The Priesthood: A Feminist Perspective


I’ve been itching to write this post for a while, but I’ve been unsure how to reconcile my trusted academic approach with my still growing spiritual testimony of understanding doctrine. Today, I want to explore how the priesthood can be understood as a feminist definition of masculinity. Before I begin, I should establish a few stipulations.

First, I’m only interested in discussing the doctrine of the priesthood as it applies to men and masculinity. For discussions about women and the priesthood, please visit my friends over at FMH.

Second, I wish to clarify that this post is only one approach to understanding doctrine with which I am still becoming familiar. I do not propose that this is the “one, true” perspective and I would love to open a discussion to those approaches. Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify my statements. I’m always interested in a conversation.

Finally, I have a testimony of the priesthood. My testimony comes from an experience that I cannot express in academic terms, a vocabulary with which I am most comfortable. I freely admit that my explanation of this testimony will likely be perceived as awkward, but for now, it’s what I’ve got.

All on board? Here we go.

Let me set the scene: this one time, I made a bold move to venture into Single’s Ward. Woof (for you, Max). I did not love it. At best, it felt like a bunch of kids playing house, pretending to live in a grown-up world. At worst, it was a room full of women designing their remarkably unrealistic dream priesthood holder. Seriously. The teacher put “Worthy Priesthood Holder” on the board, underlined it, and opened the discussion. It was like Relief Society gone wild! What the women came up with was an unattainable list of qualities that would have better been posted under the heading “Prince Charming,” or “I Live in a Dream World.”

After squirming for about 45 minutes, I raised my hand to add another trait to this list: “What about someone who will hold us to these same expectations?” Oh, did I get some dirty looks. And one thumbs up.

The teacher redirected the conversation to something actually productive. We read Doctrine and Covenants 121: 40-46. It was interesting to compare the list of qualities in this scripture with the list of achievements posted on the board. As a group, we were humbled for sure.

These verses made me think, too, about how we define masculinity. Many of the qualities listed (gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge, showing forth an outpouring of love, etc) are not exactly the boldest words in the socially constructed man-box (seriously, watch this or read the transcript). In fact, those qualities would probably land you as king of the fag box.

I used to teach an introductory sociology class at KU and discussed social issues covering race, class, gender, and sexuality. I always looked forward to our gender discussion on “Gender But” day. If nothing else, it was fun to say. On Gender But day, I asked the students to fill in the blank with their preferred gender identity: “I’m a _________, but I __________.” Responses ranged from “I’m a woman, but I like football” to “I’m a woman, but I think about sex more than my guy friends.” The man often said things like, “I’m a man, but I like to watch the Notebook” or “I’m a man, but I have feelings, too.” I put the qualities on the board as the students read them to the class, and among the giggles, we noticed some patterns. My students realized a few things: 1) gendered expectations exist (shocker!); 2) it was easier and far more acceptable for women to do “man” things than for men to dabble in the feminine; and 3) the man box was dangerous for men and women.

Let’s discuss this last point for a quick minute. What does it mean that the man box is harmful for both men and women? To start, the socially constructed definition of masculinity leaves very little room for qualities found in D&C 121. Our social world tries to convince us that men who do exhibit those qualities are queer, gay, fags, or other sexualized and homophobic insults. They aren’t real men, that’s for sure. Michael Kimmel argues that homophobia isn’t a fear of gay people, but a fear of being perceived as gay. Instead, homophobia, sexual insults and violence, are tools used to keep men from stepping outside of the man box. This is a dangerous cultural tool and leaves men with very few options to define their very straight masculinity other than having a lot of very straight sex with a lot of women. No relationships, no feelings, no love or kindness or long suffering. Just lots of sex and grunting and football.

The doctrine of the priesthood stands in direct opposition to this. I’m often the first to scoff at the notion that “men have the priesthood because they need it more than the women.” I think it’s a dumb and lame reason, but I digress. I’m not arguing that men need the priesthood; I’m arguing that, from a cultural perspective, the priesthood doctrine is good for men. In my head, there is a difference. Let me explain: we live in a social world that tells men they need to behave in this narrowly defined box of masculinity that requires them to “compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive, worldly, sexually experienced, hard, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding.” The doctrine of the priesthood, on the other hand, allows for a redefinition of gender that includes a broader masculine experience.

