Much of the discussion about women and priesthood on feminist Mormon blogs centers around women's desire to administer sacred ordinances, such as baby blessings and baptisms, to their children. While I sympathize with these feelings, I have never felt a need to participate in these ordinances. However, I do feel strongly about women's lack of institutional decision making power within the LDS church. The argument that I often hear is that women are consulted on every level, thus their voices are fully heard and there is no need for any change. However, I think there are at least three aspects of the current church structure that would likely change in significant ways if women were more involved. These areas include doctrine, policy, and issues of worthiness.
I should start out with saying that there is a heap of psychological research on how decisions are made within groups and how power structures impact an individual's willingness to speak up. For example, when individuals are part of a council in which they are a minority group (for example a council of mostly men and a few women) they are more willing to express a difference of opinion if they perceive that they have psychological standing on the issue being discussed (Morrison, 2011). In this case psychological standing means that you perceive yourself as being an expert in that area or that you have personal experiences in that area that make your opinion more valid that others. Another finding is that employees are more willing to speak up to managers when they perceive that they are in a safe environment in that the risks of speaking up are low (Detert & Burris, 2007). I admit that I am not well-versed in this literature as it is outside of my area of expertise. However, I think the main point that can be drawn is that within organizations power structures matter; social standing based on race or gender or a number of other characteristics matters; and the number of people who are "like you" or might share your perspective who are on the council matters. Based on these findings, I believe that it is not enough to put two or three women on a ward council and assume that women's perspectives are being fully expressed. There are a number of complex factors that will impact whether those women will actually speak up, and whether their opinions will be taken seriously and will be implemented into the decisions that are being made.
I find the lack of women's voices and decision making power within the LDS church troubling with regards to the church's own policy on the eternal nature of gender. For example, within the LDS church, it is heavily taught that men and women are different and thus will have different perspectives and experiences. It is taught that children benefit from having two parents of opposite genders because each of those parents is adding something unique to a child's development. However, there is also an idea that men can solicit the ideas and opinions of women and then make the final decisions on an institutional level. The argument goes that as long as women are being consulted then their needs are being met. However, I think there is a vast difference between being consulted and being directly involved in making the decisions. Additionally, men vastly outnumber women in ward and stake councils and in the general leadership of the church. Thus, while many men may be consulted and may influence the final decision, only a few women's opinions will be solicited (if they are solicited at all). Those few women may not represent the diversity of opinions that exist in the church body as a whole.
Getting back to doctrine, policy, and worthiness. I believe that these aspects of the church would be vastly different if women had more institutional decision making power. With regards to doctrine, it is easy to take the perspective that doctrine is eternal and will not change based on the person receiving the revelation. However, the LDS church has a long history of doctrine being revealed based on the questions and desires of church leaders. For example, the church was started when Joseph Smith wanted to know more about the nature of God. However, many women have expressed a deep desire to know more about Heavenly Mother and her role in the heavens, yet the leaders of the church continue to say very little about that. I think that it does matter who is asking the questions because it will greatly influence the questions that will be asked. Thus, more women in higher positions within the LDS church will impact the questions that will be asked and more women speaking at General Conference has the potential to influence the doctrine that is revealed to the church body.
I am not going to say much about policy, but you can imagine policies that would be impacted by having more institutional power for women. Worthiness is a big issue as all members' worthiness is judged by male leaders of the church. Starting in adolescence, both boys and girls are asked questions about their sexuality by church leaders. Furthermore, the Stake High Council (which consists entirely of men) make decisions about a person's worthiness when that worthiness is brought into question. Especially with regards to issues of sexual purity (such as infidelity) there is a great need for more women's voices at an institutional level. Anecdotally many women have expressed a frustration with male leaders who side with husbands instead of wives when there is a conflict in the marriage. Personally, changing the dynamic of the Stake High Council (such as having 6 women and 6 men on the counsel) is one of the aspects of Mormonism that I would most like to see changed. In relation to that point, I had an experience serving jury duty for a case in which a college student was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting law enforcement. I don't understand all the legal logistics of the situation, but as the potential jury members filed into the room the lawyers on both sides took turns selecting the jury members that they wanted. I believe that I was selected by the lawyer defending the college student because I was the youngest person in the room and the most likely to be sympathetic towards the defendant. You better believe, that if I was ever in a situation in which I was called before a church court that was going to make decisions about my standing within the church, I would want people in that room that could understand and sympathize with my situation. I am not sure that a room full of 12 men could to that to the degree that a room that included at least 6 women could.
I want to end my thoughts with two experiences. The first is that my father teaches law school and he commented to me that as more women have enrolled in his classes over the years, he has seen the conversation change. As he presents material he has presented many times before, he has been surprised that the women will ask questions that have never been raised before and that he hasn't thought of. I believe that granting women more institutional power would change the conversation within the LDS church. The second experience that I had was a conversation with a man who was serving as a temple worker. He complained to me that the temple matron corrected him in how he was doing something, but he was very offended because it is not her place to correct him. While technically he may have been correct, it was troubling to me that it was so offensive to him that a women corrected him even though she had a higher ranking than him in that situation. My thought was, "It is our church, too. Shouldn't we have a say in how things should be run?" So my response to people who question why women would seek more power within the LDS church is "It is our church, too."