How Ordain Women Got What They Deserved (Spoiler: It’s Not What You Think)

An OW participant being turned away

An OW participant being turned away

by Aimee

Last Saturday I eagerly watched Twitter and Facebook feeds in anticipation of the news of the day: would the many dear friends I had who were petitioning LDS Church leaders for admittance into the Priesthood Session of General Conference be allowed to participate? The first clue I saw was OW  organizer Suzette Smith’s simple status update: “They said no.”

Though I was crushed on behalf of my friends who had placed themselves in such an honest and vulnerable position to ask for this mere token of equality, I would be lying if I said this wasn’t the outcome I expected and even wanted. For as much as I seek equality for myself, my sisters, my daughter, I want the Church to be transparent in how unequally it treats its men and its women–for the inequity to be fully revealed beneath the platitudes and pieties surrounding the discourse of Mormon womanhood. As I was confronted with the image of a green garbage truck blocking women from the standby line for tickets into the Priesthood session, this inherent inequality was exposed in all its metaphorical and literal ugliness. This image, and all it represents, does Mormon feminists’ work for them.

I believe the most compassionate, as well as PR savvy move the Church could have made Saturday was to quietly and respectfully allow this reverent group of women admittance to hear the words of their revered prophet and apostles. Such a move would have offered ammunition to OW detractors who may have used such a compassionate move as evidence of the Church’s respect for prayerful women.

OW participants comfort each other after being refused entrance

OW participants comfort each other after being refused entrance

But instead, Church leadership chose a course which opened wounds and stifled hope. Poring through the photographs of women’s faces taken in the moment they were being turned away will stay with me for years. In each face one could see hope, fear, pain, joy, power and purpose. Each face, one after another, was looked into and turned away by a church official. The image of an entire congregation of women watching as fathers and sons dashed by them into the conference center, averting their eyes as though avoiding sin, will haunt me.

And I believe these images will continue to haunt all of us in ways that will both enervate and empower. The exposure of one more symbol of  blatant inequality will do more for the cause of Mormon feminism and the OW movement in particular than if those sisters had been quietly ushered in to participate in a rather forgettable church meeting.

To Ordain Women I say, yes, the Church said “no.” But YOU made them say it. And that’s saying something!

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39 Responses

  1. EdwardJ says:

    I agree that the genius of this action is that it made visible the sexism that is so often invisible in our church, the sexism that must end if we are truly to become a Zion community of Saints.

    • Davis says:

      Zion has existed for real several times on this planet. In none of them did women hold the Priesthood. Lets not exaggerate too much.

      • EdwardJ says:

        The scriptures don’t say whether women held the priesthood in Zion times.

        Joseph Smith’s statement to the first Relief Society that it would be “a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day” suggests that women did hold the priesthood in the City of Enoch.

      • Aimee says:

        I agree, Edward. I think so much of the gender imbalance in Mormonism is obscured by lip-service we pay the important “roles” women play but that never grant any real authority (especially among men). The more people SEE it, the less we have to keep trying to spell it out!

        Davis, whether or not you believe women have held the priesthood (in this dispensation or others) is actually highly debatable. There are blog posts throughout the Mormon blogosphere that you can read up on where this very topic is debated. But frankly, I’m not as interested in whether there’s a historic precedent for women’s ordination, but in doing my part to build the Kingdom of God on earth today–the kingdom God is counting on us mere mortals to build. My Mormon experience has instructed me that a Zion people must be equal in earthly things in order to be equal in heavenly things (D&C 78). I believe that the governance and structure of the Church is one of those “earthly things” and barring an entire half of that body from participating is not equal. Moreover, such a structure not only seems unlike Zion but, I believe, fails to prepare us for a celestial experience in which genuine equality will be the foundation of that heavenly society.

