The Question of Women’s Ordination and Gender Roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Laura Vance



1805 (December 23):  Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont to Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith Sr.

1816–1817:  The Smith family moved to Palmyra, New York.

1820 or 1822:  Joseph Smith saw his first vision.

1825:  Joseph Smith met Emma Hale in Harmony, New York.

1827 (January 18):  Joseph and Emma were married in South Bainbridge, New York.

1827:  Joseph retrieved golden plates that contained a record of people who had emigrated from Jerusalem to the Americas in about 600 B.C.E.

1830:  The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi was published in Palmyra, New York.

1830:  The Church of Christ was officially organized in Fayette, New York. The Church was renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838.

1830s (early):  Smith began to practice plural marriage.

1832 (September 22–23):  Smith dictated a revelation delineating the priesthood.

1842:  Smith established the Mormon women’s organization, the Relief Society.

1843 (July 12):  Smith dictated a revelation outlining “the new and everlasting covenant” of polygamy.

1843:  Rumors of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy spread in Nauvoo, Illinois.

1844 (March 16):  The Nauvoo Relief Society held its last recorded meeting.

1844 (June 7):  An editorial suggesting that LDS Church leaders were practicing polygamy was published in the Nauvoo Expositor, after which Smith ordered the Expositor’s press destroyed. Smith was indicted for inciting a riot after Latter-day Saints burned the press, and was jailed to face charges of treason after he declared martial law in Nauvoo.

1844 (June 27):  Joseph Smith was shot and killed by a mob while incarcerated at Carthage Jail, in Carthage, Illinois.

1844–1845:  The Church split into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and some smaller groups.

1846–1847:  Brigham Young, Smith’s successor in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized the vanguard trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley, initiating westward migration of Latter-day Saints.

1852 (August 28):  Church leaders publicly acknowledged the practice of polygamy for the first time in an address at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

1867:  Brigham Young officially reinstituted the Relief Society.

1870:  The Utah Territorial Assembly voted unanimously to extend suffrage to women.

1872:  The Woman’s Exponent was first published.

1887:  The Edmunds–Tucker Act passed by the U.S. Congress disincorporated the LDS Church and confiscated its property in an attempt to stop practice of polygamy.

1890 (September):  President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, canonized as Official Declaration 1, which stated that the LDS Church was not teaching or permitting polygamy.

1914:  Facing financial difficulty, Woman’s Exponent ceased publication.

1914:  The Relief Society Bulletin commenced publication.

1915:  The Relief Society Magazine replaced the Relief Society Bulletin.

1940:  Relief Society President Amy Lyman Brown advocated that LDS women “becom[e] more interested in politics and government, both local and national” in her “Some Challenges to Women” address at Utah State University.

1946:  LDS Church leaders officially ended women’s participation in healing, washing, and anointing rituals.

1954:  The revised edition of Priesthood and Church Government by LDS Apostle John A. Widtsoe first described motherhood as women’s gift and women’s counterpart to the LDS Church priesthood for men.

1961:  President David O. McKay instructed the Church’s General Priesthood Committee to correlate all Church instructional materials.

1970:  The Relief Society’s independent periodical, The Relief Society Magazine, ceased publication as a result of the Priesthood Correlation initiative.

1971:  The pink issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought was published.

1972:  The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was adopted by the U.S. Congress and sent to the states for ratification.

1974:  Exponent II was first published.

1976:  President Spencer W. Kimball made opposition to the ERA official LDS Church policy.

1977 (January 8):  Apostle Boyd K. Packer delivered an anti-ERA address to groups opposed to ratification in Pocatello, Idaho, in which he defined the ERA as “a moral and spiritual issue.”

1979:  Sonia Johnson, a co-founder of Mormons for ERA, was excommunicated from the LDS Church.

1993 (May 18):  Boyd K. Packer identified feminists, homosexuals, and “so-called” intellectuals as dangers to the LDS Church.

1993 (September):  The September Six were excommunicated or disfellowshipped by the LDS Church.

1995:  The First Presidency released “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”

2004:  Lisa Butterworth launched Feminist Mormon Housewives.

2007:  Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck delivered her “Mothers Who Know” General Conference address.

2012:  The All Enlisted group organized the first-annual Wear Pants to Church Day.

2012:  Church President Thomas S. Monson announced that the LDS Church was lowering the age at which women could serve missions.

2013 (March):  Kate Kelly launched Ordain Women website.

2014:  Kate Kelly was excommunicated.


Perceptions of gender and sexuality inform foundational Latter-day Saint doctrines and beliefs pertaining to the nature and purpose of God, the account and meaning of creation, human purpose, human relationships and sexuality, family structure, and religious authority. For contemporary Latter-day Saints, the divine is gendered, and doctrines posit that gender is eternal and unchanging. Indeed, participation in and performance of religious rituals in a manner prescribed by gender has consequences for Mormons in this life and the next, as doctrines center around what Latter-day Saints call the plan of salvation, a conception of human existence that posits gender-dyadic, heterosexually generative relationships as divine and necessary to God’s plan for humans and their eternal progress. The contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reserves religious authority (priesthood) for males, constructs heterosexual marriage as necessary for the highest degree of salvation, and idealizes and prioritizes women’s contributions to families as wives and mothers. Scholars note, however, that early Mormon women engaged in performance of rituals that are today reserved for men in the priesthood. To unravel this paradox of gender it is necessary to examine the development of three interconnected strands of Mormon belief: doctrines surrounding marriage, the divine, and religious authority. Each was shaped in formative ways by Joseph Smith between the early 1830s and his death in 1844.

