Why Can’t Women Be Witnesses?
Last week my husband participated in Stake Day at the Temple. He took the afternoon off from work and went to help with some sealings. While I myself have a hard time with the temple, I do want to be a good spouse and support him in spiritual practices that he finds meaningful. Really, I do.
And yet, I admit that I probably wasn’t the best sport about it. The more I thought about it, the more it troubled me that the stake was asking people to take an afternoon off work to do this. And then when I considered the fact that they would need more men than women for this assignment (men need to be witnesses to these sealings), the whole thing just bothered me a bit.
I couldn’t help but think back to my own temple sealing in which my wonderful mom, who raised me all by herself since my dad died when I was a baby, could not be the witness to my marriage. She should have been the one to sign that paper, she should have stood as the equivalent to my husband’s father, who was one of the witnesses. What reason could there possibly be for having men alone be witnesses?
I know most Mormons would think the answer obvious — the witnesses need to have priesthood so of course they are men. But why would one need priesthood to be a witness? What is it about ordination that makes an individual suddenly worthy to affirm that such and such had occurred?
Mormonism seems to have a long history of male-witnessing. All the official witnesses to the Book of Mormon were men. Emma Hale Smith, who served as scribe and who dusted and cleaned around the covered tablets, was not asked to be one. Men also serve exclusively as witnesses to Mormon baptisms. In the endowment ceremony, there is the witness couple, which does include a woman, of course, but this seems to be a different kind of witnessing than the kind that occurs in baptisms and sealings.
The more I thought about these male-only ritual witnessing practices, the more strange and troubling the policy seemed to me. Does this policy infer that women are fundamentally less than fully human in some way? Does it infer that women are not capable of standing up as trustworthy members of the community whose word and signature are honored? What is it about priesthood/maleness that makes men alone worthy of witnessing?
When I ask questions like these — if such and such policy or scripture infers that women are less than fully human — I often think back to Catholic feminist theologian and nun Margaret Farley, who once wrote regarding her approach to scriptural texts, “Whatever contradicts those convictions [of women’s full humanity] cannot be accepted as having the authority of an authentic revelation of truth.” I love this standard. If a scripture or teaching or policy violates my sense of women’s full humanity, then it is one to be questioned. Amen, Margaret Farley.
With that being said, however, I am honestly interested in a discussion about why Mormonism engages in this practice of male-only witnessing. Do any of you have any theological explanations for this practice, or do you just chalk it up to culture, as I am inclined to do?
 Margaret Farley, “Feminist Consciousness and Scripture” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985) 49.