In April of this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allowed the first woman to pray as part of its semiannual worldwide General Conference. This important event took place just six months after at the last conference, when the LDS Church announced it was lowering the age requirement for young women seeking to serve proselytizing missions—a change that has seen an incredible increase in female participation in the church’s missionary program and has required church authorities to reconsider the male-dominated leadership program among missionaries.
In order to fully understand the significance of these steps to reconsider women’s participation in the LDS Church, it may be helpful to consider the circumstances in which these changes have taken place. One of the most interesting considerations in the study of media, religion and culture is the effect that new media technologies and practices have on the maintenance of authority within religious institutions. With the advent of the printing press, the Christian Church was obligated to release its stranglehold on access to and interpretation of scripture. And now, with the emergence of digital media, Mormons are beginning to congregate online to discuss issues—like the role of women in the LDS Church—that have historically not found a place in sacrament meetings or Sunday school lessons.
Now, Mormon media is not a new concept. The LDS Church has a long embraced the use of media technologies in its proselytizing efforts—most notably in the recent “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which included billboards, TV ads and a social media movement. The Church has an incredible web presence—offering scripture, genealogical records, teaching resources, and counseling services online. Church leaders have even encouraged members to more actively participate in online discussions about religion via social media and blogs. So, the emergence of blogs that address issues, for example of feminism and faith, within the Mormon community is unsurprising. Sites like Feminist Mormon Housewives, Ask Mormon Girl, Sistas in Zion and By Common Consent have emerged as popular, online spaces in which Mormons of all stripes congregate to discuss and debate, offer critiques and share testimonies.
The emphasis on women’s issues in these online discussions is particularly interesting given the complicated perspective on gender roles within LDS culture and doctrine. LDS theology’s treatment of women is arguably the most progressive of any self-described Christian denomination. For example, according to Mormon doctrine, Eve’s choice to partake of the fruit in Eden was not a tragedy for which all women are cursed, but instead the first, heroic act of human agency. God, understood as the Father of all humankind, is necessarily accompanied by a female companion, referred to as Heavenly Mother. And not only does LDS theology teach the existence of a divine female, but it also preaches mortal men and women’s potential to progress to become gods and goddesses in their own right.
While these distinctly Mormon doctrines represent women rather positively, their place in Mormon culture and church governance itself continue to be sources of discussion. The Church’s Relief Society is recognized as the first and largest religiously-affiliated women’s organization in the world, and its early members were actively involved in the nineteenth century women’s suffrage movement. However, the practice of polygamy—practiced by select Mormons until it was officially prohibited by the LDS Church in 1890—tarnishes this perception of the early Church as promoting women’s rights. The LDS people have traditionally accepted the concept of ‘headship’ (common to many Christian denominations) in which the man is understood as the spiritual leader of his home—protecting, providing for, and presiding over his family. And while women participate in Church governance, their stewardships are typically limited to the congregations’ women and children. The administration of the Church is understood as primarily the responsibility of males who have been ordained to the priesthood.
These contradictions between LDS doctrine and Mormon cultural and administrative practices were among the concerns voiced in an open, online letter to LDS Church leaders drafted by Church members entitled “All Are Alike Unto God.” The statement, posted online in 2012 and now signed by around 2000 individuals, requests that the Church’s leadership “thoughtfully consider and earnestly pray about the full integration of women into the decision-making structure of the Church and the question of women’s ordination.” Perhaps acknowledging, the challenge that this significant step toward gender equality might present to the Church, the authors then suggest a number of modifications to institutional policies that might facilitate such a change. Interestingly, among them are suggestions to allow women to pray in General Conference and lower the age requirement for female missionaries.
By highlighting these changes, I do not mean to suggest that the governance of the LDS Church is now dictated by a small group of progressive-minded members. But I think it is fair to say that these online spaces are facilitating conversations that in the past have been without a forum. And while women are not being ordained to the priesthood, awareness of these issues, among Church members and authorities, is growing.
In that first session of April’s conference which concluded with Jean A. Steven’s benediction and in the meetings that followed, no mention of women’s claims to priesthood was made. Talks focused on forgiving others, doing missionary work, and living virtuous lives, among other things. However, a few days before, the main page of the LDS Church’s website featured a video entitled “Top Mormon Women Leaders Provide Their Insights into Church Leadership.” And while the discussion between the Church’s top-ranking female leaders did not include the introduction of new doctrine or significant changes to administrative practices, its existence shows the willingness of Church authorities to engage in conversations about such important issues. And it’s not insignificant that this response finds its place online. These important concerns, shared by so many Church members, need to be addressed in some place; and perhaps these discussions on the web will lead to more conversations (and changes) in the chapel and in the seminary.