normative woman.  I like to cook and be home with my children (I also hate to clean, decorate, and craft), to wear heels and lipstick, and I love my career.  I have loved receiving priesthood blessings from my father and husband.  I have loved praying with my children when they can’t fall asleep at night because they are afraid, or when they are hurt or sick.  And that act does indeed feel separate but equal to me.  

We are a family of women’s college alumna and attendees (currently three alumna from Mills College, Barnard and Sarah Lawrence –after it was made coed, however--and one attendee at Bryn Mawr).  I value homo-sociality, perhaps more than most, and am not sure how this fits with priesthood and relief society respectively. 

Women of the first Relief Society.

Although I suppose Relief Society is no longer truly homo-social as, unlike at its inception and continuing through the 1960’s, it was when it was administered by a female leadership. 

And, contrary to popular belief, men ARE invited to the General Relief Society (they preside over and speak at this meeting, and a few random guys were coming in and out during the session I attended at our Stake Center. There were no female ushers there to tell them, “This meeting is for women only.”)

Finally, I’ve always loved the sound of words containing the suffix “-ess” and have been only too happy to reclaim this diminutive as an act of feminism:  poetess, authoress, speakeress, etc.  Being a “priestess” just appeals to me more than being a boring old “priest.”  I suppose I would rather have my own thing than borrowing his thing. 

(And by thing, I don’t mean to imply any(thing) in the Shakespearean sense.  By thing, what I mean is no(thing).)

Women leaving the LDS Tabernacle after being denied entrance to the Priesthood Session.


 I adamantly support the right for a Mormon woman to choose whether or not she can be a priesthood holder.  Equality means equal access.  Period.  If women cannot make their own free choices, if their choices are dictated by an all-male leadership, then it follows that they are not equal in “status, rights, and opportunities.” 

This is a denotative fact. 

The end. 

To continue our current paradigm of what Mormons call “ gender equality” is to say something along the lines of what Victorian men said about female superiority in the 1800's:  “Sisters, you are better than us, and therefore we need to make decisions for you in order to make up for our inferiority to you.”  Holding women on a pedestal is not the same thing as equality, although this is a popular argument used against those who hold that there is gender inequality in the church. 

Popularity does not equal truth, though Ruth Todd, spokesperson for the LDS church, used this as one of her main defenses when asked about the OW movement when she said in her official statement:

"Millions of women in this church do not share the views of this small group who organized today's protest, and most church members would see such efforts as divisive.”

Those who listen to General Conference each April and October will remember that we hear a “popularity does not make it right” sermon at least twice in every session.  

When is this reasoning correct and when is it incorrect?  Can the same flawed reasoning be used in correct and incorrect ways?


I am deeply concerned with the disenfranchisement and exclusion of Mormon women from the leadership of the church.  I am one hundred percent sure that we would have a stronger organization if our leadership was split equally between men and women. 
I’m not sure this can happen unless women can be ordained.  We heard in October 2013 Conference that women have a special role in the lives of children.  The lives of Mormon children are shaped by decisions made by the church leadership.  Having a female primary leadership does not cover the gamut of decisions being made for and about Mormon children.  If we really believe that “working with children” is a special dispensation for women, then we need women working in every single capacity of LDS administration, because every capacity of the church affects our children. 

Today, the Monday after my sisters were turned away, shunned, and dismissed. My daughter Eva was there, holding a card for her sister Ingrid, who has never, ever been afraid to speak out against inequality and oppression.  

Today, I’m relieved I didn’t attend.  

I still don’t know how long it would have taken me to recover. 

And, today: 

I’m sad and ashamed that I didn’t attend. 

I wish I had been strong enough to stand up with my sisters.  

I’m sorry that I didn’t. 

This is my apology, and my timid attempt to continue the discussion around equality in the Mormon Church.


I am thrilled to hear opposing viewpoints, especially ones that use sound reasoning and evidence, are thoughtful, seek greater understanding, and are nuanced.  However, you should, before posting your rebuttals, read this list of reasons that I've already researched, considered, and discarded.  If you don't have a fresher or more nuanced perspective to offer in rebuttal than the ten reasons in this post that I've heard hundreds and hundreds of times without being convinced, you may not be able to convince me now with those same reasons.  

