Let me start by pointing out that I haven't really picked a "side" on the issue of LDS female ordination, and that's because I don't think it should be about picking sides. It should be about raising questions and cultivating healthy discussion. I said this before when I wrote about gay marriage, and I'll say it again: here we have a more complicated situation than many are willing to admit. Unfortunately, people like to stubbornly argue without recognizing the legitimacy of other people's opinions. This understandable human tendency becomes particularly ugly when it happens in the Church, I think, because isn't our job supposed to be to provide a place where people feel loving acceptance - not vitriolic name-calling?
This isn't about who's right and who's wrong; this isn't about sides. This isn't about feminism versus patriarchy, or progress versus tradition, or women versus men. This is about people - all on the same side - who are trying to understand and be understood. I think this is an important point before we have any discussions about Mormon issues of any kind: we're all on the same team. We're all trying to get closer to God and closer to each other (or, if you want to zoom out further to a non-religious or multi-religious perspective, we're all trying to get happiness and we're all trying to build a better world). The second we develop an "us against them" mentality, either to create sub-divisions within our culture or to separate our culture from the rest of the world, it is dangerous and exclusive and contrary to the teachings of Christ.
So, let's get down to the issue. Women and the Priesthood. Traditionally the LDS Church has ordained only men to the Priesthood (thus only men can be Bishops, Apostles, Prophets, etc). There are those in the Mormon Feminism movement who believe this patriarchal system is man-made, not divinely inspired; furthermore, they contend that this system is inherently sexist, as are the arguments most often used to defend it.
Let's take a look at one of the most prominent of those arguments:
"Men may have the Priesthood, but women can bear children. Priesthood therefore is to manhood as motherhood is to womanhood. So it's not unfair; it's just different."
This is a very problematic defense. It is too simplistic, and it implies that a man's role in child-rearing is less important than the mother's role. The truth is that men have just as much of a responsibility to be caregivers for their children as women do (that famous Proclamation signed by the First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles back in 1995 said "fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." That's pretty clear, right?). So if men are expected to be good fathers just as actively as women are expected to be good mothers, then the male equivalent of motherhood is not Priesthood; it is FATHERhood. And the female equivalent of Priesthood therefore cannot be motherhood; what is it, then? PRIESTESShood? Perhaps so. (We'll talk more about Priestesshood in a few moments.)
I get the idea behind this defense, though. I really get it. I get that men and women are different and therefore it's logical to assume they'd have different roles which compliment each other (though of course this does not mean that one is more important than the other). Now, when I say that men and women have different roles, I don't mean to say that our current model works. I don't mean to say that the typical gender roles we assign to men and to women in our societal, political, and religious culture are perfect. In fact I think our typical gender roles are far from perfect, and need a heck of a lot of work. But that's okay; it's work worth doing and yet it's also work that will take time and is worth being patient for. Anyway all I'm trying to say when I concede that men and women "have different roles" is that gender roles are not arbitrary, and that in the Celestial order of things - which we certainly haven't yet attained - there will be gender roles. Because gender makes a difference. What that difference is, exactly, is our task to define. And again, I'm ready to admit we probably haven't defined that difference very well yet.
So, okay, back to that idea of the "Priestesshood." The problem here is that we don't know what it really means, nor do we know what powers/responsibilities it entails. There's a question mark in that part of the equation I think. And it's okay to have question marks! Remember, "we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things," says Joseph.
Maybe we can understand this question mark ("Priestesshood?") a little better, though, if we examine the idea of "Priesthood" and what it means.
I like to look at it sort of like this:
The textbook definition for "Priesthood" that we are used to giving in Sunday School is "the power and authority to act/speak in God's name." That is a very vague description, and it has nothing to do with manhood or womanhood. It just has to do with God's name. Now, we know that Christ is God.* Therefore anyone who can pray in the name of Christ is using God's name. They are sanctioned to do so; in fact, they have been instructed to do so in the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of the order of prayer to use God's name, and God's instructions to us - ALL of us! - are to do so every time we pray. That which we are instructed to do, I'd imagine we are authorized to do. Therefore all men and women are authorized to speak in Christ's name - at least in the context of prayer. Does that mean everyone everywhere has Priesthood? Sort of.
Certainly my definition of Priesthood implies that we must describe someone's "having it" or "not having it" in degrees, much like we cannot say someone is "saved" or "not saved" without using degrees.
