It strikes me that a lot of our disagreement over feminist issues in the church comes from one variation or another of straw-man argumentation. It is much easier to disagree with a caricature of our intellectual opponent’s argument than with the real thing. I’m going to talk about a particular type of caricature here today; Alison Moore Smith provided several last week. It is useful to note these things, because, hopefully, they will help us move past superfluous and irrelevant grandstanding and focus on the important arguments in any debate. Also, world peace might spring up.
The motivation that I see most ascribed to feminists in the church is the desire for equality and, by equality, folks seem to mean sameness. As I understand it (please correct me if I misunderstand), those who argue for the status quo believe that feminists will not be satisfied until there are no differences between men and women in the church. I don’t even know what that would mean: Men and women both having to wear formless white jumpsuits in their holiest buildings? Men have to shave and women have to bind their chests? Men get to have a room that is the moral equivalent of a nursing room? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Therefore it is incredibly easy to dismiss notions of equality as sameness; setting aside the physical impossibility of it all, the outcomes envisioned are frequently easily undesirable. No-one would want to live that way.
The thing is, most feminists (and, I’d imagine, most Mormon feminists) don’t want equality as sameness; they want equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity, when enjoyed by humans, indicates that anyone who puts in the requisite hard work, has the appropriate abilities, and has the desire to hold a certain position, has the opportunity to compete for the position. It doesn’t guarantee that the position will be won, nor does it guarantee that any particular person is the best person for the job, but it means that all interested parties are not prevented from their interest by irrelevant details (sex, race, political affiliation, and so forth). Of course, sometimes those irrelevant details aren’t irrelevant; you wouldn’t want a Democrat elected the head of the Republican National Committee. So, part of the question is deciding when something like sex should or shouldn’t be relevant.
Equality of opportunity is a lot less oppressive than equality of sameness, however there is the possibility that this is irrelevant. After all, positions in the Church are not won via competition, they are granted via revelation. Looking at the church, it is always hard to know where the revelation stops and the received culture starts. If, in April Conference, the Brethren said, “Women can now be bearers of the priesthood and be called to priesthood leadership positions like bishop or stake president or apostle” all that would do is establish equality of opportunity. Which might mean that ninety-nine percent of the bishops and stake presidents called in the next 100 years would still be men. How we receive revelation is determined, in part, by what we expect revelation to be. Right now, if a bishop felt prompted to call a sister to the Elder’s Quorum presidency, he’d dismiss it as a silly notion. We’ve no guarantee that would change after a change in policy. However, there is the possibility that Mormons, on the whole, are better than the rest of the world at listening to and following the Spirit.
I was discussing the recent furor with a group of friends and a female friend said that women don’t need the priesthood to be equal; they need to be treated like they were equal to be equal. While she sees the inequality, she feels like it could be rectified without extending the priesthood to women. She suggests taking leadership positions (the ability to make final decisions regarding how the money is spent is proof of power) and separating them from the priesthood. Women are clearly as capable of receiving revelation, presiding benevolently, or doing any other necessary leadership tasks as men. I agree with her there, but I think that to create true equality of opportunity for leadership in the church, women have to have the priesthood, because for better or worse, the two are tied together in doctrine and culture now. We can’t return to quasi-pre-correlation era of a fairly independent Relief Society, where women’s organizations in the church controlled their own budget and acted with minimal General Authority-type oversight, I think, because I think that correlation really did bring the notions of priesthood and leadership together in a way that can’t be undone. However I think that this is a good thing, because it means that the only way to implement equality of opportunity is to extend the priesthood to all.
One last thought: this entire argument is based on the premise that the current gender division of power in the church reflects human culture, tradition, and desire more than it does the will of God. In saying this, I’m not saying that the Brethren aren’t inspired or that the Church is in apostasy. They are bound, just as we are bound, by the society in which we are raised. Peter didn’t imagine extending the Priesthood to the Gentiles until God directly intervened and, frankly, I don’t want or imagine that the Priesthood will be extended to women until something similar happens in the Church. But the possibility is there; with God, nothing is impossible.