Mormon feminists find grounds for hope, fear in changing church
Jillian Paul sits at the kitchen table, putting together a Thomas the Tank Engine puzzle and pouring Cheerios for her two sons. Before they start to eat, she and her boys bow their heads for a moment in prayer.
As a woman, Paul is living the Mormon ideal: She’s staying at home in Plainfield, raising her kids. But about a year ago, she began questioning her role in the church.
“I wish we could hear less about how your most important job is a mother. I already know that,” Paul said. “I do wish there would just be more of a focus on developing your own relationship with God, and finding the path you’re supposed to be on. Just worrying less about checking all the boxes: getting married in temple, having children. Those things will come when someone feels like God is telling them to do that.”
Paul is part of a small but vocal group of Mormon women who say they feel equal at work and in school, but not in the place that matters most to them — their church.
“When I open our church magazine and see kind of a centerfold of all the leadership of the church and it is two pages of men, men, men, men, men. I think how am I supposed to feel equal? How am I supposed to feel like women have an equal voice?” Paul asked. If you look at a general leadership chart, it’s not until you get down to the women’s auxiliary and children’s groups that you find women.
Paul and other Mormon feminists in the Chicago area say they are so small in number, there may be only one or two women who share their views in their congregations, known as wards.
They say they had been encouraged by signs of change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But now they’re treading lightly following the recent excommunication of prominent feminist Kate Kelly, who forcefully advocated for women to gain the priesthood.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that men and women have equal dignity, and are equally valued by God and the church. That equality comes through different roles. Men preside over their families, and only men hold the priesthood, the authority to act in God’s name so they can lead congregations, perform baptisms and bless the sick. Parts of that authority comes as early as age 12 for boys.
Kate Kelly’s excommunication was “really, really disappointing, just disheartening,” said local Mormon Stefanie Franc. “I really felt up until that moment actually that things were really changing in the church, and for the better.”
Franc, who’s an attorney at the Cook County Public Guardian’s Juvenile Division, was initially encouraged by some nuanced changes. The Church allowed women to lead opening and closing prayers at the big general conferences. It changed the leadership structure locally so a few women could hold seats on each Ward Council. It allowed women to take on weighty doctrinal issues in speeches.
But after hearing about Kelly’s excommunication, Franc said, “It just kind of made that whole idea just come crashing down around me.”
Now Franc wonders where the Latter-day Saints will draw the line on her own feminist activism. For instance, she joined in the annual Wear Pants to Church Day protest, and now wears pants there regularly. (Mormon women typically wear dresses or skirts to church.)
Franc, who teaches Sunday School, pointed to a Bible lesson that she found problematic. It was about Deborah, a famous judge from Israel who also led men into battle.
“The lesson manual wanted me to ask the question, ‘How was Deborah a good friend?’ It made me so mad,” Franc said. “How was Deborah a good friend? I’m sure she was a good friend, but she was also a good judge. She was also a good Army leader.”
Instead, Franc asked the class about what leadership qualities Deborah had.
Franc said she appreciates the way the church cherishes women, but she can find it limiting.
“The LDS church kind of puts women on this pedestal where we are gentle and kind and sweet,” she said. “I think it gets in the way of seeing women as legitimate forces for change and power.”
But another local Mormon woman finds a different, more traditional power within the church.
Before she got married, Jesika Harmon traveled the world on mission trips, and co-hosted a teen TV competition on ABC Family. But when she had children, she opted to stay at home with them in their Buffalo Grove house.
“I can’t even tell you how I have seen with my husband having the priesthood, how that has empowered me in our family,” Harmon said. “Just because I can’t baptize my child when they’re 8 or just because I can’t give my child a blessing when they’re sick, I feel like just as equal in power and in authority by my husband's side, praying with him and adding my faith.”
Most Mormon women share Harmon’s views. A landmark 2012 Pew survey found that 90 percent of women do not think females should hold the priesthood — compared to 84 percent of Mormon men.
