In an open discussion held in the heartland of the religion last week, female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints talked about issues important to them. As one might guess – equality was a common theme.
Hosted by the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, panel members contributed to the discussion titled “What Mormon Women Want,” but the buzz doesn’t stop there. Many active LDS members – of both sexes – are now advocating for gender equality within the LDS church.
The group Ordain Women was formed among LDS members to gather support around the notion of changing church policy to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood, an authority currently reserved for men only.
Joanna Wallace is a board member of Ordain Women and was part of the panel discussion.
“Right now, women are not equal within the Mormon church,” Wallace told KNPR’s State of Nevada, “We think that the solution for it is ordination of women.”
Wallace and her group point to historic evidence that women had more ecclesiastical freedom when the church was first founded in the 19th Century for why they should be allowed to hold the priesthood now.
They also believe since everything in the church is connected to it, it is the place to start.
“You’ve got to address the priesthood question first,” Wallace said.
However, there are other calls of action to improve what they view as gender inequality like making sure the budgets for programs for the youth of the church are the same for boys and girls.
Ordain Women has received push back from the leadership of the church. One of its founders, Kate Kelly, was ex-communicated.
Wallace said she has received support from her family but it is not always the case. Other members of the group are not supported by family members and Wallace, who is the social media manager of the group, has seen a lot hateful messages about the group’s mission on the Internet.
“I understand that this is a very hard thing. It stretches people. It makes people uncomfortable,” Wallace said.
She added, however, that there is no part in the scripture forbidding being uncomfortable.
Change hasn’t come easy in the Mormon religion. African-Americans men, for example, were excluded from holding the priesthood until 1978. And same-sex marriage is a practice still not sanctioned by the church, despite the church advertising a more accepting attitude of homosexual individuals.
Andrea Radke-Moss is a professor of history at Brigham Young University –Idaho. She pointed out that the church is a large and often slow-moving organization, but that is only part of the issue.
Radke-Moss said the doctrine of the church is deeply rooted in separate spheres for men and women.
“You have this very imbedded ideology that is very hard to give up,” the professor said.
She said there are more conversations about gender issues with the church and those discussions are becoming more normalized. However, any change will really have to come from the top down because of the structure of the church’s hierarchy.
“To get the organization to move would mean that everybody who is in a decision-making position is on the same page and I don’t think we’re at that place yet,” Radke-Moss said.
She explained that many of the leaders of the church are older men, some in their 80s or 90s, who were raised with traditional gender roles. They also have a strong belief in the doctrine of men and women being ‘separate but equal’ within the LDS church.
While people within the church are pushing for changes, Radke-Moss doesn’t believe most Mormons agree with those grassroots efforts.
“Members don’t like to see the institution that they love and the leaders that they love openly challenged or openly questioned,” Radke-Moss said.
The discussion of gender equality can often exclude women of color in the church, said Elise Boxer, an assistant professor of Native Studies at the University of South Dakota.
Boxer is Native American and part of the Dakota Nation. She grew up in the church after her parents converted to the faith in the 60s.
She told KNPR’s State of Nevada that when she was growing up, she felt that her faith spoke to her world view and cultural values. However, when she left the reservation, she found she was categorized as ‘other’ both because of her race and because of her religion.
In the Mormon nomenclature, Boxer is considered a “lamanite,” a name derived from the Book of Mormon. The book, which along with the Bible, is the main scripture upon which the church theology is built.
The book tells the story of two groups of ancient people, one called the “nephites” and the other the “lamanites,” who lived in the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans. It describes “lamanites” as being ‘marked with a dark skin’ for their disobedience to God. Mormons believe Native Americans are among the descendants of the “lamanites.”
She described it as a “fluid identity.”
“That lamanite identity is very loaded term. It’s not only racialized, but you are demarked as a fallen but a promised people,” Boxer said. “The discussions about race in the Mormon church are often difficult,”
And while the church changed its stance on race and holding the priesthood in the 70s, Boxer said in practice it is different.
“The LDS church is a macrocosm of the larger American society. You do see racism. You do see prejudice and that’s also because it exists inside the larger United States society,” Boxer said.
Both Wallace and Radke-Moss agree that a discussion about equality must include women of color.
“There is always more work to do to get better and better, and it’s by having these conversations that we can learn from one another,” Wallace said.
Radke-Moss pointed to an incident when a woman of color was given the opportunity to pray at the faith’s General Conference, a worldwide gathering of members, did not get the kind of recognition that a white woman who prayed at the conference was given.
But all the women believe the church has the capacity to change and will ultimately change.
“We have to find a balance between how much can some people be demanding or expecting and how much the church should actually show that it is actually listening and that it is grappling and that it is reaching out to the people who really want these changes,” Radke-Wallace said.
For Wallace, changes within the church are a matter of faith.
“I’m a feminist because everything I’ve been taught in the church, everything I learned in the young women’s program pushes me towards gender equality,” Wallace said. “If I didn’t have that faith, I would not be part of Ordain Women.”
Joanna Wallace, board member, Ordain Women; Andrea Radke-Moss, professor of history, Brigham Young University – Idaho; Elise Boxer, assistant professor in history and Native American studies, University of South Dakota