On Monday, Mormon judges excommunicated women’s ordination activist Kate Kelly, the latest in a long history of attempts to stifle feminist movements in their pews.
According to a statement released by Kelly’s group, Ordain Women, judges within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) sent Kelly an email yesterday informing her that she has been “excommunicated for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the LDS Church.” Kelly, who is also an international human rights lawyer, is reportedly no longer allowed to “take the sacrament, hold a Church calling, give a talk in Church, offer a public prayer in behalf of the class or congregation in a Church meeting, or vote in the sustaining of Church officers.”
“I couldn’t really read all the words because I was crying and sobbing, but my eyes focused on, ‘We have chosen to excommunicate you,’” Kelly told NBC News. “I guess I’m a delusional optimist because to the end I thought they would do the right thing.”
The action is striking given that the LDS church has made headlines in recent months for supposedly expanding the role of women within the church. Granted, Kelly’s actions were unusually bold compared to most Mormon activists: she reportedly gathered women by the hundreds to march up to the doors of a meeting of the all-male priesthood and demand entry (they were denied). Still, when her efforts were combined with what appeared to be concessions on the part of the church — including finally allowing a women to lead a prayer at one of their conferences — some concluded that the church might be shifting its traditionally hardline stance against women in church leadership.
And then comes Kelly’s excommunication. While the move seems extreme, it is but the most recent chapter in a complicated history of LDS feminism, where male religious leaders have repeatedly squelched the efforts of women’s rights leaders who oppose official church teachings on gender roles. In Mormonism, women, who make up 56 percent of the church, occupy an unusual position, as they are simultaneously a crucial component of religious life while also systematically denied access to leadership positions and the priesthood. This exclusion occurs because the Mormon church ascribes to a theology sometimes classified in Christian communities as “complementarianism,” where men and women are assigned different roles that are ostensibly complementary because, according to the church, “the Lord has put it that way.” Thus, the official position of the male hierarchy is that women cannot have access to the priesthood because God has set forth a system where they are instructed to play an “important” but supportive role for men in “church leadership” — which includes their husbands.
“The men hold the priesthood, yes,” reads a quote from a former (male) LDS President on the “women in the church” section of the Mormon.org website. “But my wife is my companion. In this Church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side. They are co-equals in this life in a great enterprise.”
Mormon acceptance of complementarianism runs deep, and has led to the creation of two major women’s groups within the denomination — the Relief Society and Young Women — which specialize in philanthropy and aid. The Relief Society is particularly influential, boasting more than five and a half million members globally and claiming to be one of the “largest women’s organizations in the world.” The prominence of these organizations — which enjoy broad followings but are devoid of any formal power within the church hierarchy — has long been touted as evidence of women’s equal standing in Mormonism, and a 2011 Pew research poll found that Mormon women are actually more likely than Mormon men to oppose female priests: 90 percent think women should not be ordained, compared with 84 percent of Mormon men.
Despite this, Mormon advocates for gender equality have become increasingly vocal in recent years, touting historical records that supposedly show that Joseph Smith originally wanted to “make of this [Relief] Society a kingdom of Priests,“ and citing the Book of Mormon’s assertion that “‘black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.’” Women’s ordination activists also point to a 1997 interview with former church President Gordon Hinckley; When asked if the policy denying priesthood to women could change as it had for African American men, Hinckley answered, “Yes. But there’s no agitation for that.” Although technically broad church policy only changes when the head of the church receives a revelation from God, Hinckley’s answer hinted that such revelations might be hurried along by passionate activism from within.
Since then, various feminist voices have started cropping up within the church. In 2004, Lisa Butterworth, a Mormon mother of three living in Idaho, launched the “Feminist Mormon Housewives” blog that focuses on the “universal challenges of mothering young children” and the “frustration with the limited roles women have” in the LDS. Then, in December 2012, All Enlisted, a Mormon feminist group, organized “Wear Pants to Church Day” for women, hoping the relatively innocuous action (the church has no dress code) would help build solidarity among Mormon women (the day has now been observed two years in a row).
But while these relatively mild actions were met with some derision from the church’s all-male hierarchy, the firmest punishment — excommunication — has usually been reserved for those who critique church teaching, especially people who advocate for access to the priesthood, which is granted to all boys at age 12 but permanently denied to women. Technically, the LDS church allows its members to hold private views contrary to church teaching, but publicly opposing the hierarchy is grounds for excommunication, which has dire implications for an apostate’s “eternal fate” and bars them from church positions that even non-Mormons are allowed to hold. In fact, Kelly is simply the latest in a history of excommunicated Mormon feminists: Sonia Johnson, a Mormon woman, was excommunicated in 1979 for opposing the church’s efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, and Janice Allred was also excommunicated in 1993 for writing about women’s ordination and gender roles in Mormonism.
“Since the 1970s we have seen the church periodically excommunicate women who assume a public role in advocating for change,” said Joanna Brooks, a prominent Mormon writer and thinker who disagreed with Kelly’s excommunication. “My hope is that each round of excommunication, we, as Mormon women, grow more resilient, more confident in the good lessons we’ve taken from our faith, and more able to seek truth on our own grounds.”
To be sure, Kelly doesn’t appear willing to stop her advocacy anytime soon, and neither are like-minded groups such as All Are Alike Unto God. The movement to ordain women is growing, and two other smaller but equally historic strains of Mormonism, the Community of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), already ordain women, the latter since 1851. Meanwhile, the board of Ordain Women reportedly remains unchanged even after Kelly’s excommunication, and their members are about to launch a series of six online discussions about the ordination of women within the LDS church. The question remains, however, as to whether the church will listen to the growing number of women demanding equal access to the priesthood, or send them packing.
“It’s saddening to know that when so many churches are struggling to hold on to members, women of vision commitment are somehow disposable,” Brooks said. “This is so much bigger for Kate. The questions Kate represents are embedded in Mormon doctrine. They’re going to come up in every generation of mormon women. There is no going back.”
“I have already heard from young Mormon women who are walking away because of this,” she added. “The shame is that some Mormons are happy to see them go.”