Mormon women have a unique position in their church compared to other somewhat traditional religions. Mormon is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Many people mischaracterize the role of women in Mormonism simply because they do not understand how the church operates or they undervalue the role of families in God’s plan and in the world.
Mormons believe God intended for families to be the central unit of His plan. Families are more important than the congregations, the place of employment, the nation, or any other organization. They were created in part to facilitate the rearing of righteous children. We know that how a child is raised will have a significant impact on how a child turns out. When God placed Adam on the Earth, He then created a wife for Adam. When they left the Garden of Eden, they became responsible for having children and raising them well. The entire future of the world rested on whether or not they did a good job as parents.
For this reason, Mormons believe that raising children is the most important work anyone can do. When a Mormon parent does a good job of raising and training children, the chances of that child growing up faithful in his church and being a good person in general is increased, although there are no guarantees. Some children with good parents still go astray.
Mothers are given the primary responsibility for raising the children. This is not an insult or a punishment, as anyone who is a mother or has a mother must know. It is a difficult and challenging job and if it is boring, it is not being done properly. While it’s true some parts of the job are dull-every job has dull parts—the core of the job is particularly rewarding. Good mothers do more than change diapers. They teach, train, and guide. They set goals for their children and map out a plan to achieve them. They teach academics, morals, and character. Their work is more difficult and more impactful than running a business because a business only lasts a short time but a family lasts forever.
The concept of eternal families is unique to Mormonism. The belief adds value to the work of a mother because she is not simply managing a temporary organization; she is building a family that can last forever. Mormons do not believe spouses are divorced at death nor do they believe children are taken from their parents at death.
Mormon men are taught that their work as a father is more important than their career. Since the mother spends more time caring for the family than does the father, Mormon men are taught their wife’s job is the more important one—it is an eternal job, while employment is only temporal. They are also taught her job is more demanding and they must step in and help. Mormon men change diapers, help with meal preparation, and help with the housework. At church meetings, you will often see Mormon men caring for the babies and young children while their wife takes a well-deserved break.
Mormons teach that the man presides over the home. This concept is misunderstood by people who think that to preside means to be the boss. In Mormon terminology, it does not. Mormons teach that men and women run the house and family together as equal partners. The man’s presiding role is one of example. He is given the responsibility for setting the proper example for the family and making certain they are always on God’s path. This means he will be sure the family is called to prayer, that Family Home Evening is held, that troubled children are counseled with. If a man is left to settle a difference of opinion when the spouses are deadlocked, he cannot automatically choose his preferred path. The greater responsibility rests with him now. Men frequently decide to accept their wife’s preference because it is in an area of her expertise or simply because he feels it matters more to her than it does to him. He may even decide that if he is making the choice, he must choose in her favor. God holds him accountable for any leadership he exercises, and so he does not take the role lightly.
Within the church, Mormon women, unlike women in many other conservative churches, are permitted to pray publicly and to preach. In order to understand why Mormon women do not object to not holding the priesthood, one must understand how the church operates and what the priesthood actually is. When someone says a woman cannot serve in the clergy it is likely they don’t know what the clergy is in a Mormon’s church.
Mormons have a lay church, which means no one is paid. All positions are held by volunteers who must earn their living in other ways. At the very highest level, where church leaders are full-time, they live on their own resources or with the help of their families. If they cannot afford to do this, they receive a modest stipend that comes from the for-profit arm of the church and not the tithing. Both men and women serve in full-time positions. The stipend is not a salary, but a living allowance designed to let them live a modest lifestyle while they serve.
The first thing to understand then is that no woman is kept from holding a paying job or making a career choice. Both men and women can be given full-time positions in the church, so they both have a likelihood of receiving a stipend if needed.
The next thing to understand is that women do serve at very high levels of the church, including the international level. Some church callings—the Mormon term for a volunteer position—can only be held by men, but some can only be held by women. Some are open to either gender. Some women’s callings require them to oversee male volunteers.
Three auxiliaries can be run only by women. These are the Relief Society (the women’s auxiliary), the Young Women’s program (an auxiliary for teen girls) and the Primary (an auxiliary for children). Men can serve as volunteers in the Primary, but cannot run it. The Relief Society has a literacy program which men can teach in, but they cannot run the Relief Society or the literacy program. Literacy leaders must be women.
Some positions can only be held by those who have the priesthood. The priesthood is only open to men, but the Bible proves this is how God planned it. Women were never given the priesthood in the Bible. Jesus did not call female apostles because being an apostle is a priesthood function. This does not mean Jesus discriminated against women, anymore than God discriminated against men by making them unable to become mothers. He simply assigns some roles to specific genders.
It is important to understand that priesthood is a service function. No priesthood holder can use his priesthood to bless himself. If he is ill and requires a healing blessing, he must ask two other priesthood holders to give it to him. He cannot give himself a blessing. Women are not denied any blessing that comes from the priesthood. There are many ways to serve in a lay church—nearly every Mormon has at least one calling—and priesthood is merely one way.
While it is true women cannot be bishops (lay pastors), apostles, or prophets, it should be noted no man can choose these positions. They must be called to it by a leader. When they lead, they cannot just make random rules. They must follow the rules of the church and answer to someone above them. The prophet, who is also the head of the church, answers directly to God and so he also can’t make random rules. When leadership counsels are held at each level of church government, the female leaders listed above are included in the meetings. They have the same ability as anyone else to make suggestions and recommendations, which are treated seriously by the leaders. Church leaders counsel regularly with the women leaders to understand the needs that are best understood by their organizations.
It can be interesting to visit a Mormon meetinghouse. The women’s auxiliary invariably has a beautiful room, decorated and adorned with padded chairs. It is a dedicated room for them. Mormon buildings don’t have a room for the men’s priesthood. They meet wherever there is space—the chapel, the stage…any room that is left-over.
Mormon women who serve at the international level oversee a level of organization greater than any corporate president. She is given responsibility for a large number of women around the world living in diverse situations. Leadership of any Mormon organization is challenging and demanding—and Mormon women are up to it.