In her essay, "Women as Healers in the Modern Church", Betina Lindsey relates the story of a Mormon couple who struggled to find common ground in regards to administering to their child.
The woman observed that her husband was
…hesitant to administer when [their] children were sick. She was very concerned about her son who needed an operation, but her husband said, ‘Let’s just wait and see how it goes.’ [She said] … I would have felt better if my son had been given a blessing, beforehand, but my husband wouldn’t and I couldn’t.
Similarly, another husband observed,
If one of the kids has a sore throat, I don’t think it’s time for a blessing. If they were in the hospital with a serious illness, then it would be different. However, his wife felt differently, ‘I think a blessing can be a preventative to worse things to come. He says I worry too much; but I feel helpless sometimes because he’s the one with the priesthood. I’m put into the position of nagging him into giving a blessing he doesn’t feel necessary.’
While it is impossible to understand all of the marital dynamics at work in these brief glimpses, they provide some illumination on the issue of "presiding in the equal partnership" as well as on the challenge of finding legitimate avenues for women to exercise their spiritual gifts.
Most members would agree that women are not precluded from receiving or seeking any of the spiritual gifts outlined in Doctrine & Covenants Section 46, "And again, to some it is given to have faith to be healed, and to others it is given to heal." This is not a gendered statement. Yet while it seems that Mormon women are not officially forbidden to heal, they are prohibited from engaging in the rituals of healing. The current Handbook states that, “only brethren who hold the necessary priesthood and are worthy may perform an ordinance or blessing or stand in the circle. “In this system, women become “hidden healers;” often the gift of healing that literally lies at their fingertips is unused, accidentally discovered and sometimes serves as the source of confusion or guilt.
One woman remembers:
When I was twelve years old, my father was rapidly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He slept downstairs and one night I felt prompted by an inner voice to go downstairs. I didn’t but the next morning my mother called me awake … and told me he had quit breathing and was dying. I ran down to sit with him while she called the family and Bishop. Somehow I felt I could do something about it. I held his hand in mine and sincerely prayed as best as a twelve-year old can. After a moment his eyes opened and he looked at me and asked, "What did you do? My lungs lifted and I could breathe again." He said he’d been fighting to live all night and felt like he should give up. It was a very humbling thing and we both knew that the spirit had worked through me. A few months later, he did die, but we were all better prepared for it by then. I hadn’t labelled it as a healing blessing until years later when I was listening to a lecture about experiences like this in the church. I’ve always felt a need to heal the hurts of others. I would like to have the option to use that power, but I’m not sure what makes it OK to call on it. It seems like the natural thing to do. I would like to have that permission.
It would seem that the last letter from the First Presidency on women’s role in administering to their sick children (1914) can be found in here and presents the following question:
4. Have the sisters the right to administer to sick children?
Answer: Yes; they have the same right to administer to sick children as to adults, and may anoint and lay hands upon them in faith.
This official statement has been followed up by an entry in Doctrines of Salvation (1953) that reads:
A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hands on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, "By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested."
Early on in parenthood, my husband and I faced a similar situation to the couples in the opening scenarios. Our first baby was feverish and seemed somewhat lethargic. I felt impressed to ask my husband to administer to him, but he thought we should wait. Torn between my concern for the baby and the questions surrounding sustaining my husband, I considered calling our home teachers, but felt awkward and embarrassed. I questioned my own revelation instead, and found solace in my own fervent prayers. Looking back, I do not fault my young husband, for unrighteous dominion. I think in his uncertainty of using the priesthood in his new role as father, he sincerely did not want to trivialize its power. Yet the fact remains — this in this situation, we were not equal partners.
In speaking with other Mormon women, I have found that this is not an uncommon scenario at some point during their marriages. Many of them wonder, “What is the correct course of action for a woman who feels her sick child should receive a blessing, if her husband disagrees?” or “How do I use my spiritual gift to heal?”
What could be the benefits of having women participate in the rituals of healing? One would be to strengthen the church at large by increasing the spiritual authority of more than half its members, including single mothers; another would be an increase of faith among women who are uncertain of what to do with their gifts of the spirit and fear “doing something wrong.” Finally, re-instituting the role of women as healers could, in fact, foster more equality between marriage partners. Imagine equal partners who could jointly bless their children instead of a woman having to ask a husband who disagrees or may not feel or be worthy to do so. As Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg has noted, “I learned that there is a difference between doing something yourself and observing someone else doing it, a matter of great significance in a tradition that is highly focused on ritual.”
Current praxis is challenging to equal partnership in parenthood, especially in view of our rich heritage of female healers and prophets upholding their right to assume this role, particularly with their own children. In view of this historical precedent, Mormon women may ask, “Why may we not live so as to rebuke disease?” as they seek to lay claim to their spiritual gifts.