        And finally, I believe in the power and reality of continuing revelation. For me, following the example of Jesus Christ means questioning the status quo, of asking why things are the way they are and engaging with God in how to bring that Zion society to pass. I’m not officially affiliated with the Ordain Women movement, but I admire them for doing just that.

  2. Emily U says:

    I admit when I first heard of women hoping to attend the Priesthood Sessi

    • Emily U says:

      Sorry, hit the wrong button. Continuing my comment,

      …Priesthood Session I thought there would be a couple dozen brave souls, and I was so proud to see almost 200 in attendance. Clearly the time was right, and many women are ready to ask hard questions of their leaders. I bet if OW does this again the numbers will double or more.

      And I think you’re so right, Aimee, this could have been an opportunity for the Church to say that Priesthood isn’t just for and about men, but they didn’t. Which is revealing.

      Davis, you are only guessing about your idea of Zion. There’s nothing in the scriptures to say one way or the other.

      • Davis says:

        I suppose it is fair to say that I am only guessing that women did not have the Priesthood in the city of Enoch. It would then also be fair to say that you are only guessing that women need to have the Priesthood now.

        I have no strong feelings either way. If the Prophet stands up and announces that women will be ordained, I will support that. I was just pointing out that sometimes exaggerated language skews what people really think and can push others away.

      • Aimee says:

        I take your point, Davis. But I would argue that saying that women have never had the priesthood and implying that means they never will, might also “skew what people really think and can push others away.”

      • Davis says:

        I had a long post going, but it is clearly only going to be antagonistically picked apart again. So I will just head out.

  3. MDearest says:

    This effort wasn’t about women holding the priesthood, but about faithful women being welcomed to attend priesthood meeting as guests. Or not.

    At some time in the future, the question of women’s ordination or inclusion some other way in the power of God will be addressed. Maybe not in our lifetime. But that question was definitely off the table last Saturday.

    They deserve credit for their courage and control. It must have been quite a gauntlet and they came through it admirably.

  4. Melody says:

    Thoughtful and insightful post. Thank you, Aimee.

    I agree that the action itself created the best possible result. I have wondered over and over in the past few days how it was possible that men who appear to be compassionate, concerned leaders could really, truly not let these women in. . . with all the messages of love and inclusion in this conference. It’s baffling. Yet, in this case, highly effective in telling the story of inequality. Perhaps God is in this, after all 😉

  5. EFH says:

    I want to give a big hug to all the beautiful and courageous women who participated in this action. It was not easy but it did made visible the unnecessary veils that we use to organize our religious lives. To all of you who are hurt by not being let in or are hurt by what people say, I say to you:

    Girl, you will be back knocking at that door when Christ is the guardian of it, you will be let in.

  6. Howard says:

    Powerful photos!

  7. Steve says:

    I think it is sad that some people think it is positive thing that the Church was put in a position of public embarassment. I find nowhere in the scriptures that trying to steady the ark through shaming the Church into change is a God approved method

    • Ziff says:

      I find it sad that the Church actively discourages feedback from its members so that the *only* way a message can be delivered to the GAs is by publicity. I find it even sadder that so many members misguidedly believe that GAs are infallible and need no feedback on how the Church is being run.

      • Steve says:

        In my experience I haven’t seen evidence for the two points you bring up. At any rate, conceding that they could be true doesn’t mean much in relation to my comment since both of our comments are not mutually exclusive

      • Ziff says:

        Regarding the second point, you said yourself (below):

        “I am not embarrassed by the Church, but I do feel sorry for those who believe the wisdom of mortals is sufficient to know the Church is in error.”

        If this isn’t a statement of infallibility, I don’t know what is. No mortal can question the Church = the Church leadership is infallible. You might not want to own the word since it sounds a little crazy, but it’s clearly what you believe.

        Regarding the first point, how often do you attend church? There’s a letter read at least every year or so saying that we members should not write General Authorities, and that any questions we have can be handled at the local level, and that any letters we send will be returned to our stake presidents. You’ve really never heard of this?

