Women and Mormonism

Women and Mormonism

The status of women in Mormonism has been a source of public debate since before the death of Joseph Smith, Jr. 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, to the ultra-patriarchal plural marriage system practiced by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and other Mormon fundamentalist groups.


Women in early Mormonism

For its time, early Mormonism had a relatively liberating stance toward women. Joseph Smith, Jr., 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 in the translation of the Book of Mormon, and later 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.[citation needed]

In addition, early Mormon doctrine was comparatively women-friendly. Notably, early 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.[citation needed] This sin was historically blamed on Eve, and was thought to be the source of women's submissive and dependent state.[citation needed] Mormonism rejects the doctrine of original sin.[citation needed]

Other issues included the beginning of plural marriage, the Gifts of the spirit as exercised by women, like prophecy and speaking in tongues, performing ordinances, "Priestesses" in the temple, and priesthood blessings of women by women (Hanks, 2002). For example, while en route to the Salt Lake Valley, the diary of midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions describes women giving each other blessings:

"...we 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." (Sessions, 1996)

Women participated in the Anointed Quorum and founded the Relief Society, among other projects in the early Church.[citation needed]

Women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The status of women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]] has been a source of public debate beginning in the 19th century, when the church clashed with the federal government over its practice of polygamy.[citation needed] Despite the legal and cultural issues related to the LDS practice known as plural marriage, 19th century women played a significant public leadership role in Latter-day Saint culture, politics, and even doctrine.[citation needed] Indeed, some critics view the role of women in the 19th century Church as the zenith of women's institutional and leadership participation in the church hierarchy. (Cornwall, 1994, at 239-264; Iannaccone & Miles, 1994, at 265-86; Jorgensen, 2000, at 105.)

In the mainstream of the church today, women continue to have a significant public role, mostly in non-ecclesiastical areas such as art and culture.[citation needed] Ecclesiastically, the church is firmly committed to patriarchy and gender role.

Women also have retained a certain degree of authority in some areas, including a number of leadership positions, which include authority over children or other women, although these women leaders are subject to supervision and guidance by priesthood-holding leaders.[citation needed] Women are "endowed" with priesthood power, but are not ordained as clergy.[citation needed] Though not considered clergy, women play a significant part in the operation of local congregations.[citation needed] Women teach classes to adults, teenagers, and children.[citation needed] Women also organize social, educational, and humanitarian activities.[citation needed] Women may also serve as missionaries, and a select few may perform certain ordinances such as washing and anointing on behalf of women in Latter-day Saint temples.[citation needed] Unofficially, wives of male clergy also often play an indirect leadership role by influencing and counseling their husbands. (Hanks, 2002)

Within and outside the church mainstream, there is a minority of influential Latter-day Saint women who attempt to influence Church policy and doctrine.[citation needed] However, women who are viewed as publicly oppositional toward the church's patriarchal structure are often subject to ecclesiastical discipline, including excommunication for apostasy.

Frontier women in 19th century Utah

In common with a number of other frontier areas, women took a more prominent role than they would have in the East.[citation needed] President 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."[1]

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

"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." (Snow, 1884)

Snow also spoke of the need for women to stick together. She counseled that women confide personal issues to the Relief Society president and her counselors, rather than the bishops. (Snow, 1884).

In the secular sphere, Utah was at the forefront of women's suffrage, becoming one of the first states in the Union to grant women the vote.[citation needed] Education and scholarship was also a primary concern for Mormon women.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] The Woman's Exponent publication (the R.S. official newspaper) published a 1920 editorial in favor of "Equal rights before the law, equal pay for equal work, equal political rights", stating that a women's place is not just "in the nursery" but "in the library, the laboratory, the observatory."

Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells (1875) 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."

Women in 20th and 21st Century Mormonism

In 1977 N. Eldon Tanner told the Church Coordinating Council that the Relief Society Presidency should be considered a partner with the Melchizedek Priesthood.[2]

Other developments during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball included having women granted their young women advancements in sacrament meeting, 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 during general conference and 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, and later one week beforehand.[3]

Brigham Young University, 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.[4] BYU established a Women's Research Institute in 1978.[5] 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.[6]

Women in the Community of Christ

The Community of Christ, who are a part of the Latter Day Saint movement, now ordains women to the priesthood.

Women in 'Mormon Fundamentalist' groups

Mormon fundamentalists are groups or individuals who break from the dominant form of Mormonism practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Mormon fundamentalists advocate a return to Mormon doctrines and practices which adherents believe the LDS Church has wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the Law of Consecration, the Adam-God theory, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon Endowment ritual, and often the exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood.[citation needed]

Plural marriage is generally considered the most central and significant doctrine separating fundamentalists from the mainstream Latter Day Saint movement.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

See also

  • Criticism of Mormonism
  • The Mormon Women Project


  1. ^ Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997, p. 135, http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=da135f74db46c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=1f96767978c20110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&hideNav=1&contentLocale=0 
  2. ^ Edward L. Kimball. Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005) p. 165
  3. ^ Kimball. Lengthen Your Stride. p. 165-168
  4. ^ Kimball. Lengthen Your Stride. p. 165
  5. ^ "A Farewell Salute to the Women's Research Institute of Brigham Young University" in SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall 2009).
  6. ^ Deseret News, Nov. 20, 2009


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