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Priesthood and Womanhood: The View from 1933

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 04, 2010

Dane Laverty recently wrote about his five-year-old daughter’s question, “Why don’t girls get the priesthood?” Some may be under the impression that such questions by young Latter-day Saint girls are new to our generation. They are not. Since at least the earliest years of the 20th century, Church materials acknowledged that girls and women asked that question: articles and talks address the matter, and Primary and YLMIA lesson materials suggest ways for  teachers to face the issue when it came up.

With that in mind, I plan to post from time to time some documents relating to the question and its answer, as handled two or three generations ago.

This first document comes from 1933, and was written by Leah Dunford Widtsoe. Sister Widtsoe was a granddaughter of Brigham Young, daughter of Susa Young [Dunford] Gates, and wife of apostle John A. Widtsoe. With her husband she served in the European Mission, leading all the women’s work there – Primaries and Mutual as well as Relief Society. She wrote quite a bit for publication, works on the Word of Wisdom, church history, and  family life. Her family relationships are not stated as credentials for the correctness of her views, but only as evidence that she was in the thick of Church thought and debate in her day, fully educated in Mormon doctrine and practice. Her article here doubtless reflects the mainstream, insider view of Mormon womanhood of that day.

It’s long, but organized so that you can skim through the ten questions near the beginning, then skip down to read the response to any that interest you.

Priesthood and Womanhood

By Leah D. Widtsoe

The question is often asked, “What interest has Priesthood to the women of this Church?” Two mission incidents make the discussion of this subject seem timely.

Incident Number One occurred in May, 1929, when a large celebration was held in Leipzig, Germany, to honor the one hundredth anniversary of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. Members of the Church from all parts of the mission were present, as well as mission authorities and some distinguished American guests. After a most impressive program one of the visiting women turned to me and asked, “What is the meaning of priesthood to a member of your Church?”

I explained briefly that it is the delegated authority of our Father in Heaven restored to men one hundred years ago by Heavenly Beings so that men may act in His name in any official Church capacity.

“Do your women hold that Priesthood, so-called?”

I explained that women do not directly hold that power nor exercise its authority but that through father or husband they share in its blessings and gifts. Indeed, the highest, sacred ceremonies in the Temple, or House of the Lord, are participated in by man and woman, side by side, and may not be taken by either one alone.

“But as an individual woman, or independent unit, woman has no part in exercising that delegated authority?”

“No, she has not.”

“Then, why are you women here today celebrating the restoration to man alone of a Higher Power, as you consider it?”

Then was given an explanation, the gist of which follows later in this discussion.

Incident Number Two happened recently. A group of women had been attending a Relief society meeting while Theology lesson number five of a current series of lessons, “Authority to Act in the Name of God” – was being given. Amongst the group was an intelligent woman, a non-member of the Church. The lesson was discussed paragraph by paragraph. Finally she remarked, “We have discussed this lesson, I have read it through and it doesn’t seem to concern women at all. Why should your women study this subject?” Then she asked some of the questions already quoted in incident number one.

She continued, “I read from the lesson, ‘Thus at this early date in the history of the church the Lord had restored full authority to man to act in His name. … It encourages men to do good and shun evil. … The Priesthood is intended for every son of God who is prepared to receive it. Accordingly, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the Priesthood is widely held by the male laity, as well as by those in official positions. The equality of this practice is immediately apparent, etc.’ And the closing paragraph of the lesson reads: ‘And this is not all. Every male member in the Church is given some specific duty to perform, especially adapted to his capacity. With a working Priesthood of this nature, far greater efficiency is assured than in churches where the clergy alone are active. Moreover, the Priesthood of the Church possesses the actual authority to act in the name of God, and therefore its works are recognized of Him.’”

The questioner continued: “Are not women given some specific duty to perform? Or are they a negligible quantity? Woman is not mentioned in any part of the lesson. Are only the ‘male laity’ able to act for God and therefore is man alone recognized of Him? I would like really to know what the womanhood of your Church has to do with Priesthood?” On numerous other occasions, the above questions, with many others, have been asked by members and friends of the Church.

