Excommunicating Feminism in the Mormon Church

Excommunicating Feminism in the Mormon Church

On June 8, 2014, Kate Kelly received a letter from her bishop telling her that she could be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for asking that church leaders pray about the possibility of female ordination. She was invited to a council in which three men would deliberate on her fate. If she was excommunicated, she would no longer be allowed to speak in church, partake of the bread during the sacrament, or visit the temple. The act would also sever the ties Mormons believe hold families together in the afterlife. Instead of progressing eternally with her family and becoming more and more like God, Kelly would be barred from the Celestial Kingdom and cast into what Mormons call “outer darkness.” Although women could give testimony on her behalf, men, and only men, would determine whether she would be excommunicated for her actions. Kelly wrote a few days later that it was like “being invited to my own funeral.”

The announcement of her disciplinary council had effects beyond her immediately family. Kelly had founded a group called Ordain Women in 2013. Since that date, the organization had arranged a series of actions designed to bring attention to the unequal status of women within the Mormon Church. On October 4 of the year of their founding, they gathered hundreds of women on Temple Square to ask for admission to the general priesthood session.

Although they were reverent and respectful, they stood in line for hours and demanded that the church look each woman in the eye and deny her entrance. Non-Mormon men were granted entrance while Mormon women who had served missions for the church were forbidden from attending. Embarrassed by the proceedings, the church parked a garbage truck in front of the entrance in an attempt to prevent the women from attempting to enter without tickets. Ordain Women has also encouraged women to wear purple to the church’s Annual Women’s Meeting in support of ordination and created six discussions asking Mormons to imagine what it would be like to have women act as bishops, participate in blessings, and heal the sick.

Kelly’s actions galvanized many Mormon women. In the hundreds of letters that were sent to her stake president and bishop in support of Kelly, Mormon women wrote that Ordain Women had “created a safe space to share our feelings, our experiences, and perhaps most importantly, our desires” and gave Mormon women “an amazing opportunity to share their love and devotion for Christ.” One woman said that she had found Ordain Women through a podcast: “I cannot describe the sense of excitement and relief that I felt when I found that forum. I suddenly found an optimism for the Church that had been absent in my heart for many years.”

Susan B. Anthony (first row fourth from left) and Dr. Martha Cannon (standing far left) with suffrage leaders from Utah and elsewhere, 1895. (Utah State Historical Society/Wikimedia | Public domain)

Even as a non-Mormon, I felt some of the excitement that the women describe in their letters. I grew up in Southeastern Idaho in a town with a large Mormon population. The history of the Mormon Church is my history. One of my ancestors converted to the Mormon Church in 1832, just two years after its founding in upstate New York. My father, my grandmother, and even some of my siblings are Mormon. For much of my life, however, I had tried to distance myself from my family’s Mormonism. The church had always felt anti-feminist, naïve, and inward looking.

Kelly’s movement changed that for me. Her public protests calling for Mormon women to be ordained to the priesthood reminded me of some of the radicalism of nineteenth-century Mormon women who had edited their own newspapers, served as presidents of suffrage organizations, and given each other blessings before childbirth. Brigham Young’s daughter Susa had been close friends with feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. That radicalism had been lost after the church decided to temporarily abandon polygamy in 1890. Kelly’s demonstrations, however, made me feel that perhaps the church was reclaiming some of its earlier history and openness.

The church’s decision to call Kate Kelly to a disciplinary council, however, shattered that illusion. The day that Kelly received the letter telling her that she was being charged with apostasy was the thirty-sixth anniversary of the revelation extending the priesthood to black men. The timing seemed to suggest that the church was purposefully telling Kelly and her followers that it would never extend the priesthood to women and that they would never have their own June 8 to celebrate.

For some Mormon feminists, Kelly’s excommunication felt as though it was their excommunication as well. Many began posting pictures of themselves, their daughters, and their families with signs that read, “I am Kate Kelly.” Kelly’s disciplinary court seemed to suggest that all of the gains that Mormon women and feminists had made in the past few years within the Mormon Church were illusionary. Although women were now allowed to stand at the podium and offer a prayer during general conference, advocating for Mormon women to have an equal say within the church hierarchy was apostasy and could lead to being cast out of the church.

