Musings on Women, Priesthood and Social Darwinism


Sexual separation is often a characteristic of dominant societies. The military, administrative and travelling imperatives of imperialism dictated it and, no less than Sparta or among the Zulu, the training and socialization of the young became increasingly directed towards this end. Public schools, youth organisations, juvenile literature, the club and the army mess were all expressions of it, as were strictly segregated working men’s clubs and school staff rooms. In the extending and building of country houses and public buildings of this period,  the provision of the male sanctum became an architectural necessity.

-John M. Mackenzie, Manliness and Morality, Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America 1800-1940, Manchester University Press, 1987, p 180-181.  


The above statement, whilst written in regard to the social Darwinist aspects of Victorian and Edwardian exclusion of women from big game (authoritative and elite-class) hunting ,  I think can easily be applied to the segregation still present within Mormon Society. Men and women are segregated in the church organizations, and are so from a young age. The Young Men and Young Women’s programs are evidence of this, but historically, even 10 and 11 year olds were segregated until the advent of the co-mingled Valiant class (I was a Merrie Miss.) Youth organizations, literature, church meetings and MIA activities all segregate young females from males as the males developed authority levels within priesthood ranks.

There are a dozen different applications and definitions in regard to what is now called ‘social Darwinism’, even dating before Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  In defining social Darwinism from masculinity perspective, can be stated that in segregating the sexes, the segregation sustains the elite class of the society.  In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, men went on hunting (sporting) trips that excluded women. In companionship, (not in contradiction or competition), women’s organizations emerged as support groups for the men. This is the period rife with the development and organizing of women’s organizations, including the Relief Society. The important part to understand is that because the women’s organizations are companion organizations to the male sport, hobby or social clubs, the women’s organization sustains the class position of both the women and the men, with the men in the authoritative hierarchy.

An example of this is clear in the Edwardian (Progressive) era Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Boy Scouts were a masculinity and nationalization tool wherein boys were taught how to camp, hunt (prepare for war’s bloodshed), and scout for when their country needed them for war.  Girl Scouts were a feminie organization that taught women how to cook over an open fire, nursing skills and nationalistically-minded service so when war occurred, women could become nurses to assist injured men, grow victory gardens and comfort each other when the men were at war.  (These are broad descriptions. I am well aware that troops are unlike this today, and not all troops globally taught the exact same skills; some of the early female troops taught some ‘manly’ skills, such as fishing.)  Because the girls had specific assignments in an organization that excluded the boys, girls and women could continue to be trained as subordinate support staff in companionship to male organizations.    

This is the same era wherein the Relief Society began, so there is no surprise that the Relief Society is understood as a “companion organization” to the Priesthood, just like ladies’ taxidermy clubs were in companionship to their husband’s hunting clubs. Much focus of the Relief Society is in sustaining the priesthood, nourishing fellow women in feminine roles and looking after the home in a manner that can be likened as one that is a lead by a mostly absent male, as the male is engaged in elitist work such as war, providing for his family or giving priesthood service to others. (Mirroring the Victorian male who was away hunting for meat or sport because it retained his status is the elite class, i.e. men must “practice” the priesthood or they may lose religious authority and therefore, status).   

If this line of thinking is correct and companion organizations only enforce their status as secondary to the male social hierarchy, then the presence of the Relief Society is just as responsible for the position of women as subordinates. Without the “companionship” of the Relief Society, there would be no infrastructure to support the priesthood class; there would be no subordinate organization. In this argument, without the support of the Relief Society, the exclusivity and privilege of the male-only priesthood would fail.  

Apply this thought to the concept of women holding the priesthood. It is clear that priesthood authority is classist in Mormon culture. Women do not sign temple recommends, interview others for worthiness or offer ceremonial blessings in church meetings. Yet, women have compulsory membership in an organization that assigns them as a companions to (supporters of) the priesthood. If women have the priesthood, what comes of the Relief Society? In a classless social structure, is there a need for a subordinate support organization?  

There are many directions that this musing can go. But I mostly wondered if the abolition of the Relief Society would cause the male-only priesthood organization to crumble, and finally allow for female priesthood authority. In short, is the (Female) Relief Society actually making Mormon women weaker?


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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20 Responses

  1. Wow! What a provocative post! Obviously, if women had the priesthood there would be no need for the Relief Society. Would this be a loss to women? To the church? The theme of RS, “Charity never faileth,” could be incorportated with the priesthood, but what about theRS role of supporting the priesthood? Men and women mutually supporting each other seems pretty radical for contemporary Mormons.