Some of these pertinent questions concerning this subject follow:

1. “What is Priesthood and how does it function?”

2. “Why should God give His sons a power that is denied His daughters? Should they not be equal in His sight as to status and opportunity to perform the labors of life? Surely a just God has no favorites!”

3. “Are not women as a class just as good and intelligent as men as a class? Then why single out one sex for God’s preferment?”

4. “In this day of ‘woman’s rights’ how do your women react to having men only hold the Priesthood? Do you not feel that you are discriminated against by this same Higher Power?”

5. “If a boy of 12 years has this gift bestowed upon him while his sister has not, does it not tend to make him grow up with a feeling that he is literally a ‘lord of creation’ while his sister belongs to ‘the common herd’?”

6. “Does not this discrimination make men more arrogant in their attitude toward women? Do they not necessarily feel themselves the superior and dominant sex?”

7. “Does not this difference in religious status take away from men the chivalry and courtesy that make life association so beautiful and satisfying? Indeed, do you not feel that ‘Mormon’ men are really less courteous and more imbued with the reaction that the ‘Priesthood always precedes,’ and are not really and truly as naturally polite as are other men?” This question has often been asked by women who are members of the Church as well as by those who are not.

8. In this day of more general study of modern psychology, the next question is natural, and bears somewhat on the other queries. “Does not the fact that women cannot hold the Priesthood tend to give them an ‘inferiority complex’ and therefore make their inner lives less serene and normal?”

9. “What is the effect on the home life of families following the past hundred years of dominance by men who hold the Priesthood?” This question, in a way, includes all the others.

10. “Does not this power tend to cause a feeling of ‘sex-rivalry’ in the relationship of men and women of this Church?”

The answers to the above questions should be understood by the girls and women of the Church for their own peace and progress, as well as to enable them to answer intelligently all interested questioners.

To answer question number one, our late Prophet Joseph F. Smith may be quoted. “What is the Priesthood? It is nothing more nor less than the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and act legitimately; not assuming that authority, not borrowing it from generations that are dead and gone, but authority that has been given in this day in which we live by ministering angels and spirits from above, direct from the presence of Almighty God, who have come to the earth in our day and restored the Priesthood to the children of men.” It must be understood that the Priesthood is operative for the welfare of the entire human family, not for one class or sex. Men and women share alike in its blessings and resultant joy but for the sake of order and wise government our Heavenly Father delegated the power of presidency in this order to His sons. Therefore man holds the Priesthood and stands before his Maker as the one who is responsible for all official acts in Church capacity for human welfare.

“Is this fair?” one may ask. “Why should not women exercise that power as well as men?” This leads to the answer of question number two: Our Father in Heaven has bestowed upon His daughters a gift of equal importance and power, which gift if exercised in tis fulness will so occupy their entire life on earth that they can have no possible longing for that which they do not possess. The “gift” referred to is that of Motherhood – the noblest, most soul-satisfying of all earthly experiences. If this power is exercised righteously, women has no time nor desire for anything greater, for there is nothing greater on earth. this does not mean that women may not use to the full their special gifts, for they are possessed of human free agency to the same extent as are men. Also, the more they advance and exercise innate qualifications the greater will be their motherhood. However, this power of motherhood is so engrossing that when exercised completely, any added outside demand for time or strength would be a tax and would tend to detract form its great requirements. Woman may claim other activity but motherhood should take precedence in her entire scheme of life. So our Father is entirely just, and does prove His love for His daughters as well as His sons.

A question may here be asked: “But what of the women who through no fault of their own can never exercise their great gift?” The answer is simple: Motherhood can be exercised as universally and vicariously as can Priesthood. The world needs good mothers more than any other one thing. Because a woman has been denied children of her very own is no reason why her God-given power and gift may not be exercised for the countless neglected children in every community whose mothers are unfit or have been taken from earth. All intelligent worth-while work for social betterment in private life or in organized activity is but an enlarged Motherhood acting for the uplift of mankind. And in this field every would-be Mother could and should be active. When the Mothers of the world train their children from infancy with a “will for peace” and wars cease on earth then may there be enough good men so that most women may exercise directly their own right to Motherhood.

