By Heather Olson Beal
Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes
By Sheri Dew
Deseret Book, 2013
Sheri Dew recently penned a book entitled Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes. In one very important way, this book is a step in the right direction. It is a Deseret Book-published work authored by a woman that expounds on Church doctrine. There aren’t too many of those. A brief scan through the titles at DeseretBook.com under the heading “Essential Gospel Library,”turns up 11 female authors and 69 male authors.1 Even under the heading “Marriage and Family,” male authors outnumber female authors three to one.
However, Women and the Priesthood is a slippery book to approach. Although it is subtitled “What One Mormon Woman Believes,” it’s obviously not just any woman’s belief being presented. Dew is a long-standing part of the Church’s system. She is president and CEO of Deseret Book Company and was a counselor in the General Relief Society presidency from 1997–2002. Her investment in the Church shows in the book’s deep reliance on information and narratives that come from within the Church’s structure.
For example, she asserts that cultural and policy/administrative aspects of the Church can be changed while doctrinal ones cannot—an absurd argument if we acknowledge the many Church doctrines that have changed (i.e. plural marriage, the priesthood ban). She also puts forth the biological essentialism argument—as does “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Because gender is an eternal construct, she says, men and women have separate but equal roles assigned to us in terms of our church participation. Dew also implicitly equates priesthood and motherhood—suggesting that priesthood is what men get while motherhood is what women get. (She does not address the argument that the direct corollary to motherhood is fatherhood and that the priesthood is something else entirely.) Lastly, Dew argues—throughout the book—that Mormon women do very difficult, and sometimes flat-out amazing things for their families and for the Church. On this last point, I couldn’t agree more enthusiastically. However, that reality has nothing to do with the priesthood or with the structure of Church governance.
The male-centric focus of the book stood out to me more than anything else as I read. Story after story comes from male Church leaders and from male scriptural figures, which felt odd in a book subtitled “What One Mormon Woman Believes.” I conducted a quick count of the quotes and stories and mentions of or by males versus females. Dew’s book contains 242 quotes by or about named men and 54 by or about named women. Thus, approximately 80% of the quotes and stories in the book are by or about men. Imagine reading a book about the experiences of African American women in which 80% of the stories and quotes and references came from African American men. Contrast Dew’s book with Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection (also published in 2013)—a compilation of essays by and about Mormon women which features Mormon women’s voices.
However, the book includes two new—or at least less common—assertions. First, Dew asserts that motherhood is a doctrine, even going so far as to assert that “our motherhood began before we were born” (pg. 142). I, personally, have never before heard this idea, but it seems problematic as it marginalizes women who either cannot be or choose not to become mothers in this life.
Second, Dew acknowledges that there are abuses in the Church system. For example, she tells about a “seasoned priesthood leader” who apologized to one of Dew’s female friends for not knowing that a woman could receive revelation. Dew refers to this as a “poverty of understanding” (pg. 49) on the part of the priesthood leader. She also acknowledges that “examples of sexism can be found in the Church” and that there are “some men [in the Church] who abuse power and therefore some women who have been oppressed” (pgs. 110–11). It’s not often that you hear a leading Church figure identify sexist practices or behaviors coming from priesthood leaders in a Church context.
Dew presents some stories in which priesthood leaders consulted female auxiliary leaders. She tells of one bishop who told her friend, “It is our job to listen to you.” Then she tells the story of how her stake president “called me to his office and extended the invitation to speak” in stake conference and allowed her to choose her speaking topic. She recounts yet another story of being invited to speak at a bishop’s training meeting. Dew describes, in one instance, arriving at the stake center and “wait[ing] to be invited into the meeting.” After she shared her concerns, the stake president said, “I endorse everything Sister Dew has taught and ask you to act on her suggestions” (pg. 97). Dew’s point in sharing these stories is to show how important her voice was and how her male priesthood leaders valued her input. However, she fails to realize—or acknowledge (I’m not sure which)—that in each of these stories the male Church leaders are fully in charge. They are the ones doing the inviting, the asking, the listening, the endorsing. They are the active agents, the decision-makers.
She wraps up these stories by saying that it is the duty of wise priesthood holders to “invite [women’s] full participation in a ward and stake council” and the duty of wise auxiliary leaders to learn “how to speak up and be heard in a council without becoming domineering and inflexible and while always paying to those who hold priesthood keys the respect that those keys deserve” (pg. 98). Dew’s argument mirrors M. Russell Ballard’s recent warning: “Women, your input is welcome but you need to be careful to not assume a role that is not yours.”2
These are not descriptions of equal participation. They are descriptions of a leader/follower relationship. They are descriptions of unequal power structures that feature prominently in a patriarchal organization that does not, in fact, equally value or include the participation of men and women. Influence, input, and invitations do not equal power and representation.