    • jenneology says:

      I disagree that its obvious the Relief Society would not be needed. Perhaps it wouldn’t be needed as a female only organization (as spunky hinted at) and could become the organization overseeing home and visiting teaching, humanitarian work and community service. It could then be much more effective as a “relief” organization.

      That said, I believe that women will always need the companionship of other women due to the experiences of female biology. Men can be involved, supportive, and understanding of those processes but there is a need to connect with people who have been there and experienced it. There will always be strength in that and I believe a need for it. The current structure, however, places a greater emphasis on that relationship among women than needed and doesn’t provide that companionship that is truly needed. So while its a valiant effort, women in Relief Society aren’t receiving the support and companionship that would be most helpful to them.

      I know in my experience I grew up resenting the “special” relationships I was supposed to have with other girls and did not realize or appreciate what that might mean to me until I came face to face with how my biology makes me different than men and due to that provides me with very different experiences than they. I did not become comfortable relating to females until I had a shared experience with them. But because of the pressure to be close to females I grew up with, I found that establishing those bonds post-maidenhood was rife with difficulty. To me that seems a case for letting relationships between women develop organically rather than pushing them together all their lives.

      • Janna says:

        I am curious about your statement, “…due to the experiences of female biology.” What experiences are those?

        If you mean childbearing, does that mean that the only reason women need female connection is because of the commonality of having babies?

      • jenneology says:

        Of course not. Childrearing is not the only thing that makes a woman female. There’s having female anatomy, menstruating, being attracted to men (or women), etc. and the obligatory variety of experiences that come from those shared traits. Women who are not mothers are not androgynous nor is a woman with non-typical characteristics less of a woman because of circumstances that make them different. Additionally, biological gender traits are real and women naturally would congregate around their shared interests which are going to be very diverse. Given that diversity there are enough people in this world interested in similar things that there can be community. A greater emphasis needs to be made on knowing how to connect with people with differing interests regardless of gender (and you can also say religion). Its time for women to not be defined and segregated based on the tendency for some or most women to share those traits. Let them find each other and encourage everyone to be kind and supportive of one another in their differing experiences and circumstances.

      • spunky says:

        Thanks, Course Correction. I agree, I don’t think the RS could survive as a female-only organization, and I don’t necessarily want to see its demise, which means — well, maybe men should join? The incorporation of home teaching into RS is brilliant. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Emily U says:


    While I don’t dispute that Relief Society supports Priesthood, I actually think a more salient function of the RS is to support women. This role would be enhanced if women were ordained, and could actually make RS more powerful and relevant.

  3. Caroline says:

    Spunky, this is an AMAZING post. My baby’s crying, so I only have a second, but I’ll make a comment or two.

    If priesthood was extended women, I’d like to see the RS continue – as a charitable organization open to both men and women who feel called or drawn to helping those in their congregations and/or communities.

  4. Breena says:

    Love this post.

    My husband was just called to teach the valiant boys class (they still separate the boys and girls in our ward) and last night was his first midweek activity to work on the “Faith in God” program. I was appalled when he told me they had separate “Faith in God” programs for boys and girls. The thought of gender-based programming at age 9 and 10 made my stomach churn. Before I completely lost it, I decided to compare the two programs to see where they differed. Turns out the programs are identical, with the exception of one subheading. Where boys are “Preparing for the Priesthood,” the girls are “Preparing for Young Women.” However, the activities listed under the different subheadings are also identical. (Apparently, the skills needed for the Priesthood and the Young Women program are the same. Go figure.)

    Your post is extremely thought provoking. It answers the question of why they continue to separate programs by sex (even at the primary level when the material is identical!) and that answer is frightening.

  5. Amy says:

    This is a very provocative thought. In some ways I agree, and in some I’m not as sure. I think (and this is purely my opinion) that at least some of the reason we separate into women and men is just that we’re different. Around the age of 12, when our church more fully separates the boys into YM and Scouts and the girls into YW, is when they start to hit puberty. I would think that having discussions about some things, such as chastity, the young people may be more comfortable participating and discussing in a class with those of the same gender. And I also have noticed in Relief Society that there are discussions we have there that probably wouldn’t go on in a Sunday school class with both men and women. And I think it is also important to point out that of the three hour block, only one of those hours do we separate into gender.
    However, I will definitely welcome efforts to make women to feel more equal with men. I truly believe we are equal in God’s eyes, however, there is some culture that needs to be changed. Little by little. Line upon line. Precept upon precept…

    • spunky says:

      Thanks for commenting, Amy. I agree that there are some sensitive topics that men and women would not be as comfortable to discuss in a co-ed class… but the Relief Society does offer the formerly HFPE, formerly Enrichment, formerly Homemaking—now plain ol’ Relief Society interest group classes that could fill that need for men and for women. i.e. breastfeeding groups, sex- ed classes (imagine that at church!) etc.

