RadioWest hosted a discussion about Mormon Women and the Priesthood this week. It is worth a listen.
Defending the status quo was Jenet Jacob Erickson, identified as a former assistant professor at BYU’s School of Family Life. Her main argument was that a male-only priesthood frees women from demands that would interfere with their higher calling of mothering and nurturing.
I think this is a very poor argument.
(Sidenote: if you want to know where I stand on the issue of ordaining women, go read the final paragraph of this post. I will add that after listening to the RadioWest show, I am less impressed with Kate Kelly’s rhetoric than I expected to be. I am not unsympathetic to the cause of women’s ordination, but I am pretty turned off by her approach.)
The main flaws with the “a male-only priesthood protects mothers” argument are as follows:
(1) It isn’t true. I taught early morning seminary when I had a toddler–it took about 20 hours per week, and five of those hours had be at 5:30am. I’ve babysat a gaggle of young kids for a harried Relief Society President. I’ve seen the exhaustion on the face of a bishop’s wife. I’ve heard of visits made by a Relief Society Presidency to a new ward member with a combined total of eleven children in tow. In short, the current structure of the church does not protect women from service demands that would interfere with their ability to mother. On the other hand, we could imagine calling young moms to be, say, the second counselor in the Sunday School Presidency in order to minimally impact their duties as mothers. I’d argue that a male-only priesthood is more likely than the alternative to adversely impact mothers, because it increases the likelihood that their husbands will be issued time-consuming callings that will require the mother to have less relief at home: if we had treated all of the worthy women in the ward as potential holders of callings requiring priesthood, the young father would be that much less likely to get one of those time-consuming callings. Further, I’d suggest that if a stake president asked a young mother, “I have a time consuming calling that I can give to you or to your husband. Which scenario will make you a better mother?” that most women would take the calling and leave the kids with their husbands instead of taking the exhausting “double shift” of parenting and having their husbands take the calling.
(2) If you think historically, you quickly realize that protecting mothers has never been the main consideration in the operation of the church. Think about polygamy. Think about calling fathers on missions. Think about sending pioneer families out to colonize. Think about calling youngish fathers today to bishoprics or to be seminary teachers or pretty much any calling in the Young Men’s organization. We’ve never prioritized the protection of a mother’s time, energy, and capacity to nurture over the other churchy goals.
(3) This argument makes no sense of what I call the various “strands of priesthood” (see this post). That is, a desire to protect mothers in their mothering tells us nothing about why a sister missionary can’t baptize her own investigators. It tells us nothing about why a single 50-something woman can’t be called as a Sunday School President. It doesn’t even tell us why a mother can’t baptize her own child. (It takes, like, three minutes–we’d never suggest that spending three minutes voting in a presidential election or watching a cat video on YouTube should not be done by mothers because it would interfere with their need to nurture.) It also doesn’t explain why a woman who is not a mother or who has grown children cannot perform ordinances or fulfill callings that require the priesthood. Why is being an assistant ward clerk contraindicated by a woman’s mothering role but being the Primary General President is not? What is it about passing the sacrament that would interfere with a mother’s nurturing duties?
(4) A second historical dimension: this desire to protect mothers tells us nothing about what Joseph Smith meant when he said he would make the Relief Society into a kingdom of priests. It does not explain why 19th century Mormon women could give healing blessings but 21st century Mormon women cannot. It does not explain why women could not speak in General Conference for 15 decades or pray in General Conference for 18 decades. It does not explain why the church used to teach “male-dominant marriage” but now teaches that husbands and wives should be equal in marriage (see here). In other words, it does not help us understand the pattern of change and continuity regarding women’s roles that we have seen. Unless you can explain why giving a healing blessing to her children would have interfered with a mother’s ability to nurture her children in 2013 but did not interfere with that ability in 1876 (see here, page 2), the explanatory power of “a male-only priesthood protects women” is not able to do the work that it needs to do. (And it isn’t appropriate to get into on a blog, but it certainly has no explanatory power to help us understand why things happen in the temple the way that they do.)
(5) If it were true that we wanted to structure the church so as to protect mothers from outside duties so they could better nurture their children, shouldn’t we drastically cut back on women’s involvement in the church? Forbid them from teaching Gospel Doctrine and Institute? Ban them from going to the temple? Keep them off the ward council? Out of the ward choir? Eliminate visiting teaching? You can quickly see how the “a male-only priesthood protects mothers” rhetoric smacks into the “but women are listened to and serve a lot and run their own organization and have a huge and important role in the church” apologetic. You can’t have it both ways.
The Church got very little grief for banning men of African descent from the priesthood for the first 100 or so years of that policy. It was only later, when society had changed, that people (both in and out of the church) started questioning the policy. Similarly, the fact that women do not hold the priesthood was not something that the LDS Church had to spend much time justifying for most of its history. Now that the issue is back in the limelight, it looks to me like the defenders of the current policy are cobbling together ad hoc rationalizations (see here for more of this) that do not hold water when examined closely (sorry to mix metaphors there) and are likely to, in the future, be just as embarrassing to us as the “folk doctrine” regarding the previous priesthood restriction. As someone who vacillates between thinking that a male-only priesthood is a sensible, divine plan and/or a sexist cultural artifact, I’d like to see those who would defend the status quo either step up their game (=make better arguments) or refuse to play ball (=simply admit that we don’t know why things are the way they are). But I suspect that positions like those taken by Jenet Jacob Erickson are not only not going to convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced, but are likely to become part of the speculative baggage that leads to 2 out of 3 women who leave the church citing gender issues as the main reason (citation here). (In other words, I wonder how many of those women would not have left the church if we had a male-only priesthood but no speculative rationales: did the lack of priesthood by itself lead to their leaving, or did the illogical explanations lead to their leaving?) My fear is that these half-baked rationales for why women don’t hold the priesthood will drive more women out of the Church.
Let me add, though, that I credit Jenet Jacob Erickson for pushing the idea that mothering is important and we should protect a woman’s ability to do her best at it. There is room to do a better job as a church of protecting mothers and this is indeed a worthwhile goal. I wish that we didn’t see young fathers called to enormously demanding callings. (This seems to be an issue that is very much on the radar for some local leaders but ignored by others.) I wish that we provided the kinds of services that would make it easier for mothers to nurture their children. (This might involve anything from play groups to baby-sitting coops to daytime Relief Society Meetings and Institute classes to help for mothers who are ill to Girls’ Nights Out to more flexible visiting teaching to better facilities for nursing mothers to parenting classes, etc.) But I just don’t think that this desire to protect mothers has anything at all to do with a male-only priesthood.