Specifically, Mormon theology incorporates ideas about gender that emerged as Joseph Smith initiated and practiced polygamy, or plural marriage. Though Smith is better known for his publication of the Book of Mormon and as prophet and founder of the LDS Church, his most important and novel doctrinal contributions reside in teachings about marriage, God, and religious rituals and authority that evolved in concert with his ideas about plural marriage. It is unclear precisely when Smith first recognized polygamy as a divine system of marriage. He had a sexual relationship with Fanny Alger (1816–1889), a girl who worked as a domestic in his family’s home, in the early 1830s. Orson Pratt (1811–1881), an early Church leader, and Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), Joseph Smith’s nephew, reported that Smith confided the practice of plural marriage to trusted associates by 1831. Historian Todd Compton locates Smith’s first plural marriage in 1832 or early 1833, and points to at least thirty-three marriages to women in addition to his first and only legal wife, Emma Hale Smith (1804–1897), between then and his death in 1844.

The precise origin of polygamy is difficult to locate because Smith revealed the practice only to trusted associates. As Smith disclosed plural marriage, he also taught confidants doctrines and rituals that particularized Mormon polygamy. These expounded conceptions of the divine, of rituals and temples, of salvation, and of marriage and eternal families.

Joseph Smith’s explanation of God evolved from an originally more triune description (as in his 1832 account of his first vision, for example) to assertion by 1838 of “two personages:” a father God, and his son (“History circa Summer 1832,” p. 3 and “History, 1838-1856, volume A-1[23 December 1805-30 August 1834],” p.3). He received revelations that temples should be built in which sacred, and secret, rituals would be performed, and temples became sites for plural marriage rituals. Shortly before his death in 1844, Smith delivered a sermon, often called the “King Follett Discourse,” in which he declared that God “is a man like one of yourselves” (“Discourse, April 7, 1844, as Reported by William Clayton,” p.13).  This idea, that God had once lived as a man on a planet, was elaborated after Joseph Smith’s death, and informed core LDS doctrines.

Smith’s understanding of religious authority also evolved in significant ways in the 1830s. The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, indicated that God’s authority was necessary to perform ordinances (sacred rituals) such as baptism, and the first Mormon reference to the “priesthood” appears in the minutes of a conference of LDS Church leaders dated June 3, 1831. A September 22–23, 1832 revelation declared priesthood the “power of Godliness,” and distinguished two levels of the priesthood, one higher and one lower; “Instruction on Priesthood,” written circa April 1835, clarified the hierarchy of authority and offices of each. In 1834, Oliver Cowdery (1806–1850), an Apostle in the early LDS Church, first claimed that John the Baptist had conferred the Aaronic priesthood on himself and Smith on May 15, 1829. After Joseph supported that account, its historicity was accepted within the LDS Church, and priesthood developed to serve as the sine qua non of Mormon religious authority.

Informed by Smith’s teachings on the nature of marriage, the divine, and priesthood, including those which changed in response to abandonment of polygamy by the LDS Church, contemporary Latter-day Saint doctrines center on heterosexual monogamous marriage and nuclear family. Mormons teach that God (Heavenly Father) is male, and that he has at least one heavenly wife (a Mother in Heaven). Mormons trace belief in a Heavenly Mother to close associates of Smith, especially his plural wife Eliza R. Snow (1804–1887), who shared it after his death. LDS doctrines assert that Heavenly Father and Mother are the literal parents of the spirits of every human who ever was, or will be, born on Earth. All spirits must be born on Earth in order to allow each to experience temptation and prove herself worthy of redemption, and all spirits will be judged after death based on how they lived. That judgment will determine which level of salvation each achieves. Mormons believe that countless spirit children remain waiting to be born into human bodies. All of this, according to contemporary LDS Church teachings, necessitates that women and men marry heterosexually in a temple, have children, and raise those children according to Church teachings. Heterosexual marriage and resulting family is, according to Latter-day Saint teachings, the vehicle through which to advance God’s plan of salvation for both humans collectively and individually.

Latter-day Saints believe that there are three primary levels of salvation, or degrees of glory. The Celestial Kingdom is the highest of these and, interestingly, has three levels of salvation within it. The Celestial Kingdom is reserved for those who died before the “age of accountability,” or before they could have been baptized at age eight, as well as for those who participated in temple ordinances. Only those who were married in a temple may attain the highest level of salvation within the Celestial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is reserved for those who lived good lives, but did not join the LDS Church and live according to its teachings. The Telestial Kingdom is the lowest level of salvation, and is where most sinners, including adulterers and murderers, will spend the afterlife. Latter-day Saints compare life in the Telestial Kingdom to life on Earth, and teach that everlasting punishment will occur in Outer Darkness, reserved for those who deny Jesus after he is revealed to them.

Eternal progression is a central organizing tenet of LDS theology, and, according to contemporary Church doctrine, “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Mormon theology asserts that all people were originally born as “spirit son[s] or daughter[s] of heavenly parents” (First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles 1995). In the premortal existence, according to LDS Church teachings, two plans were presented to provide the spirit children of God an opportunity to gain eternal salvation: Jesus (the firstborn child of Heavenly Parents) asserted that spirits should have choice, or agency, while Lucifer (the second child of Heavenly Parents, and therefore Jesus’ brother) recommended that spirits be born and live without choice, and consequently be assured of salvation. Latter-day Saint doctrine identifies the battle that followed as the War in Heaven, in which Lucifer, or Satan, rebelled against the plan of salvation proposed by Jesus. Those spirits who chose to follow the Plan of Salvation thereby earned an opportunity to live in bodies and be tested in life to prove their worthiness for salvation, while those who sided with Satan were cast out of heaven and, with him, tempt people to stray from the Plan of Salvation during life.