  6. Quimby says:

    I am wondering if you feel that the Relief Society’s function as a “companionship organisation” has to do with the time or religious context in which it was formed, or if any women’s organisation is necessarily subordinate? (In other words because women’s organisations define themselves at least partially by the absence of men, is that by itself sufficient to mean that any such organisation is propping up or supporting men as a higher class?) Perhaps extrapulating to a scouting – in the Australian context, because Scouts include male and female both, has this led to a great equality or has it had the effect of simply replacing traditionally ‘female’ activities with traditionally ‘male’ activities (which could, arguably, be seen as even further marginalising these ‘female’ activities)? If we saw the abolishment of Relief Society, what, if anything, would be lost?

    • spunky says:

      Good questions, Quimby! I do not believe that any women’s organization is subordinate to male organizations. I am looking at this very broadly in a masculinity/historical context, which is to say that the era (Victorian) placed women as subordinated, and using the term “companionship” in its purpose makes the organization of lower status. Think about it like this: The Priesthood is a companion organization to the Relief Society. How differently does reading/saying that feel?

      In this argument, if there were a woman’s organization that began and a male support group began as a companion organization, then the companion organization- regardless of gender becomes the subordinate because it isn’t independent, it is a companion.

      As for Australian scouts, well… based on my observation only, Scouts (as in Boy Scouts, but Australian law allows girls to be scouts) is a larger organization with more members than the female-only Girl Guide (aka Girl Scout) group today. Females can become Scouts, but males cannot become Guides. An argument could be that the women’s organization weakened because it historically can’t shake subordinate status, but it could equally fair to state that the uniform (skirts), cookie-selling or other arts-focused badges were not as interesting to both genders as typical scout activities such as sailing, camping, etc.

      I guess what I wonder- in bordering on blasphemy, is this: Will the Relief Society disintegrate when women are given priesthood keys? Assuming the answer is yes, then IF the church allowed or required men to join the Relief Society FIRST, thereby strengthening the “companion” status to a co-authoritative status, then when (not if) women are given priesthood keys, the Relief Society would not disintegrate (such as the in the lessening of Girl Guide membership numbers). Basically- if men were made to be members of the Relief Society- would the church be in a better position to allow women to hold priesthood keys at no risk to the potential breakdown of the Relief Society? Should those who want women to have priesthood, would it be even more valuable to argue for the integration of men into the Relief Society?

      I admit this is not the best laid argument, hence the “musing” title. But I believe that women will inevitably be given priesthood keys (some day), so I wonder how that will come to pass without the destruction of the Relief Society…hence basis of the original query.

      What do you think?

  7. EmilyCC says:

    This is fascinating, Spunky! I think this is the kind of solid questioning we need to be engaged in if we ever hope to see things change.

    I, like you, would hate to see RS die, but I think I do enjoy having a women’s only group (it wouldn’t necessarily have to be during Church). I find that I am more likely to speak up in RS than in Gospel Doctrine because there are men there. I suspect there are other women who feel the same way.

    I love your idea of at least having a male group and a female group that are mutually supportive of each other. But, then I wonder does the “separate but equal” division ever really work?

    • spunky says:

      Thanks for commenting, Emily. I was thinking about this some more today as I looked at children’s books and found books on “toilet training for boys”, etc. There is a need for some things to be segregated. But this furthered my thought in regard to a combined Relief Society service organization, with separate interest groups that could discuss men’s issues and women’s issues privately… I think this could benefit men as well as women with men’s groups focused on men’s health, etc. I don’t think separate but equal does work- at least not yet… because that is kind of what we already have with the female-only relief society and the male-only- priesthood.

  8. Naismith says:

    This was very thought-provoking in many ways, but I am not quite buying this assumption:

    “It is clear that priesthood authority is classist in Mormon culture.”

    If my husband were reading this, he might say that men are the servant class. He never wanted to be a bishop. Our stake is in the process of being reorganized, and NOBODY wants the job of stake president. How is it that individual men benefit from such service?

    I think that much of these arguments assume that men are and want to be on top, somehow benefitting from the current system. For me, I can accept the current system more easily because I know it is just as unfair to my husband as to me. Both of us are required to sacrifice, and in so doing, grow and know that we are doing what the Lord would ask of us at a given point in time.