What I mean is, everyone is "saved" in some degree, or at least, saved from Death. But Joseph says to be fully saved is to be placed beyond the power of all your enemies - so in a sense, only the Celestially exalted are fully saved. I am drawing a parallel between this line of thinking and my definition of Priesthood: I believe everyone has Priesthood, in the sense that everyone is authorized to pray in Christ's name. Some people have even more Priesthood. Some of those people are women - we may recall that Joseph often allowed women to give blessings to the sick back in the days of the early Church.**
Here we run into our next roadblock. "This is all well and good," a feminist might say, "but what about the administrative Priesthood? A Bishop holds authority to preside over a meeting in the name of Christ and that is something that, according to our current practice, a woman will never be able to do (furthermore, a woman can never baptize or give the Gift of the Holy Ghost). Why the sexual segregation in that 'degree' of Priesthood if the ability to use Priesthood in other, 'lesser' degrees is so liberally distributed?"
This is a very good question. My first answer might be that our Church has plenty of powerful women, including Relief Society Presidents and Young Women Presidents, and they certainly have presiding authority and that is not nothing.
But I feel like that answer does not hold much water with most feminists (and it shouldn't! It's a weak answer!). After all, Relief Society Presidents report to the Bishop, but not vice versa. So is it accurate to say that an RSP is just as powerful/prestigious as a Bishop? Furthermore, is it compassionate to say "okay, not EXACTLY as powerful, but it's close enough?" That sort of dismissive attitude doesn't do anyone any favors. What you're basically saying is "you're right, you don't have as much power. But deal with it and stop complaining." (On the other hand: is this part of the discussion phrased in an inherently problematic way anyway? Why do we worry about "power" or "prestige?" Why don't we spend our efforts trying to lift where we stand instead of trying to aspire to "higher" callings? What did Paul say about the body of Christ, after all? Isn't every part just as "important" as the other?)
So my final answer is that I don't have an answer. But at least this unanswered question ("why don't women hold administrative Priesthood offices in the Church?") is a smaller and more specific question than that which most of the rest of us have to tackle (namely, "why don't women hold ANY Priesthood in the Church?"). With my somewhat revised interpretation of the word Priesthood, at least I can be empowered to say with some certainty that men and women have a lot in common: this perspective allows me to point out easily that both men and women offer prayers, bless their children, preside over their homes, minister to the sick, etc, with essentially the same authority (that is, using the same name and with the same authorization). The only degree of authority that remains inexplicably segregated is that of Church administration and the performances of ordinances.
And I don't have an answer to that. But that's okay. If I'm left with answerless questions, then feminism has done its job well. It's good to ask questions; it's good to be critical; it's good to wonder (ask, seek, and knock, right Jesus?). Recall what Joseph says in his Articles of Faith: God will reveal many things, and true Latter-Day Saints will believe those things when they come. So, who knows what's on the horizon. Perhaps some answers.***
But, again as Joseph taught us (when he was only fourteen!), we don't get any answers until we're willing to ask the right questions. This is why conversations like this (and prayerful study about them) is important for all of us.
* A theological clarification: what I mean when I say that "Christ is God" is not that Christ the Son and God the Father are one in the same. According to LDS teachings these beings are two separate personages, but one in purpose. So Christ is God in the sense that He also is Divine and is a member of what we call "the Godhead" (a system that closely resembles what many Christian philosophers would call social trinitarianism). Contrary to popular belief, this model of the Trinity does not disqualify us from being Christians. It just makes us different than many (but not all!) Christians in our ontological and metaphysical assumptions about God and His Son.
** It ought to be noted that this is no longer common practice, at least not in most LDS congregations.
*** An important side-note, I think, is that it's inappropriate to seek a specific kind of answer when we turn to God for answers. It's okay to want clarification. It's okay to want revelation. It's okay to have concerns and questions and even criticisms about how we're running God's church down here. It's okay to assume that we don't have everything perfect. However, it ISN'T okay to demand that God change something specific just the way we want it. Maybe the answer to our question is "no." Asking questions is a supremely important part of Mormonism, but so is having the humility to recognize that the answer may not be what we had anticipated.
Postscript: I have to note that this post leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and even unaddressed. There are other great posts on Mormon Feminism out there that cover a lot of ground on topics I barely touched (or didn't touch at all). I suggest this post on male privilege (I only agree with about two-thirds of it, but it's an important and well-articulated article), and this analysis of some risks involved in LDS feminist activism (I don't really agree with all of this one either, but it's a worthy counterpoint to some of the more aggressive feminist rhetoric out there). I also suggest this post about the parallels (and differences) between Civil Rights and Feminism in the context of Mormon activism. Last but not least, I strongly recommend a close reading of this article about Heavenly Mother, co-written by my favorite professor in my entire academic career, Dr. Paulsen.
There's a lot out there that's been said. And there's a lot more to say. But before we jump to conclusions, let's listen to every side. Let's respect every opinion. Let's avoid dismissing people (especially people we disagree with!) as "power-hungry feminazis" or "misogynistic mansplainers." That sort of language and that sort of tone doesn't help anyone. We're all on the same team.