The Plan of Salvation requires that people use their agency (or decisions and actions) to live so as to demonstrate what level of salvation they merit in the afterlife. LDS Church doctrines advance the idea that Jesus’ Atonement, which Latter-day Saints believe occurred  in the Garden of Gethsemane as well as on the cross, provides people the opportunity to repent of sins, seek forgiveness, be forgiven, and then live rightly by following Church teachings. For Mormons, the right way to live is gendered. Modern Mormon doctrines build on ideas that have their origins in Joseph Smith’s teachings as they evolved from the 1830s until 1844 to proclaim that divinity, humanity, and eternity are gender dichotomous and inherently and necessarily heterosexual. According to current LDS Church teachings, heterosexual marriage and procreation are “central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” (First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles 1995). Human existence before, during, and after life on Earth is defined via gendered roles and responsibilities, which are determined by biological sex.

In this way, the Plan of Salvation constructs dyadic gender and generative heterosexuality as divine, eternal, and necessary for salvation. God the Father, a Heavenly Mother, and spirit children are construed as the prototypical form of being and relationship. Not only do countless spirit children of Heavenly Parents necessitate heterosexual marriage and reproduction of humans on Earth in order to provide bodies for spirits waiting in pre-mortal existence, but Latter-day Saint doctrine identifies marriage in a temple as a ritual prerequisite both to creating an eternal marriage and family, and to accessing the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. Ordinances performed in the temple are thought to be eternally binding, and not only are marriages of the living performed in temples, but Latter-day Saints may participate in rituals as proxies for deceased relatives in the hope that the person for whom the ritual is performed will embrace LDS teachings in the afterlife, and will accept the ordinance performed on his or her behalf.

Ordinances may only be performed by those who hold the priesthood, and Mormons are taught today that family roles required by the Plan of Salvation rightly assign men the priesthood and women motherhood. Mormon priesthood, which does not require specialized training and is conferred almost universally on males, conveys the authority to act in God’s name. All boys who are deemed to be worthy may receive the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser priesthood, at the age of twelve by the laying on of hands by other priesthood holders. The Melchizedek (or higher) priesthood is conferred upon faithful males who are age eighteen or older, also by the laying on of hands. Current LDS Church authorities teach that men lead through the priesthood, and that women, especially as wives and mothers, are blessed and enriched by the priesthood and its rituals.

The LDS Church operates under priesthood leadership at every level. Mormonism is typically organized via a pattern in which one leader works with two counselors, in a unit called a presidency, to lead various groups of members. At the level of the worldwide LDS Church the President and his two counselors constitute the First Presidency. Latter-day Saints are taught that the President of the Church is a modern prophet and has the power to convey revelations from God. The Quorum of the Twelve, whose members are called Apostles,  govern under the President of the Church, and members are encouraged to obey their counsel, as well as that of the President. Quorums of the Seventies, of which there are currently eight around the world, serve as messengers and agents of the Church President and Quorum of the Twelve to the membership of the Church. At the regional level, male priesthood holders in a unit called a stake presidency lead several congregations. A bishop and his two counselors lead each individual congregation, called a ward. With the priesthood, a man also presides in his family, the most basic unit of organization in Mormon life and in eternity.


In the contemporary Church, Latter-day Saint women’s participation is centered in the Relief Society, the women’s auxiliary organization. Women are appointed by priesthood leaders to preside over the Relief Society, young women’s organization (Young Women), and children’s auxiliary (Primary) at every level of the LDS Church, from the general leadership of these organizations to the local congregational level. Women may also serve full-time missions, though they are not as strongly expected or encouraged to serve as are young men, and women’s missions differ in length and timing from men’s missions (see below). Modern LDS women are most consistently encouraged to marry a man in the temple, have children, and serve their families. Mormon women hold a variety of positions in the modern LDS Church, as choir directors, ward librarians, or Sunday school teachers, and hold positions in Primary and Young Women, as well as in the Relief Society. All Latter-day Saints are “called” to positions by priesthood leaders at the relevant level, and, if a woman accepts her calling, as all members are encouraged to do, she is set apart by the laying on of hands by priesthood leaders to the position. Priesthood leaders also release Church members from positions.

Though women’s participation and leadership currently resides under the umbrella of men’s priesthood authority, there is some evidence of women’s greater autonomy and roles historically; there is certainly contemporary debate in the modern LDS Church about it. In the early 1840s, Sarah Granger Kimball (1818–1898) organized a Ladies’ Society to undertake humanitarian work among Latter-day Saints, and when that group’s bylaws and constitution were presented to Joseph Smith for his approval he pronounced them excellent, but told the women that he wished to create instead an organization “under the priesthood, after the pattern of the priesthood,” what would become the Relief Society. At its first meeting on March 17, 1842, the women present unanimously elected Emma Smith president, and she selected her two counselors, Sarah M. Cleveland (1788–1856) and Elizabeth Ann Whitney (1800–1882), and secretary, Eliza R. Snow (1804–1887). Eliza Snow recorded Joseph Smith telling the group that the Relief Society’s officers would “preside over the Society.” They should, Smith is recorded as instructing, “preside just as the Presidency preside over the Church.” He further directed that the Relief Society Presidency should “serve as a constitution,” and that “all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such” (“Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. 7).