    Yes, my husband’s load might be easier if women suddenly had the priesthood and the pool of candidates (victims?) was greatly expanded. But my own challenges as a woman, of having my body ravaged by pregnancy and nursing, will not be resolved until science develops some kind of machine that can reliably gestate for us. So the future role of RS as an organization seems less of an issue than how the women who make up RS can do what they need to. When electronic uterine replicators are as common as dishwashers, then it will be a huge step toward being able to work side by side in the work of ministry.

  9. spunky says:

    Thanks for commenting, Naismith, but I am confused—are you saying that the only reason the Relief Society exists is to assist women in child-bearing? Because not all genetic females are born with uteruses (google MRKH for one). Some women, even with uteruses can’t have children and some single women choose to obey the law of chastity and not get pregnant out of wedlock. If the Relief Society is only for baby-making women, then it should be titled as “the Lord’s organization for baby-making women”, not as it is now as the “Lord’s organization for women”.

    I agree that the Priesthood is a service, but it is also an authority and without the approval of a bishop, etc. I can’t get a temple recommend. Even if I “pass” every question, if a man leader “feels” inspired to allow me a recommend, he can forbid giving me one. In order for me to challenge his feeling, I have to appeal to more men. That makes the preisthood a ruling class, even if its purpose *should* be of service.

    • Anna says:

      While not all women can have children biologically or socially, the vast majority do. If women could choose between RS and having babies or not having babies and being able to join the priesthood then who on earth would have babies? Very few, I think, judging by the women I knew growing up. (And maybe that’s a call for change… maybe it’s a statement on how all people everywhere want power and prestige more than duty and service.)

      The majority of women sacrifice by having babies. The majority of men sacrifice by supporting the system that encourages women to have babies and requires material support for them. And the men and women who don’t participate in making babies sacrifice by resigning themselves to the fact the system isn’t set up to benefit them. Everyone suffers and humanity continues to prosper overall.

      I agree that until the suffering of childbirth and raising them is removed, other parts of the system cannot be adequately reformed to be “fair”. I personally cannot imagine keeping on working while having children. I don’t think that’s “fair”. I also know it’s what will happen because it’s currently how the world is.

      To some degree I wonder how much feminist discourses and social changes aren’t an eternal dance of re-organisation that will never be finished and no-one will EVER be satisfied with, as the conservative become liberal become conservative become liberal.

      Would it remove some of the sting of being denied a temple recommend if it was a women doing the denying?

      I have been in positions of powerlessness my whole life and I know well how the sting burns. You may be correct in thinking that if we knew those positions of power were also open to us, it wouldn’t be so bothersome, because we could feel that “I am just as wise as they are; only their current title separates our opinions from being right or wrong”. But I have also found that when authority is challenged or broken, it is a bitter victory. I would not believe anyone who would deny they did it with the taste of revenge in their mouths, and the aftertaste to that is terribly bitter. There are always fall-outs and people that suffer more in the “new order” than did in the old.

      I feel these blogs become too sidetracked with the feminist discourse these dialogues are couched in. They are the same dialogues that drive revolutions anywhere in the world regardless of gender or creed. *This* one regards women but is not *about* women. When we say “what about women who don’t have a uterus? The program doesn’t support them” we dive head-first into impossible promises of social equality where everyone will really be totally equal and catered to and have their dreams realised. It won’t happen. Are we discussing Utopia or our goals for the future?

      If I was informed tomorrow by a doctor that I was completely infertile I would hope that I did not suddenly decide the needs of the childless were my main point of interest. I hope that my goals for the well-being of society are more global and selfless than that. And so can we look at the “game plan” being pursued by Mormon feminism and conclude that men will ALSO be better off after it’s goals are realised, after the RS is decayed away by irrelevancy? Or at least they won’t be so much worse off that it is disproportionate to how much better off women will be?

      Let’s decide that social change must happen but not deny that people will get “hurt”, that there will still be those who have power and those that don’t.

  10. Naismith says:

    “are you saying that the only reason the Relief Society exists is to assist women in child-bearing?”

    No, I am saying that even if women are given the priesthood and the PotF is changed so that the church no longer holds women primarily responsible for the nurture of children, then women will still have to deal with the unfairness of biology in that only she can bear the children.

    I think a lot of church policy is designed to optimize support for those raising the next generation. I appreciate that may seem unfair to those who aren’t debilitated by pregnancy or for whom it isn’t even an option.

  11. Stephanie2 says:

    Interesting questions.

  12. Holly says:

    even 10 and 11 year olds were segregated until the advent of the co-mingled Valiant class (I was a Merrie Miss.)

    Huh. Guess I’ve been inactive a really long time. I didn’t know they got rid of the Merry Misses. Now when do Mormon girls learn to embroider, knit and crochet?

    Anyway, Spunky, GREAT post.

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