While women have barely infiltrated the world of politics, business and even science, not much headway has been made for women in orthodox religions. Though some protestant and evangelical denominations allow for female priests, theological authority overwhelmingly rests within the firm grasp of men. And for a world that is still strongly religious, this means a significant portion of women are reaching for God between the fingers of their male intermediary: priest, bishop, prophet, pope.
While some women may find this tradition comforting and even divinely willed, many more are starting to question its wisdom. What aspects of spirituality does religion miss without a strong female perspective? What might change for issues like birth control, abortion, and sexual education, if women were in positions of leadership?
For churches that stress how deeply they care about validate women, leaders rarely seem invested in actually listening to women’s needs; rarely giving them any decision-making ability or sharing their "God-given power."
Religious leaders now face an upswing of feminist concern as women in orthodox religions lobby for female ordination within their faith. Just last year many Catholics took matters into their own hands and ordained themselves, only to be faced with excommunication.
A similarly controversial movement is happening within the Mormon church, as some women have started an Ordain Women organization designed to bring awareness to their desire to be included in their religion’s hierarchy.
This Saturday evening, October 5th, at the 183rd Semi-Annual General Conference for the LDS church, thousands of women from the Ordain Women organization will stand in line, requesting tickets for the male-only priesthood session. In the LDS church, only men above the age of 12 may hold "the priesthood," what is considered to be the power of God on Earth (giving these men the ability to perform ordinances and blessings), and only priesthood-holding male members of the LDS church may serve in the top tiers of the religion’s hierarchy.
Chelsea Shields Strayer, a Ph.D candidate at Boston University, president of Mormons for ERA, speaker at We Are Women Rally, and spokeswoman for Ordain Women (you can listen to the OW podcast here), graciously granted me an email interview. According to her, their goals are simple but necessary: "We want our leaders to consider our untapped potential and to view us as the asset we are to the church. We want to demonstrate that we are ready for both the blessings and the responsibilities of the priesthood. We want to use it to bless the lives of our families, wards, and communities. Ordain Women is an act of faith."
Critics argue, as they have for years about feminism in general, that these LDS women are merely power-hungry individuals and seek to elevate themselves above men. The argument that feminism seeks to place women ahead of men is an unfortunate twisting of feminist theory that has occurred throughout dozens of feminists’ causes, and is now continuing into the theological sphere.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Strayer said that many women who support the movement for female ordination face "enormous ecclesiastical and social pressure." They are called names, judged, and ridiculed.
What many people may not understand about Mormonism is that early LDS women did use a shorter form priesthood power to give blessings of healing (a task now given solely to men) from 1843-1946. After 1946, LDS women were promised that a woman enjoys the benefits of the priesthood through her husband and that, if asked, she could (righteously) join in to give a blessing of healing.
Supporters of Ordain Woman argue that since women are given some access to the priesthood through the powers given to their husbands, why would it be such a stretch for them to have official ordination? What does this "lack of clear information" tell intelligent, faithful LDS women? "What this communicates to me," Strayer said, "is that when it comes to essential gospel doctrines surrounding women, there are many questions, not a lot of answers, and a patriarchal leadership that doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in discovering and/or sharing them."
These protests are coming at a crucial time for the feminist movement. The fight over birth control, the fact that abortion rights are actually slipping, and the threatened loss of funding for Planned Parenthood indicate that feminist voices continue to get stronger, but the backlash is building from a few loud voices. Strayer argues that the world is impacted daily by the decisions of major religions. These religions have enormous "financial, political and social capital," and it would be irresponsible to disregard their influence.
Strayer believes that it is essential for women, especially religious feminists, to speak out, because a future that includes women in its church leadership is one "where meetings will focus less on building malls and choosing the next pontiff and more on solving many of our world’s problems: poverty, war, violence, clean water, sanitation, education, health, etc. For me this issue unites women of all religions and nations. It goes beyond Mormonism or feminism. It is about women asserting their God-given right to their own inspiration and intuition, and the assurance that it is just as valuable, necessary, important and worthy as that of a man’s."
But young religious feminists (like the Young Mormon Feminists) are helping to spur forward this movement and coming of age in an era of nationwide reform, and a time when that reform isn’t singularly contained within religious media. The demands (even by a small, but vocal passionate group) can spotlight the need for equality, even if the fight continues into the next generation. "I am certain," Strayer said, "that I am standing on the right side of this issue."
I find that the fight of religious women to actively participate in their religion’s offerings of service and decision-making is an incredibly affirming, feminist goal.
Most (if not all) of the world’s religions have changed over the years, following patterns of enlightenment and growth and, according to many churches, revelation. Incorporating their female congregations can bring nothing but good. As Strayer has recognized, "We cannot leave out 50% of our leadership and human capital."
Surely, that's not God's will.