The next question regarding the intelligence and capability of women as a class is but an enlargement of the others. Does not the training of the human soul for advancement and joy here and hereafter call for the greatest possible powers of mind and heart? Psychologists and students generally admit that the first years of life are crucial in determining what shall be the future of the child physically, mentally, morally and spiritually. That grave responsibility belongs, by gift divine and right of sex, to the women who bear and nurture the whole race. Surely no right thinking woman could crave more responsibility nor greater proof of innate powers than that. Such power entrusted to women proves conclusively that they have been recognized and trusted. Our Father even chose a daughter of Eve to be the earth-Mother and guide of His Only begotten Son, and thus honored womanhood for all time and eternity!

The fourth question is answered by simply stating that in this day of “woman’s rights,” the women inside this Church or out, who feel that they must have more than their womanhood demands, are but short-sighted and do not recognize the full scope of their God-given powers. The struggle for woman’s rights is righteous in so far as it claims independence of thought and action, civic equality and economic independence for the mothers of men. it is misdirected if it hopes to give woman man’s work to do or encourages her toe vade her birthright – motherhood. Truly, there is in reality no discrimination between the sexes as to purpose and power only as human beings make it or permit it. Therefore, all must understand that the Priesthood when exercised righteously unites men and women, it never separates them – unless either group, by their own acts, cuts off its power.

question number five, concerning the attitude of youth to this subject, may well be answered by telling a story of the small brother and sister who were competitively discussing their future. The boy stated he could be an engineer when he grew up and drive a huge engine. The girl said she could be a great musician and thrill great audiences with the joy of her art. the boy retorted that he could be President of the United States. For a while the little girl was somewhat silenced for surely here her brother had the better of the argument. Suddenly a bright thought came. “When I grow up I can be a mother and have a baby all my own and nurse it!” that seemed to silence the lad until his bright thought came, “but I can hold the Priesthood!”

Who won? Both of them. Because Father shares with Mother the responsibility and joy of raising the new-born life to useful maturity and motherhood were impossible without a father. So with the Priesthood: man exercises its power but may not partake of its greatest gifts and blessings without the woman by his side. Moreover, the exercise of the Priesthood is for woman’s benefit as well as for man’s. From childhood both should be made to understand and prepare for the great gifts and powers that await their maturity and should realize that before the great Judge they are equal. However, since man exercises the responsibility of Priesthood his must be the deciding voice. This is but wise and just because man who carries church and family responsibility should actually be the leader. leadership is necessary in all smooth-running human institutions; in the home it may be joint leadership through love and mutual understanding.

Questions numbers six and seven, regarding man’s possible arrogance or lack of chivalry, may be answered together by saying that a man’s attitude to woman depends largely upon the mother who trained him in youth and the women who have most influenced his life. True, father’s attitude to mother influences the growing lad, but some woman trained father!

If boys are brought up to a full realization of the importance of motherhood and its power for human good or ill they will naturally reverence every potential mother and wish to guard her powers. So that a chivalry deeper and truer than merely polished manners will be felt by men who exercise righteously their Priesthood. A proof of this statement is the fact that the men of this Church granted woman her religious and civic independence without her even having to ask for it. No other group of men on earth have done that! In some cases women have had to fight and suffer imprisonment for just those privileges that were granted women of this Church as their inalienable right.

However, the training for true chivalry as evidenced by an outward respect and true courtesy should be given every lad in his home. Girls must be trained to merit and reciprocate that courtesy. The right attitude of the sexes toward each other depends fundamentally upon home training, and woman strikes the key-note of the home.

