Men Have Priesthood, Women Have Motherhood
Spunky is a busy post-graduate who enjoys Exponent II and Church women’s history when not obsessing with research associated with her study. She is married, tutors special needs children privately and has a very, very spoiled dog.
Men have the priesthood, women have motherhood.(1) It has been at least two decades since I first heard this statement. This concept blisters in my mind as much today as it always has. This essay is an effort for me to analyse and put to bed my motherhood/priesthood chagrin.
To do this in my idealist mind, I can only consider the “Men have priesthood, women have motherhood” statement in terms of equality. Are motherhood and priesthood really equal? First, I must state that I can’t and don’t have children. After two failed adoption attempts (and yes, we are still on lists), three failed IVF attempts and two failed surrogacy attempts, you can’t fault me for not trying hard enough. It is just something that I have not been able to accomplish. So, if it is true that motherhood and priesthood are equal, what does that leave me? Unequal? Because of biology? Am I less of a woman, or less of a Mormon because I can’t have children, or the even more painful “you haven’t tried hard enough” superciliousness?
Yet, I think infertility has given me a greater desire and understanding in regard to analysis of the motherhood/priesthood claim. If it is true that men have priesthood, and women have motherhood, there has to be a degree of equality between the two responsible titles. Each title must have equal attainability in order for each party to engage in this particular divine postulation of royal and spiritual responsibility.
In short examination of the priesthood, we can determine that a “righteous priesthood holder” is male, and prior to 1978, was non-black. The quality of being male is (arguably) unchangeable, as is the quality of skin colour. That is the limit for the unchangeable characteristics of a priesthood holder. The changeable characteristics that culturally are associated with worthiness, such as being a full tithe payer, being obedient to the word or wisdom and regular church attendance can be relatively simple to obtain. Especially to one who is faithful and seeks to be bestowed with the priesthood. What’s more, the male is not reliant on others to force him to pay tithes or attend church in order to obtain priesthood. Once he is ordained, the title sticks. It is not removed unless he is excommunicated. Even if he chooses to not attend church or pay tithes, his title of “priesthood holder” remains.
For women, the culturally equivalent act of being a mother is one who bears and is the primary care-giver of children. It is gender-specific, and the unchangeable characteristic is that a mother is female. Prior to this state of motherhood, a young woman is defined as a “future mother”, a state that is arguably comparative to the preparatory (Aaronic) priesthood. Like the male, her sex is (for argument’s sake) unchangeable. But unlike the male, the female otherwise has no changeable characteristics. Regardless of how well she abides by the word of wisdom, and all other medical advice, she may not have a child. Regardless of how often she attends church, she may still miscarry. Even if employing in-vitro-fertilization or adoption, the average costs associated is significantly more than the cost of tithing associated with the average American household income (2). Better still, religiously active men don’t need to protect against unwanted/unprepared “priesthoods” whereas sexually active women -married or not—need to protect themselves against unhealthy or unplanned pregnancies. The fact is, men don’t just forget a pill and end up offering a mistaken blessing.
When the motherhood/priesthood statement is made to me or in church settings, it usually it comes with the well-intended side comment, “but if not in this life for you, the next….” I find the statement uncomfortable and the following consolation prize condescending. Has a man who has been ordained to the priesthood, yet refuses to pay tithing been told, “oh, well… you can hold the priesthood in the next life”? Of course not. He still duty-bound and entitled to practice the priesthood within his family unit; this is his compulsion, as per Joseph F. Smith(3). And according to Boyd K. Packer, not only is he invited to practice the priesthood, he is obligated to do so, as well as being preferred when offering blessings within the family unit, regardless of inactivity. Once ordained, even if “inactive”, a man still has the agency to call upon his sovereign power of priesthood in order to ordain or bless another. His office as vessel of priesthood power is not reserved for “the next life”, it isn’t even reserved for righteousness in the Packer example. This means that unless a man is excommunicated, he is assumed to always have priesthood authority.
