Mormonism and gender issues/Women/Role in the Church/Priesthood
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Why do women not exercise priesthood authority in the Church?
God is the Father of all humanity, and no one—male or female—is more valued than any other. Through personal faithfulness, all people can have access to the blessings of the priesthood. Positions of influence within the Church are held by both men and women. From the foundation of the Church, women have been instructed to seek after the same kinds of spiritual gifts that men enjoy through the priesthood. The power of motherhood is an eternal spiritual gift and must not be underestimated or taken for granted as a sanctifying force in the lives of women regardless of whether they ever physically bear children. Men and women must make covenants with each other in the temple in order to qualify for the highest order of the priesthood. Men cannot advance to this order on their own and women are partners in it.
Priesthood is divine power shared with men. Its primary use is to serve and help others. As Jesus taught, “whosever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27).
The blessings and ordinances of the priesthood are available to all Church members regardless of gender, social status, race, or culture 2Ne 26:33. Access to them is limited only by: 1) adherence to standards of personal faithfulness and worthiness, and 2) sufficient maturity and experience in gospel living. (Requirements of maturity and experience set a pace for young people and new converts to assure there is adequate time for them to grow into new responsibilities.) After satisfying these requirements, people of all genders are not only allowed but expected to receive the blessings of the priesthood. Baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, sacrament, temple ordinances, and other priesthood blessings are freely given to all who are worthy, willing, and ready to receive them.
Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks, quoted one of his predecessors, John A. Widtsoe, saying, “Men have no greater claim than women upon the blessings that issue from the priesthood and accompany its possession.” 
Gender differences in the priesthood arise when assignments are made to perform ordinances and offer blessings on behalf of the Lord. Only worthy men are assigned and ordained to offices within the priesthood. The reason this assignment is made along gender lines is not explicitly explained in LDS doctrine. However, several facts of Church life may indicate the roots of it.
Women Serving in the Church
LDS women serve as leaders, teachers, temple workers, and missionaries throughout the worldwide Church. In some positions, such as in the presidencies of the Church’s children’s organization (The Primary), women have stewardship over callings held by men. These men report to and take direction from women leaders regardless of the fact that these men are ordained to the priesthood and their female leaders are not.
Women sit as members on councils in locals wards, stakes, and in the higher levels of general Church councils. Women serving in general church leadership positions travel the world speaking and teaching alongside male leaders. Twice annually, at the Church’s General Conferences, women leaders address the entire Church offering guidance and direction. They are also involved in preparing Church instructional materials and in developing and directing the programs and policies of the Church. Items in official Church publications are authored by men and by women.
Contrary to critics’ complaints, women are not barred from positions of leadership and influence in the Church. Mentioning the roles women have in Church leadership is not the same thing as trying to argue that women hold the same kinds of very vocal and prominent leadership roles that men hold. Nowhere in the Church do women preside over congregations. This is well-known. However, the real contributions women make to Church leadership need to be described for the benefit of people who know little about the Church -- people who may be more familiar with critics' claims that women play no role at all in Church leadership. These descriptions continue to be offered in places like Mormon.org as replies to rhetoric that insists we serve in the Church only in child-minding and food preparation. Such rhetoric is deliberately misleading and requires correction. However, pointing out the roles women play as leaders is nowhere near the end of the discussion.
Latter-day Saints understand leadership in the Church in a different way than leadership is seen in mainstream society. Leadership in the Church should never be about power, prestige, or control over others. The Latter-day Saint ideal is a model of cooperative unity, and duties and responsibilities are delegated under divine direction. At present, those whom the Saints sustain as prophets have organized matters as they stand. This does not preclude changes in the future, but members of the Church believe that such changes must come from God by revelation to those he has delegated to lead the Church.
Priesthood and Temple Admission
In order to qualify for entrance to an LDS temple, members must hold certain key beliefs and live according to a code of behavior that makes them worthy to be there. This worthiness is endorsed by local leaders in the form of a written temple recommend. By qualifying for a temple recommend, baptized LDS women can enter the temple without any further ceremony.
The same is not true for men. In order to attend the temple, baptized, temple recommend-worthy men must be ordained to the priesthood. Without it, they are not admitted. Without priesthood ordinations, a man’s progress in the gospel stalls before he receives temple blessings. Women require no such formalities. Our progress can continue without ordinations to the priesthood.
Certainly, the reason for this isn’t because women are intrinsically less worthy or less powerful than men. Instead, the opposite may be true. Perhaps women who worthily hold temple recommends enjoy spiritual gifts that make us equal to priesthood-holding men without the need to be ordained ourselves. What we’re lacking isn’t the spiritual fortitude to hold the priesthood but the need to hold it ourselves. As Paul explained when he compared the Church to the body of Christ,
“…those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need. But God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to the part which lacked.” 1Cor 12:22-24
One reading of this scripture may be that without a spiritual correction like the one made when men are ordained to the priesthood, men in the Church would be “feeble” and “uncomely” compared to the rest of us. With the priesthood, men’s spiritual potential becomes equal to our spiritual potential. Ordination to the priesthood might be a remedial measure and one only men need. Meanwhile, the “comely parts,” the women of the Church, “have no need.” Ordaining us to priesthood offices might nullify this “tempering” of the body of Christ – a tempering that was done in an effort to make the genders equal within the Church, not to make men superior.
