13 Lessons Learned as an Organizer of Ordain Women during its Infancy

April Young Bennett (center in red, facing forward) speaks to LDS Spokesperson Ruth Todd (also in red, facing away from the camera) during Ordain Women’s first attempt to attend the Priesthood Session of General Conference, October 2013. Photo by Rick Egan, Salt Lake Tribune.

The Ordain Women movement is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and asked me, as one of its original organizers, to share some thoughts about its early days at the recent Sunstone Symposium. Here are some things I learned while helping to start this activist organization.

1. The only avenue to communicate with the Brethren is through the media.

When I served on the Ordain Women board, we actively sought to initiate discussions with Latter-day Saint (LDS) leaders, including five written requests to LDS Church headquarters for a brief, private meeting with any General Authority available and willing. These requests were ignored. A source at church headquarters later informed me that a General Authority had implemented a silent treatment policy against any Ordain Women leader, which began almost at its inception. As such, we found that the best way to communicate with church leaders was through the media and our only way of knowing their response was through PR statements.

2. A long-term movement must find a sustainable pace.

During those first few years, we communicated daily via Facebook, in addition to regular conference calls, videoconferences and in-person actions. Everyone had an idea for action; we seriously explored most ideas and implemented many of them.  It was exciting and exhausting and completely unsustainable. No one can volunteer full-time indefinitely for a cause while maintaining their full-time day job and personal life. Movements need to find a sustainable pace to stay alive when the initial adrenaline rush comes to an end.

3. The face of a movement should not be one face.

In the beginning, too many media interactions were delegated to one person, Kate Kelly, because she was charismatic and willing. We quickly realized that this strategy was backfiring. Kate had a target on her back and the focus on her was giving the wrong impression—that Ordain Women was the pet project of one person instead of a movement with broad and diverse support among Mormons. We quickly pivoted and expanded the number of spokespeople. I took on one of these spokesperson roles long before our first public action. But the damage had already been done. Even now, many people assume that the Ordain Women movement is over because Kate Kelly is no longer on its board.

4. A big ask makes incremental change more palatable.

In an organization so conservative that a rebranding of the home teaching program is seen as historic, even the smallest request for progressive change shocks the system. Asking for the real, global change we actually wanted put those baby steps into perspective. Since Ordain Women launched, the Church has changed long-standing, seemingly permanent policies that discriminated against women, adding women to policymaking councils that used to be male-only and ending discriminatory policies targeting female Seminary and Institute teachers.

5. Taboos can be broken.

Before Ordain Women, even talking about whether Mormon women want the priesthood was taboo. Almost instantly after Ordain Women’s launch, conversations about women and priesthood became commonplace. Church leaders have adapted and changed their focus from priesthood as a manifestation of masculinity to preaching about a more expansive, less gendered view of the priesthood, accessible to women through callings.

6. The internet doesn’t protect us.

When Ordain Women launched, we hedged our bets on the belief that the internet had some sort of magical power to prevent the kinds of purges of Mormon feminists that the Church had orchestrated in the past. In the internet age, we thought, there were too many venues where we could raise our voices and too many of us to excommunicate. We didn’t think the church would risk the bad PR that would result from silencing us. We were wrong. The church doesn’t need to punish every activist; going after just a few public faces is enough to scare most people into submission. Censorship and coercion do bring bad publicity to the church, but the church appears to welcome this kind of publicity. Instead of using the media to spread the gospel to the whole world, the church appears to be targeting a certain socially conservative segment of the population, as well as using the media as a tool to keep current members in line. Publicity about censorship and coercion is actually conducive to these goals.

7. Obeying the rules doesn’t protect us.

Although we were expressing unorthodox opinions, we were careful to follow church rules. We believed that if we followed the rules we could evade church discipline. In fact, church policy gives ecclesiastical leaders a wide range of power to punish parishioners simply for not following their counsel, even if they don’t break any written rules.

8. Women are more expendable to the Church than men.

While Ordain Women had both male and female supporters, most of the supporters who were informally disciplined by their local ecclesiastical leaders were female. When the Church disciplines a man, they risk losing a priesthood holder. Since women are already banned from the priesthood, losing one is no big deal. Additionally, cultural expectations about feminine behavior may make female dissent more shocking to male ecclesiastical leaders than the same behavior by men like themselves. Formal discipline policies codify women’s expendability. It takes a regional council of 15 men to excommunicate a Mormon man, but a woman may be excommunicated locally by only four men. At a man’s excommunication trial, six men are assigned to advocate for the accused.  No one advocates for a woman who is excommunicated by her local bishop.