Here’s my point: I believe that the doctrine of the priesthood is a force of good for men and boys in a secular culture that defines masculinity so narrowly that it excludes an entire half of the human experience.

Now it’s your turn, dear readers. Discuss.

So much love,

The LadyMo


7 responses »

  1. I cannot say how much I completely agree with what you said here. I wholeheartedly agree that being a member of the church gives menand boys an additional dimension of manliness to exist in. I know we have discussed this before, but I’ll say it again: I hate it when men are demonized and belittled by society and our media. It is ridiculous to me that we feel it necessary to squash the boys in order to lift up the girls. I am grateful for the priesthood. For its literal power and because it teaches these wonderful boys and men that they are trusted with the power of God.

  2. I think you’re right LadyMo. I am one of those who think the men need the priesthood, but I also think the women need a lot of help too. I’m so grateful I never have to be bishop and there are a lot of traits I can see in men that make me understand why they are such good candidates for Bishops, Stake Presidents and so forth. I agree whole heartedly about social man box’s. I wish men felt free to be who they are, not only for thier priesthood callings, but also as fathers and husbands. I’ve seen many times where compassion and more sensitive traits have been needed in my home from a father who was raised from a male shovenistic (did I spell that right?) father who didn’t step outside that box EVER. I agree with Maren also, and I hate it when men are also being portrayed as stupid in the media. That commercial where a woman brings her hubby into an electronic store and he’s following her like a dog, and she takes the lead to buy a TV he liked and after talking to the salesman finds out her husband was right for ONCE and he’s looking stupidly into the camera…….Come on…..Men are so wonderful and smart and need not be portrayed as stupid or weak. I HATE THAT COMMERCIAL. Even though I’ve been known to say flippant remarks about men, I do adore them and all that they are.

  3. I thought this was beautifully articulated. This is one of the reasons that I think God’s true order is one of equality. Prejudice always hurts people on both sides of the equation.

  4. Great perspective, LadyMo.

    While I agree that the priesthood does have a very handy way of stamping “softer” traits with an approved perspective, I don’t know if I agree that it lets men step out of the man box. I think it just redefines the man box. And in so doing, reinforces the woman box – which is to be submissive, to never lead, etc.

    Ideally, we’d just have a human box, and realize that those principles in D&C 121 are universally applicable, and that people (as opposed to men or women) need to strive for them. Regardless of their gender. And that those traits are admirable in people regardless of their gender.

    I’m a box burner.

  5. Well I still see you are at it. Just wanted to stop by and see how things were going with you. Seems like all is well. Have a Merry Christmas and God Bless, SR

  6. Coming in a little late here – hope someone will respond. I’m a 58 yr old adult convert of 13 years. The first time I read D&C 121, I said to myself, “this is the kind of man I want to be, and anyone who could write something so beautiful MUST be a prophet of God”. It remains my favorite scripture…period. The discussions so far miss one point, though, and it is the dismissal of this truth that is at the core of much of the tension over sexuality and the roles of men and women in the world to day. Losing sight of this principle is the reason LadyMo (and so many other women) felt the need to define herself first as a “feminist”. It is the reason we have “gender confusion” (I know – you’ll say I’m over-simplifying). This oft-forgotten truth is that God created “man” male and female…..two different beings, spiritually and physically, and complementary. We both have our essential roles in His creation. We don’t get to choose which one we want to be – we are who we are. The man box (and the woman box) was originally defined by God. As society moves away from God (which it has historically done in each dispensation – thus requiring that the Lord re-introduce the Gospel 7 different times), it redefines the gender boxes.

    I glory in God’s man box. I cherish God’s woman box. They are beautifully designed and together make one whole. It gives me purpose, direction, hope and an eternal sense of purpose to strive to fulfill the role I have been given as a man, and I joy in the beauty of my sweet companion and PARTNER in this eternal journey that we call, for lack of a better word, life. I have not been able to fully reject society’s man-box. I still love sports even though at 58 years old I’ve given up on trying to impress anyone with my performance. I love the hunt (although I only fish) and I prefer to drive. But I know the true measure of my manhood is defined in D&C 121, and I take great joy and comfort in that. As I said, THAT is the type of man I want to be. Maybe, because in striving for that ideal, I am fulfilling the measure of my creation – I am finally in harmony with my role in the universe. Together, my wife and I can do far more good than either of us every could alone. Together, we are whole. What a glorious creation this is!

    My love to you all,


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