The Relief Society was organized as a decision-making body that was financially autonomous. Moreover, historical data indicate that Relief Society women were ordained to administer ordinances (such as washing, anointing, and blessing the sick) reserved in the contemporary LDS Church for men who hold the priesthood. At the April 28, 1842 meeting of the Relief Society Joseph Smith announced, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time” (“Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. 40). At the same meeting he instructed, “No matter who believeth; these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils [and etc.] should follow all that believe whether male or female” (“Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” pp. 35–36). Snow’s April 28, 1842 minutes record Joseph Smith asking women of the Relief Society “if they could not see . . . that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is conferred on them—and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”  He further clarified, “respecting the female laying on of hands . . . there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal[e]d by the[ir] administration” (“Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. 36).

The Relief Society was established around the same time that Joseph Smith began to announce his practice of polygamy to more trusted associates, including his wife Emma. Emma probably learned in 1836 of her husband’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger, and she reacted by throwing the girl out of the Smith home. Eliza R. Snow lived in the Smith household at the time, and described Emma as making “such a fuss” when she discovered her husband’s relationship with the girl. Unbeknownst to Emma, Eliza R. Snow married Joseph in June 1842, less than ten weeks after Emma selected her as Relief Society secretary; the two had a bitter falling out after Emma learned of the relationship.

Joseph Smith never publicly acknowledged polygamy, but as he initiated some into the practice he simultaneously explained the theology surrounding plural marriage. As noted above, Smith’s plural marriages were fundamentally intertwined with emerging doctrines and rituals relating to the nature of God, marriage, and salvation. Plural marriage rituals were performed in secret, and were elaborated in the Nauvoo, Illinois store that housed LDS Church business in the early 1840s. The Relief Society was created in the same place, and around the same time. In 1841 Smith told his Twelve Apostles (the highest leaders in the LDS Church after Joseph) about plural marriage, and they began taking plural wives soon after. By 1842, Smith introduced a marriage endowment (a gift of power from God) ordinance to nine additional trusted associates on the upper floor of his Nauvoo store. Smith taught that marriages that were “sealed” through secret priesthood rituals would survive death; in other words, they were eternal marriages. Not all plural marriages were sealed in this way, as some were for life and not eternity, but eternal plural marriage was considered the preeminent form of marriage, and was termed celestial marriage. Throughout 1843 and up until his death in 1844, Smith continued to teach these sacred and secret rituals to both men and women. The marriage ordinances, or sealings, entailed washing and anointing initiates, ordaining them to become kings or queens in the afterlife, and giving them sacred undergarments, which they were instructed to wear. Smith was sealed to his wife Emma (who he had legally married in 1827, on May 28, 1843, and initiated her into the secret rituals in September of that year. In all, Joseph initiated more than fifty women and men into these rituals, including several of his plural wives, and all initiates formed the Anointed Quorum.

Rumors of Smith’s polygamy spread in Nauvoo by 1843, and in 1844, after Joseph Smith proposed marriage to the wife of a former Counselor, the Nauvoo Expositor, an LDS Church publication, printed an editorial that suggested Church leaders were practicing polygamy. Smith ordered the Expositor’s press destroyed, and the Nauvoo City marshal and a mob burned the press. Smith declared martial law in the upheaval that followed, and was thereupon jailed on charges of treason. Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum (1800–1844), and some other Mormon leaders were attacked by a mob on June 27, 1844 while jailed in Carthage, Illinois, and Joseph died when he was shot and fell from a second-floor window.

After Smith’s murder in 1844, the majority of Latter-day Saints accepted Brigham Young as his successor and followed Young to what would become the Territory of Utah. In the early decades of Mormon life in Utah, in addition to fulfilling roles as mothers, women were encouraged to participate in higher education and professions, and played important roles in politics and education. Brigham Young asserted in 1868 that “we wish the sisters, so far as their inclinations and circumstances shall permit, to learn bookkeeping, telegraphy, reporting, typesetting, clerking in stores and banks, and every branch of knowledge and kind of employment suited to their sex, and according to their several tastes and capacities. Thus trained, all without distinction of sex, will have an open field, without jostling and oppression” (Derr 1978:392). When institutions of higher education were established in Utah, women enrolled at rates comparable to those of men. Utah was home to the first female state senator in the United States, Martha Hughes Cannon (1857–1932), also a physician and suffragist, as well as home to the first mayor of an all-female town council, Mary W. Chamberlain (1870–1953). From 1872 until 1914, Mormon women edited and published the Woman’s Exponent, a magazine that advocated for women’s suffrage, and women’s participation in higher education, politics, and professional work. Though the magazine was not an official LDS Church publication, its first editor, Louisa Lula Greene Richards (1849–1944), started the periodical with the blessing of the Relief Society President, Eliza R. Snow, who was by then a plural wife of President Brigham Young. Relief Society leaders advocated strongly for women’s suffrage, and invited Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) to visit Utah, which she did. The Utah territorial legislature extended the vote to women, allowing them to vote by 1870. When Utah women’s suffrage was revoked in 1887 by the U.S. Congress as part of the Edmunds–Tucker Act, an effort to end polygamy, a Utah chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1897.  In the same decades, Mormon women continued to participate in ritual washing, anointing, and healing of the sick, and to seal and confer blessings on their children.