I will however, cherish every kindly and sincere attempt at dialogue and understanding, whether or not we agree!


  1. You are a rock star to me, Lara.

  2. No need to shame yourself. We are where we are and we will get where we need to be.

    I started a response but will have to finish it later. Won't even shame myself for that. Bamball = DougB

  3. I super-loved this post, Lara. I was at the aforementioned "event" and didn't expect it to be as ecstatic an experience as it was (I fully expected to be turned away and didn't feel the sadness of that particular rebuff until the next day). In any case, there will be many more opportunities to knock and ask, and (I hope I'm not being presumptuous) when you're ready to participate, you'll totally know it.

  4. Dear Lara,

    You know I have a special connection to my priestess identity. But that aside, Amelia and I had a long talk about this today and here's my thinking: like our sister leaders Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Sojourner Truth taught us, and like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez--there are many different ways to enter the movement, whatever that movement is. Everyone of us has a path on this earth--everyone of us must find it. There is a time to be still and a time to speak. There is a time to march and a time to rest. There is a time to go to church and a time to stay home. I just don't think that we can dictate that time and place for anyone else, but I do think we have to be open to and prepared for the moment when we, like Esther, are called forth, and we need to be ready. We are all born "for such a time as this."

  5. Lara, we're using that post as our text for Family Home Evening tonight. Thank you.
    - Stirling

  6. Lara,
    Thanks for sending a link to your thoughtful blog. I think that dialogue and searching for understanding and the recognition of the effect of worldwide gender inequalities on even our church culture are all important. I don’t share your desire to stand with the OW women in an organized protest/ priesthood session walk-in. I also don’t think that those women should feel totally defeated or dismissed. I believe that the fact that women’s issues were addressed over and over indicates that their voices are heard, or their “agitation” has garnered a nod. I believe the process of forced change was the only object of rejection.
    I do believe that doctrinally our church portrays the most nuanced and fair take on Eve, her intentions, and her vision of her accepted new circumstance which corrects the widespread misinterpretation of The Bible story which probably perpetrated the historic belittlement of women more than anything; but I know that doesn’t mean that everybody automatically “gets it” and some discrimination lingers on. I don’t claim to fully understand all the implications of my role or under what perameters I currently can exercise the priesthood I share under the order of celestial marriage with my husband, but what seems to be a prevailing principle of power and power for any kind of change (of course within the realm of what is right and in accordance with God’s laws, will, and timing in the first place) is unity. The lesson I take from Adam and Eve and from the story of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood is what would be the point if there was not unity? “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” The Lord waits till we’re all ready. Maybe this is my personal take, but I think Eve was most reprimandable (that’s probably not a word) for acting without Adam. The choice she made to take the fruit was a thoughtful, insightful, painful, studied, nuanced, perhaps even enlightened choice—but she forced the issue. She acted alone, and the important thing was to be together. That’s why I don’t subscribe to the process of protestation, but I think discussion, etc. is great.
    I think it was helpful for you to delineate the idea of quantitative vs. qualitative equality, in order to get to bottom of understanding the principle. Perhaps it would also be helpful to delineate ways that women can be more part of the function and conversation of the kingdom, if you feel there is a lack, outside of priesthood attainment. It may depend on the ward. I’ve felt very heard and appreciated in any correlation or councils I attend. I guess your discussion made me wonder – is there anything in the handbook that states that a ward clerk must be male? I don’t think that is a priesthood office, although I could be mistaken. Sunday school presidency? My friend was an awesome scout committee chair. Stuff like that could be asked about outside of questioning the ordination issue and I think the fact that sister missionaries now have a new leadership role in the field is evidence of modern revelation at work in a modern world.
    Finally, I guess I’m going back to what I was saying before. Another key delineation for understanding is to note the difference between open-hearted seeking and agenda-driven pressuring. The OW campaign is that – a campaign. Their group’s name is not a question but a demand. That is not the avenue to revelation and never has been. I believe Wilford Woodruff that he would not have signed the Manifesto even if all the temples were closed unless the Lord had directed it. Public opinion sometimes begs the question, but it does not wrangle the answer. The Lord’s anointed are His mouthpiece, and I do not envy them; but sustain them with all my heart.

  7. Bravo, Lara. Fascinating, soulful, thought provoking.