Kate Kelly strode optimistically up the steps of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on a brisk October evening last year, hoping to attend the semiannual priesthood meeting for male members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A smiling man in a dark suit stepped in front of her. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“I understand that all men, even men who are not members of the church and have no investment in Mormonism, are permitted to attend,” Kelly said to the usher. "I am a returned missionary and a faithful Mormon woman and I would like to listen to the prophet in person.”
“This session is actually for men only,” he responded, still smiling.
As Kelly and 200 other women who joined with her were turned away one by one, scores of men — and boys as young as 12 — streamed past them into the building. The group moved to the side of the Utah-based church's Temple Square and sang “I Am a Child of God,” a hymn all Mormons are taught as children and know by heart: “Lead me, guide me, walk beside me / Help me find the way.”
“It was this very visceral experience of all these … micro-aggressions that I’ve experienced in my daily, weekly, yearly life as a Mormon woman,” Kelly tells me six weeks later, dressed in a floral blazer and pink pants, her black hair in a striking bob. Her eyes are bright and teary behind black-rimmed glasses as she describes the day. “I’m saying, ‘Let me in,’ and he’s saying, ‘No. You’re a woman.’” She drops her hands, nearly always gesturing, to her sides.
Kelly, 33, is in Salt Lake City again for Counterpoint, a yearly conference on Mormon feminism. This year’s theme is the ordination of women to the priesthood — the authority to act in the name of God and access his power, which is currently granted only to worthy Mormon men. Kelly, as the founder of Ordain Women — a group founded in March 2013 dedicated to that particular cause, whose first public action was the request for tickets on Oct. 5 — is to present a panel focused on effective activism.
We are walking through the Pioneer Memorial Museum, a quiet building with a classical façade just a block from the Capitol building in Salt Lake City. “Our Heritage — Our Responsibility” reads the inscription above its entryway. Everything in the museum was brought or made by Utah’s Mormon pioneer settlers between 1847 and 1869, as they sought a new Zion. It is a fitting place to meet Kelly, who sees her organization as a pioneering effort for this century. She and other Ordain Women participants and supporters will be back at the Tabernacle to request tickets in a few short weeks, for the priesthood meeting during April’s General Conference.
In the year since its birth, Kelly’s organization has reopened a divisive issue within Mormonism: The idea of female ordination, long whispered about — and fought over — in feminist Mormon circles, is now decidedly in the public eye. Kelly has burst onto the scene of Mormon feminism and, within a year, forced a conversation about power and equality in the LDS faith that has never before received so much attention.
The church responded to the launch of Ordain Women last April by emphasizing that God loves both genders equally. "The worth of a human soul is not defined by a set of duties or responsibilities," spokeswoman Jessica Moody told the Salt Lake Tribune at the time. "In God's plan for his children, both women and men have the same access to the guidance of his spirit, to personal revelation, faith and repentance, to grace and the atonement of his son, Jesus Christ, and are received equally as they approach him in prayer." But a male-only priesthood "was established by Jesus Christ himself," Moody said, "and is not a decision to be made by those on Earth."
Kelly would argue that she is not asking to make the decision — merely for church leaders to pray about it — for her brand of Mormon feminism, which has propelled the strategy and the focus of Ordain Women, is one of faith-affirming dissent. Kelly herself embodies and celebrates this fusion: She is an advocate for change but not a critic, a woman who sees her position as not a disturbance to but an investment in her worship.
But Kelly is also building on a long-standing tradition of female involvement in Mormonism — a history she knows well. “I went on a feminist history tour,” Kelly tells me as we admire a tiny Victorian gown laid out beneath glass in one corner of the museum. “We went to Seneca Falls, the first women’s suffrage convention at Rochester, N.Y., where the Susan B. Anthony house is. And in Susan B. Anthony’s bedroom is a black silk dress sent to her from suffragists in Utah.”
