A Response to Barbara Gardner’s Women and Priesthood Theology
A friend recently sent me an interview of Barbara Gardner, author of The Priesthood Power of Women, and asked for my thoughts. I haven’t read the book, so this will only be a response to the podcast episode, but I’m somewhat familiar with Barbara Gardner, and she is articulate and well-read. I really admire women who diligently work to carve out a space for themselves in theology/scripture/policy/practice that is largely written around men. I think it is a good and noble work, especially because it at least obliquely acknowledges that there is a problem (even if it sometimes misplaces the blame), it gets people thinking about creative ways to work around current policy to be more inclusive to women, and it initiates a conversation about something that has been taboo for too long. Apologetics like Gardner’s (and Sheri Dew’s and Valerie Cassler’s) were really comforting and helpful to me for a long time, and I think if they work for some people, that’s great. They don’t work for me anymore.
It’s important to give a disclaimer that I’m coming at this from a mindframe that is fundamentally at odds with Gardner’s: I don’t believe in divinely mandated gender roles, I don’t believe in a God who would set up a system where only men (or “key holders,” as Gardner calls them), are gatekeepers of power and authority, and I’m deeply allergic to authoritarian hierarchical power structures (so conversations about “who presides in this instance” are not only uninteresting to me, they’re incredibly off-putting, especially since the answer in church settings is nearly always “a man”).
When members are told by Pres. Nelson or people like Barbara Gardner that women just need to study or speak up more or that bishops just need to be more prayerful about how to better utilize women, it’s incredibly disingenuous because the system is literally set up in a way that marginalizes women. We don’t have any books or talks pleading with men “we need your voices!” or telling leaders to find creative ways to better utilize men, and that’s because the system itself gives men a voice and lays out many ways for them to participate and be utilized in the leadership hierarchies of the church.
Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church is full of suggestions for how to incorporate women into the male-centric handbook as-written, which I love. The problem, though, in my experience, is that priesthood leaders generally default to the most restrictive reading of the handbook, “just to be safe.” So even if they could theoretically interpret the handbook in a more generous way, they’ll be too uncomfortable to actually do it. There are obviously great leaders who genuinely try to put people before policy, but my experience has been that most leaders just aren’t comfortable violating tradition, even if it isn’t explicitly prohibited.
I guess you could say that the problem there lies with individual bishops, which is what Gardner implicitly suggests, but is it really? There are 12 pages in Handbook 2 that specify every detail about performing each ordinance, and nowhere in those 12 pages are there ideas or allowances for how women can participate (with the recent exception of children and women now being allowed to witness). I contend that the problem lies, not with bishops just not asking the right questions or implementing their own creative ways to utilize women, but with the fact that the vast majority of our policies simply weren’t written with women in mind. If the prophet wanted women and young women to be better utilized, there are myriad ways the church could enact policies, effective immediately, that better utilize us. Asking bishops to prayerfully figure out their own ways to expand women’s roles in their ward needlessly sets up a situation of inconsistent leadership in a church that prides itself in consistency across congregations. Enacting policy that makes room for women on a church-wide level is the most practical and efficient solution.
Regarding when a leader disregards a woman’s revelation or makes a call not in line with God’s will, Gardner said, “I believe that every person in the church will always be blessed by following the key holder in being obedient to the Lord regardless. We’ll just let the key holder take care of the judgment day.” I find statements like this that assume infallibility of leaders or that advocate obeying authority at the expense of listening to one’s God-given conscience to be dangerous and troubling. Following a leader when we know he’s wrong–whether it’s the bishop or the prophet–and expecting God will give us a pass because we were just doing what we were told even though we knew better–that is heresy. At least, it should be.
Gardner implies that many women just don’t want to study/learn about their priesthood blessings/responsibilities, which is why there is such a lack of understanding of women’s priesthood roles. Aside from the fact that men have literally hundreds of pages of scripture and manuals and Conference talks about what their priesthood means and how to use it and women only have a few vague paragraphs in a handful of Conference talks, Gardner presents her conclusions she received through personal study and revelation as obvious fact that anyone else could “discover” if they just studied hard enough, like that there are two different structures of priesthood: hierarchical, which is used mostly by men to administrate the church, and patriarchal, which is exercised in families as husband and wife “preside” together (except that the husband actually presides, but in this case, inexplicably, “preside” doesn’t mean the same as “preside” means in the hierarchical priesthood, because in the hierarchical priesthood, a man with keys can overrule a woman by virtue of his authority, but in the patriarchal priesthood, a husband can’t do that to his wife, and if he does, “amen to his priesthood”). (Did you follow that? Because I’m not sure I did.)
It seems imprudent to blame women (or men) for not understanding these two different priesthood structures (that have never been taught or written about anywhere) or the two different definitions of “preside,” especially since the temple, for decades, made it clear that “preside” in a marriage context meant that women were to obey or hearken to their husbands. There has never been a disclaimer either in the temple or in Conference talks or lessons stating that covenant wasn’t literal, and dismissing women who believe God wants them to be submissive to their husbands because they accepted the temple at face value by saying they “misunderstood” what was explicitly taught there is a textbook example of gaslighting.
I actually did recently study the responsibilities for various priesthood offices in the scriptures and in church handbooks, and here were my takeaways:
– There is no scriptural or doctrinal reason why women can’t pass, set up, or take down the sacrament
– There is no scriptural or doctrinal reason why women can’t hold their babies when they’re blessed or place their hands on their husband’s when blessing their children or giving voice while blessing their children
– There is no scriptural or doctrinal reason why women can’t serve in Sunday School presidencies, as ward mission leaders, as zone leaders or APs, as ushers during the sacrament or other meetings, or be in church buildings without a man, or conduct a baptismal service, or sit at the recommend desk in the temple, or pray in the temple, or, honestly, hold the priesthood 
– There is 100 years of historical precedent for women blessing and anointing with oil (something I consider part of the restoration) which was arbitrarily taken away and has not been reinstated
– According to Dallin Oaks, women in the temple initiatory officiate ordinances using delegated priesthood keys. There is precedent for women to perform ordinances even without being ordained to the priesthood
At what point are we going to stop putting the blame on women for not studying or striving or speaking up enough or on bishops for not coloring outside the lines that have been clearly drawn for them and place it where it belongs, which is the way the church itself is structured?
While I personally find many of Gardner’s ideas to be flawed, potentially harmful, gaslighting mental gymnastics that do not reflect my understanding of God or my lived experience in the church, I still am glad that she’s out there doing what she’s doing. Creating a more robust discussion about women’s roles in the church can only be a net positive, and since Gardner is doing that in a way that doesn’t feel threatening to the average member, so much the better. Perhaps Gardner’s brand of apologetics will help pave the way for other women’s theology that is less gender essentialist and submissive to authority.
 The scriptural basis for women’s exclusion from ordination, or a brief tangent I didn’t mean to go off on: Scripture specifies men are ordained to the priesthood, but there are countless other verses where we extrapolate “men” to mean “men and women,” and there are no verses saying women CAN’T hold the priesthood (and paltry few verses, especially in the D&C, mention women at all, yet we women still assume the bulk of those verses and promises apply to us even when they’re written in male gendered language), and there was a female deacon and a female apostle named in the New Testament, so I think scriptural justification for excluding women from the priesthood is scant at best.