9. Censorship backfires.

At one point, my stake president used my brother’s temple wedding as leverage to coerce me to censor my writing about the need to ordain women. This act of censorship brought so many views to the Exponent, where I blog,  that the website crashed, leading to coverage in national news. Readers almost immediately found copies of my censored blog posts on internet archives and shared them. Most of these were old posts that weren’t getting a lot of traffic anymore, so censorship probably put my writing in front of more eyes than would have been the case otherwise. Church leaders beware; censoring women may not have the effect you are going for.

10. Formal recruitment efforts aren’t necessary.

Church leaders seem to believe that feminist ideals spread like a contagion from one woman to another, and can be blotted out by silencing or casting out the original vector. In my observation, Mormon feminists usually do not learn their ideals from other Mormon feminists. Instead, the need for equality is innate; it springs up seemingly from nowhere without outside influences. We found that supporters of women’s ordination existed throughout the LDS Church. Any publicity at all, whether good or bad, led to influxes of new people supporting the cause, not because we persuaded them, but simply because they had found other people who believed what they already believed. That said…

11. Diversity requires effort.

The lowest hanging fruit within a Mormon movement are people like me: white, middle class, multi-generation Mormons living in Mormon-dense areas of the Intermountain West. To build a more global movement, informed by more diverse perspectives, we had to reach out and adapt to accommodate diversity. Without an intentional and sustained effort, the movement would have stayed homogenous.

12. For most Mormon feminists, activism is a short-term gig.

Simply being Mormon and coping with Mormon patriarchy is more than many women can put up with over the long-term. Add to that the exhausting work of activism and coercive pressure from ecclesiastical leaders and the Mormon community, and it is not surprising that most people do not stay involved in Mormon feminist movements for many years. Continual turnover brings with it the need to relearn the same lessons over and over because few role models are still around to train up new activists.

13. There is a lot of support for the Ordain Women movement.

But it’s harder to see within the walls of our own churches, where oppressive church discipline policies force many people to hide their opinions. As an Ordain Women spokesperson, people reached out to me everywhere (in airplanes, bus stops, grocery stores, etc.) to express support, and these supporters were both Mormon and non-Mormon.  Sexism doesn’t only affect members of our church. People working to combat sexism In the wider community need the help of religious feminists because one of their greatest barriers is the sexism people learn to tolerate at their places of worship. Since participating in Ordain Women, I have begun the Religious Feminism Podcast to support interfaith dialogue among people working to combat sexism in many faith communities. We can do more to work with our allies across faiths.

This post is cross-posted at Ordain Women.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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34 Responses

  1. Allison Davies says:

    one edit: “probably put my writing in front of more eyes [THAN] would have been the case otherwise”

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    An excellent post; thank you.

  3. I love this and all very true.

  4. spunky says:

    This is eye-opening! Thank you!

  5. Evangelina Voz says:

    I am so grateful when people clearly name, and call out this neverending, exhausting stuff the church puts us through. It’s like us dedicating everything isn’t enough, how dare we have a voice and want to be treated respectfully as equals too.

    • Wondering Why says:

      Ordain Women is not seeking to be “treated respectfully”. It is seeking for women to be ordained. If God never intended for them to hold administrative priesthood then that will never happen.

      I have no problem with sisters being listened to, respected and having a voice. But if the Plan of Our Heavenly Father has no place for women being ordained then there is no point in Ordain Women.

    • JNB says:

      Wondering Why, I know you want to defend/clarify the movement’s objectives, but please don’t troll a sister who is clearly supporting the movement. This type of trolling is why I completely stopped visiting another site for LDS feminists (I said something supportive, used “wrong” language apparently, was viciously trolled by more expert feminists with better grasp of gender lingo, and I never returned). I sought out sites like these because powertripping men exercising unrighteous dominion left me convinced that women should be church leaders, too. But powertripping women will drive away followers just as quickly as domineering men do. Let us be loving, righteous leaders who don’t exercise unrighteous dominion. We can start by accepting offered support with grace, rather than trolling it. Even from humble supporters like me, who don’t always get the verbiage right. Thanks! 🙂

      • Violadiva says:

        JNB, thanks for leaving this important comment. It helps us to all to remember that the battle is against patriarchy, not against each other. I hope you’re finding the posts and comments here helpful for you in clarifying your own ideas and beliefs, and that the content is able to help you see new ideas, too. We try to keep the comments civil, but please stick around even if it gets thorny sometimes. You might also like the FB group if you’re not already there.

        As for Wondering Why….That comment has two very enormous “IFs” that I read as follows: “If God never intended for them to hold administrative priesthood then that will never happen, but if He does, then it’s a matter of getting that message through to his Prophets, in which case Ordain Women is doing some very important and vital work!” and “But if the Plan of Our Heavenly Father has no place for women being ordained then there is no point in Ordain Women, but since no person can know the mind of God, and the best we can do is ask until we get an answer, the point of Ordain Women is a vital one!”
        There. Fixed it. *phew*

  6. Emily U says:

    “A source at church headquarters later informed me that a General Authority had implemented a silent treatment policy against any Ordain Women leader, which began almost at its inception.” Oh man, it’s been 5 years, I think I’m over all the feelings, but this still makes me mad. And it hurts to think that women are expendable in this Church, but all the evidence says you’re right, we really are.