While Mormon culture today is known for its encouragement of "traditional" family structures and its legions of mommy bloggers, the early church of the 19th century was in many ways a haven for female authority and ambition. Not only did Mormon women agitate for the right to vote and support Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they also pursued careers in politics, medicine, and the law. They owned property and published a newspaper. And they also blessed the sick in their communities, an ordinance now only performed by men. Early women in the LDS church believed in and prized the power and divinity bestowed on them by heavenly parents.
As the church aligned itself with mainstream American culture, however, the independence of its female members waned. And in the modern church of the past 30 years, feminism is frowned upon. A number of avowed feminists have been excommunicated from the church for offenses like praying to Heavenly Mother, advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment — and urging women’s ordination to the priesthood. The vast majority of Mormon women are silent on issues of equality.
But the age of social media has brought a new flourishing of LDS feminist thought; women who believed they were alone in their struggles with church policy have found each other through sites like Feminist Mormon Housewives, and more recently, Young Mormon Feminists.
“We were able to participate in these online forums, where we weren’t necessarily scared about what we were talking about and we couldn’t get in trouble, and that was a huge issue,” says Chelsea Shields Strayer, co-founder of LDS WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice and Equality) and a spokesperson for Ordain Women. “[It] allowed a lot of women across state lines and boundaries to unite and talk and feel supported.”
But when Kelly burst onto the scene of Mormon feminism last year, the time had come for online discussion to become physical action. She had the media’s interest on her side: The LDS church remained in the public eye well after the 2012 presidential election, a period that forced constant management of the institution’s image. A public action in Salt Lake City, like Ordain Women’s last October, can cause a national stir, to which church leadership is now in the habit of responding.
But even with media attention at their disposal, women in favor of ordination face an uphill battle. Mormons who support women’s ordination are drastically outnumbered compared with their fellow churchgoers. A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that only 11% of Mormons are in favor of ordination for women. The gender distribution of these numbers is especially surprising: 13% of men, but only 8% of women, support the idea.
Some members have criticized the media's coverage of the movement; others have argued that this is a matter that should be left to God — and the church's all-male hierarchy. Still others simply see having the priesthood as extra work for women. And even within the small community of modern Mormon feminism, ordination has remained controversial.
“There’s also this history in the Mormon feminist community that there’s good feminists and bad feminists,” Strayer says. “‘Bad feminists’ are the ones who want the priesthood, and ‘good feminists’ are the ones who don’t.”
The small number of women who did openly advocate for the change in the pre-Ordain Women past were punished, if not ecclesiastically, then socially. And many Mormon feminists feel that ordination is not a necessary step for placing women in more prominent church positions, or that asking for ordination discredits or diminishes requests for more incremental change in women’s status in the church.
While women are involved in decision-making at the congregational, regional, and global levels, there are currently no women in the church's hierarchy, save for in what are termed “auxiliary” organizations (the women’s organization called the "Relief Society," the Young Women’s Organization, and the Primary, devoted to teaching children). These don't govern the whole church body, and the decisions the leaders of these organizations do make, at all levels, are always subject to veto by presiding male leaders. Women do not plan worship services. They cannot participate in the blessing of their children, perform or sanction baptisms, or officiate at marriage ceremonies.
A scant handful of women typically speak during the semiannual General Conference, a globally broadcast event made up of five two-hour sessions over two days, compared with more than two dozen male speakers. Women did not pray in General Conference until April 2013. Though a meeting for women and teenage girls is held the weekend before General Conference, it is not accorded the same near-mandatory status, and is still presided over by men.
This problem, for Kelly, requires not a blog post or an online petition. It needs physical presence; it needs truth-to-power conversation.
She fears neither. Raised in Hood River, Ore., a town of many windsurfers but few Mormons, Kate was the oldest of the four children of Donna and Jim Kelly, both converts to the church. Kelly was raised to make and meet goals — before kindergarten she knew she would be either a waitress or a judge when she grew up. Because her parents both worked, her father as a university administrator and her mother as a prosecutor, “I just never really thought that women couldn’t do what they wanted to do,” she says, identifying herself as “an intuitive feminist.” Her mother always taught her, Kelly says, that Mormon women would receive the priesthood.
