Women and the Priesthood: What One Woman Believes has a modest title. Author Sheri Dew is quick to say what she doesn’t know, including why women don’t hold the priesthood and why we don’t know more about Heavenly Mother. Yet, she is also not afraid to ask hard questions and give illuminating answers in this book which returns to core doctrine as it invites women to arise to the spiritual mantle that has been placed on them in these latter-days.
She quotes President Spencer W. Kimball, “to be a righteous women is a glorious thing in any age. To be a righteous woman during the winding-up scenes on this earth before the second coming of our Savior is an especially noble calling. The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times.’
Though this book is a personal essay, Sheri can speak with the authority of unique experience. As a former member of the Relief Society General Presidency, she has worked with the highest councils of the Church and come to know firsthand that her voice and ideas matter. As the president of Deseret Book, she has exercised leadership skills and has hit a pinnacle of career achievement. As one who is neither a wife nor mother, no one can accuse her of not understanding what it feels like to be left out when she asserts the divine importance and eternal significance of wife and mother. In this area, she admits, “I feel incomplete.”
What she calls for is for women to arise to the privileges they have because, she says, a converted woman can change the world. She is gifted at rallying women to see beyond the mental boxes they sometimes place themselves in and awaken to the power they have in their covenants. Not only can they profoundly impact the world, consecrated women must.
Women must seek revelation and expect it and understand the profound spiritual privileges that come with membership in this Church and our covenants.
She tells a story to illustrate. When she was in the Relief Society General Presidency, the Church instituted a new security system that required those who frequented the Church campus in downtown Salt Lake City to wear security badges. Because her presidency had served nearly five years and were well recognized, she didn’t develop the habit of wearing the badge, though she usually had it with her in her purse.
Then in the Saturday session of the April 2002 general conference, the presidency was released. They came and went to these conference sessions as all other officers of the Church did, through a series of tunnels that connect the various buildings.
She was to speak the next day, Sunday, to the hosts and hostesses serving in the various buildings. She was to be at the Little Theater in the Conference Center at 6 o’clock in the morning, but as she arrived, it occurred to her that the heavy double doors located at certain points along the tunnel might not be open that early.
Sure enough, the first door wasn’t opened and when she pushed the buzzer to alert the Church security office, she identified who she was. “Sister Dew, do you have your ID badge with you?” the security officer asked. She rummaged through her binder and found it and he asked, “Your badge gives you access to all of these doors. Didn’t you know that?”
“As promised,” writes Sheri, “all of the doors through the tunnel sprang open as I held my badge in front of the sensor located next to each of them.” And, of course, the next day, after she was released, the badge no longer worked.
“The irony was unmistakable. For months I had carried with me a badge that had given me privileges I hadn’t understood or taken advantage of. I had not understood the badge’s power.”
Women, she asserts, don’t begin to understand their power. “We are in large measure the ones who determine what we will receive in mortality and through all eternity,” she says. The Lord extends his arms full of gifts that we must be willing to receive.
Still, to fully comprehend on a personal level what it means to be a powerful woman in God’s divine plan may take some searching.
“Since my young adult days, or for nearly forty years now, I’ve studied and prayed and thought about the place of women in the kingdom of God. In addition, it has been my privilege to meet literally millions of Latter-day Saint women around the world, and I have spent years observing, learning from, praying for, and thinking about them,” she said.
“The path for a man in the Church is somewhat laid out for him,” she said, but being a female is complicated. A young man receives the priesthood, goes on a mission, comes home pursues an education, finds a wife, earns a living, has children. It’s a path, she acknowledges, that includes its own “stiff challenges.”
“A woman’s journey, however, has its own distinctive complexities. Among other things, it can be difficult to know what to prepare for. A young woman may serve a mission if she desires, but there is no requirement to do so. She is encouraged to get as much education as she can, but she may or may not end up using that education in some kind of professional vocation or career. And, some young-adult age women express concern that if they pursue an education or career they might be sending unintended signals’ to the Lord that they care more about a profession than about getting married.
“A woman should develop her talents, but how she will use them may not be clear. She may or may not marry at a traditional age. If she does marry in a normal’ time frame, she will likely desire to be a mother, but she may or may not be able to bear children. She may or may not choose to work outside the home, but in all likelihood, that decision will be charged with a variety of emotions.
“In short, a woman tends to have more flexibility than a man, but at the same time that flexibility introduces ambiguity and uncertainty.”
It’s not surprising, then, that women sometimes have questions about their eternal identity, and Sheri faults no woman for asking questions. What she advises is that those questions-the things we don’t yet know because God hasn’t revealed them-be asked in a context of faith.
She also says that “wrestling with spiritual questions is a fundamental element of a religious life. It is an exercise that not only increases knowledge but strengthens faith.”
She also advises that when women feel misunderstood, underutilized or have disappointing experiences with priesthood leaders they do what Elder Marvin J.
Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve advised her in a moment of private mentoring, “Sheri, don’t ever allow yourself to be offended by someone who is learning his job.”
She also quotes Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who put it this way, “Be kind regarding human frailty-your own as well as those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to him, but he deals with it. So should we.”
She asserts, “I’ve had far too many witnesses that the gospel is true and that the keys, power, and authority of the Savior’s kingdom have been restored to let organizational issues discourage me,” she says.
LDS Women and Leadership
Sheri was at a major publishing house in New York City. After thirty minutes into the discussion, the publisher blurted, “I just have to say that you are not what I expected.” When Sheri asked what he expected, he painted an unflattering image of an LDS woman to which she replied, “You might be interested to know that there are six and a half million more women just like me, if not a whole lot better,” and then for her the fun began.
“I asked if he would like to know more about us, and what could he say except yes’-after all he had raised the topic.”
She talked about the countless LDS women have to lead, teach, preach, and expound doctrine, including full-time proselyting missions-positions, noting that we have many have the privileges that require ordination in other churches. She told them that at least half of the teaching done in the Church was done by women and these weren’t recent developments prompted by political correctness, “but in 1842, long before women had many privileges under the Law, the Prophet Joseph Smith had organized women in such a way that they could assume vital leadership and teaching roles in the Church.”
Then she mentioned that for many years she’d “searched the world over to find any organization-the largest governments and religions, multinational businesses, worldwide charities, major universities-where so many women had so much bona fide responsibility and authority as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and that “she had been able to find even one.”
“In point of fact,” she says, the Latter-day Saint women have always been able to hold their own. The doctrine and practices of the Church regarding women give us confidence born of the Spirit and teach us how to lead, teach testify, rally others to a worthy cause, and express ourselves. And it has always been so.”
In 1870, women living in Utah were granted the right to vote by the Territorial Legislature, and with nominal effort on their part. This was decades before suffrage was granted to women after their considerable work in the nation at large.
Brigham Young encouraged women toward vocational and professional education. He said that “a good many [sisters]…get a classical education, and then a degree for Medicine.”
President Thomas S. Monson told the women of the Church, “You are a mighty force for good, one of the most powerful in the entire world.”
President Hinckley was asked a question by the media at the National Press Club in Washington DC that implied that LDS women were second-class citizens. After explaining that the Relief Society is one of the oldest and largest women’s organizations in the world, he said, “People wonder what we do for our women, I will tell you what we do: we get out of their way and look with wonder at what they are accomplishing.”
Women and the Priesthood
Still, in the gospel where men are ordained to the priesthood and women are not, questions arise-particularly from our critics. Today’s cultural paradigm is that equal means the same, but in the Lord’s economy, equality is sometimes expressed in role differentiation and divine stewardships. You cannot press a worldly paradigm upon the Lord’s ways.
Sheri says that though she has never been concerned about the distribution of the priesthood, she has served sisters in her callings who are concerned. She has dog-eared these scriptures in studying about the priesthood: Sections 20, 76, 84 107, 121,and 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants; JST, Genesis 14:25-40; JST, Hebrews 7; and Alma 13.
Sheri says, “There are countless evidences that God actually wants a powerful people.” That includes both men and women. She notes that Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that “where spiritual things are concerned as pertaining to all of the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies and the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness-in all things men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord.”
The work and glory of the Father and His Son is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life. “Our Father and His Son are not experimenting with us. Hoping against hope that somehow things work out well for the human family. Their understanding and motives are perfect…”
“Surely, then, our omniscient Father gave both His sons and His daughters the exact gifts, talents, privileges, responsibilities, opportunities, challenges and divine errands we would need to help us stretch, struggle, serve, and eventually qualify for the gift of exaltation. To presume that we know better than our Father how to best prepare the human family for exaltation is absurd,” she writes.
“When all is said and done,” she says, …”people of faith must have faith that the Lord has organized His Church according to His will, that He knows best what will lead all of us toward exaltation, that He is the one who determines those who will hold priesthood keys, and that He is the one who inspires them to use those keys according to His will
She quotes Elder M. Russell Ballard who notes, “The premortal and mortal natures of men and women were specified by the Lord Jehovah Himself, and it is simply not within His character to diminish the roles and responsibilities of any of [Heavenly Father’s] children.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell admitted that “we know so little…about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood. These were divinely determined in another time and another place.”
What we do know is that it is priesthood keys and ordinances that open the door for both men and women to receive the power and blessings of the priesthood. In the temple, both men and women are “endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power.”
Sheri writes, “Men and women who are endowed in the house of the Lord have been given a gift of power, and they have been given a gift of knowledge to know how to access and use that power.
” Our access to that power is through our covenants with him.
What Sheri Dew is inviting us to do in this book is arise to a greater understanding and a new power to be the men and women God intends us to be. It is a very fine read.