A Woman’s Perspective on the Priesthood


From an address delivered at the Brigham Young University Women’s Conference, 1 February 1980. Used with permission of Brigham Young University Press.

A Woman’s Perspective on the Priesthood

President Spencer W. Kimball stated in a fireside address to the women of the Church, “We had full equality as his spirit children.” He then went on to say that “within those great assurances, however, our roles and assignments differ” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 102).

I believe that every one of us has a specific mission to fulfill on this earth and with some literary license I quote from Doctrine and Covenants 121:25: “For there is a time appointed for every man [and woman], according as [their] works shall be.” [D&C 121:25]

And Doctrine and Covenants 46:11–12: “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man [and woman] is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

“To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” [D&C 46:11–12]

I believe that we made sacred promises in premortal councils regarding our role in building the kingdom of God on earth. In turn we were promised the gifts and powers necessary to fulfill those very special tasks. I would like to quote from President Kimball again: “Remember, in the world before we came here, faithful women were given certain assignments while faithful men were foreordained to certain priesthood tasks. … You are accountable for those things which long ago were expected of you just as are those we sustain as prophets and apostles!” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 102). I also believe that those assignments and roles differ as much from woman to woman as they do from man to woman.

We’ve all been taught to have role models. It is good to have someone to look up to. However, there is great danger in wanting to be too much like someone else. We will feel competitive jealousy and self-defeat. No two people are the same. Some women have been given large families, some small, and some none at all. Many wives are exercising their gifts and talents in sustaining husbands in their work as community leaders, business leaders, stake presidents, bishops, or General Authorities, and encouraging their children’s development. Other women apply their gifts and talents directly as leaders in their own right. Still other women combine both the supportive and the direct roles in exercising their gifts and thus serve in dual capacities. We all know there was a great difference between the assignments of, say, Mary Fielding Smith and Eliza R. Snow. Yet both eagerly sought the will of the Lord. Both sought marriage and family. Both gave everything they had to the kingdom.

It seems clear, then, that our greatest task is to live worthily enough to know step by step what the Lord’s will is regarding us, remembering that occasionally what we may want to do today because of the trends and vanities of the world may not be what we covenanted to do long ago. We should be willing to live and pray like Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she said to the angel who had just given her her assignment, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).

Let me use a personal example for a moment. Three of us participating in this conference are neighbors Sister Ardeth Kapp lives a couple of homes to the west of me and you know the truly unique contribution she has made to the kingdom of God. Ardeth is one of the purest, sweetest, strongest women I know. Her husband Heber is a great strength as our stake president. The Kapps have not yet been blessed with any children. A couple of homes to the east of me lives Joan Quinn. Joan is also one of the purest, sweetest, strongest women I know. She is having a great influence with all who know her. Her husband Ed is a brilliant and able man—another stable and inspiring influence in our lives. The Quinns have been blessed with twelve children. My husband and I are doing what we can in the kingdom. We have been blessed with three children.

Some women I know have not yet been blessed with a mate or a marriage. Yet they too are building the kingdom every day and blessing me personally through our association. Four very different examples are Carolyn Rasmus and Marilyn Arnold, whom I treasure as dear friends here at BYU; Randi Greene, my husband’s gifted secretary whose contribution to our lives is personal as well as professional; and the nurse I recently had who nurtured me through serious surgery and near-fatal complications attending it. Obviously the list of women who bless me and bless the Church could go on and on. My point with all of this is that Ardeth and Joan and Carolyn and Marilyn and Randi and Pat are all very different. Presently, we all have different roles in life. Perhaps these roles will change for each of us in the years ahead. Yet we love each other very much and we have always loved the men in our lives—fathers, brothers, friends, husbands, sons. And we love the priesthood. Each of us—each of you—must want the right things, must pursue the right things, and must give all that we have to the kingdom with an eye single to God and the covenants we’ve made. In President David O. McKay’s oft-repeated admonition, “Whate’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part” (Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, Salt Lake. City: Deseret Book, 1976, p. 160).

Of course, to do this we must live close to the Spirit through prayer, study, and righteous living in order to avoid the distractions and more selfish goals which might frustrate the Lord’s design for us and cause us to forsake it. For when that occurs I believe we will feel frustrated and forsaken and not feel the peace and security that can only come from fulfilling the mission that is ours. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ask not what the kingdom can do for you, but what you can do for the kingdom. Whatever our role is, we must seek it through righteous living and personal revelation. We must not lean on the arm of flesh nor the philosophies of men—or women. We must have our own personal liahona. That is exactly what the Lord expects of priesthood bearers also.

