Beliefnet

Perhaps the biggest loss to Mormon women in the early 20th century was the spiritual gifts they had enjoyed, including blessing the sick, a rite now performed only by men.

Then came the 1970s movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the LDS Church helped to defeat. The conflict erupted bitterly in 1977 at a meeting of the International Women's Year in Salt Lake City. Organizers planned for 3,000 women, but 10,000 showed up after getting marching orders from church headquarters. The nearly hysterical mob voted down every proposal.

Next came activist Sonia Johnson, who sparred with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch over the ERA in Senate Committee hearings and exposed the LDS Church's behind-the-scenes opposition to the amendment. She was excommunicated in December 1979, and her case became a cautionary tale to Mormon feminists everywhere.

In the 1980s, women again began talking among themselves about a Heavenly Mother -- a concept that for decades had lost its potency -- and some acknowledged praying to her. Church leaders swiftly condemned any public display of devotion to her.

And women speculated about the possibility of being ordained to what has always been a male-only priesthood. Derr says young Mormon women still want to explore the priesthood, but they raise the issue with family and in private settings.

One issue that still percolates in the church -- as it does in the rest of American society -- is the importance of having a full-time career versus staying home with kids.

On Feb. 22, 1987, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson sounded the battle cry with his speech, "To the Mothers in Zion." He told Mormon women not to postpone having children or curtail the number of children for "personal or selfish reasons." He also said unequivocally that mothers belong in the home, not the workplace. The speech had an immediate and overwhelming impact: Dozens, if not hundreds, of Mormon women quit their jobs, believing that was what their prophet wanted, while others felt guilty for ignoring that mandate.

And the church tried to implement institutional policies that would enforce women's role. For a long time, women were forbidden to teach at LDS Institutes of Religion, but now they can be hired -- as long as they have no children under 18. Nor can women with children under 18 be temple workers to assist with rituals, but they can volunteer in the laundry.

Since ascending to the LDS presidency in 1995, however, Gordon B. Hinckley has presented a different stance.

The work of raising a family should be tantamount in a woman's life, he says, but it is up to individual women (with their spouses) to decide when and how best to accomplish that. Education is important for women, and so is self-respect. Last spring Hinckley told the church's 12- to 18-year-old girls to "study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resolution. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women."

Emphasis on education, formal or self-selected, seems to be working. The number of women faculty at Brigham Young University has steadily risen from 13 percent in 1983 to more than 20 percent today, says spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins. More Mormon women are graduating from college and professional schools than ever.

Elizabeth Harmmer-Dionne, a Boston attorney and mother of three young children, is one such woman. Harmmer-Dionne graduated from Wellsley College where she says she constantly got the standard question: How can you be in that patriarchal church?

Her reply: "A lot of what I am, I owe to the church. If feminism is empowerment, so is the gospel."

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