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A Review of Sheri Dew’s “Women and the Priesthood”

By: Rachael - December 23, 2013

Sheri Dew’s recently released Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes (Deseret 2013) comes on the heels of an eventful year for liberal Mormon women. The day(s) of Pants, the petitions for women to pray in conference, and the launching of Ordain Women’s official site, among other events, have provoked widespread discussion on the well-worn but still dimly understood topic of women and the priesthood.

Women and the Priesthood, despite the title, isn’t so much an attempt to answer questions about women’s lack of priesthood authority (ordination), the nature of the priesthood, or the relationship between gender and the priesthood, so much as it is an attempt to discuss women’s general status and participation in the Church. This is important to note, since readers approaching the book with the former questions in mind will most likely be disappointed. Dew dedicates only one chapter to the topic of women and the priesthood, packed between seven other “contextual” or “foundation-laying” chapters, which highlight ways women should understand their eternal role, identity, and relationship to God and the Church.

It is clear early on that Dew’s imagined audience is split between those who think women have no significance in the Church (i.e. uninformed outsiders or members who are missing the picture) and those wishing to defend women’s current position in LDS belief and practice. As a result of this polarization, a considerable population is excluded: active, faithful members who are uneasy with or puzzled about the relationships between women, gender, and the priesthood, as currently practiced or discussed by the Church.

A primary reason this population is left out is because Dew doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that active, faithful members could question or doubt the status quo. To Dew, the lines between secular organizations and the ever-inspired Church are simple and clear-cut: “The structure, purpose, and rules of governance won’t ever be the same [as secular organizations] because man-made organizations are led by men, whereas the Church is led by God” (78). The polarization, in other words, is the result of a key conflation, taken for granted by Dew, of God’s will and the existing state of affairs in the Church. That conflation, however, is precisely the point of contention with many questioning members.

This conflation emerges most saliently in chapter four, entitled “God is Perfect and So Is His Son,” which could be summarized with Dew’s sweeping statement: “Because this Church belongs to the Lord, everything in it belongs to Him as well—the organizational structure, governance, ordinances, covenants, commandments, power, and authority. Everything. It is all His” (77). The work this oft-used domino rhetoric does, however, is double-edged: while it could, perhaps, subdue the “stunning arrogance” of “anyone who believes that he or she knows better than the Lord how He should organize His Church” (79)(if this straw man does, in fact, exist), it also removes the wiggle room that Dew herself calls for in the next chapter when explaining some of the inarguably human elements of Church history (90-91). Upholding this dichotomous schema is an interesting move for Dew to make, in light of recent developments on lds.org and in the Church History department to provide more nuanced accounts of Church history and leaders.

Another effect of this polarization and conflation is to eliminate the field of legitimate questions—which is also puzzling considering the results to Deseret Book’s recent survey, which, she states, found that “many women feel there is no ‘safe place’ to share their concerns or even ask pointed questions” (8). Yet it is difficult to find space for such questions among the stark lines, straw men, and calls to faith (or “tests” of faith) that Dew continually invokes in her book. There is only the choice between being a “faithful” woman or an “absurdly arrogant” one; between accepting and celebrating the state of affairs as God’s will, or one-upping God’s wisdom; and so on.

On the other hand, the emphatic attention to the positive elements of LDS theology (the valued role of Eve) and history towards women (early suffrage, encouragement of learning and medical professionalization, the founding of the Relief Society, etc.), the active roles women play in the Church (teaching, leading, etc.) and the opportunities they have to engage with or approach God directly (revelation, ordinances, motherhood, etc.) may provide a reassuring repository of evidence to those wondering whether women have been wholly ignored in LDS practice and belief.

Chapter six, the only one to explicitly treat women and the priesthood, seems addressed to this group. Dew chooses to frame the discussion with the question: “If Mormon men are the only ones eligible for the high privilege of priesthood ordination, what do Mormon women get?” (102). Framing it this way, Dew avoids the more particular question of why Mormon women get, or do not get, certain responsibilities or privileges in the Church. She instead addresses the more general theme of women’s complementary cooperation in LDS soteriology and institutional roles.

