Extraordinary Mormon Women
Women belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always done remarkable things. Emma Smith, first president of the Latter-day Saint women’s organization, told the women working with her, “We are going to do something extraordinary” (Relief Society Minute Book, Nauvoo, Illinois, March 17, 1842, Church History Library, 12), and they haven’t stopped doing extraordinary things since their organization on March 17, 1842.
The Relief Society, which Emma Smith headed originally, is today a world-wide women’s organization—one of the world’s oldest and largest. Its female members strengthen families and homes and seek to provide relief to those in need, all while increasing personal faith and righteousness. Joseph Smith, first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, said of the Relief Society’s organization, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized” (Quoted in Sarah M. Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent, Sept 1, 1883, 51). Mormon women have always been recognized and appreciated for their unique skills and potential.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often inadvertently referred to as the “Mormon Church”) was organized on April 6, 1830. Historically, women have not had as many freedoms as men have had, even in the United States, which prides itself on its liberated view of individual rights. Women’s rights were long-awaited and long fought-for in being made law and in becoming more accepted in society. The Church of Jesus Christ has stood out as a champion of women since its restoration in 1830 and has been at the forefront of women’s rights in all that movement’s most positive goals.
Overcoming the Oppression of Women
It is hard for us to believe now, but even as late as 1830 and beyond, married women were not recognized, at least by the law, as more than mere possessions of their husbands. The English Common Law was accepted widely and stated:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the legal existence of woman is merged in that of her husband. He is her baron or lord, bound to supply her with shelter, food, clothing and medicine, and is entitled to her earnings and the use and custody of her person, which he may seize wherever he may find it (History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6, p.961).
Women were so bound by the law that it was very difficult for them to work to obtain personal funds. It was also very difficult for them to gain higher education and to escape from unhappy, oppressive marriages. They had few rights and freedoms if they were unmarried and seemingly even fewer if they were married. They were trapped in a society which largely viewed them as cooks and housekeepers who were able and expected to provide children as heirs and workers. For the most part, women were not seen as having the capacity for higher intellectual pursuits or for being able to contribute to society in any way outside the home.
Negative Effects of the Feminist Movement
This mindset continued well into the 20th century until the feminist movement really took hold. It wasn’t until 1920 that an amendment was signed into law giving all adult women the right to vote in America, but there was still a long way to go in the fight for women’s rights. For several more decades it was common practice for a woman to lose her job when she married and, if not then, certainly when she became pregnant.
Great strides have been made in the last 100 years liberating women from being viewed as possessions. However, somewhere along the way, the true end goal of being valued equally was lost, and many pioneers in the quest for women’s rights began to look beyond the mark. The pendulum seems to have swung to the opposite extreme, telling women they are worthless unless they are treated exactly like men with the same contributions and expectations. This attitude is just as harmful as telling women they are worth less than men. The true spirit of feminism should be that women are just as valuable as men are in their own right. They have their own strengths and talents to offer and should be valued equally for what they bring to the table as men are for what they bring to the table.
I want to be valued for who I am and what I have to offer because I am human, I am a daughter of God, and I have worth. Telling me that because I am a woman I am worthless is just as harmful and hurtful as telling me that I must not be worth the same as a man unless I act exactly like him and am treated exactly like him. We as women need to be proud of our divine qualities. The world is in need of these qualities, but the harm of modern feminism is the idea that these qualities should be dropped by everyone because they are feminine. I am proud of being a woman and realize that many feminine qualities are just what the world needs more of today.
Mormon Feminism and Mormon Doctrine
Mormon doctrine teaches, however, that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World”). Society is fighting against this eternal truth.
Many people have fought for women to have the freedom to choose their own futures. Free will is also considered an eternal truth by Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), and so women choose for themselves what they want to do with their lives. However, Mormon doctrine also teaches that men and women have complementary characteristics. Both a righteous man and a righteous woman are essential to God’s plan for families.
The Church of Jesus Christ has always recognized the eternal value that women have and the vast array of talents they have to offer in building up the kingdom of God on the earth. Still, it is part of Mormon doctrine that Mormon women have the most to offer the world in raising up righteous children. This does not make women less capable in the workplace than men; it simply means there is no more valuable or meaningful work they can perform than to raise up righteous children. Many extraordinary women have managed to raise children in righteousness and to also contribute to their communities in other very meaningful ways. Men and women are seen as being of equal value, but they do not have identical abilities and strengths.
Mormon Women Doing Extraordinary Things
When the early Saints were forced to move west, they set up their own community in the desert in what was then the Utah Territory, but getting there was a long, dangerous, arduous task. Many people died; everyone who made the journey suffered. Bathsheba W. Smith, the fourth Relief Society General President, recalled what helped them through this trial:
I will not try to describe how we traveled through storms of snow, wind, and rain; how roads had to be made, bridges built, and rafts constructed; how our poor animals had to drag on day after day with scanty feed; nor how our camps suffered from poverty, sickness, and death. We were consoled … by having our public and private meetings in peace, praying and singing the songs of Zion, and rejoicing that we were leaving our persecutors far behind. We were further consoled by seeing the power of God manifested through the laying on of the hands of the elders, causing the sick to be healed, and the lame to walk. The Lord was with us and his power was made manifest daily (Autobiography of Bathsheba W. Smith, typescript, Church History Library, 13; punctuation, spelling, and capitalization standardized).