In fact, all of this is to stress that we cherish differences—not only from man to woman but from woman to woman. In discussing the relationship of women with their special assignments and men with their priesthood tasks, I find it much more useful to speak in the language of obligations and responsibilities, rather than in the language of “rights.” Frankly, I’m weary of rights fights, rights movements, and rights marches—male, female, or any other kind. So I want today to speak of obligations and I cite as a source these impressive lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space [in the free world]. [Western] Society appears to have little defense against … human decadence, … [and] the misuse of liberty for moral violence. … This is considered to be part of freedom, … [but] life organized [so] legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil” (“A World Split Apart,” National Review, 7 July 1978, p. 838; italics added).

I believe if we respond to our responsibilities, our rights will take care of themselves—for male or female. As I was supporting my husband through his Ph.D. at Yale University, our neighbor who was doing his residency in psychiatry commented one day that I was showing overt signs of weariness. Jeff was then not only a busy student trying to complete a four-year degree in three years but was in a stake presidency and, to help ends meet, taught two Institute classes at Yale and one at Amherst College, necessitating a ninety-mile drive each way once a week. I was at home with two small babies trying to stretch the meager budget of young married students. I was also serving eagerly in the Church as a young Relief Society president. This particular neighbor, out of concern and intended helpfulness, said, “Pat, why don’t you stand up for your rights and say to heck with all of this?” At that time I knew through prayer that my rights, whatever they were, had to be put in the perspective of my obligation to pursue long-range goals. I certainly never thought Jeff’s degree was only for his future. And he never thought the children belonged only to me. We were in all of this together, and we didn’t waste any energy shouting about rights. That time was intense and difficult, but it lasted only three years. As a direct consequence of my supportive role then, I now have time, means, and wonderful opportunities to pursue many of my interests and talents in addition to being very much a wife and mother. Furthermore, I know—and love knowing—that my ultimate role and mission will always include the particular joys of providing loving and wise support to others as they fulfill their own assignments.

If your role or assignment is a supportive one—and many of us will often have that role—we must study and prepare ourselves enough to articulate to the world that we are not apologizing for strengthening the home, but are rather pursuing our highest priorities, personally, socially, and theologically.

Several months ago I attended with my husband a two-week seminar in Israel for Moslems, Christians, and Jews. The participants were editors of newspapers, former ambassadors, priests, rabbis, university presidents, and professors. During that two-week period nearly every participant made it a point to ask me about Mormon women. Though many of the other wives attending were living as I do—staying at home, raising children—I was the one singled out.

We will stand out. We should be a light on a hill. It is our responsibility to study, prepare, and work at being articulate enough to teach the truth about our priorities and privileges as women in the Church.

In light of such obligations (as opposed to rights) consider the revelation we have all come to love so much from Joseph Smith’s experience in Liberty Jail. Isn’t it ironic that the scene of so few rights, of so little freedom, and of so much abusive authority should be the setting for such profound revelation on rights and freedom and the use of authority? I suppose in just such settings the Lord really has our full attention and uses our pain (in this case, Joseph Smith’s pain) as a megaphone for very significant instructions. These familiar passages are lengthy but beautiful, and for my small part on this program, very important:

“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?

“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—

“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.

“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever”? (D&C 121:34–37, 39, 41–42, 45–46).

It seems very important to note that as the Lord speaks to the Prophet Joseph of rights—and he does speak of rights—they are conveyed by and supported by and surrounded with all kinds of instructions about obligations and responsibilities. The privileges of the priesthood are not isolated from duties and neither are the privileges of women. Note the opening lines—Why are so few chosen after so many have been called? “Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men” (D&C 121:35).

This world is not our ultimate home; and while we do have to live here and live here constructively, we are not ever, as Christians, really of this world. And we do not seek its praise. I quote again from President Kimball:

“Among the real heroines in the world who will come into the Church are women who are more concerned with being righteous than with being selfish. These real heroines have true humility, which places a higher value on integrity than on visibility. Remember, it is as wrong to do things just to be seen of women as it is to do things to be seen of men” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 104).

I cannot speak for anyone but myself; I suppose you already know that. But for me there is not now nor will there ever be a political issue of this world more important to me than my eternal life in the next. It isn’t that I believe earthly political issues are not important. They are. It is just that the eternal kingdom of God is all important. If I want to be chosen as well as called (incidentally, a privilege, not a right, which I desire very much), then my devotion must be to a ruler who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who knows me and knows my needs and to whom I must be loyal.

I take this digression simply to make the point again that this world, work in it as we must, is not our home. Our hearts must not be set upon things here too much. We must not seek the praise of men more than the praise of God. That is, we must not if we believe the kingdom of God, as we now know it in the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is rolling forward under God’s hand so that the kingdom of heaven may come. Nothing must divert us from that belief and that mission, to fully realize the triumphant return of the Prince of Peace. I promise you that that return will be orchestrated through the Church with its eternal mission and not through politics with its temporal demise. In that sense, members of the Church are all foot soldiers in the same army, a battalion led by Christ and drilled by the prophets. (That is a righteous infantry, for which women will volunteer and won’t have to be drafted.)