Perhaps as a result, this chapter stays on a largely general level and neglects some of the more relevant issues of women and priesthood, like women performing ordinances in the temple (this receives a passing mention as an “exception” to men’s stewardship over priesthood ordinances), women receiving the title of future “queens and priestesses” in temple rituals, women wearing “garments of the holy priesthood,” and the various recorded statements or patriarchal blessings from the early church involving women and the priesthood. The issue of women healing in the early church is dealt with by several possibilities, none of which promote the idea that women were engaging in proto/actual priesthood ordinances.

This chapter, along with other passages throughout the book, does, however, illuminate issues in Mormon theology and practice that have yet to be worked out (Dew herself doesn’t dispute the many unknowns). For all the technical distinctions between priesthood keys, power, and authority, for example, their application to women results in many blurred lines. In one passage, for example, Dew cites Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith as saying that “the sisters have not been given the Priesthood” (118), while also citing Elder Ballard’s recent address (August 2013) that women, along with men, are “endowed with….priesthood power” in the temple (105). What exactly does this mean? What is the difference between being endowed with priesthood power, and being given the Priesthood? Similarly, Dew asserts that as a single woman without a “priesthood holder,” she still has “access to priesthood power in [her] home” (121). In what sense, then, do women have, or not “have,” the priesthood?

In the discussion of keys, Dew cites a personal example of experiencing the “utter futility of attempting to serve without the power of a presiding authority,” finding herself presenting at a Church meeting without divine aid (122). What then, is the purpose of the Holy Ghost, if not to inspire, guide, and empower? Indeed, Parley P. Pratt’s description of the Holy Ghost that Dew cites earlier on (61) and Dew’s description of priesthood power are difficult to distinguish. What is the difference between priesthood power and the Holy Ghost, as well as related issues like healings of faith and healings of the priesthood?

Dew also affirms Elder Oak’s assertion that the priesthood is not equivalent to men, yet also cites Harold B. Lee’s teaching that “pure womanhood plus priesthood means exaltation,” and “womanhood without priesthood, or priesthood without womanhood, doesn’t spell exaltation” (131). How are members to separate the notion of priesthood from maleness, if they are continually evoked as equivalents? What do Mormons believe about men’s relationship to the priesthood; is it eternal? Temporary?

This matter also becomes complicated in Dew’s discussion of the complementary nature of men and women in God’s plan and the relationship between motherhood and priesthood. In one passage by John A. Widstoe, “Motherhood is an eternal part of Priesthood” (143), yet in another, Dew explains motherhood as a separate, foreordained endowment meant to parallel men’s foreordination to holding the priesthood (142). In what way will motherhood (and fatherhood) be eternal? What is fatherhood’s relationship to the priesthood? If motherhood is the defining essence of a woman’s identity, is priesthood a man’s, or would it be fatherhood? How does the role of fatherhood fit into discussions where the parallel between motherhood and priesthood is maintained? Will that change at all with the increasingly egalitarian, shared nature of parenting?

And will Church attitudes towards feminism shift with the more expansive, less militant nature of third-wave feminism? If Dew firmly states that she is “not a feminist” within the first two pages of the book, yet abstains from defining the term, what are members (especially those who self-identify as feminist) to understand about the relationship between Mormonism and feminism?

These issues, among dozens of other questions that came to mind while reading Dew’s book, are useful markers to track the discussion of women and the priesthood in LDS culture. If we are to use Dew’s book as an indication of the opinions of the mainstream, or of the upper echelons of Church hierarchy, then it is evident that questions about women and the priesthood are not questions that can be treated on their own terms, yet. They serve primarily as indicators of devotion and orthodoxy; and questioning members, it seems, are left to navigate that difficult line on their own.