If this premise is correct then what might men be lacking? One theory is that the social roles women usually fill tend to make us more charitable and selfless. Charity and service are certainly Christ-like attributes. However, this explanation is encumbered by stereotypes of both male and female behavior. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to place enough emphasis on the operation of eternal spiritual gifts.
Some critics complain that any reference to women having no need to hold the priesthood themselves while men do need to hold it is a ploy meant to trick women into playing down our strengths in favour of bolstering male egos. It's argued that if women believe we are "naturally" better than men, we'll feel a responsibility to hide our strengths and intentionally let men out-perform us. Contradictions to such claims are clear in the teachings of LDS leaders such as First Presidency member Dieter F. Uchtdorf. In 2011, President Uchtdorf spoke at the annual gathering of women of the church, the General Relief Society meeting, and talked about goals and personal achievements. He told us, "Never stop striving for the best that is within you."  This is not language meant to persuade us to restrain our best selves in order to keep the men of the Church from feeling threatened. Furthermore, the church does not teach that priesthood-holding men are inferior to women any more than it teaches that they are superior. As late member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, John A. Widstoe said, "There is indeed no priveleged class or sex within the true Church of Christ."  Men's service in the priesthood makes the sexes equally gifted in spiritual strength. No member of either sex needs to feel inferior.
The LDS approach to priesthood is something like a maximalist feminist one where women are excused from ordination not because we’re undeserving or unable but because, for us, it’s unnecessary. Ordaining worthy women to the priesthood might be like trying to get fully sighted people to wear eyeglasses just to make a group of people seem like they’re all being treated evenhandedly. In a crowd where everyone is wearing glasses, everyone might look equal. But there’s actually an unfairness operating because half of the people in the crowd arrived there with full sight. The analogy reveals the absurdity. If we don’t need glasses, we don’t wear them. And if we, LDS women, don’t need to hold the priesthood ourselves, we aren’t ordained to it.
However, in LDS temples, women have always served alongside men. Women aren’t serving in the temple as housekeepers or waitresses but as “ordinance workers.” Women serve temple attendees as blessings are given and covenants are made. We have all the rights and powers needed to serve in these capacities even without receiving priesthood ordinations. As Church President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.” 
Gifts of the Spirit
The blessings and gifts that often accompany priesthood service – things such as healing, speaking unlearned languages, receiving revelations, wisdom, discernment, and many others – are not reserved solely for priesthood holding men. Neither of the genders is limited in its access to spiritual gifts. This principle was taught in 1842 when Joseph Smith instructed a meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo to pay attention to Paul’s teachings about gifts of the Spirit. Joseph said “these signs…should follow all that believe”  including women who believe.
Often, the female ability to mother children is presented as an analogue to male priesthood ordinations. Motherhood and priesthood are two different, interdependent, overlapping, and valid paths to becoming more like Christ. If properly traveled, both paths can be sanctifying.
The spiritual gift of motherhood is so reverenced Church President David O. MacKay called it “near to divinity.”  However, the way women receive this gift is not clearly explained in LDS theology. It has been described by latter-day prophets and apostles with such words as “inherent” and “natural.” However, it’s unlikely these words were chosen in order to say the complex and supernal gift of motherhood arises simply and effortlessly from female biology the same way cats and cows know how to nurse their young.
What’s more likely is that these words were used to express the way human motherhood arises from eternal, spiritual characteristics that we take with us from our pre-mortal lives. As we grow, learn, and master the use of our agency, there is interplay between our spiritual nature and our biological nature. As LDS scriptures teach, “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (and woman). DC 88:15 By extension, no act carried out by any human is purely the result of his or her sexual morphology. The spirit is always implicated as well.
Also telling is the fact that motherhood is not considered a mere demographic in the Church. It is understood as a spiritual characteristic that extends beyond reproductive success. In 2001, Second Counselor of the Relief Society General Presidency, Sheri Dew, taught,
"While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord's language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve "the mother of all living" -- and they did so before she ever bore a child. Like Eve, our motherhood began before we were born." 
Priesthood and motherhood are both sanctifying, eternal, spiritual gifts. They are both opportunities and responsibilities to offer selfless service. They are each great sources of power and influence. However, there is an essential difference between priesthood and motherhood.
The power that comes with motherhood is not always contingent upon the personal worthiness of the mother herself. It is possible – it’s actually quite commonplace – for women to enjoy motherhood without living the laws of the gospel and/or without having faith in Christ.
