One of my favorite women-in-culture blogs posted today about Tamora Pierce, Beka Cooper, and the Cult of the Gentle Mother. Go give her post a read if you're unfamiliar with any of these terms (or even if you are; it's a good post). All done? Ok. Reading Deborah's post made me remember something that I always meant to talk about and then never got around to. As I read along with Beka when her books came out, the first mention of the Gentle Mother cult gave me pause, initially because I was excited for this stitching-together, a very good and plausible reason for the lady knights of Tortall to decline and for Alanna to be the fulcrum that she was, but then because it reminded me of the eternal question of women and the priesthood in the LDS church.
Early in the church's history, women wielded priesthood power--not to the extent of men in terms of baptizing and sealing, but women such as Emma Smith and Eliza R. Snow were recorded as healing sisters and setting apart Relief Society presidencies. Skip to the present, where LDS women have no active priesthood authority. When and why did this gap appear? Mormon women in the past were frontier women, as the church moved from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and on west to Utah and California; as such they took on more roles than the women in "civilized" areas of the East Coast. For all his flaws, Brigham Young endorsed the women of the church in their goals to obtain education and be self-sufficient, and a number of male LDS authorities blessed women with priesthood power, including Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith, and Young. Emma Smith, as leader of the first Relief Society, gave blessings to women members, and Eliza Snow in her time as RS President did the same, along with encouraging the sisters to develop themselves spiritually and economically. Snow was also instrumental in shaping considerations of Heavenly Mother, another aspect of LDS doctrine rarely touched today.
Ultimately, the spiritual status of LDS women declined...or was reshaped. According to D. Michael Quinn as excerpted on Mormon Heretic, the temple endowment ceremony still bestows the Melchizedek Priesthood on women. Not having participated, I can't speak as to the exact wording of the ritual or how explicit this might be. The development of the Relief Society may not have been to Joseph Smith's expectations, as the first meeting's minutes indicate that he saw the body as a parallel to the organized men's priesthood. The Relief Society today is neither this parallel nor a strict administrative organization. It is an auxiliary entity, subject to oversight from the bishopric of its ward, and the President does not set apart her counselors or administer healing or other ordinances. Where exactly the schism happened, I can't say, though in the 1940s Joseph Fielding Smith told Belle Spafford, the Relief Society General President, that church elders administering was the Lord's intention and the Saints' proper mode of action. It does seem clear that as the church grew and refined its practices, much of its early wildness was lost (for better and worse); correlation has done a good deal to weed out, well, heresy. In doing so, women's roles as mothers and wives were emphasized to the point of obstructing and even obliterating other options and pathways. As noted on Mormon Heretic and discussed at length in the Bloggernacle, the priesthood has become synonymous with administrative and leadership power. It is interesting to me that despite not having paid clergy, the LDS church nonetheless has a sharp division between members and leadership, where "members" is in practice "women." Doctrinally, there's no reason why any faithful endowed member should not administer to fellow members, but functionally only male members carry these practices out. Women are not condoned to administer to one another or even to their own spouses and children. It's possible that LDS women are privately blessing their children and themselves, and indeed I hope they are.
The Cult of the Gentle Mother overtook what had previously been in practice. LDS women had some measure of active spiritual power within the church structure, and it was gradually eroded and changed. The church's culture, traditions, and doctrine have always had a way of becoming inextricably intertwined: now it may simply be a case of enough women pointing to the temple ceremonies and scriptures and saying, It's right here. It's God's teachings. We're doing this. If women in the church today do succeed in their push for change in how the priesthood is wielded, I doubt that it will be a single triumph or one that needs no defending and bolstering. Equality is not something that we get and then keep forever. It can be taken away or altered in a person's lifetime. As women have seen in the (nominally) secular sphere, each step forward is attended by backlash and extremism.
Note: A good deal of my information here comes from this Sunstone article, written by Linda King Newell. It's an excellent overview of women and the priesthood in the LDS church. I also recommend reading the comments for the Mormon Heretic post linked above; there are some really interesting notes from a member of the Community of Christ. And for more information about the Smiths, priestesshood, and the early Relief Society, check out this fMh post (and this one).