 

 

A follow-up companion review will be coming shortly from Andrea Radke-Moss

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20 Comments

  1. Thanks, Rachael, for this illuminating review. I was wondering about the authority, if you will, given to Dew in writing about women and the priesthood. The subtitle makes clear this is technically one woman’s perspective, but I’ve also understood that many are treating it almost as a church-sanctioned book (at least those that buy into the dichotomy you discussed). Does Dew touch on her reasons for writing at all?

    Comment by Saskia — December 23, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  2. Yes, she did explain her reasons for writing in the introduction to the book. She writes: “I am not attempting to be a spokeswoman on sensitive doctrinal issues, and I am certainly no declaring doctrine for the Church. I do, however, feel compelled to testify about what I know to be true” (9). In her interview on MormonWomen.org, she also says: “I thought, ‘Everyone will think I’m writing this as an answer to all the people who think women should get the priesthood, and that’s just not the case.’ But I honestly could not leave it alone.” I think she is aware of the risks of her book being taken as church-sanctioned, and she ostensibly tries to prevent that by leaving blank journal pages in the back for people to write their own thoughts. Her tone doesn’t always support this “discussion” oriented objective, I think.

    Comment by Rachael — December 23, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

  3. Great review. Thanks Rachael.

    Comment by Bradley — December 23, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  4. Thanks for the review, Rachael. I would love to see DB print another book from another perspective. There’s so much vitriol in discussion women and priesthood, I think having a book from another perspective, from DB, would help discussions become more profitable.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 23, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  5. Thanks for answering my question!

    Comment by Saskia — December 24, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  6. Thanks for this Rachael! I just bought the book yesterday so I am going to refrain from drawing any conclusions until I read it. I do wonder, though, if there are any rhetorical differences between the church’s statements concerning women in the 1970s and those being issued now.

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 24, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

  7. Thanks for a fantastic review, Rachael, and a much more lucid and thoughtful one than what I might have produced this week. I especially appreciate the contradictions that you have highlighted here, that remain at the heart of anyone’s attempts to deal with the role and place of women in the Church. Even someone as firmly rooted in and convinced of the “separate-but-equal” narrative as Sheri Dew seems perplexed to explain away these contradictions.

    I’m also fascinated by how much she, as the CEO of a major company, and an obvious beneficiary of 2nd-Wave feminism in so many ways (and much more privileged in terms of so-called worldly notions of power and authority than most of her LDS sisters), has distanced herself from any sympathies with the movement that helped her to achieve the position of privilege she enjoys. And the fact that she continues to allow herself to be primarily defined by the one role that eludes her, and that she is unlikely to enjoy in this life. Is that just her way of coping with her disappointment, or is there a larger philosophical tension at work here?

    P.S. I hope to add some of my follow-up thoughts to your review coming soon . . .

    Comment by Andrea R-M — December 24, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  8. Thanks for the review. I appreciate the critique. Here are a few questions I would like to see answered by future scholarship in this area.

    If priesthood was not universally available to white men for almost the first fifty years of Mormonism, how do we know male ordination will remain universal or that equality for women also means universal access?

    Was access to Mormon priesthood based on concepts of lineage that have since been discredited? How long did we teach that priesthood was reserved for those with membership in the House of Israel and denied to those who lacked the proper ancestry?

    Do we still teach that men and women are adopted into one of the twelve tribes when they are baptized? Have we largely forgotten what D&C 68:16-21 says about “literal descendants of Aaron”?

    If the church has disavowed the idea that black men cannot hold the priesthood because they are descended from Cain, what will happen to the idea that chromosomes are the only thing officially preventing women from holding the priesthood?

    Have we reached the point now where any man, regardless of his genes or the fitness of his body, can qualify for the priesthood, while women are told to aspire to motherhood, which not every female can or will experience in this life?

    Does Dew acknowledge the concern among the Brethren about young men falling behind young women in contemporary American society, especially in terms of earning degrees and securing jobs? Do the Brethren fear lifting gender restrictions on the priesthood would cause young men to feel unneeded and abandon church activity at an even higher rate?