Question number eight implies that the women of this Church m ay have an “inferiority complex” but it has not been made evident. However, it is often asked and may be answered only by each woman individually. The general reply would be that if woman sensed fully the full scope of her power for human progress or retrogression there would be danger of her having a “superiority complex.” For there is no greater power on earth than Motherhood! A knowledge of its full scope and possibility should make women feel neither inferior nor superior but truly humble, and willing to learn that they may exercise that power increasingly for the improvement and uplift of mankind. If they will but grasp the full meaning of their privileges they will have no time and less inclination to feel themselves either inferior or superior but will be happy and joyously content to do their share toward making their own little world a better place in which to live.

As to the next question, which concerns the home life of the people of this Church, the answer is conclusive. The homes of today, as of the past, in which the Priesthood is held and exercised by the fathers and sons and honored by the mothers and daughters are the ones where, almost without exception, peace and mutual understanding make life a continuous round of progressive accomplishment and joy for all. This condition is so general that it may be given as a rule. Exceptions there may be, but they are extremely rare. The rule is so general, in fact, that it should be taken by the women and girls of today as a guide for future success in home revelations, and as they may be actuated by His Spirit, which it is their right to receive through the medium of sincere and heartfelt prayer. If there is any man who ought to merit the curse of Almighty God it is the man who neglects the mother of his child, the wife of his bosom, the one who has made sacrifice of her very life, over and over again, for him and his children. that is, of course, assuming that the wife is a pure and faithful mother and wife. I have often said, and will repeat it, that the love of a true mother comes nearer being like the love of God than any other kind of love. The father may love his children, too; and next to the love that the mother feels for her child, unquestionably and rightfully, too, comes the love that the father feels for his child. There are people fond of saying that women are the weaker vessels. I don’t believe it. Physically, they may be; but spiritually, morally, religiously and in faith, what man ca match a woman who is really convinced? Daniel had faith to sustain him in the lion’s den, but women have seen their sons torn limb from limb, and endured every torture satanic cruelty could invent, because they believed. They are always more willing to make sacrifices, and are the peers of men in stability, Godliness, morality and faith. No man will ever enter heaven until he has consummated his mission; for we have come here to be conformed to the likeness of God. He made us in the beginning in His own image and in His own likeness, and he made us male and female.”

When men, our leaders, express such sentiments regarding women one must know that such a feeling as sex-jealousy is set aside. Individual exceptions may occur but that proves nothing. If women are expected to exercise all their faculties and magnify every gift they may possess, and that without any feeling of prejudice; if men and women admittedly stand equal before the bar of man’s and God’s judgment, then what more is there to be desired – and of what may either one be jealous?

Indeed a woman who would sacrifice the greatest of all earth professions, that of Motherhood which is hers by right of sex, for the senseless reason of proving that she could do a man’s work as well as any man, or for any other reason, is something less than a true woman and is to be pitied as well as condemned. While on the other hand it is but a small and puny-souled man who could wish to humiliate woman as a class and keep her as the inferior sex. for men can never rise superior to the women who bear and nurture them. The man who fears the dominance of woman or suspects that she is now attempting to take revenge on man for the centuries that her sex has been held in thralldom before the law– such a man admits his own inferiority, and condemns his own beginnings.

When women are recognized as the equals and partners of men in the good game of life and given the privilege of traveling side by side with them while sharing equally the load, they will be more than willing to accord man the presidency of all domestic councils, and will always look up to him as a leader – when, only when, he is az worthy leader. The history of family life in this Church is ample proof of that statement. the normal woman is glad to be led – in righteousness; she craves the companionship of a man, a real man; one whom she ma honor and respect and on whose wise judgment she may lean. There are times when a man desires the same support from a good wife. So that in the last analysis, life to be complete must be shared by well matched “team-mates” each one carrying a full share of the load, but with a comfortable understanding that man is the leader for his is the final responsibility for family integrity. When this relation is understood and practiced there can be no room for sex-rivalry; it is just crowded out of the picture.

Here the thinking woman may remark, “All this is very well, if all men were righteous and natural leaders and if all women were rather shrinking by nature and glad to lean on someone and be led. But what about the countless cases where unquestionably women possess greater powers of leadership than their husbands or where the husband is unable to lead or even provide for himself to say nothing of the family?” It is undeniable that there are weak men as well as weak women, and it is equally true that such men are often attracted by and marry strong capable women and visa versa. What then?