It was the faith these women had in God that got them through this trial. They supported one another; they mourned with each other when their loved ones died; they shared what little they had; and they rejoiced together when they finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
When a large group of Saints were stranded on the plains in a blizzard, those who had struggled themselves to get to Salt Lake were exhorted by Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ, to help those who were in need. After President Young’s admonition, Lucy Meserve Smith recorded that women immediately took off all the warm clothing they could spare (e.g. petticoats and stockings) and piled them in wagons that left immediately to try and help the stranded people. This sense of immediacy in helping those in need has continued in the spirit of Relief Society.
Society Benefiting from Women’s Freedoms
From the earliest days in the Salt Lake Valley, Mormon women were encouraged to exercise a great deal of freedom. There was a whole city and community to build. Women were given the vote in all applicable matters. Many women gained higher education and served their communities as doctors, as teachers in universities, running hospitals, holding public office, and even publishing their own newspapers. However, before the United States would admit Utah into the Union as a state, the vote was taken away from Mormon women by the government, and they had to fight to get it back. This temporary setback did not deter women, though, and the first female Senator in the United States was Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, a Mormon woman, who won the election by more than 3,000 votes—running against her own husband!
President Brigham Young urged many of the women of the church to become doctors. Zina D. H. Young was one who followed his counsel. She completed a course in obstetrics and helped deliver countless babies. She also encouraged other women to gain these skills. Many went east to obtain degrees and then came back, teaching what they had learned to others. One such woman, Emma Andersen Liljenquist, was given a blessing from a church leader that, “if [she] lived right [she] should always know what to do in case of any difficulties.” She recorded:
That promise has been fulfilled to the very letter. Many times when one of my patients was seriously ill, I have asked my Heavenly Father for assistance, and in every case it was given to me. One in particular was a lady who had just given birth to a baby and hemorrhage set in. The husband called the doctor, but he did not realize that it was so serious. I … asked the Lord to help us. The hemorrhage ceased and I did the necessary things for her. When the doctor arrived, he said he could hardly believe what had happened, but said I had done exactly what he would have done. …
… I have brought over one thousand babies [into the world]. Once again I give thanks to my Heavenly Father for His help and the strength the Lord has given me, for without it I could not have rendered this service to my sisters or our community (Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter (1963), 6:445–46).
Many prominent women who worked in the general women’s suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony, sought advice from Mormon women who had experience in the field.
This kind of influence continues in the world today. In 1992, the Relief Society celebrated its 150th anniversary. Local organizations were encouraged to look to their own communities for ways to serve them.
One of our Relief Society presidents went to the city council in a California city and said, “What are the things that you feel are needed in this community that we could do?” And the men said, “You mean 20,000 groups throughout this world are going to be doing this same thing?” And she said yes. And [one of the council members] said, “You’ll change the world.” And I think we did … for the better. That was one of the unifying things. And [there was] such a variety of service. … [Sisters] made lap rugs in South Africa for those elderly in the home. … They planted flowers around [a] clock tower in Samoa. And they did so many things with homeless shelters or providing books for children or painting homes for unwed mothers, that sort of thing. We felt that throughout the world these community service projects were a great thing, both for the sisters and for the community (Elaine L. Jack, interview by Julie B. Beck, Feb. 10, 2009, transcript, Church History Library).
Mormon Women Today
Mormon women are highly valued and respected. Mormon doctrine has always taught this principle. However, the Lord has created men and women as complementary to one another to help fulfill His purpose for all of us. We need each other to be complete and to reach a full level of joy. Men and women both have important things to offer and critical roles to fill, but they need to fill the roles the Lord has created for them.
Another observation Elder Christofferson made helps me to grasp the bigger picture of how we are meant to work together, “In blurring feminine and masculine differences, we lose the distinct, complementary gifts of women and men that together produce a greater whole.”
There is a lot of discussion among the few women who don’t clearly understand how God’s Church works about allowing women to hold the priesthood. Many other Christian denominations have made changes in their structure to allow for this. It surprises me when I hear Mormon women who say they felt left out by not being allowed to hold the priesthood. I have never felt this way.
One key difference between priesthood in the Mormon Church and other Christian denominations is that our clergy is unpaid. All who serve in any capacity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do so as volunteers. There are many, many areas in which women serve and do so very well. However, in Mormon doctrine, it is only worthy male members of the church who hold the priesthood. Men are the patriarchs of the family, and it is really on the family that the whole structure of the Church is based. Following God’s pattern,
Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.4
Thus, if we follow God’s plan, every home will have a worthy priesthood holder in it. There is no need for two to lead the home. This is not part of doctrine, this is my personal feeling. What it really boils down to is that God has declared this to be His will, but it is equally important to recognize that He has provided for all His children to have access to the blessings of the priesthood.
I understand that God loves me just as much as anyone else. I also understand that His plan is set up in His own way. Even if we may not understand everything all the time, there is a purpose for how He has decreed His gospel is to be organized on this earth. I do not feel in any way deprived of blessings because I cannot hold the priesthood. No man who holds the priesthood can use it to serve himself. I am able to receive all the blessings from the priesthood which any man may receive. My personal feeling is that I have enough responsibility on my plate as it is without worrying about priesthood responsibility on top of everything else.
I also recognize and am comforted by the fact that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, in fact, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He is in charge. No movement in the church is going to change His eternal doctrine. The doctrine and principles of His gospel are unchanging. If He decides to make a change in practice, like allowing all worthy men to hold the priesthood, then He will direct that change; no one can force it.
I am grateful to be a woman in The Church of Jesus Christ. I am grateful to be valued and to be shown my eternal potential. I know my Heavenly Father loves me and values me. That is enough to sustain me through others’ doubts and questions.
If you want to gain a better understanding of the Mormon doctrine regarding women, the family, and God’s plan for each of us, read, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Meet with Mormon missionaries to ask them questions and to learn more.
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.