    Comment by sterflu — December 25, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  9. Really excellent review, Rachael. It really reveals a number of the critical assumptions that Sheri Dew leaves still unquestioned and the questions that she leaves unanswered. A healthy treatment for any book to receive, especially about an issue like this. Thank you.

    Comment by JB — December 26, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  10. This is an outstanding review. Thanks, Rachael.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — December 27, 2013 @ 2:40 am

  11. Andrea, I believe some of the best examples of empowered women come from pioneer Utah and post pioneer Utah. Indeed, the fact that Utah women had the right to vote first is not just an outlier but reflective of broader cultural empowerment.

    So I’d rephrase your question as to why she distances herself from feminism when it supposedly benefitted her so much and instead suggest the feminists benefited from LDS woman to an immeasurable degree and they now distance themselves (by and large) from LDS women.

    Comment by Chris — December 27, 2013 @ 9:56 am

  12. Fantastic review, Rache. I think this kind of thoughtful engagement with the stuff Deseret Book publishes is really worthwhile. I appreciate your attention to rhetorical cues indicating Dew’s sense of audience.

    And I like how your review reveals what we can glean from noticing how style is joined with substance in writing like this. An author might disavow official sanction while employing form and tone that invites certain readers to see her perspective as pure orthodoxy, something that might not have formal approval from the brethren, but might as well since the answers are so clear–surely the prophets see them.

    Comment by James — December 28, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

  13. Andrea- Reading her book, I think Dew does not consider her position one primarily of privilege, but one of loss. Because a career is not an aspiration, her successful career is not necessarily a gain from the feminist movement. Thus she feels no loyalty to it; it’s given her a plan B, I suppose. So I am not sure she experiences the tension you see- that’s how it appears to me at least!

    Comment by Rachael — December 29, 2013 @ 12:05 am

  14. Great question, Amanda. I wish I had been able to explore that comparative element! maybe Andrea will give us more context. That question would be a fun follow up post.

    Comment by Rachael — December 29, 2013 @ 12:15 am

  15. I love this review SO much. It really says a lot of what I felt and wondered about the book. I found it so dichotomous: you’re either with us or you’re against us!! So little time is actually spent on real reasons or questions people have about women and the priesthood. Perhaps because there is so little attempt at understanding what those questions are by most members of the church.
    There is no room WHATSOEVER for someone who has questions and to be faithful. For one to be feminist and to be faithful. sigh.

    I did a blog post where I put my summary of her book along with notes and my questions – it’s insanely rambling and long and not nearly as concise as here. I like this one better. Thanks!

    Comment by Kristine A — December 29, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

  16. Great review. I was also left unsatisfied by all the unanswered questions and saddened by the way women’s ritual healing was thrown under the bus.

    Anyone interested in tracking the growth of our rhetoric on this issue could compare Dew’s book to Rodney Turner’s 1973 Woman and the Priesthood (warning: your head may explode).

    Comment by Moss — December 30, 2013 @ 12:43 am

  17. Excellent review, Rachael.

    Comment by Ryan T — December 30, 2013 @ 9:07 am

  18. Thanks for writing this. Your last sentence sums it all up….sad but accurate I think.

    This is my first visit to Juvenile Instructor and I’ll definitely be back again. I came over from the Wheat and Tares 2013 award list.

    Side note: If you are the same Rachael who gave that fantastic comment on The Meridian Magazine article “Satans Attack on Women” then thank you a hundred time over. That was a doozy and your comment was like a ray of light.

    Comment by Jessica — January 1, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

  19. Thanks Jessica- we’re glad you found JI! I did comment on that Meridian Magazine piece a while ago– you’re right, that article was something else. I’d put it up there with Rodney Turner’s piece Moss mentioned (and yes, my head did explode).

    Comment by Rachael — January 3, 2014 @ 11:15 am

  20. Very insightful review. Thank you.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — January 9, 2014 @ 5:18 am