      • Ziff says:

        Oh, and I’m sorry I didn’t address your main point. I was just reflecting your passive-aggressive tone back at you so you could get a sense of how ridiculous it sounds.

        You only don’t find scriptural examples that parallel OW because you jump to the conclusion that they’re trying to shame the Church into changing. What they’re trying to do is to get a message to Church leaders to ask God about ordaining women. There’s plenty of precedent for that. The Word of Wisdom came about that way. Zelophehad’s daughters in the Bible got inheritance rules changed by asking Moses to ask God, who *approved* of their suggestion.

      • Steve says:

        “If this isn’t a statement of infallibility, I don’t know what is.”

        Then your probably not trying hard enough, and it doesn’t seem like you’ve read my comments carefully. I pointed out that I think person revelation is a legitimate way to know if there are errors in doctrine or practice being promoted – but then went on to explain why I don’t think this justifies activism. I’ve never met an LDS member who truly believed in leader infallability, I’m not sure why you would assume that was my position. My argument is that the reasoning/wisdom of man is simply insufficient to come to a sure knowledge when a mistake or error has been made.

        “it’s clearly what you believe”

        Thanks for trying to tell me what I believe. Since I know what I believe, and you do not, I can assure you that you are 100% wrong.

        “Regarding the first point, how often do you attend church?” Are you trying to pick a fight? Your tone doesn’t come across as very civil. I attend every week, for as long as I can remember if you must know. As for the letters, I am familiar with that, and it seems only reasonable to me given the size of the Church. Proper order doesn’t prevent a stake president from going on with issues He feels are necessary to ask above him. Additionally, I know other people who have argued the opposite side, that they feel like the Church is far to influenced by public feedback, that all the constant polls and surveys and data that the Church collects has changed the Church into an ever changing institution changing with the whims of public opinion. Maybe you and the die hard fundamentalists can get together and discuss what each of you are missing in your arguments.

        “You only don’t find scriptural examples that parallel OW because you jump to the conclusion that they’re trying to shame the Church into changing”

        Notice how I didn’t attribute this to all OW members. I was referring to those, and only those, who feel it is a positive thing that the Church was publicly embarrassed. Given the evidence, it seems reasonable that they find such a thing positive, because they feel like this embarrassment will lead to reconsideration and then hopefully change. I don’t think it is very extreme to succinctly state this process as shaming the Church to change. I don’t agree with this method, and I still think it is not scriptural, but also not faithful.

        I am all about asking questions. But I believe respecting the Priesthood order means following proper channels given to ask those questions, and I also think it means not demanding a particular outcome, but being open and willing to receive all answers. Predetermining what the answer ought to be, and not being willing to accept otherwise, is not a sincere inquiry, it’s a demand. And whether the justification for this demand roots in mortal wisdom, or personal revelation, it undermines the order of God in any respect, and I find it to be morally reprehensible for believing members act in this manner.

      • Ziff says:

        I apologize for my tone, Steve. Your initial comment began with the words “it is sad,” which came across to me as a passive-aggressive way of calling people to repentance. I have clearly misjudged you.

        I do think that if you believe Church leaders can make mistakes, but it’s not actually possible or right to bring those mistakes to their attention, the effect is one of practical infallibility. That is, what we do in response to what they say is the same as it would be if we did believe they were infallible.

        I agree with you that no Church member is likely to say that Church leaders are infallible; however, I do think the idea of obedience is so dominant in the Church that we effectively behave as though leaders are infallible.

        “I am all about asking questions. But I believe respecting the Priesthood order means following proper channels given to ask those questions”

        This is what I personally find so frustrating about the Church. There are no proper channels, at least not beyond the local level. It’s great that you’re not familiar with the “don’t write to GAs” letter, but I’ve heard it read a number of times in sacrament meeting in the wards I’ve attended, and I think the clear effect of this letter is to say to members that there is no concern or issue that can be raised about the Church at a general level. Sure, if there’s something you don’t like in your ward or stake, you can talk to leaders in your ward or stake, but if there’s something in the structure of the whole Church you’re unhappy with, there’s no proper channel through which to express it. This is one reason I appreciate the publicity OW is generating; I feel like it makes an end run around the “don’t write to us” wall that prevents information from moving up the chain.