One claim that baffled me was this: “In the hierarchy of what is important in the Church, the priesthood—including priesthood keys, priesthood authority, and priesthood power—is at the top” (pg. 100). As the mother of two bright, ambitious teenage daughters, this quote is harrowing. As a lifelong Christian, this assertion chilled me to the bone. The most important thing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Jesus Christ and his atonement and the call for us to love and serve one another more deeply and genuinely.
One of the strangest things about Dew’s book is that she makes no reference to anything else that has been written on the topic of women and the priesthood. On the one hand, we have From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib, published in 1981 by Maurine (Ward) Proctor—the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Meridian Magazine. Maurine Ward’s and Sheri Dew’s books share many arguments and flaws—including a gross oversimplification of feminism, a mischaracterization of popular publications of the time (in Ward’s case, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan; in Dew’s case, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg), the suggestion that “equality” doesn’t really mean “sameness,” and a few passing mentions of Mormon pioneer women as a way to prove that Mormon women are not weak or inferior. Dew’s arguments are also reminiscent of the ones made in Daughters in My Kingdom, published in 2011, which focuses on the idea that women and men are equal partakers of priesthood blessings.
On the other hand, we have Nadine Hansen’s 1981 Dialogue piece, “Women and Priesthood,” Linda King Newell’s 1981 Sunstone piece, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women,” Maxine Hanks’s 1992 edited volume, Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, Margaret Merrill Toscano’s 1994 Dialogue piece, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?”, Lorie Winder Stromberg’s 2004 Sunstone piece, “Power Hungry,” Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright’s 2011 Journal of Mormon History piece, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” the aforementioned Mormon Women Have Their Say (2013), and Frances Menlove’s 2013 chapter “If Not Now, When?: Mormon Women and the Priesthood” (published in The Challenge of Honesty). Dew neither references nor addresses the observations made in any of these works.
However, the mere existence of this book is a boon. Women and the Priesthood is considered a “safe” source because it is published by Church-owned Deseret Book and authored by Dew, and has thus provided more fuel for online and face-to-face conversations about women and ordination. Dew is also careful to never find fault with anyone, Mormon or not, “for expressing contrasting views about women and the priesthood, about motherhood, and about any doctrine that cuts to the heart of who we are as women” (pg. 13). I am hopeful that the title of the book alone (Women and the Priesthood) will enable more Mormon women to conceive of women and the priesthood as being within the realm of possibility. I believe that many of our traditions, policies, and practices are maintained because of a failure of our imagination. On this point, Dew and I seem to agree: “[o]ur challenge is one of vision . . . to know what is possible” (pg. 58). This book couples women and priesthood together in a mainstream venue, something we have heretofore seen only in “fringe” publications such as Sunstone, Dialogue, and Exponent II. Finally, Dew’s book mentions numerous early Mormon women, such as Bathsheba Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Emmeline B. Wells. Due to the lack of knowledge that we have of women in Church history and their relative absence in published Church curricula (with the exception of the relatively recent Daughters in my Kingdom), any inclusion of these women into contemporary Mormon thought and conversations is most welcome.
1. Two of the publications are picture books, three are by Dew, one is a Family Home Evening guide, and another is a parenting guide. From the summaries, none of them seem to actually expound on doctrine. In the General Authority section, women show up only as biographers and translators.
2. M. Russell Ballard, “Let Us Think Straight,” Speeches, 20 August 2013, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=2133 (accessed 6 October 2014).
AA thoughtful and balanced review. It’s not too hard to poke holes in the argument that gender entitles one to exercise authority over others because finally, the argument rests on “It’s true because it’s always been true.” Similar to same-sex marriage, the opponents have only tradition to rely upon and, as we know, that is shaky ground. Thanks, Heather.
A very interesting and helpful review, Heather. Thank you.
For some reason your link in footnote 2 only goes to the main Speeches page, this is the correct link: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/m-russell-ballard_let-us-think-straight-2/
And in that version of the speech the quote is:
“While your input is significant and welcomed in effective councils, you need to be careful not to assume a role that is not yours,” effectively the same meaning.
Could they have changed the speech? Did you transcribe the oral version or get that from the link you provided? I know about a year ago a lot of the links on speeches.byu.edu were changed and some speeches went missing, at least temporarily.
And funny that Ballard gave another talk with the same title twenty years earlier: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/m-russell-ballard_let-us-think-straight/
Thanks for the review, though I disagree with this statement: “many Church doctrines that have changed…”.
Using the Priesthood as an example, the DOCTRINE of the Priesthood is that Priesthood is the power and authority of God. That has never changed.
What has changed is who can exercise that power and authority, or as Bednar would probably refer to it, the APPLICATION has changed, and likely will continue to change.
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