    Your 13 observations are so interesting, April. Thank you for being such a level-headed, sustained voice in the feminist critique of Mormonism.

    • ElleK says:

      That piece of information was a punch to my gut, as well. I didn’t agree with Ordain Women’s methods at the time, but I was so disturbed at the fear-based way the church responded (or, more accurately, didn’t respond) to the movement. I didn’t see any love there, and it chilled me. I’ve never been able to look at the church in the same way since.

  7. Jon says:

    I don’t know about this so-called equality. Do feminists really believe that? Look at a men’s magazine open the front cover and look at all the employees roughly 50/50 male female. But open up a magazine like Marie Claire or Cosmo virtually 100% female employees.

  8. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, April. A couple that stand out to me in particular are #1 and #10, probably because they’re connected to so many online discussions I read and participated in.

    On #1, it’s maddening how many people would blithely wander into discussions and say “But why haven’t you raised this issue through channels?” as though there were even an established way for rank-and-file members to raise issues with GAs, even setting aside their targeted silent treatment of OW.

    And on #10, it’s similarly just absurd how many people are convinced that the only way anyone could come to a feminist awakening is through having some other wicked soul put ideas in their head. It’s not as though the church doesn’t provide hundreds of examples of inequality in every single Sunday service, in every meeting, in every announcement, in every hymn, in every scripture, *everywhere*. It’s actually surprising to me that more people don’t come to feminism more quickly given all this.

  9. Jon Miranda says:

    Ziff
    Why is it that you agree with anything and everything a feminist has to say?

    • Spunky says:

      I’m going to guess that it’s because Ziff is a feminist! All the good men I know ate feminists- can’t be a coincidence!

      • Ziff says:

        Spot on, Spunky!

        And Jon, why do you always disagree? Why would you think that pushing for women’s rights to match men’s rights is what needs explaining? I would think the opposite position is what would require an explanation.

  10. JNB says:

    Thank you for this valuable insight into how to support women in the church and keep our message strong and enduring. I also really appreciate the insider information about the brethren’s strategies for pushing back against us.

    I recently noticed another pattern: soon after the McKenna Denson lawsuit went viral, the church reorganized their priesthood quorums and renamed home teaching and visiting teaching, so that the members watching general conference expecting answers about those tough questions like abuse in the church were suddenly distracted.

    When everybody was demanding a statement from the church on family separations at the US border, the church announced that all members get to help decide which hymns get to stay and which get to go for the new hymbooks–yet another distraction. Then when McKenna Denson’s next court proceeding made the news and her story went viral yet again, the church made their own story go even ore viral about rebranding the church’s name. This pattern gives the distinct impression that the church keeps a slew of distractions waiting in the wings, like a list of planed projects ready to launch whenever a public relations disaster strikes, so that they can launch it and get the press and our members all excited by their shiny new distraction, to try to get people to forget about the church’s PR failures and move on to the exciting new topic/project/newsflash orchestrated by the church.

  11. LaDonna says:

    This article about the Lutherans electing their first female presiding bishop–Elizabeth Eaton–is now five years old, but sadly still relevant and making me wistful as I read the post above:

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nadia-bolzweber/women-in-ministry-_b_3769653.html

    Specifically:

    “while there are women pioneers in other male-dominated fields and careers that historically have been forbidden to women, like medicine and law, there are not hospitals all over the country when women are still forbidden to practice medicine. There are not courtrooms all over the country where you still cannot argue a legal case were you born female. But as we know, there are still countless churches across the country where women, like myself and Elizabeth Eaton, would not be allowed to [lead].”

    • Sam Tindleson says:

      Men are poison, why are we waiting on them to allow us to do anything? We are priestesses unto the most high God and it is time to do something about it. Why aren’t the leaders of the OW movement doing something to create the new church on earth instead of sitting around and blogging and making memes? This is hashtag activism at its worst.

      • Moss says:

        It’s actually “priestess unto your husband”.

      • Wondering Why says:

        And in addition to what Moss said, unless an individual has received the second anointing they are not a priest or priestess unto anyone. Only to become such.

  12. wreddyornot says:

    While I attended the OW presentations at Sunstone, I am thankful you posted these reasons here, too.

