Straight Thinking on the Role of Women

Untitled-1Elder Ballard addressed an audience at Education Week at BYU on August 20th, 2013.  The topic of his address was the role of women where he reiterated that women have a separate but equal role to men, specifically, that the role of women necessarily excludes holding the priesthood.  My response to this talk is addressed to Elder Ballard.

Dear Elder Ballard,

It is a rare opportunity to hear a talk addressing the spiritual power and role of women in the gospel, something I deeply yearn to know more about.  Thus, I had great interest in your address at BYU’s Education Week.  Despite my interest in the topic I found there to be inconsistencies in the way women’s roles were outlined.  To me, this was a missed opportunity to speak to the women of the Church who bring a vast array of qualities and contributions to the gospel and especially for those men and women who wait for further revelation regarding the role of women within the Church.  My hope is to communicate some of these thoughts to you in this letter.      

At the outset of your address, you maintain that women are not second-class citizens in the Church.  While there are women who may share your perspective, I find that I often feel like a second-class citizen in this Church.  I also recognize that I am not the only woman who feels this way.  There is a great article written by WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice and Equality) that outlines some of the reasons that this feeling of inequity is very real for women in the Church.  The secondary status of women is particularly evident when our Heavenly Mother is erased almost entirely from our discourse, especially when She is absent in a discussion on women in the Church.  I am unaware of any venue within the Church, whether through Sunday worship or otherwise, to learn about our Heavenly Mother.  It is a rare occasion when I see any female representation or references to women in talks, lessons, and even within the Relief Society, an organization specifically established for women.  I deeply desire to know more about women in our Church’s history, to learn more of our Heavenly Mother and to hear Her name spoken in the official discourse of the Church.  Though our theology suggests that Heavenly Mother is a co-creator along with our Heavenly Father, it seems that even She is a second-class citizen within Her own house.

There is also a lack of female role models and leaders within the Church.  Well intentioned, well meaning and generally kindhearted priesthood leaders cannot offset the reality that my opportunity and ability, as a woman, to serve as a leader in the Church is severely limited.  Waiting in perpetuity to be invited to have my voice included in a counsel is fundamentally different than being an equal member with an equal voice in such a counsel.  Being told I am equal and valued is different than actually being equal and valued.  I think you illustrated this point when you stated:

 “Women, your input is welcome but you need to be careful to not assume a role that is not yours.” 

This statement suggest that even in the event I am in a position of leadership, and am extended an invitation to participate in a counsel, my voice is not considered equal within that counsel.  Is it truly the position of the Church that because I am a woman, I am relegated to merely providing input, and can only hope that my priesthood leaders have heard and considered my voice and perspective?

Your statement additionally suggests an impropriety on the part of women who choose to vocalize concerns, opinions, or perspectives; almost suggesting that such behavior is out of line with Church hierarchy, and by implication, with the gospel.     

In describing and outlining the roles of men and women, you quote the Proclamation to the Family.

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

This quote is often used to explain and uphold the idea that while men and women have different and separate roles, they are equal.  “Equal” is used in The Proclamation and throughout Church discourse involving women and women’s roles but what is described in the Proclamation is not equal.  I wonder how husband and wife are equal partners when a husband is to preside over the family.  The definition of preside means to exercise guidance, direction or control or to occupy the place of authority, to occupy a position similar to that of a president or chairman.  To be equal in this context would necessitate men and women presiding over their homes together.  By definition, equality cannot exist when one person presides over another.   

Clarifying further the differences between roles, you stated:

“Men and women have different but equal roles.  A woman cannot conceive of a child without a man, just as a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family, without a woman.  The creative power and the priesthood power are shared.”

It is true that from a strictly biological perspective both a male and female are necessary to conceive of a child.  However, it does not follow that a man cannot exercise priesthood without a woman.  Priesthood is used not just in the context of family but in the governance and in the ordinances of the Church.  For a male, upon turning twelve and meeting certain worthiness criteria, he can be ordained to the priesthood and begin his journey in the Church with priesthood authority and responsibility.  This requires no female intervention. Whether or not he ever marries or fathers a child, has no bearing upon his ability to be ordained to the priesthood and to exercise his priesthood.   Under the criteria set forth in your statement above, while a man may not meet the full measure of his potential without a woman, a woman cannot fulfill any of her measure without a man.  The ability for a woman to fulfill her measure is dependant upon criteria that can be completely out of her sphere of control.  This dichotomy again illustrates the inequity and subordination of women to men within the context of the Church.

I cannot see equality in the “separate but equal” structure that was highlighted so frequently in your address.  Placing motherhood as the primary role and responsibility for women is not only a disservice to women, but diminishes the equally important role of fatherhood.  Placing priesthood as the primary role and responsibility of men, is not only a disservice to men, but diminishes (and in this case, entirely erases) the varying abilities and spiritual powers of women. 

 Elder Ballard, you directly ask the question, “Why do women not have the priesthood?”  In response, you quote President Hinckley as explaining that it is God, not man, who determines who holds the priesthood.  I know that this is the process and order for revelation.  I also know that as a living breathing Church, further revelation can come, even on matters that seem closed to further revelation.  At the dedication of the Manti Temple in 1888, the Prophet Wilford Woodruff declared, “We are not going to stop the practice of plural marriage until the Coming of the Son of Man.”  It was two years later that further revelation came and resulted in the practice of plural marriage being discontinued.

Elder Ballard, these inconsistencies within the gospel regarding women are troubling to me and to many women close to me.  It is frustrating that these issues continue to go unacknowledged and are actively invalidated despite so many men and women voicing their concerns.  Further, it is frustrating that women do not have an official voice or avenue through which their voices and concerns can be heard.  It also hurts me that my testimony of Christ is questioned because I feel unequal in this Church.  Despite my love for the gospel, the Church and the people, it is a struggle to stay engaged with the Church when I am treated as a second-class citizen and when my concerns go unacknowledged and far too often invalidated.  I do not know what further revelation pertaining to women might look like.  I do, however, pray that these concerns will be heard and revelation on matters of our Heavenly Mother and the role of women in the Church will be actively and earnestly sought after.

In the spirit of mutual respect,

Christy Clegg

[You can read more about Christy's feelings regarding female ordination here.]