Contemporary Latter-day Saint women are explicitly barred from performing rituals that were performed by Mormon women in the Church’s early decades, with the exception of washing and anointing other women as part of the temple endowment ceremony. LDS Church leaders officially ended women’s participation in healing, washing, and anointing rituals in July 1946, when Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972), then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve (subsequently the tenth President of the LDS Church), instructed leaders of the Relief Society that while it was “permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the priesthood, for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters,” “it is far better” for men in the priesthood to perform these rituals (Newell 1981:41).

Women’s participation in religious rituals outside of the temple disappeared around the time that LDS Church teachings began to advance priesthood and motherhood as parallel and complementary, but distinct. Latter-day Saint women led significant projects as recently as the 1970s. They created Relief Society Social Services in 1919 and administered the program until 1929, and began the process of creating medical facilities to treat children in 1911 that grew into the Children’s Primary Hospital in Salt Lake City by 1922, for example. Still, by the 1950s LDS Church leaders began to define religious leadership as the exclusive domain of men in the priesthood, and to portray motherhood as women’s corresponding domain and responsibility. In his 1954 revised edition of Priesthood and Church Government, LDS Apostle John A. Widtsoe first described motherhood as women’s gift and purpose, parallel to the priesthood for men. That interpretation was elaborated and assumed by LDS Church leaders increasingly in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

Two overlapping changes helped to shape this construction of gender and authority in Mormonism. First, the Priesthood Correlation Program centralized decision-making and finances under the highest levels of LDS Church leadership. In 1961, Church President David O. McKay (1873–1970) asked the Church’s General Priesthood Committee to “correlate” curricular materials and instruction in all LDS Church organizations, and by the 1970s, the correlation process had placed the Relief Society under the authority of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Relief Society leaders gave up control of an autonomous budget, and surrendered more than $2,000,000 in assets to the LDS Church. Furthermore, they no longer created their own instructional and reference materials, and the Relief Society Magazine, the group’s periodical, was discontinued in favor of one official LDS Church publication for all adults, the Ensign.

The most significant aspects of the Priesthood Correlation Program were implemented around the time of the national debate about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That debate, sparked as the ERA was passed by the U.S. Congress and sent to the states for ratification in 1972, influenced LDS Church leaders’ articulation of gender and gender roles, and Correlation facilitated a more uniform response to feminism and the ERA than would have been possible before. That response was informed by and promoted the gendered LDS priesthood-motherhood division of leadership and responsibilities.

In 1975, the LDS Church News published an editorial opposed to ratification of the ERA, and the following year the First Presidency, under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), made opposition to the ERA official Church policy. As LDS Church leaders delivered public addresses against ratification of the ERA, published articles in the Church’s official periodical clarifying the Church’s opposition to the amendment, and used Church buildings and infrastructure to organize LDS women in opposition to the amendment, they employed the priesthood-motherhood construction to emphasize that men and women were biologically and emotionally different, and had different responsibilities. They asserted that it was important for women to marry and have children, that women’s primary roles were as wives and mothers, and that their responsibilities as mothers ideally should not include paid work outside of the home. In 1980, the First Presidency published The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue, which attempted to create a case against the ERA, in part by asserting that the amendment was a danger to gendered family roles. Church-sanctioned anti-ERA activities continued until the amendment was defeated in 1979 when only thirty-five of the necessary thirty-eight states had ratified it. Historian Martha S. Bradley-Evans has documented the LDS Church’s use of strategies and resources to counter the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, including, for example, lobbying and campaigning against the initiative in key ratification states (Bradley 2005).

Modern LDS Church leaders have since continued to oppose feminist and other initiatives that they perceive as threatening women’s primary responsibilities as mothers. Though recent and current LDS Church leaders allow that some women might work outside of the home if forced by circumstances, such as a husband’s illness, instruction materials produced by the Priesthood Correlation Program encourage girls to marry a priesthood holder, teach that couples should marry in the temple and that wives should have children if able, and that, as mothers, women should dedicate themselves to the care of husband, children, and home. In 1995, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles released “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) presented first to women in the Relief Society. The proclamation calls heterosexual marriage “essential to [God’s] plan,” declares “God’s commandment” to give birth to children still “in force,” and insists that “by divine design” fathers should preside over and provide for their families, while mothers “are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” These gendered responsibilities remain common in LDS Church teachings, including in curricular materials, General Conference addresses, and Church publications. They dominate contemporary LDS discourse regarding gender, sexuality, and gender identity and expression. All Mormon families are supposed to display “The Family” proclamation in their homes.

Gender distinctions and concomitant responsibilities, including heterosexual marriage and reproduction, are defined as divine and eternal in contemporary Mormon theology, and extend to frame doctrines and rituals pertaining to sexuality. In 1993, Apostle Boyd K. Packer (1924–2015) identified feminists, homosexuals, and “‘so-called’ intellectuals” as dangers to the LDS Church in an address to the All-Church Coordinating Council. In the 2000s, LDS Church leaders have used correlated leadership and instruction to reiterate divine and eternal binary genders, which they also use to promote anti-same-sex-marriage rhetoric and organizing. Under President Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS Church supported passage of Proposition 22, the California initiative in 2000 that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and under his successor, Thomas S. Monson (b. 1927), the First Presidency instructed Church members to devote their time and resources to defeating Proposition 8, which would have allowed same-sex marriages in California had it passed in 2008. To date, the Mormon Church’s work to defeat same-sex marriage, legalized in all American states in 2015 by the Supreme Court, is more widespread than LDS efforts on any other issue since its campaign to defeat ratification of the ERA.


