A Woman’s Perspective on the Priesthood

By Patricia T. Holland

Print Share

    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” (“The Role of Righteous Women,” International Magazines: March 1980, except Europe: May 1980, and Spanish: January 1980: paragraphs 4 and 6.)

    I believe that every one of us has a specific mission to fulfill on this earth and with a couple of minor changes or additions 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!” (November 1979 Ensign 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 someone we can look to as an example of what we would like to be. 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 use their gifts and talents directly as leaders. Still other women use their gifts both to support their husbands and to serve as leaders themselves. We all know there was a great difference between the assignments of Mary Fielding Smith, 1801–1852, wife of Hyrum Smith, mother of Joseph F. Smith, 6th president of the Church and Eliza R. Snow, 1804–1887, poet and second president of the Relief Society. 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. Sister Ardeth Kapp, former counselor in the Young Women general presidency, lives a couple of homes away from 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 other side 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; 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. Each of us 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 (see D&C 82:19) and the covenants we’ve made.

    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 must 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. 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 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 of obligations and responsibilities, rather than of “rights.” Frankly, I’m weary of rights fights, rights movements, and rights marches—male, female, or any other kind. So I want to speak of obligations and I cite as a source these impressive lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1981–, Russian author):

    “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. (“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 studies for his degree 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 earn some extra money, taught two Institute classes at Yale and one at Amherst College, necessitating a 145 kilometers 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 demand your rights and forget about all 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 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 clearly state 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 they asked.

    We will be noticed. We should be a light on a hill. It is our responsibility to study, prepare, and work to be able to clearly 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 experiences in Liberty Jail. Isn’t it ironic that the scene of so few rights, of so little freedom, and of so much abusive authority, would 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) to emphasize very significant instructions. These are found in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants (see 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—(D&C 121:34)—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, paragraph 22.)

    This world 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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is rolling forward under God’s hand so that the kingdom of heaven may come (D&C 65:6). Nothing must divert us from that belief and that mission, to fully realize the triumphant return of the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). We should remember just one important 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 used here by 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 premises. Those are the rules for everyone—male, female, black, white, bond, or free (see 2 Ne. 26:33). 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 has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Matt. 25:21).

    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 was that someone isn’t living the gospel. Somewhere, somehow, promises have not been kept or obligations have not been honored, and thus the hurt. 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), 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 a person who is not a member of our Church. President Dallin H. Oaks (former president of Brigham Young University), 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 of the United States. 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 career,” or “It’s my life.” But her concern was for her obligations. When considered 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. Some of the pain and frustration and depression we hear about comes from feeling compelled or forced to make certain choices. 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 adjust our minds so we may see things from an eternal perspective. 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.