The same is not true of priesthood power. LDS scripture states that when men try to use their position as priesthood holders to,
“cover our sins, gratify our pride, our vain ambitions, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men…the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…he is left unto himself.” DC 121:37-38
In other words, there is a divine check, a limiter, on men’s access to priesthood. No such limiter exists for women using the power of their motherhood. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why authority in the Church is given to the gender whose access to power and influence is more closely connected to personal faith and righteousness. The limiter built into the priesthood safeguards the Church from error. That isn’t to say that women are more likely than men to make mistakes. It’s just to say that when we do make mistakes, they might be more difficult to overcome since our access to motherhood power is more or less unrestrained.
The Everlasting Covenant of Marriage
LDS scripture states that the highest degree of priesthood power cannot be held by any man unless he is married through temple ordinances. DC 131:2-3 This has been reiterated by General Relief Society Counselor, Sheri L. Dew, “ …the fullness of the priesthood contained in the highest ordinances of the house of the Lord [the temple] can be received only by a man and woman together.”  Clearly, all men who hold the highest degree of priesthood can only hold it jointly with their wives.
From the beginning, the ideal of marriage relationships has been the one Adam celebrated when he spoke of Eve saying, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh…therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. “ Gen 2:24
This ideal was restated by the Lord when he taught his disciples married couples “shall be one flesh: so then shall they be no more twain, but one flesh.” Mark 10:8
The connection between temple married men and women joined in this highest order of the priesthood can develop until it is inextricable and transcendent. The couple truly becomes one. This happens through personal righteousness, devotion, and the atonement of Christ as applied through the marriage covenant. Without a formal ordination, oneness within the covenant of marriage makes us partners in the priesthood to which our husbands have been ordained.
Both in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon passages of Isaiah, the prophet referred to his wife as “the prophetess.” Isa 8:3. The use of the term here could be two-fold. As Isaiah’s female counterpart, it’s fair to call his wife a prophetess regardless of her spiritual gifts. However, there may be much more to it. As it did for Isaiah’s wife, the possibility of achieving oneness in marriage has implications for the wives of men formally called to serve as leaders in the contemporary LDS Church. When male Church leaders grow in oneness with their wives, these women’s influence and inspiration becomes enmeshed with the men’s and the entire Church benefits.
Richard G. Scott explained, “as the Lord intends…a married couple [can] think, act, and rejoice as one – face challenges together and overcome them as one, to grow in love and understanding, and through temple ordinances be bound together as one whole, eternally. That is the plan.” (Richard G. Scott, "The Joy of Living the Great Plan of Happiness," Ensign, November, 1996.)
This oneness doesn’t end when couples are physically separated. It does not depend on the couple actually sitting beside each other in every presidency or council meeting. In a very real and personal way, wives of Church leaders help husbands both to receive inspiration and to shape the practical initiatives that will arise from that inspiration.
Perhaps speaking of Relief Society presidents as the female analogs of males who preside in the priesthood misses an important point. A look at women serving in callings as companions to theirs husbands -- such as temple matrons and the wives of mission presidents -- may reveal the true pattern for amplifying women's leadership roles in the Church. Our influence grows as we and our husbands focus on strengthening and improving oneness in marriage relationships and serving together as a sealed, unified whole. Calling for expansions of the roles of women called to Church auxiliary organizations will probably not do as much to increase the influence of women in the Church as improving charity and equality within individual marriages could accomplish. And this is what Church leaders -- both male and female -- have been calling for all along.
In Other Ages
Questions are sometimes raised about the role women have played in the priesthood in times past. For a discussion of biblical references to prophetesses, see here: Women as prophets anciently
Speculations are also raised about women holding the priesthood in the early Christian Church. Tertullian says that there were "writings which wrongly go under Paul's name" were forged by a presbyter (Elder) in Asia to give "a license for women's teaching and baptizing." The necessity of such a forgery suggests to some that women did not routinely teach and baptize in the early Church.
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Relief Society and the Church,” Ensign, May 1992, 36.
- [note] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Forget Me Not," Ensign, Nov 2011.
- [note] Young Women Manual 1, "Lesson 16: Women and Priesthood Bearers," 2002, 67-70.
- [note] Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society – An Aid to the Priesthood,” 5. (Referenced in Daughters in My Kingdom, Intellectual Reserve, 2011.)
- [note] Joseph Smith, in Relief Society Minute Book, Nauvoo, Illinois, 28 Apr. 1842, Church History Library, 36. (Referenced in Daughters in My Kingdom, Intellectual Reserve, 2011.)
- [note] Message from the First Presidency, in Conference Report, Oct. 1942, 12; read by J. Reuben Clark Jr. (Referenced in Daughters in My Kingdom, Intellectual Reserve, 2011.)
- [note] Sheri L. Dew, "Are We Not All Mothers?" Ensign, Nov. 2001, 96. Emphasis in original.
- [note] Sheri L. Dew, “It is Not Good for Man or Woman to be Alone,” Ensign, Nov., 2001,13.
- [note] Tertulian, "De Baptismo," in 17 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)3:677. ANF ToC off-site This volume