  13. Sam Tindleson says:

    There isn’t really a point in having men at all is there? I’m a Mormon Lesbian Feminist, and I firmly believe that we need to eradicate men, or at least make them a servant class so that superior women can fix the world. The prophet of the LDS church is not a real prophet. We need to stand up sisters and split from the false teachings of the LDS church and ordain our own Prophetess. We can use men as sperm banks and fix everything they’ve destroyed with their toxic masculinity and patriarchy and make the world like Eden again. The OW movement has set the first cobblestone on the path we must follow and now it is time to get serious and follow it. Whose with me?

    • Wondering Why says:

      “The prophet of the LDS church is not a real prophet.”

      Sadly this is the only conclusion that one can come to if women are supposed to hold the priesthood. I real Prophet would have been inspired to ask the question and get the correct answer. There is a pattern for it.

      Joseph asked about how baptism should come about, and received the Aaronic Priesthood.

      David O McKay asked about the priesthood ban, and subsequent prophets also, and when the time was right it was revealed that the priesthood should be extended to all worthy males.

      Now, if women should be holders of the priesthood the Lord would have set in motion a way for it to come about. If He has then the prophet is not the prophet of God.

      If they are not supposed to hold the priesthood, then he still be the prophet. Or, now is not the time.

  14. dot says:

    Oh right, Sam, that’s exactly what these women are saying. Although honestly, I’m guessing you’re not at all bothered that currently in the church women are the servant class and the reproductive vessels? Why is that ok but the opposite is outrageous? The whole point of OW is that there’s room for both men and women to participate fully and equally–it doesn’t have to be one or the other. As someone who has left, however, I’m happy to let the men have the entire church to themselves, but you probably wouldn’t like that, either.

    • Sam Tindleson says:

      It seems like you are supporting my position. The LDS church has a false prophet as I said, it is time to follow what we know is right as strong and independent women. it seems like you agree, although it is unclear why you involve yourself in this at all if you left the false church. You should be part of the new church. Kate was supposed to start it 4 years ago, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t writing satire, I was writing what I firmly believe.

  15. Sam Tindleson says:

    either the women of OW are serious or they aren’t, and it seems like they aren’t. They were more interested in prancing around and making a cute little organization and giving themselves titles and getting some media coverage than actually trying to create a female centric church as they should. Please ladies, you have collected money and time from people, do something other than photo ops and memes, start the new church!

    • Moss says:

      Why would ordaining women create a ‘female centric church’? Would you say we have a ‘male centric church now’? Are those the only two flavors church comes in?

      • Wondering Why says:

        I’m not sure about gender centric. However, I do think that if women were to be ordained there would be a lot of women called the next time round for bishops. We struggle to find someone who can serve who has not done it before. Being able to choose a sister would probably mean our stake would have a complete set within five years.

  16. Sam Tindleson says:

    I notice that the supposed supporters of OW are nowhere to be seen now. They just want to talk and talk and talk and pretend they are doing something, without actually doing anything that has meaning. Pathetic.

    • Dot says:

      I’m really curious why you’re here. Are you interested in a constructive conversation? Or just wanting to make fun of OW? What are your recommendations for this group? What is your perception of what the church (or a church, since you seem very excited about the idea of a new church) would look like if OW succeeded? What do you think it is that OW really wants? I would love a serious response.

      • Sam Tindleson says:

        I’m not faking fun of OW, I’m trying to inspire them to get off their collective butts and get away from the hashtag activism and silly public displays and actually do something. I thought they were serious when they started, but the LDS church leaders claim they asked God and God said “no” to female ordination, so if OW believes ordination is right and the LDS church says it is wrong, then the LDS church is wrong and OW should have the courage of their convictions and start an inclusive church. Much like other off shoots, you keep the translated scriptures and you create a more fair and collaborative leadership structure that is beholden to the people in the church and you open up all callings to all people, including the LGBTQ community, and that would include the temple. All I’ve seen from OW in the last year or two are silly memes and staged photo’s and a diminishing amount of coverage in the only publication that cares about them anymore, the SLTRIB. I’m thinking they didn’t actually believe in this to begin with, that they were mostly disaffected and wanted attention. I’d love to be proved wrong, but they sure aren’t making the case and neither is this article.

    • Wondering Why says:

      So far as I understand it their purpose was to petition the Church leaders to seek revelation on the matter of women being ordained. That is still their purpose. They are not seeking to tear the Church apart and forming a new one. They understand priesthood Authority is in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ordination outside of the Church would not be seen as the correct authority. So they continue.

      You can argue about whether such a revelation would ever come. You can argue that they might be better off quitting and setting about spending their time on home, family, occupations and Church service. But forming a new Church in not their official agenda.

  1. August 24, 2018

    […] Young Bennett, a former OW executive board member, recently blogged — at Exponent II and OW — about 13 lessons she learned in helping to launch the grass-roots […]

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