After that aside, I go on with section 121. Why have people trapped in this worldly concern not remembered just this one lesson: “that the rights of the priesthood [and womanhood] are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only [or except] upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36)?

Isn’t it interesting that rights, as approached in this language from the Lord, seem to say nothing male or female. Though the verse speaks of priesthood, surely every woman’s rights and powers are conditional on exactly the same premise. Those are the rules of the game for everyone—male, female, black, white, bond, or free (see 2 Ne. 26:33). I’m belaboring the point a bit only because it is the one point I bring to you today. Can it be that if we keep the commandments—commandments that are common to us all—then the day will come that in eternal recompense, God will say to everyone, male and female, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Matt. 25:21).

The rest of section 121 you know, so we needn’t follow it in detail, but note the resolution of so many potential problems: Verse 37 says we are not “to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, [or] our vain ambition.” [D&C 121:37] Are those commandments only to males? Only to females? Or to both? We are told not “to exercise control or dominion or compulsion” on others in unrighteousness. Is that counsel only for men? Only for women? Or for both? How should men exercise influence in the kingdom of God? How should women? Words like persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned—are those male qualities? Or female qualities? Or are they finally just some non-negotiable qualities of a Christlike life, male and female? I think the latter.

And those last two verses—45 and 46. Are women the only ones who should have their bowels “full of charity”? Are men the only ones who should “garnish” their thoughts with virtue? Is the Holy Ghost a “constant companion” only for priesthood bearers? [D&C 121:45–46] Are women the only ones who might hold “an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth”? Will either a man or a woman have “an everlasting dominion” without the other? The questions give their own answers in the asking. When the Lord speaks of righteousness, there isn’t any conflict over gender—all of which leads me to ask, why is there such incredible energy expended by Latter-day Saint men and/or women over issues like women and the priesthood?

I offer this one answer to my own question. It seems to me that if there is a conflict, it is because someone, male or female, isn’t living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I did not say that the person who has the concern isn’t living the gospel. That may or may not be true. What I said is that someone isn’t living the gospel. A woman in pain may be living the gospel the very best she knows how and yet still find herself hurting. But if that’s the case, I still believe that someone in her life isn’t living—or hasn’t lived—the gospel: some man she knows, some men she has known, some woman, some group of women she knows. Somewhere, somehow, promises have not been kept or obligations have not been honored, and thus the hurt. But that is not a priesthood problem. The most we can say is that it’s a man or woman problem. Thus, the responsibility is on us all, male and female, to live as section 121 prescribes and as every other Christlike example requires. With that kind of loving male and female relationship and with those kinds of promises, the pain and despair and frustrations of this world disappear. I believe that with all my heart. The answers to our challenges are gospel answers (priesthood answers if you will), not male or female answers. They are promises to the faithful. Note again the beautiful gifts of verse 45 and verse 46. [D&C 121:45–46]

Let me close with a final concrete example from one not of our faith. President Oaks told me of this inspiring application of the very point I am trying to make about choices and obligations. As you know, President Oaks as a young law professor was closely associated with Justice Lewis M. Powell, now of the Supreme Court. Justice Powell’s daughter was herself a recent graduate of a fine law school, following which she began a very successful law practice and a marriage almost simultaneously. Some time thereafter she had her first child. In paying a courtesy call as a family friend, President Oaks was pleasantly surprised to find this young mother at home with her child full time. When asked of this decision the young woman replied, “Oh, I may go back to the law sometime but not now. For me the issue was simple. Anyone could take care of my clients, but only I can be the mother of this child.” What an incisive answer to an issue she says was simple! And it does seem to have been simple because she approached it, not in terms of rights, but first and foremost in terms of responsibilities. I think the issue would not have been so simple if her attitude had been, “It’s my body,” or “It’s my career,” or. “It’s my life.” But her concern was for her obligations. When framed that way, the issue and the answer were simple.

We all have rights and the freedom to pursue them. That much the Lord has promised us. I believe, then, that the crucial point we need to come to as Latter-day Saint women is not to allow ourselves to feel forced into righteous choices, but to come to them of our own free and anxious will. In feeling compelled or forced lies some of the pain and frustration and depression we hear about. We should seek diligently and prayerfully the light that would quicken our hearts and minds to truly desire the outcomes we make in righteous decisions. Our prayers ought to be to see as God sees, to flip the switch in our minds so we may see things eternally. If we listen too often to the voices of the world, we will become confused and tainted. We must anchor ourselves in the spirit and that requires daily vigilance.

I should like to close my remarks by quoting from Galatians 5, the New English translation: [Gal. 5]

“You, my friends, were called to be free men [or in other words, you have your rights]; only do not turn your freedom [or your rights] into license for your lower nature. … If you go on fighting one another, tooth and nail, all you can expect is mutual destruction.

“The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.

“We must not be conceited, challenging one another to rivalry, [or] jealous of one another.

“If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course” (Gal. 5:13, 22, 25, 26).