Women have played critical roles in LDS culture and thought, producing our finest artists and poets. A female poet, Eliza R. Snow, is perhaps primarily responsible for advancing one of Mormonism’s more audacious doctrines, that of a mother in heaven at the side of God the father, penning a famous refrain:
I had learned to call thee Father/ Through thy Spirit from on high,
But until the key of knowledge/ Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal/ Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Despite their seemingly subservient status within polygamy, women have also been monumental figures in the political area, including their involvement at the forefront of the suffragette movement. Until the 1900s, female Mormons were arguably more politically powerful than their male counterparts, particularly culminating in obtaining declarations of equal rights for women, such as that enshrined in the Utah Constitution:
“Both male and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
Mormons owe much (if not most) of the high points of their history to their female membership.
But despite this history, women have never been and are not ordained to general leadership roles in the clergy of the church. Women are not permitted to serve in capacities considered the exclusive domain of the priesthood, which includes not only leadership roles but general administrative, financial and similar positions. And starting in the early 20th century, the external influence of women began to wane: the Relief Society lost its autonomy, shuttering its long-standing newspaper and folding its budget surplus into the then-struggling general funds of the church; women were discouraged from giving blessings of health as this became a priority emphasis for the priesthood; the “traditional” roles of mothers and caretakers were characterized as divinely appointed tasks and sole priorities.
As second wave feminism hit its stride in the U.S., the LDS church transitioned towards vocal anti-feminism. The jurisdictional boundaries of priesthood-exclusive activities expanded, so far that for a period in the 1970s women were forbidden from even saying the invocation and benediction --the opening and closing prayers --in the weekly services, or Sacrament Meeting. The church itself marshaled a considerable grassroots effort to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, considering the proposed amendment to be a threat to the traditional family values it considered divinely appointed. President Spencer Kimball, leader and prophet at the time, called upon members of the church to vote against the E.R.A.; some who spoke against the church on this issue, notably Sonia Johnson, were excommunicated. Petitions were circulated during worship meetings, sermons were devoted to decrying feminism, and the leadership of the church identified feminism as one of the chief evils of the world.