This cannot be equal to women who can never obtain motherhood in this life. Women cannot automatically conjure a child. Once a female has a child, she is forever known as a mother, yet her child bearing years and her child bearing ability are limited. Her ability to sustain her office in motherhood is confined within a fertility period of her life if she is able within that time frame. Once motherhood is obtained, she is always called mother, but if she is not able to obtain the motherhood title within her fertility window, all is lost. Compared to the male, who has priesthood authority that can take precedence in his home, his congregation, and even at an informal BBQ at any time in his life, so long as he is at least 12 years old. His period and place of accomplishment is extended for his entire life. His priesthood power is relatively unlimited, whereas motherhood is very restricted.
This means that there are inherent characteristics associated with obtaining and holding priesthood that are changeable and therefore attainable to all males, whereas women wanting motherhood, yet who are infertile or unmarried, face only unchangeable character challenges. The two titles can never be fair comparisons. There is overt agency for males who want to obtain priesthood, but there is very limited agency, sometimes impossibility for women who want to obtain motherhood.
Then we have the metaphysical motherhood of Sheri Dew. You know what? I like this. Eve was declared the “mother of all living” before the fall, ergo, before she had given birth. But, in a cultural Mormon context, motherhood is practical only, the metaphysical mothering, nurturing role is limited, and in my experience, nurturing by child-bearing women is vehemently unwelcome. Case in point: My husband and I have spent well over $100,000 in an effort for me to be a mother. But, because I am not a mother, I am not invited to Relief Society activities and a host of other church events (“this is family focused, so we didn’t invite you because it doesn’t apply to you” is the most common excuse). I have been told that I cannot be called to the primary because I lack experience, yet I have been raised in the church and have worked as a teacher. The state will employ me in 40 hours of childcare education and responsibility a week, whereas the church cannot risk a primary calling because I am not a mother. Huh?
I pay tithes, attend all meetings possible and attend the temple. My husband no longer attends church regularly, doesn’t pay tithing and… is still invited to participate in ordinances when he attends. His priesthood is welcome in any state, whereas I am unwelcome if children are involved. When comparing practical or “real” motherhood to priesthood, male autonomous authority still overrides, regardless of (lack of) tithes and offerings. As a result, metaphysical motherhood is especially worthless in Mormon culture.
I don’t argue that men and women are or should be equal in a spiritual sense, and I am not even arguing that women should have the priesthood. I simply state that in order for motherhood and priesthood to be sovereign authorities, the responsibility of each must be matched. We all have to be afforded equal agency in regard to accepting or disavowing spiritual assignments. In the case of priesthood vs. motherhood, the quality of agency is essentially void. No matter how hard some women try, we cannot be mothers. Period. This makes the comparison or the perceived equalising of the motherhood/priesthood gender characterizations unsubstantiated.
In short: if the basis of biblical Mormon history is true, and we all have been given agency in order to obtain celestial glory or damnation, then motherhood and priesthood can never be comparable, because motherhood lacks a fundamental degree of agency. No matter how perfectly women apply agency in doing all that is considered righteous, motherhood can still be an impossible rank, unlike the title of priesthood. Therefore, motherhood can never equal priesthood because of the fundamental lack of agency that women have in regard to their bodies.
The role of a mother is undeniably and inarguably priceless and of infinite worth. But as long as we degrade it by comparing it to a priesthood that is not required to be earned, the ideology of “motherhood” is significantly less than uniform to “priesthood”.
1. For background on the historical genesis of this phrase, see Sonja Farnsworth, “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Connection,” in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism , ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 299-311
2. The most recent US Census bureau obtained for resource was 2006. It listed that median gross income was $48,201.00, so tithing per annum would be approximately $5,000 if tithed on gross. What this means is that on average, for a temple-worthy tithe paying male it “costs” him $5,000 a year for the privilege of being a worthy priesthood holder, whereas the cost for a barren woman to even apply- and not be guaranteed motherhood is a median of $20,000 (in 2006) per attempt, plus any tithing she may incur in the quest for gaining money in which to afford adoption or IVF. The cost of IVF at the University of Utah Hospital in 2009 was about $24,000 per attempt.
3. Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., 1939, p287.