Brigham Young partly answered the question when he said on one occasion, “I have counseled every woman of this church to let her husband be her file leader; he leads her and those above him in the Priesthood lead him. But I never counseled a woman to follow her husband to hell!”

Families in such cases must make their own adjustments. The wise woman, however, will place her motherhood above every claim and not allow it to become secondary to anything. The wise man will accept the situation and be content to be the titular head of the family only, giving his best so far as his capacity allows. if a man is vicious or unwilling to do right that brings in another facto which is not within the scope of this discussion. Women are weak and fall into error, too, but that is another question.

In the Church, however, it is different. there, no adjustment can be made. The Priesthood always presides and must, for the sake of order. Some of the women of a congregation or an auxiliary organization may be wiser, even greater in mental power, or in actual power of leadership than the men who preside over them. That signifies nothing. The Priesthood is not bestowed on that basis but is given to good men and they exercise it by right of divine gift as they are called by those who have authority so to do. however, woman has her gift of equal magnitude also. Sex enters here and is indisputable. It is eternal – so why quarrel with it? a wiser Power than any on earth understands why a spirit in the far off beginning was male or female. On earth there is waiting work for each to do.

The important thing to consider here is that there is scope in this Church for every woman to exercise all her greatest powers and talents. if she is a natural leader then in her own field she may demonstrate and use her powers to the utmost. No one could or would hold her back.

Never in history have women enjoyed the freedom of thought and action accorded the women of this Church. In the Temple and sacred buildings of the past women were not permitted to enter beyond the outer court. In the Jewish Synagogues to this day women are not permitted to worship with the men; they are separated by a distinct wall or barrier. While in the Temples of the restored Gospel a man may not partake of the highest ordinances without his wife and in life pursuits she is given her entire independence.

This gives to woman a mighty responsibility which if she honors and uses will be increased in power upon her; but if she ignores it or treats it lightly or fails to magnify if she may lose that which she now possesses and thereby forfeit her birthright. For this great privilege women in this Church should be eternally grateful and willing to use and cherish this precious and priceless relationship. Where much is given, much is expected.

A final question may be asked: “With the restoration of the Gospel in its fulness, all righteous men of this Church were given the right to hold the Priesthood – a privilege unknown for ages and not shared by men outside this Church. No commensurate gift was bestowed on the women, for motherhood is a universal gift for woman in every age, the heathen and degraded, as for the women of the Church. Where is the justice?”

The answer to this question summarizes the entire discussion. Indeed the women of this Church are equally honored, for they share with father or husband all the resultant privileges and blessings of Priesthood. “Neither is the man without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord.” Exaltation is impossible for man alone. The full understanding of this privilege should sober every woman in this Church and cause her to pause when any temptation to worldliness or weakness comes her way. She may be a real support and inspiration to one who literally holds a measure of authority to act for God on earth; or she may be the opposite. Which shall it be? She surely has a privilege not shared by women outside of this Church. Indeed, hers is the gift supreme: to be the mother and guide of priests and men of God! hers is the privilege of teaching the lad to honor or despise the great gift which awaits him; she it is who implants his desire to honor or disregard his sacred calling. as the girl grows she retains the same privilege: as sister, sweetheart, or wife she may ridicule and taunt or encourage and bless the lad or man who is to hold this sacred power. So who may decide as to the greater gift?

The womanhood of modern Israel have a joyous responsibility. They must never lose sight of their greatest privilege – to be the mothers and companions, hence the inspiration, of righteous men who hold the Holy Priesthood. They must ever hold to the ideal of the Mother of the Gracchi: while scorning the wiles and temptations of the world they must gather round their own or potential children with the joyous thought, “These are my jewels!” When woman understands her full and complete power for building righteousness on earth she will sense that the gift of motherhood direct or vicarious is the greatest of all gifts and will be forced to exclaim “My cup is full; I cannot ask for more!”