She just didn’t say when.
According to Donna Kelly, her oldest daughter has never “been shy about speaking her mind. She’s a very, very powerful and strong-willed spirit. She always has been.” When Kate wanted to play indoor soccer as a kid but had no league available to her in Hood River, she started one.
As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University she planned and carried out a demonstration for academic liberty after a professor was fired. And as a Mormon missionary in Barcelona, Spain, she spent 18 months preaching full time, relinquishing the independence of young adult life. She quickly became known — and a little notorious — for her willingness to speak her mind during an experience that emphasizes obedience. She was not cowed by the male missionaries who worked alongside her, making decisions and performing ordinances Kelly could not. In meetings, she would dismiss their plans if they were too impractical.
“The [male] missionaries were not used to that ... their position of privilege was so invisible to them that it was jarring for someone to say, ‘No, actually, we’re not going to do it that way and I’m not going to listen to you,’” she says.
Kelly says that since founding Ordain Women, almost all of her mission companions have contacted her. “One of them said, ‘I actually remember you talking about [women’s ordination] on the mission. I just didn’t know how serious you were.’”
Kelly didn’t realize it either, until January of last year. She was not part of the Mormon feminist blogging scene — she claims to see online advocacy mostly as “clicktivism” unless it’s paired with public action. She also chose not to wear pants to church last December for Wear Pants to Church Day, a public action organized by another Mormon feminist group to encourage more flexible expectations for gender roles. Her explanation: “I just don’t like wearing pants.”
The turning point arrived through work, when Kelly became closely involved with a group of advocates for women’s rights in Zimbabwe. These women, Kelly says , “are being so brave in such a personal way with their most intimate community. These cops who are beating them and arresting them live in their neighborhood and they’ll see them tomorrow. What is it I’m doing in my most intimate community to stand up for myself and the people most dear to me?”
Ordain Women was up and running within two months, via the same direct methods Kelly has used her whole life: immediate action, direct conversation.
Hannah Wheelwright, an undergraduate at BYU and founder of the group Young Mormon Feminists, who had written online in favor of women’s ordination, received a phone call from Kelly one winter day.
“It was awesome,” Wheelwright says, “because I was just sitting on my bed in my room and she was like, ‘Hey, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I want to do strategic direct action to support women getting ordained in the church — and are you in?’ It was a very blunt ask.”
Less than a year in, the Ordain Women leadership has expanded to a steering committee of about 30, with a number of smaller subcommittees. Kelly is constantly on conference calls with other OW leaders. Her husband has even quipped, “Sometimes if I want to get a hold of Kate I’ll just join the conference call and get in the stack so I can say something to her.”
When the Ordain Women website went live last March, it had 24 profiles, modeled on the church’s hugely successful “I’m a Mormon” campaign, a rebranding push attempting to show the diversity — and normalcy — of LDS members. Similarly, each profile on Ordain Women is an expression of sincere faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and an equally sincere explanation of why each individual hopes for women’s ordination. Twenty-four profiles was the benchmark chosen by Kelly and the other founding members: Twenty-four, so the site could look nice and symmetrical — and so no one would feel like they were going it alone.
There are now nearly 250 profiles, with more arriving every day. The profiles don’t include last names, but the first names are their real names; their pictures are their real faces.
Nearly every picture is itself a careful expression of Mormonism — an older man holding his grandchild; two smiling young people in the simple white clothes of baptism; a husband and his pregnant wife walking in a grove of trees. “We’re Mormon,” the pictures say to visitors of the site. “Can’t you see?”
Other church members, though, don’t agree. While no participant in Ordain Women has been officially disciplined (read: excommunicated) for her association with the group, some members, especially those who live in Utah (or as Donna Kelly calls it, “Mormon ground zero”), have faced other, subtler consequences. According to Kelly, some women have been relieved of their responsibilities in their congregations — in Mormon parlance, “released from their callings.” (Though the reasons for releases aren’t typically offered, these women interpreted the changes as related to their involvement in the movement.) Children have been forbidden from playing with other children whose mothers or fathers support Ordain Women. A few women have lost their jobs.