        Again, I apologize for being rude. Thanks for responding in more kindness than I did.

      • Steve says:

        No problem, I think I see where your coming from. I meant to say that I am familiar with the letter writing statements you mentioned, and I definitely can understand how this could be a point of frustration. I understand with the size of the Church why it is only feasible for things to be addressed at a local level first, but I could get behind the idea that communication lines from a local level reaching the top might not be happening effectively right now. I’ve never been a Stake President, and I’ve never attempted to get an issue/question addressed beyond a local level, so I have no experience, and I have no data to real make a judgement call there.

        But it wouldn’t surprise me if in the natural course of growth, we haven’t found a way for the bottom of the hierarchy to effectively communicate with the top outside of the data the top actively tries to gather from the bottom. I am glad they attempt to get feedback anyhow, but I could see how such a system could possibly overlook important issues from time to time. Again, I can’t say this is the case, but I think it is at least a plausible scenario.

        I think if I wanted an important issue to get to the top, I would try to work at a Stake level to persuade my Stake president to do survey’s and gather data within the Stake to really see how wide spread the issue/question is. And if it is wide spread enough and appears likely that this may be a church-wise issue, I would try to work with and hopefully through my Stake President, having built a relationship of being on the same team, in order to take the issue to higher authorities.

        If in this process I found that communication lines were difficult and seemingly ineffective in trying to get the issues addressed from the top, the first thing I would want addressed from the top is how the Lord might want to change, if change at all, the current system so that communication lines can be more effective. Or in other words, I would want to know, how is it that lowly members like myself can properly ask questions to the only people who have authority to get answers to those questions for the Church as a whole–i.e. those who hold the keys of the kingdom holding stewardship over the whole Church?

        If someone else went through this process, but never received any answers or feedback from above after sincere and long efforts, I would be sympathetic towards some form of public activism to address this one issue, “How would the Lord like His members, given the massive size of the Church, to effectively present their issues before the Brethren, when only the Brethren can provide an answer?”. In addition to already having tried the current approved channels first, I think another thing that would make me sympathetic towards this hypothetical public movement would be if the movement was openly willing to accept any answer the Brethren give to the question, such as “The current situation and channels are indeed the Lord’s way right now, or not to be answered at this time, or here is the new system the Lord would have members follow, etc.”

        I think that’s about the only issue and only type of activism I would feel comfortable backing, else it becomes a church of a public lobbying for who knows what variety of special interest issues that will continue to arise. It just does not come across as a house of order, nor a house of unity in the faith as I envision it.

        So my hope is that if in others’ experiences, they really feel that the current system is not as effective as the Lord *may* want it to be, that this is the issue we address first. And when we receive an answer from the Brethren clarifying the proper order of bringing our issues/questions to their attention in those times where it is both right and necessary, we have a definitive reference on how we should go about questions like the ordination of women. I am certainly not opposed to that question being asked. I just don’t want a dangerous precedent being set, I want the Lord’s Church to continue to be a house of order, as well as making sure the voices of its members are heard so we can all truly be united.

        Sorry for all the ramblings, that was my extremely long way of saying I agree with several of your points.

  8. Aimee says:

    Steve, I also think it’s sad that the Church was publicly embarrassed–but that embarrassment was self-made. The women asking to gain entrance into PH Session were not trying to embarrass the Church, but simply attend a meeting. Did they suspect it would draw public scrutiny–no doubt. But did they manufacture their own exclusion? Did they block the entrance with a garbage truck? There were a number of ways the Church could have chosen to handle this event and save itself some embarrassment, but it didn’t. Their decisions, both intentional (to keep women out) and likely inadvertent (using a garbage truck to physically block the entrance)revealed in images an experience that many women usually only feel. I’m embarrassed for my Church that this was handled this way. I take no pleasure in it.

