The Mormon feminist “Ordain Women” (OW) movement made headlines last year with its effort to secure female access to the males-only Priesthood session of the LDS Church’s General Conference. Ahead of the event, the group made a formal written request for women to receive tickets to attend the meeting. When the request was denied, some two hundred women showed up to the session to ask for standby tickets at the door. The group then walked to City Creek Park and watched a live broadcast of the session. Members of the group expressed disappointment at the Church’s rejection of their request. Among other things, they pointed out that although the Priesthood session is theoretically only for priesthood-holders, males who seek admission are not asked to show proof of ordination. The exclusive standards for admission, then, appear not to be about priesthood at all, but rather about gender.
Planning to repeat the performance this year, the OW group again made a formal written application for tickets. Taking a more public and aggressive tack than last year, the LDS Church this year sought to preempt the demonstration with a press release denouncing the OW movement and defining participants in the protest as unfaithful outsiders to the LDS communion. This contrasts sharply with the OW group’s self-portrayal as a collective of faithful Mormon women who are fasting and praying for change and “sincerely ask[ing] our leaders to take this matter to the Lord in prayer.” OW founder Kate Kelly especially took issue with the release’s suggestion that OW should restrict any demonstration to the “free speech zones adjacent to Temple Square” designated for anti-Mormon protesters. She told the Salt Lake Tribune, “We have nothing in common with those people. They are seeking to destroy the church. We are not against the church — we ARE the church.”
The Church’s response has been well-critiqued by others, so I’d like to take a slightly different tack and look at the PR strategy employed by the Church in its response. Kristine Haglund was quoted in the Tribune yesterday saying that the press release was a “PR disaster for the Church.” That may be, but the way the Church framed its response was pretty savvy. The document published on the Church’s Newsroom website is actually a semi-formal letter from a female employee of the Church PR department to the OW leaders in response to their request for tickets to the Priesthood session. The document is said to have been published by the Church in response to “multiple requests from news media.” The originally private nature of the document and the choice of a female spokesperson allowed OW to be denounced in uncharacteristically strong language without creating the impression that Mormon feminists are being silenced by elderly white men. The media requests then provided a pretext for this denunciation to be made public and claimed as official Church policy. In short, the Church here forcefully established a set of more-or-less official boundaries excluding feminists from the community, while making the innovation appear to arise organically from the female membership.
The fiction that this exclusivity is arising from the female Mormon grassroots is underscored by the content of the letter itself. The letter’s author makes herself as much a spokesperson for faithful Mormon women as for the institutional Church. “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme,” she says. Indeed, the very fact that the letter is authored by a woman serves as an implicit—if somewhat specious—rebuke to those who assert that the Church silences women. (Disappointingly, this first example I have ever seen of a woman serving as an official public mouthpiece for the Church happens to take the form of an attempt to silence other women. But that, of course, is a fairly classic colonial tactic. Colonizers, having established a monopoly over public discourse, often enlist middle managers from among colonized peoples to demonstrate appropriately submissive behavior for the colonized group and to enforce sanctions against dissidents. If men in a patriarchal system may be considered colonizers and women colonized, the author of the anti-OW letter plays the role of middle manager. Her example serves as a model of institutionally-sanctioned femininity for other women and as a tacit promise that women who adhere to the patriarchal norms may be rewarded by having their status within the institution elevated.)
The press release’s female authorship and informal format has another important implication as well: it gives the Church’s leadership plausible deniability with respect to the letter’s central assertion that the all-male priesthood is a “matter of doctrine” and that female ordination is “contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his Church.” Ironically, this statement was penned by a woman who doesn’t have the priesthood and therefore doesn’t have the institutional authority to make novel assertions about revelation and doctrine. Should the Church decide, in twenty years, that the denial of priesthood to women was merely a mistaken “policy” rather than a revealed doctrine, this PR statement will present no real obstacle. It’s difficult to say whether or not that was intentional in this specific case, but it certainly fits the Church’s recent pattern of introducing doctrinal novelties in documents that can’t be directly tied to the Church leadership. Understandably, the bureaucracy wants to retain its flexibility on such issues. In the present case, that’s good news for Mormon feminists; it means that in the face of immediate disappointments there’s always still hope for the future.