Sonia Johnson, 1980. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The question for Mormon feminists, and for the Mormon intellectual community as a whole, is where to go from here. This is not the first time that the Mormon Church has excommunicated feminists or intellectuals. In 1979, the church excommunicated Sonia Johnson for her public opposition to the church’s attempts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Johnson had accused the church of putting women into “gilded cage[s]” that made it impossible for them to develop “physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” Fourteen years later, the church excommunicated six intellectuals. The excommunications came at the same time of intellectual ferment within the Mormon community.

The 1970s witnessed a feminist awakening within the church,  as Mormon women had sought to reconcile their feminism with their belief in a hierarchal church by turning to the history of nineteenth-century Mormon women. In the 1980s, Mormon scholarship built upon this earlier work and expanded to include explorations of the Mormon belief that an embodied, female deity existed who served as God’s wife and investigations into ecclesiastical abuse within the Mormon Church as an institution.

However, the excommunications that occurred in the 1970s and 1990s cast temporary palls over the Mormon intellectual community in each case, momentarily stopping the work that was being done in Mormon history and theology. In the 1990s in particular, Mormon men and women who may have studied Mormon history decided that doing so was too risky. They became lawyers, social workers, and professors of American history but they did not study the history of Mormon women or engage in Mormon feminist theology. In recent years, the men and women who came of age just as the 1990s excommunications were occurring have become known as the “silent generation.”

The question has become: Will Kate Kelly’s excommunication have a similar effect?  It’s not an easy question to answer. There will be some women who feel they have too much to lose — who work for the church or whose marriages might be at risk if they are too vocal — who will decide to stay quiet. In her reflections on a post I helped to co-author at the Juvenile Instructor, a professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho writes that she will “sit here and watch and listen and think and pray and grieve and hope” in response to Kelly’s excommunication and “now, [will] probably do so mostly in silence.”  Other women, however, have pointed out that they already knew that they had to be circumspect about what they said. For them, Kelly’s excommunication is not so much a demand to stay silent but a reminder to be careful about what they say. Finally, there will be those women who are galvanized by the church’s decision and who feel that morally they can no longer be quiet.

Photo of the Ordain Women website, showing three smiling light-skinned people
Ordain Women screenshot.

On the blog Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks has suggested that “the real Mormon moment is now.” During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, many media commentators suggested that the church had become more open, more hip, and more normalized in American society. Romney’s second bid for the presidency was seen as a turning point for the faith in which it ceased being a minority religion and became recognized as part of mainstream American society.

Brooks, however, has suggested that what the church does in the following weeks — whether it seeks to improve the status of women within its community or whether it alienates Mormon feminists — will determine the church’s future as an American religion. I think she is right. What happens to Mormon feminism after Kelly’s excommunication has not been decided. It will be determined by the choices of individual women, their church families, and their spiritual leaders. I hope for my sister, for my niece, for my family as a whole, and for my friends that the move is towards greater openness and inclusion.

Further Reading

Martha Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Signature Books, 2005).

Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (Deseret Book Company, 2002).

Sheri Dew, Women and the Priesthood (Deseret Book Company, 2013).

J.B. Haws, The Mormon Imagine in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Spiritual Awakening and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church (Doubleday, 1981).

Claudia Bushman, ed., Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (Emmeline Press, 1976).

Claudia Lauper Bushman and Caroline Kline, eds., Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection (Greg Kofford Books, 2013).

Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds., Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Culture Perspective (University of Illinois Press, 1987).

Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Signature Books, 1992).

Featured image caption: Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, in 2014. (Katrina Barker Anderson/Flickr | CC BY-NC)

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan where her dissertation research focuses on how Mormon missionary work in the Pacific and Great Britain shaped the settlement of Utah.