    • Steve says:

      Sure you could claim that it was self-made, much like you could claim that Jesus’ crucifixion was a self-made event. He could have stopped declaring He was the Messiah if he wanted to, and this may have been better PR to the majority of the Jews, and could even be argued that doing so would have been more compassionate to the Jews who were offended by this claim and didn’t understand His role just yet. So yes, you can claim that Jesus crucifixion was self-made, but such a characterization doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a faithful perspective.

      Of course we are not dealing with something as extreme as the crucifixion of the Savior, but I chose an extreme example to make a point – that standing up for what is right is not sufficient justification for public backlash and although it may be a natural result of two ideologies clashing, from a faithful perspective it doesn’t make much sense to characterize this as self-made or self-imposed. You can only rightfully make this claim if in your perspective the Church is wrong in their actions. And how can you make that claim? Or how could you prove that this is the case? The wisdom or philosophy of man? That is not provable. By personal revelation? This is the only real choice I can think of, but even so it then becomes wrong and opposed to the order of the Priesthood to use personal revelation to command or coerce the Church, or to publicly call the Church to repentance (which is the necessary effect of publicly stated that the Church is definitively wrong).

      I am not embarrassed by the Church, but I do feel sorry for those who believe the wisdom of mortals is sufficient to know the Church is in error. So I stand by my position, I do think it is sad that some people think it is positive thing that the Church was put in a position of public embarrassment.

  9. Aimee says:

    Steve, I understand that you’re trying to make the point that by these women asking for admittance into this meeting they were putting the Church in a position in which its actions would be scrutinized and I think there’s a fair debate to be had about how that action puts the Church in a defensive position to begin with. But to suggest that being disappointed with the way the Church chose to respond to this pressure is something a faithful person can’t do unless they are listening to the “philosophies of man,” or relying on rogue personal revelation, is insulting. You and I (and others) can debate all we like about whether or not this action was appropriate in the first place, but in my post I provided all the evidence I need for how I think the Church mishandled this experience.

    I reiterate, it gives me no pleasure that the church I love responded to this event in a way that was so hurtful to so many. But it exposes an ugly truth I believe we all need to face.

    • Steve says:

      I think I see what your getting at. But my issue is with the source of the disappointment bring expressed. Is the disappointment because the Church decided that entrance for women was not right given the session and situation? (It sounded like this was what you disapproved of, please correct me if I misunderstood.) If the disappointment is rooted in believing the Church is wrong in this decision, I think it would be wise to question that disappointment and the underlying assumptions that cause that disappointment rather than publicly declaring disapproval of the Church’s decision. On what basis can a person presume to know the Church was wrong in this decision?

      I wouldn’t have an issue with a person saying they don’t understand how this is the right decision from the Church, that it doesn’t feel quite right given their current understanding; but to declare the Church’s position as wrong and to state and express happiness that this action “exposed” a problem claimed to definitively exist, to me is full of unfounded assumptions contrary to principles of faith and faithfulness.

  10. Jace says:

    Elder Christopherson just said, “In blurring feminine and masculine differences, we lose the distinct, complementary gifts of women and men that together produce a greater whole.”

    Not all equality is actually a good thing. There are plenty of examples of that. In fact, it leads to inequality.

  11. Richard says:

    I have a question. If I tried to attend the general relief society session, would I (a man) be turned away?

    • Ziff says:

      No, you absolutely would not be. At least a couple of men associated with OW went to the General RS meeting and were happily admitted.

      • Steve says:

        Can you provide proof, or a citation here? It sounds like hearsay to me.