7 Comments »

  1. For my own part, I have no problem with either the theoretical or practical issue of a male-only priesthood. I am willing to accept that both the priesthood and motherhood are, individually, fully what Sister Widtsoe outlines. However, the equating of priesthood and motherhood is intellectually unsatisfying, and deeply alienating to me on an emotional level. I continue to be puzzled and disappointed by the frequently restated assumption that “vicarious” motherhood (in Sister Widtsoe’s term) is in any way equivalent to actual motherhood, that it has the remotest responsibilities or brings the remotest rewards of real motherhood. Every time I hear it, I wonder what trivial and distant relationships the speakers have with their own children, that they could equate their parenthood with my “vicarious” motherhood.

    I’m okay with the practice, but dissatisfied with the explanation. I think something is missing from our gospel understanding and from the organization of the Church, something that still needs to be supplied by revelation, to fill in the gap between women who have neither priesthood nor motherhood, and men who have priesthood if not fatherhood.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 4, 2010 @ 8:11 am

  2. I’m with you on this Ardis. I think I can understand that for whatever reason, men have the priesthood, and women do not. But these kind of explanations really prompt as many questions as they provide answers.

    For example, if motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood, then what is the equivalent of fatherhood? Motherhood again? Sounds like we are seeing some circular logic here. And I thought the “vicarious motherhood” comment rather empty as well.

    I think examples like these are somewhat akin to the explanations for the PH ban. I do think there is something to the temple ceremony and the role of PH there that needs more exploration, but ultimately, I think we end up guessing, and not knowing, why the Lord made a distinction as to who can hold the priesthood linked to gender.

    It was interesting to read, though, and see how some things change, and others don’t, over 75 years.

    Comment by kevinf — October 4, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

  3. Yeah, the explanations given by Sister Widtsoe don’t make any more sense than the ones we hear now.

    I’m still scratching my head over this gem:

    “All intelligent worth-while work for social betterment in private life or in organized activity is but an enlarged Motherhood acting for the uplift of mankind.”

    It is SO reassuring to know that when I do something for the benefit of people around me, I am really engaging in something called enlarged Motherhood! Next Mother’s Day maybe I should stand up so the deacons can give me a geranium.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 4, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  4. I see we’re still trotting out the same old tired arguments as they were then. It seems like maybe we could get more creative. They’re just not working for those of us who are unmarried, or who don’t have children, or who have found that motherhood leaves them with both time and desire for “something greater.”

    Comment by Amy — October 4, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  5. Fascinating, but ultimately unfulfilling. My favorite part of this post is your comment, Ardis. I, too, have no personal issues with the distribution of the Priesthood, but I can only conclude that we are missing some information about the reasons.

    Comment by Amy — October 4, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

  6. I will never believe that women are powerless in the Priesthood. To believe it would be to believe that men do not actually need women in their responsibility to hold the Priesthood, and that also is a lie born of pride.

    The purpose of our personal righteousness, in conjunction with Relief Society, is for us to function through the Priesthood. We do not hold the Priesthood because we do not need to hold it for the work that is ours to do. Our virtue, when we respect it and understand the power that it holds, is all the authority we need to act in God’s name as His daughters. It’s inherent in our being. So while we do not act in the offices or under the auspices of Aaron or Melchizedek, we do have offices of our own. Listen to Sister Allred’s talk from RS Meeting again if you don’t believe it.

    Remember Elder Oak’s talk from this most recent session on the personal line and the priesthood line? That’s what I’m talking about. When women understand that these two lines are in her life and they give her authority to act powerfully in God’s name, she will see herself differently. If she is not powerful, it’s due solely to her own negligence–not because the Church or God or anyone else has failed her or made her powerless.

    Comment by Paradox — October 6, 2010 @ 3:54 am

  7. Ardis, thanks for this follow-up here. We human beings are wont to invent our own answers where none are found — and I certainly do that as much as anyone. I think the relationship between discovered truth and created truth is an interesting one.

    Comment by Dane — October 7, 2010 @ 10:21 am

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