Women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds and raise babies. -Brigham Young
The Church's leadership at almost every level is male. Most meetings are run by men in dark suits. Mormon men are actively engaged in church work in every congregation. As men are recruited, encouraged, refined, groomed, tried and tested, they become strong leaders. Men are essential. During years with heavy family and business obligations, men serve the Church.
The Church produces strong, capable women also, who like men serve despite heavy family, school, and work obligations. Usually outnumbering the active males in a congregation, women are considered their equals in spirituality, intellect, efficiency, human relations, and hard work. Mormons know that their all-volunteer congregations would collapse without this participation. Yet men hold priesthood, while women do not.
In the folklore that explains the disparity, some say the priesthood is necessary to make the men equal to women. Others say the priesthood should be a men-only club because if women were in charge, the men would retreat. Without serious duties, the men would stay home and watch football. Eileen Gibbons Kump, in a collection of her short stories, imagined premortal women having the choice of "sayso or sense." They took the sense and pretended to be obedient, leaving the sayso to the men. One convert said: "I've never seen such active, liberated women as in the church. I've never been to any other church where women spoke equally with the men. I think it is good that the men have a separate priesthood and the women aren't permitted to participate in it. That must sound strange because I am a feminist. . . . Look how the women run Relief Society. Can you imagine if they ran the church? The men would be totally out of a job." Socialization maintains the division. One young woman described her childhood: "I accepted authoritarianism when I was growing up. The husband was the undisputed and unquestioned leader of the home. The woman's role was to support and take counsel. My father was probably on the liberal end of the spectrum. . . . He respected my mother's talents and abilities and always supported what she wanted to do. I didn't, though, ever need anymore justification for doing something than that my dad wanted it that way."
For the past quarter century, the gender roles have been debated in the Church. Are men and women equal in what seems to be a patriarchal institution? Do women want and should they have the priesthood? Is the mother's job valued? Should women avoid careers outside the home? The answers are clear to some but contradictory to others.
The issue goes back to the post-World War II years when Mormons led the return to American domesticity and suburbia. After a decade or so, the Church continued to stand by its conservative ideas as the nation moved toward a liberal counter-culture in the 1960s. In fact, in the Church's organizational structure, women's leadership roles were brought more firmly under the priesthood. Mormon women, who follow but lag behind national trends, faced a divided culture. In the 1950s they had exemplified the ideal American woman; by the1970s, some felt left behind. Many relished their traditional roles; a feminist minority felt ostracized. This minority looked to Mormonism's past for models. Nineteenthcentury Mormon women got the franchise in 1870, long before U.S.
women did in 1920. Women's advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Utah on their western trips. Utah women's suffrage lasted only until 1887, when federal legislation disenfranchised all Church members and all females, but later Mormons used this short progressive experiment as evidence of male liberality. As further evidence, nineteenthcentury male leaders encouraged Mormon women to seek education, and Utah had a high percentage of early female doctors. Mormon women often worked for pay, encouraged by Brigham Young, who said, "We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds and raise babies, but they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic, [medicine] or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation."
Progressive LDS women were disappointed by the contracted role male leaders installed for them in the 1970s and 80s. Women have been busy with large families and congregational duties. They may not have noticed that their voices had been absent at the higher levels. But the institutional changes have increased priesthood powers and decreased women's responsibilities. Women have lost visibility and are scarcely involved in areas where they had been prominent: welfare, leadership training, publishing, and policy setting. Whereas LDS women had once assumed responsibility for running women's, children's, and cultural activities, they found themselves with less autonomy, just as American women pressed for greater influence.
A vocal minority staunchly believes that Joseph Smith did give women the priesthood or intended to. Upon founding the Relief Society in 1842, he said, "I now turn the key to you in the name of God and [the Relief Society] shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time." Keys symbolize authority in the Church. But did he mean turn the key over to you or turn it in your direction? Whatever plans Joseph Smith may have had for women have been obscured by his untimely death, subsequent policies, and ambiguous documents. The phrase "I now turn the key to you" in the original minutes was edited to read in the 1850s, "I now turn the key in your behalf." In 1958, Joseph Fielding Smith, head of the Twelve Apostles, explained, "While the sisters have not been given the priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean the Lord has not given unto them authority," distinguishing between authority and priesthood.
Some accommodations to the changed role of women have been made in recent years including an annual women's meeting and female speakers at General Conference. The Church teaches that gender roles are separate but equal, and that woman's place is in the home. Probably the majority of married Mormon women are content in the home. Those without husbands or children feel deprived and would be happy to fill the roles of mother and wife if they could. Others feel patronized by rhetoric equating priesthood with motherhood, asymmetrically leaving out "fatherhood" and "not scriptural." Most LDS women tend to be good-natured and pragmatic: they work on the things they can change and forget the rest.