Modern Mormon feminism coalesced in the context of LDS Church leaders’ response to feminism and the ERA. It is most often identified as originating with a small group of Boston feminists who began gathering to discuss gender issues and women’s place in the LDS Church in 1970. The group initially met at the home of historian of early America Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (b. 1938), and included historian of LDS women Claudia Bushman (b. 1934) and others who would go on to make important and lifelong contributions to Mormon feminism. In July of that year the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, an independent periodical devoted to examining issues and ideas of interest to Mormons, visited Ulrich in her home, and subsequently invited the Boston group to create content for a special issue of the journal. Dubbed the pink issue, the Summer 1971 publication was edited by Ulrich and Bushman, and raised what would become central concerns of Mormon feminism: the concept of a Mother in Heaven, the more expansive opportunities for religious leadership of women in nineteenth-century Mormonism, modern Mormon women and priesthood authority, and contemporary expectations of wifehood and motherhood for Mormon women. After The Relief Society Magazine was discontinued in 1970, Bushman, Ulrich, and other Boston feminists created Exponent II, first published in 1974, which drew inspiration from the nineteenth-century Woman’s Exponent.

As LDS Church leaders’ opposition to the ERA became more pronounced in the late 1970s, the Church began to censure some Mormon feminists. In 1978, Sonia Johnson (b. 1936) co-founded Mormons for ERA and began to speak publicly in support of the ERA. After she delivered a 1978 address to a meeting of the American Psychological Association in favor of the ERA, she was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1979. Johnson’s excommunication attracted national media attention. Some Mormon feminists, concerned by the growing anti-feminist sentiment they felt in the LDS Church, wrote to President Spencer W. Kimball in 1979 to inform him that they felt intimidated at LDS gatherings. Despite these feelings, and in spite of continued and strong opposition to the ERA from LDS Church leaders, in 1980 Mormon feminists engaged in direct actions to call attention to women’s place in Mormonism: Mormon feminists rented planes to fly over large Church gatherings trailing banners with slogans such as “Mother in Heaven loves the ERA,” and more than twenty Mormon feminists, including Johnson, were arrested after they chained themselves to the gate of the Bellevue, Washington temple in protest of the Church’s anti-ERA stance. [Image at right]

Still, in the 1980s Mormon feminism was concentrated among academics and more moderate and progressive Latter-day Saints who shared ideas mostly through print publications and at symposia. In addition to Dialogue, which examines issues pertaining to Mormonism but is not an official LDS Church publication, Sunstone commenced publication in 1974 as a magazine not sponsored by the Church, but devoted to open discussion among Mormons. Both periodicals, and the Sunstone Symposium, an annual four-day event in Salt Lake City, served as important vehicles for exchange of perspectives and information in the 1980s. Some other organizations, such as the Mormon History Association, which began to publish the independent Journal of Mormon History in 1974, also provided a platform to consider and explore history and diverse perspectives.

These publications provided critical sites for examination of gender and Mormonism, and allowed the development of ideas that have become significant to Mormon feminists. Attorney Nadine Hansen, a member of Mormons for ERA, published “Women and Priesthood” in Dialogue in 1981, which raised the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In 1984, Margaret Toscano, a professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University (BYU), delivered a presentation at a Sunstone Symposium that publicly asserted that Joseph Smith supported women’s right to priesthood. In the same year, historians Linda King Newell (b. 1941) and Valeen Tippetts Avery (1936-2006) published Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Hale Smith that placed her in historical context and discussed her disdain for Joseph’s practice of polygamy. These topics raised questions about the Mormon Church’s teachings on gender, and LDS leaders began to use Church discipline more often to define feminist discussion of certain topics as heretical. After the release of Mormon Enigma, for example, Church leaders banned Newell and Tippetts from discussing “any aspect of religious or Church history in any LDS Church, related meeting, or institution” (Newell and Tippetts 1994:xii).

The ban was lifted in 1986 after Newell and Tippetts petitioned the LDS Church, but priesthood leaders’ efforts to control public discussion about a Heavenly Mother or women’s claim to priesthood persisted  in the late 1980s and 1990s. After a student prayed to Heavenly Mother at a BYU commencement ceremony in 1991, Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley warned LDS Church leaders to watch for “the small beginnings of apostasy,” a warning he repeated later to a General Conference gathering of the Relief Society (Allred 2016:202). Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks, was published in 1992 and included chapters by Humanities professor Margaret Toscano, historian D. Michael Quinn, theologian Maxine Hanks, and other Mormon feminists asserting LDS women’s legitimate claim to priesthood authority and examining Mormon history and doctrine from a feminist perspective (Hanks 1992). Sisters in Spirit, edited by BYU professor Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and former Ensign editor Lavina Fielding Anderson, followed in 1992 (Beecher and Anderson 1992). It included a chapter by Linda P. Wilcox on “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” as well as a chapter in which Linda King Newell documented Mormon women’s historical participation in religious rituals now reserved for men who hold the priesthood. The same year, Eugene England, founder of Dialogue, discussed the Strengthening Church Members Committee (SCMC) at the summer Sunstone Symposium (Anderson 2003:15). President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) created the SCMC shortly after he assumed leadership in 1985 to monitor feminists, progressives, academics, and other members who might cause problems for the LDS Church, but the Church only acknowledged the existence of the SCMC after the Sunstone presentation.

