A Response to Barbara Gardner’s Women and Priesthood Theology

“Relief Society Healing” by Anthony Sweat

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 [1] 

– 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.


[1] 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.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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17 Responses

  1. Kathryn Knight Sonntag says:

    Amen!

  2. Elisa says:

    I listened to this exact same interview and had a similar reaction (including extreme annoyance at the example if the interviewer’s mission president who was so hung up on “who presides” – give me a break). I came out of the interview frustrated by the victim-blaming (it’s women’s fault we aren’t studying the priesthood enough!), and while I agree that her read of priesthood power, authority, and keys is consistent with LDS teachings and potentially provides a more empowered view of those teachings it begs the questions: why conflate priesthood office with so many leadership positions and responsibilities where there is no actual basis for doing so? And, more fundamentally, why restrict priesthood office to men? No good answers for that in my view and her view can only be arrived at by ignoring those questions as possibilities and then doing extreme mental gymnastics (more like mental contortions) to justify a pre-determined conclusion. I was also frustrated by how confined she seemed to feel to never say anything a (make) prophet hasn’t said, although I understand her reasons for doing so in order to come across as legitimate to a mainstream audience (but that itself is a cultural problem we have).

    Like you, I used to think like her and would have loved this interview a decade ago. Not anymore. Honestly just made me angry that she’s providing justifications for the systematic and structural marginalization of women. Although I do appreciate that her attempt is to create a more inclusive environment and I think she means well, to me it is just lipstick on a pig.

    • ElleK says:

      I think my biggest frustration with that interview was her unspoken premise that everything in the Church (structure, policies, top leaders) is perfect the way it is, and we little people at the bottom (women, bishops) just need to catch the vision. It showed a staggering lack of imagination, honestly.

  3. Eleanor says:

    I agree. Like you, I used to engage in the exhausting effort of trying to find justification for things as they are, and I prayed for small adjustments that would make things better. Even three years ago, the writings of Valerie Cassler, Sheri Dew, Wendy Ulrich, Lynn Wilson, and Beverly Campbell brought me comfort and hope. Then at some point I had studied enough of human history and church history and the world as it is to decide that Patriarchy is simply wrong, and it does damage. Full stop. Contortions to justify patriarchy simply extend men’s ability to control women and keep us far from a Zion society. I don’t believe our Heavenly Family has ever intended such a result. Rather, it is a “fallen” feature of the natural world where men have more muscle mass than women, and we best get over it.

    Also, Gardner’s bit about letting “key holders” be accountable for our actions when we follow their orders…really? Didn’t we hear that kind of reasoning at the Nuremberg trials? “I was just following orders, your honor.” We were sent to earth to develop our moral capacities, not to assign them to someone else. Just imagine how much farther along our church would be in terms of moral progress if people had said “no way” to Joseph when he proposed polygamy, and “no way” to Brigham when he started down the path of institutional racism. Prophetic infallibility is not doctrine; it’s dangerous.

    Here’s a recent talk by Melissa Inouye where she acknowledges that Patriarchy is wrong, and then commits to stay in the church as a change agent. https://mi.byu.edu/video-melissa-inouye-making-zion/
    This is the kind of thinking that now sustains me in the church. Let’s create pressure to create things as they should be, not to justify things as they are.

    • Elisa says:

      Thank you for sharing this talk by Melissa Inouye – beautiful. I am finding this is my biggest struggle right now: I can get over historical problems and truth claim issues, etc. etc., but it’s very tough to continue participating in a church that I think is doing harmful things *right now* to women, LGBT, children, minorities, etc. I haven’t read or heard a lot that I felt like was very insightful on that point – this was.

    • ElleK says:

      “Patriarchy is simply wrong, and it does damage. Full stop. Contortions to justify patriarchy simply extend men’s ability to control women and keep us far from a Zion society.”

      This is fantastic. And I wish I could say Gardner is in the minority with her thoughts about deference to authority, but in my experience, it’s a pretty commonly-held attitude.

  4. Mary says:

    This echoes my own thoughts as well. It seems that mainstream apologists simply don’t want to deal with the hard questions. It is fantastic she has found a more female-empowered paradigm that works for her. But just because someone can do this doesn’t mean the system isn’t inherently flawed. I am so tired of church leadership putting local leaders in difficult and irreconcilable situations where they have to address members’ concerns about topics that the church won’t even address. It’s incredibly unfair to our lay leaders and to members.

  5. Autumn says:

    I have similar feelings. Sister Morgan’s approach is gaslight-y and frustrating, but it is also moving the mainstream members of the church toward greater openness to equality. I know many orthodox members of the church who have been excited about her Ensign article and thrilled that we are talking so much about women and the priesthood. It’s progress. Slow progress, yes, but at least it’s something.

    • Elisa says:

      I’m of two minds on this. I like your thought that she may be moving mainstream members toward greater openness to equality. My more cynical take is that she makes it easier to justify exclusion and still feel good about ourselves, but I would like to think you’re right.

  6. Heather says:

    You have so clearly articulated the problems associated with trying to stretch our current definition of priesthood to include women. I love how you’ve addressed the various issues and made it clear that it’s not ok to say women just don’t understand the priesthood. Fabulous work here.

    • Libby says:

      Seriously! We understand it just fine. We’re sick and tired of being marginalized. It isn’t on us to be more creative–it’s on the church to fix the problem.

  7. Anna says:

    I think that her saying that there are two different priesthoods is just her inventing doctrine, that sounds good to her, which obviously she is not authorized to do. Her idea here actually contradicts what is said in the temple ceremony, where a woman is told she will become a priestess unto her husband. So, at some future date, she will be ordained in the priesthood of her God husband. My understanding of the rumors about the second anointing is that women are ordained in that ceremony as a priestess unto her husband in the same way that he is a priest unto God. So, that would be actual Mormon doctrine, that women hold the priesthood, not of Jesus Christ or God the Father, but of her husband when he becomes a God, or when the second anointing declares his election made sure, or he is as good as a god already.

    Now, feminists aren’t going to like this doctrine, because it puts women eternally in an inferior position to men, but I think it is the actual doctrine of the church. Men becomes gods, while women become priestesses to their husband. Listen very carefully next time you go to the temple.

    • Moss says:

      They changed some of the wording so it no longer says “unto your husband”. However, at the same time they say the meaning hasn’t changed, so it sounds like they’ve muddied the waters around this a bit more.

  8. Emily says:

    The strongest indictment of the church as a flawed patriarchy is its unwillingness from Day One to peel leadership away from priesthood. Priests are SERVANTS. If there were some inexplicable and mysterious reason that only males could serve in that capacity…well, I guess that’s where we’re at. But conflating priesthood and almost every other position of control (excuse me, “power”) is just such bald self-dealing. I appreciate that you address that corruption here.

  9. Megan says:

    I love and agree with every single word you have written here! It’s so refreshing to find the writing of someone who thinks the same. Thank you for your thoughts

  10. Alisa says:

    Thank you for this thought-out opinion. It’s very helpful and spot on.

  11. Melody says:

    Beautifully articulated. It’s high time the Church responds to inequities with real, concrete, meaningful policy change. And it’s time we all stop constructing illusory justifications and rationalizations for a patriarchal power structure. Thank you for your excellent examples and suggestions.

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