More than half the women, 56 percent, said the best marriages were ones in which the husband worked, and the wife stayed home with the kids. Just 38 percent preferred marriages in which both spouses worked and jointly cared for kids and the home. You’d have to invert those percentages to reflect the U.S. general public’s view.
Harmon said she felt societal pressure to keep working outside the home, and appreciates the church’s backing.
“You’re given so many opportunities to teach and to serve and to stretch yourself that I feel like it has given me more and more confidence to say ‘I am enough, just like this.’”
But that’s not enough for Chicago Mormon Nikki Ricks. She’s a freelance urban planner who works from home. She favors putting women at the highest levels of the church and giving them the priesthood.
Holding these views can be so isolating, Ricks said, she started a group for Mormon feminists here in Chicago.
“It’s hard, emotionally and spiritually and intellectually. It’s been like hell,” she said with a laugh. “Just because you feel like you’re going back on everything you’ve ever known.”
Winnetka psychotherapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife calls these tensions “the crucible of pressure.”
Finlayson-Fife works with Mormon couples, and is Mormon herself. She said the church was more patriarchal when she was growing up in the 1970s, and in recent years, it has emphasized a more egalitarian view of marriage. But she’s struck by how many Mormon clients still struggle with that issue compared to other clients.
Finlayson-Fife says many women find a strong sense of purpose and place in the church. But she says there are other women active in the faith who feel like the church is putting them in the back seat. They have a growing sense that women’s roles in society are outpacing their religious experiences.
“I see a lot of women who feel they have more credibility, that they’re taken more seriously in their work than they are taken in the church, and so the incongruity is difficult,” Finlayson-Fife said.
For Nikki Ricks, one of the most challenging moments in the faith was the blessing of her daughter, which is traditionally done by the husband and other men in the church.
“I really wanted to be part of it,” Ricks said. “This is my baby girl, I’ve nursed her every two hours and have gone through this pain and labor, and I wouldn’t be part of this really beautiful part in her life.”
After months of discussion, Ricks and her husband ended up doing it at home by themselves.
“It just kind of felt nonsensical that anatomy is what differentiates one person from another,” Ricks said. “If we, all men and women, can become like God, why wouldn’t we all be able to hold the power of God of Earth?”
“Most Mormon feminists are what I would call moderates in that they are not actively militating for ordination or for other major structural changes,” said Professor Patrick Mason, who chairs Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. “They’re just saying, ‘We want more of a voice’.”
Mason said he thinks the Latter-day Saints is starting to hear them. He said changing economic conditions mean more women are becoming primary breadwinners and more men stay-at-home dads. There are more dual-income families. He said the church isn’t sealed off from larger society, and in response, it’s becoming less dogmatic about traditional gender roles.
But Mason thinks the most significant change is the way the church recently lowered the age for young women to become missionaries from 21 to 19. (Young men moved from 19 to 18.)
Lowering the age makes it easier for young women to go now because they won’t be in their final year of college, and are less likely to be in a committed relationship. Mason said, as a result, they’re signing up in droves.
“And they’re going to have a lot more leadership opportunities. Those women are going to come home, and I think that’s going to be the really interesting dynamic moving forward. What are those women going to expect in terms of participation in their local congregations?”
“These girls who have led other missionaries, both male and female missionaries, in the mission field, are going to come home and they’re going to have to assimilate back into their local practices,” she said. “And they’re going to bring with them a lot of best practices from their missions, and they're not going to put up with a lot of our current local practices.”
McBaine, who’s considered a moderate on LDS women’s issues, called the LDS doctrinal position on women “glorious,” pointing out Mormons believe in a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. She said the church gives her a place to fully explore what it means to be a woman.
But McBaine thinks there are many things the LDS church can do locally to give women a stronger voice, without making major structural or doctrinal changes. She wrote a book highlighting these ideas called Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, which is due out later this month.
For example, McBaine recommends making sure the budgets for young men and young women’s programs are equitable. She’d like to see girls get to go on home teaching visits with their mothers, the way boys 12 and up get to do with older men now.
Neither McBaine nor the Chicago feminists expect a change in the male priesthood anytime soon. But they do think going to church could look a little different for the next generation of Mormon women.