Most notably, in September 1993 the LDS Church disciplined six members, dubbed the “September Six” by the press. Mormon feminists constituted the bulk of those targeted, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks, D. Michael Quinn, and Paul Toscano, Margaret Toscano’s husband, were all excommunicated. Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, who had delivered public presentations on the idea of a Mother in Heaven, was disfellowshipped, a reprimand that stops short of removing Church membership but rescinds other privileges. Margaret Toscano was threatened with excommunication that year, and told by Church leaders not to discuss the concept of a Mother in Heaven or women holding priesthood, but she was not excommunicated until 2000. National media covered the disciplinary actions, and though those outside of the LDS Church were largely critical of the excommunication of feminists, within the Church the actions had a chilling effect.

A group of Mormon feminists held a 1,000 White Roses ceremony in October of 1993, in which they read a statement declaring the roses a symbol of support both of the Church and those recently disciplined, and encouraged the LDS Church to reconcile with its feminist members. Nonetheless,  in 1995 Janice Merrell Allred (b. 1947), sister of Margaret Toscano, was excommunicated for writing about a Mother in Heaven, and in 1996 BYU assistant professor Gail Turley Houston (b. 1950) was denied tenure and effectively fired, in part for her writings on Heavenly Mother, and in part because she had solicited donations from her colleagues to help fund the 1,000 White Roses ceremony. Other Mormon feminists and intellectuals faced disciplinary actions in the 1990s, but after public backlash at the LDS Church’s treatment of the September Six, subsequent disciplinary actions were dispersed over time and generally attracted less media attention. By 1995, when the LDS Church published its proclamation on the family, Church leaders had effectively defined feminist discussions of women holding priesthood or a Mother in Heaven as potentially dangerous to Church standing and membership.

The balance of power between Mormon Church leadership and feminists shifted irreversibly in the 2000s as Mormons increasingly used the Internet to share ideas and information, and to provide one another a sense of community and support in the Mormon blogosphere, sometimes called the Bloggernacle, a wordplay on the Mormon Tabernacle, located in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Sites created by Mormon historians, Mormon moderates and progressives, Mormon feminists, and other Latter-day Saints provided new, accessible, and geographically unbound spaces in which to explore issues. A host of potentially controversial topics (such as Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, women’s historical claim to the priesthood, and others) could more easily be scrutinized by an unprecedented number of Latter-day Saints. Mormon feminists played a vital role the burgeoning Bloggernacle.

Lisa Butterworth launched the group blog Feminist Mormon Housewives with four friends in 2004. The site attracted attention with the tagline “Angry Activists with Diapers to Change” and blog posts devoted to exploring Mormon topics from a feminist perspective. Others followed, including a blog by Exponent II in 2005, Zelophehad’s Daughters in 2006, and an LDS WAVE (Women Activating for Voice and Equality) Facebook page in 2010. In 2011, Young Mormon Feminists created a closed Facebook group, which provided a more protected space in which to engage in potentially controversial discussions, as bloggers often avoided using their real names in an attempt to avoid Church discipline. These sites and the conversations they sparked led to the first Mormon feminist direct action in more than a decade, Wear Pants to Church Day on December 16, 2012. [Image at right] Although the LDS Church has no official policy against women wearing pants to church, Mormon custom and culture strongly discourage it. Stephanie Lauritzen made a 2012 blog post calling on Mormon women to “stop playing nice” and engage in a Mormon-style act of civil disobedience, and then a group calling itself All Enlisted created a “Wear Pants to Church” Facebook event. When National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and other media reported on the action in December 2012, Mormon feminists were once again in the national spotlight.

A number of new sites emerged in the wake of this national attention. All Enlisted launched Let Women Pray in January 2013 encouraging members to ask LDS Church leaders to allow women to pray in General Conference sessions, and by March of that year Church leaders announced that they would allow women to pray at General Conference. Kate Kelly (b. 1980), a human rights lawyer, launched Ordain Women (Ordain Women website n.d.), a website devoted to the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood, in March 2013. The site originally featured 19 profiles of Mormons in support of women’s ordination, and Ordain Women held its first meeting the next month. Kelly focused Ordain Women on promoting direct action from the start, and after being denied tickets to attend the LDS General Conference priesthood session in Salt Lake City, she led 250 conservatively dressed women to seek entrance. Boys as young as twelve streamed past the group and into the meeting as each woman politely asked male Church representatives if she could enter and was refused. [Image at right] National and international media covered the action and, after being denied entrance in a similar fashion at the next bi-annual General Conference priesthood session in April 2014, Ordain Women encouraged LDS women to seek entrance to local satellite showings of General Conference priesthood sessions or, if they were unable to do so, to watch the sessions at home and share experiences on Twitter and Facebook, which some Mormon feminists now do.

In December 2013, Kelly’s local LDS congregational leaders told her to cease her campaign for women’s ordination. She did not, and on May 5, 2014 the leaders placed her on informal probation. On May 22, Ordain Women launched Six Discussions, electronically published packets designed to promote discussion of women’s ordination; but Kelly was informed via a June 8 letter that she faced discipline for apostasy. Mormon feminists gathered at their local meetinghouses with candles lit in solidarity as Kelly faced in absentia a disciplinary council on June 22, and was informed of her excommunication the following day (Wessinger 2014). Others were disciplined as well. Several Mormons whose profiles were posted on Ordain Women had their temple privileges revoked, as did Young Mormon Feminists founder Hannah Wheelright, and Kate Kelly’s parents. In the months that followed, the New York Times reported on other Latter-day Saints, some of whom had posted anonymous online comments, who were called in by LDS congregational leaders and cautioned that they might be disciplined if they did not stop posting comments considered counter to Church doctrine (Goodstein 2014).

