In 1993, a half-dozen Mormon intellectuals and academics were excommunicated for challenging the church on doctrinal and historical issues, including women’s relationship to the priesthood. The action cooled feminist activism for years.
“It was horrifying,” Boss said. “This church that I thought was a very safe place to ask questions suddenly became not safe.”
But Kate Kelly, a lawyer in Washington who created the ordainwomen.org website, is optimistic the church’s response will be different this time. She notes that the church believes in continuing revelation, and that its president is a prophet in dialogue with God; in 1978, the church ended its policy of excluding black men from the priesthood, citing divine revelation.
“I believe in the scripture, in Matthew 7:7, ‘Ask, and you shall receive,’ ” she said. “Our posture and our position is we are asking and knocking and . . . that leadership prayerfully consider this.”
Margaret Toscano, a professor of languages and literature at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 — mainly, she said, for her advocacy of women’s ordination — is not so sure.
“They really feel the climate has changed because of the Internet, and the church is so nervous about bad publicity that they won’t take any action against any of these women,” she said. “But in 1990, everybody read newspapers, and every day for two to three months there was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that really exposed what the leaders were doing. My husband and I were interviewed by the BBC, CNN, French and Canadian newspapers” and in one three-month period there were stories almost daily.
Women do hold leadership positions at the ward, or congregational, level, as well as at the level of the stake, akin to a Catholic diocese. Men, however, are the ultimate authorities as ward bishops and stake presidents. Men in leadership positions often develop cooperative relationships with female leaders, but structurally women have no final say.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, active Mormon, and feminist, said Mormon women had more independence and authority in the church before the 1970s, when a process of centralization took away the independence of a number of church organizations run by women.
“I grew up in a situation where it never occurred to me I wasn’t equal,” she said.
Today, she said, women play a large role at the ward level, but “there is much less visibility of female leaders beyond the ward level.”
As in many grass-roots movements, Mormon feminists disagree about how to approach many issues. Some women believe that ordination is the core issue; others would rather put the question of priesthood aside and focus on giving women more leadership positions in the church and a greater presence in Sunday school lessons and other texts. Still others believe they already have priesthood or priesthood-like powers based on their role in secret temple rituals.
They share, though, an upbeat tone that is partly strategic, an effort to persuade rather than alienate. Ordainwomen.org mirrors the church’s “I’m a Mormon” public relations campaign of 2011, which presented a diverse selection of cheerful Mormons offering first-person accounts of their stories and why they love their church.
It also seems to reflect a genuine love for the church among Mormons who care enough to stay, despite disagreements.
“Most of the people who are involved in this, it’s not because they are bitter about the church or angry about the church; it’s those of us who want to help improve the church,” said Colleen Goodsell, of Belmont, who served as head of the church’s main organization for women, the Relief Society, in Arlington.
She and her husband, Thom Goodsell, who with Mooney and others recently began a group called the Mormon Feminist Action Board, —say they want the church to be a more welcoming place for their daughters, ages 7 and 9.
“We want to make a difference,” Colleen Goodsell said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.