Sheri Dew was asked by a reporter how she felt about Mormon women not holding the priesthood. The reporter said he presumed she felt oppressed. Since he was interviewing her, he probably ought to have known he was talking to a woman who was as far from being oppressed as possible.
Sheri Dew was a counselor for General Relief Society President for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons. This means she helped to lead all the Mormon women in the entire world—millions of them. She has never been married and was a powerful role model for the idea that Mormon women can lead satisfying and rewarding lives without marriage if marriage does not happen for them. She’d like to be married, she says—but has never been asked and so she’s made a great life of work, service, and extended family. Today, she is the CEO of Deseret Book, owned by the Church, where she leads far fewer people than she did as a member of the Relief Society presidency, but holds an essential role in a growing corporation that has produced many best-selling books, both within the Mormon community and in the general book-reading world. She has served in this position for about ten years.
Sister Dew explained her background to the reporter and also noted that she had written the official biographies of two Mormon prophets. In fact, the last four prophets have chosen women to write their biographies. She asked him if it sounded to him like the church was holding her back. Nothing in Church teaching had kept her from having a successful career—in fact, the Church had helped to create that career for her by bringing her into the limelight.
Choosing to avoid doctrinal explanations with the reporter, she focused on practical aspects of Church teachings about women. Sheri Dew explained that Mormon women have opportunities and even expectations that would require ordination in most other churches. In many churches, only the minister can offer prayers or give sermons. Women do those things as a matter of course in the Mormon faith. The bishop—a lay pastor—does not do these things himself, since he has a family and, usually, a career to manage beyond his extensive church work. Instead members of the Church take turns giving the sermons. Children begin giving them at age three in the children’s programs and at age twelve are able to give them in the regular service. In the temple, she explained, nothing is held back and women participate in ordinances of a priesthood nature.
Sister Dew explained that she has searched for twenty years to find an organization that gave as many women as many leadership and teaching opportunities as the Mormons do. Most Mormon women have opportunities to lead at a local level and some at an international level. All who want it have the opportunity to give public prayers and sermons. In most churches, only those ordained may do those things, so both men and women have greater opportunity to serve God in this Church.
While giving women the ability to pray or preach today might be somewhat common, the Mormons have done it from the beginning. Emma Smith, the wife of the first Mormon prophet, was given a revelation in which she was commanded to expound scripture. This was in a time when many considered it sinful for women to teach in churches. At a time when few women had any legal rights, Mormon women were running their own organization, leading, preaching, and praying. Joseph regularly attended Relief Society to teach them in order to prepare them to attend the temple and serve in the Church.
Mormon women teach children in Primary, girls in the program for teen girls, boys and girls in the teenage Sunday School and men and women in the adult Sunday School. They teach adult women in Relief Society. They oversee both men and women in leadership positions in Primary. The Relief Society operates a literacy program which only women can run, but which men can serve in under the direction of the women. While there are some positions open only to men, there are also positions open only to women.
For Mormon women of faith, the unpaid volunteer positions we hold are not about power—they are about serving God and Jesus Christ. It does not matter how we serve; it matters that we serve. God holds all service equally in His heart and in the eternities, men receive no blessings that are not also given to women.
Watch Sheri Dew explain what Mormon women get.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
Terrie Lynn Bittner is the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that have appeared in LDS magazines. She is married to Lincoln Bittner and is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to two girls. Terrie became a Mormon at the age of seventeen and has been sharing her faith online since 1992. She can also be found blogging about being an LDS woman at LatterdaySaintWoman.com.