Despite disciplinary actions and threats, platforms provided by new media make it impossible for Mormon leaders to curtail the flow of debate, ideas, and information related to sensitive LDS Church topics. New sites continue to emerge, and existing sites expand. Ordain Women, for example, currently hosts more than 600 profiles of those who support women’s ordination. Sites created by Mormon feminists actively engage with ideas and content of other sites, especially those focused on Mormon history, moderate and progressive interpretations of theology, and LGBT-Mormon advocacy. [Image at right] The content and conversation within and between these sites increasingly overlap, and Mormon feminists actively draw from primary source historical documents not available before online publication. At the same time, debates about gender are raised in sites focused on doctrine, history, or other LDS topics. Several sites have also been created to uphold more conservative Mormon positions, including some popular sites devoted to women. Mormon Women Stand (Mormon Women Stand website n.d.), for example, supports and emphasizes the LDS Church’s proclamation on the family, as well as the interpretations of gender and sexuality provided therein, and has nearly 45,000 Facebook likes, compared to Ordain Women, with just over 7,200.

LDS Church leaders undertook a variety of strategies in response to the proliferation of the Bloggernacle, as a host of sites emerged focusing not only on gender, but on Church history, Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, and a number of other sensitive topics. The LDS Church attempts to provide primary source materials, essays, and other content to counter more analytical narratives of church history and doctrine proliferating on the Internet. In 2008, the Church Historian’s Press was launched to publish documents relating to the origin and growth of Mormonism, and shortly thereafter began electronic publication of primary source materials written by Joseph Smith and early Mormons that had never before been released. Still, in the face of questions about LDS Church history, and controversy surrounding both the Church’s reaction to Mormon feminists and its anti-same-sex marriage activism, Latter-day Saints left the Church at an increased rate. By 2011, Church Historian and Recorder Marlin K. Jensen acknowledged to a small class of Utah State University students that LDS Church leaders were “aware” that members were leaving the Church “in droves” as the Internet increased exposure to information that was out of keeping with correlated Church instruction. (A tape-recording of his comments, apparently made without his knowledge, was posted online but later removed.) Jensen indicated that LDS Church leaders had launched a new initiative, The Rescue, to stem the loss of members, which in part included new packets of materials for teaching members about controversial aspects of Church doctrine and history. By 2013, the LDS Church had also published thirteen anonymous essays on controversial topics on its official webpage. Approved by the First Presidency, the series includes essays on “Mother in Heaven” and “Joseph Smith’s Teachings About Priesthood, Temple, and Women” (Mormon Essays).

The Internet remains a site of mobilization for women and men on all sides of debates in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church leaders have made some concessions to women: in addition to allowing women to pray in General Conference sessions, in 2012 Church leaders lowered the age at which LDS women may undertake missions, from twenty-one to nineteen; Church-wide leaders of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary are now seated behind male leaders on the dais at General Conference sessions; and, beginning in August 2015, those same Relief Society leaders are allowed to serve on Church-wide governance committees. At the same time, LDS Church leaders continue to warn about the dangers of the Internet. In February 2016, for example, Apostle M. Russell Ballard (b. 1928) introduced a new Church initiative called Doctrinal Mastery to members who teach in the Church Educational System (CES). Noting that “only a generation ago . . . our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to material printed by the Church,” he directed Church educators to “remind [students] that John did not say, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!’” and encouraged Church educators to advise youth to pray rather than look for answers on the Internet (Ballard 2016).

At the time of this writing, the LDS Church continues to make some reforms while resisting more substantial changes, such as ordination of women. Kate Kelly stepped down from Ordain Women’s executive board in July 2015, but Ordain Women continues to promote direct action. Prior to the April 2016 General Conference session, Ordain Women proponents attempted to hand-deliver cards and letters to leaders at LDS Church headquarters asking that women be allowed to do things (such as serve as official witnesses to priesthood rituals and be present for priesthood leaders’ “highly personal” interviews of Mormon girls and women) things that do not require women’s ordination. The group was not allowed to deliver the notes, but only a few months later, in June 2016, the Ensign featured an article recounting an instance in which Spencer W. Kimball’s wife, Camilla, stood as an official witness to a baptism. Mormons are taught to believe in continuing revelation, to believe that their Presidents are also Prophets who can receive new instruction and divine guidance. Feminists continue to hope that ongoing revelation can allow the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to change, become more inclusive, and allow Mormon women equal opportunities more like those enjoyed by women in the early Church.


Image 1: Sonia Johnson being led away by police after being arrested for chaining herself to the gates of the LDS Seattle, Washington temple.
Image 2: Feminist Latter-day Saints continue to celebrate Wear Pants to Church Day annually, as women wear slacks and men wear purple ties to demonstrate their support.
Image 3: Kate Kelly and Mormon feminists watch as men and boys enter the LDS general priesthood session in October of 2013.
Image 4: The Ordain Women website published images, like the one above, that portrayed women performing in religious rituals in which early Mormon women participated, but which are now restricted to male priesthood holders.


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Post Date:
3 March 2017


Updated: — 11:57 pm

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