        But if it is true, it would give me a bit of pause, because on the surface it would appear to be pretty inequitable when compared to the Priesthood session. It would give me reason to ask some questions at the very least.

        If you have definitive sources, please provide them, I would be interested to know about this.

      • Ziff says:

        Here’s who I was thinking of–Edward Jones went to the General RS meeting. I thought I saw him say somewhere that he saw a few other men there, but I can’t find where he did.

      • EdwardJ says:

        I was not allowed into the Conference Center because I’m male. I was also not allowed in the main area of the Tabernacle, as that was a standby area for the Conference Center.

        But I was allowed to sit in the balcony of the Tabernacle and watch the RS broadcast. There were other men there, as well as tourists wandering in and out.

      • Ziff says:

        Thanks, Edward, for verifying and clarifying . 🙂

      • Richard says:

        Interesting. Reading the comments below (and from my own limited experiences), it seems clear that I would *not* be permitted to attend the session. This is critical! Can we then argue that denial of admission was routed in some deeply-held sexists motive held by Church leadership? Because there is a duality here, it seems evident that we cannot.

        There are separate meetings for men and women. If in general, women could attend the men’s and men could attend the women’s, how would you prevent it from ultimately becoming another joint session? And this, of course, would be counter-productive; there is value in messaging addressed just to men or just to women.

        In short, I feel like the move by OW to try to gain admittance to the priesthood session distracted from legitimate concerns held by the organization. Why not direct our efforts toward demonstrating and solving *real* inequality. For example, why not demand more focus by the Church on the YW organization: more leadership training for YW, joint YW-visiting teaching efforts, etc, and continually voice our hope of a better understanding of priesthood doctrine as it relates to the power of women?

        The so-called inequality revealed by these women’s efforts in this instance was—I must say—mostly imagined. Yes, it is still a meeting presided over by men, and yes there are male ushers (!!)—but this is not what the women’s actions protested. Quite the contrary. The act of *trying to attend* implicitly validated the meeting itself. So, sadly (with sincere respect for the feelings of these women) I think this was a side-show, and a foolish distraction from an otherwise noble cause.

      • Aimee says:

        Richard, I don’t believe that the OW participants were trying to “invalidate” the PH meeting, as you suggest. Rather, I think they would argue that this meeting is a place of importance in that it is a meeting explicitly for priesthood holders. Lest we forget OW stands for Ordain Women, I believe the point of their attendance was to demonstrate that this is a place they feel they belong as future priesthood holders.

        I’m really not interested in arguing one way or another about OW intent or aims. In truth, I am conflicted about certain aspects of the movement, though I personally believe that priesthood ordination for all worthy members, regardless of sex, is an essential part of equality for a Zion people. So while I’m not officially affiliated with OW or even entirely on board with all aspects of their mission, I care about their intentions being accurately understood. They believe that as future priesthood holders, this is a meeting they would like to attend and were not trying to diminish either PH session or the General Relief Society meeting with this action.

  12. Emily U says:

    Richard, I don’t know if that’s been tried, but I do know men attend every General Relief Society Meeting, as ushers and technicians, and of course the final talk is aways given by a man (a member of the First Presidency). I highly doubt a man would be turned away as a member of the audience.

    • Steve says:

      It would surprise me if they didn’t turn away men. It would be nice to have a definitive answer on this question, because if it were verified that any men could just show up and attend, on the surface this would appear very unfair/inconsistent.

      My feeling is that in the future it is more likely the few men attending the RS session will be removed, and it will become truly an all female meeting.

      • MDearest says:

        It will never truly become an all female meeting, nor should it IMO. Men will always preside, and a member of the FP will always give at least one of the addresses. And that’s ok. It can still be for and about women with a few men participating and there will always be a few men interested in witnessing the proceedings. If there’s room, and no women are turned away to make seating for visitors available, men are, and should be welcome at Relief Society meetings. The same courtesy should be available to women who have reason to attend priesthood meeting as well.

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