Kelly’s East Coast life and supportive family make her mostly immune to the backlash — although her in-laws think she and her husband are “on the slippery slope to apostasy.” How have they communicated that? I wanted to know. “They called us and told us.” She laughs. “Christmastime might be a little awkward.”
She says the same thing, still laughingly, during her presentation at the Counterpoint conference the next day, in a large, spare room on the top floor of the University of Utah’s student union building. Her audience chuckles and makes some humming noises of support. There are 60 people watching the “effective activism” panel, the largest audience that day. Fifteen are men. Several women are knitting while they listen, and one young woman stays the whole day at the side of the room, quietly pacing up and down the room with her bald baby. The atmosphere is supportive and polite. Most everyone is conservatively dressed. When the panels end, many hugs are exchanged. It’s an unlikely setting for revolution, with some decidedly unconventional firebrands leading the charge.
But even in this group, Kelly's zeal sets her apart. “Kate, almost uniquely of anyone involved with Ordain Women, has never gone through a crisis of faith,” Wheelwright says. “She's never doubted the church, or doubted God or her testimony, whereas so often the common narrative in Mormon feminism is doubting the church, doubting your faith because of gender issues. But Kate has never had that. Kate has always been a true constant believer — she served a mission, she's married in the temple, she believes everything. And so uniquely she is capable of addressing the church on those terms.”
Kelly agrees: “I never considered leaving the church. That was never on the table for me. I’m more of a person who’s like, ‘Well, I’m in an institution and I can see it needs to be improved. It needs to change; I don’t need to leave.’”
Kelly and the other OW spokespeople used the Counterpoint conference to officially announce that they are preparing to knock at the same door that remained closed to them this fall in the upcoming April 2014 General Conference, now mere weeks away.
“One of the main things that Ruth Todd, who is the church’s new female spokesperson, said to us when we met her on Temple Square, and what she said to the media, was, ‘We are a small and insignificant group.’ So, we’ll take that as a challenge,” Kelly says during her speech to Counterpoint.
It remains to be seen how many women will walk to the Tabernacle in April. In the meantime, Kelly continues to invest in her faith, to “pray with her work,” as her heroine Susan B. Anthony did. It is this kind of worship, Kelly says, that fulfills her. She and her husband are planning to move to Nairobi this summer, but Kelly has no intention of letting the change impact her involvement with the cause. “Since this is a worldwide church,” Kelly wrote in an email, “we need to reach out to Mormon women all over the globe who are concerned about gender inequality. Women worldwide want the Priesthood and to make the church a more open and inclusive place to worship, and having more OW leadership outside the U.S. will help us hasten the work.”
Ordain Women has already made an impact in the year since its birth. In what many see as a concession to the organization and its planned public action, the church announced the week before last October’s General Conference that it would live-stream the priesthood session on its website, providing unprecedented access to the meeting for women. This month will also see the first spring “General Women’s Meeting,” a church-wide event and broadcast for women and girls ages 8 and up (which has previously only taken place in the fall, and replaces two separate meetings for women and young women). “So, to celebrate this great step forward OW supporters will attend the meeting wearing purple, a symbol of equality,” Kelly says in an email.
And the conversation surrounding women’s ordination has moved further into the Mormon mainstream; as evidenced by the growing profiles on the OW site and renewed discussion across the bloggernacle, the issue is no longer shrouded in secrecy or shame.
Still, for Kelly, conversation is not enough — ordination is what all Mormon women need most. Priesthood is "the only thing that will make us fundamentally equal," she says, "and the only thing we can ask for where [equality] is very easily measured."
When that happens, she says, "We’ll know."
Continue onto part III, "Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican."
Return to the Feminism in Faith page.