Mormon feminists raise their voices and unite in social media in quest for change

Dorchester, MA - 4/1/2013 - Danielle Miller Mooney was photographed in her home in Dorchester, MA on Monday, April 1, 2013. Mooney is a feminist Mormon who helped organize a successful campaign to let women pray at this weekend's general conference. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff) Slug: 05mormon Reporter: wangsness lisa LOID: 6.1.1695211782
Danielle Miller Mooney is pushing for equality for women in the Mormon Church. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
The Boston Globe

Danielle Miller Mooney traces her awakening as a Mormon feminist to the day in 2007 when she was sitting in her dorm room at Wellesley College, watching a live speech being given by a high-ranking woman in her church.

Mooney had grown up in a churchgoing Mormon household, and she loved her religion. But the speech, on the importance of motherhood and homemaking, left her feeling “like I was listening to a song that was off-key.”

Soon, Mooney was exploring a world she never knew existed: In online forums like “Feminist Mormon Housewives,” “I found people who thought a lot like I did. You’re not a lone island in the ocean.”

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Mooney is now at the forefront of a new generation of Mormon feminist activists using social media to press for changes for women in the church. In December, she participated in a Facebook event called “Wear Pants to Church Day,” meant to “normalize” trousers in a church where most women wear skirts or dresses to services. This weekend, following a letter-writing campaign to church authorities that Mooney helped organize, women are widely expected to lead the worldwide church in prayer during its biannual gathering in Salt Lake City.

Mooney, who lives in Dorchester, was one of two dozen women to sign on to a new website, ordainwomen.org, advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood, which in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is granted to all men and boys over age 12 deemed “worthy.” The Ordain Women effort, whose organizers are planning a first-ever gathering in Salt Lake City this weekend, is striking, given the church’s history of excommunicating members who have championed that cause.

There are signs the church is paying attention. The Salt Lake Tribune reported last month that women would lead prayer at this weekend’s gathering, although in a statement the church said that its custom is not to release schedules in advance, and that decisions regarding speakers were made late last year, before the letter-writing campaign.

The church has also recently lowered the age at which young women can go on church missions from 21 to 19, causing a sharp increase in young women’s participation in a program widely viewed as fostering independence and religious leadership.

Libby Boss, a Mormon from Belmont, said she hopes the developments mark the beginning of a “Mormon spring.”

“Not a revolution, certainly,” she wrote on the blog of Exponent II, a recently revived Mormon feminist magazine founded in Cambridge in the 1970s, “but a new era of revelation that transforms the church we love in a fundamental way, the likes of which we haven’t seen for over a century.”

Not everyone believes the church needs transformation. A church spokeswoman said in a statement that the church’s core beliefs give men and women equal standing before God.

“In God’s plan for his children, both women and men have the same access to the guidance of his spirit, to personal revelation, faith and repentance, to grace and the atonement of his son, Jesus Christ, and are received equally as they approach him in prayer,” said Jessica Moody, a church spokeswoman.

Emily Andrus O’Loughlin, a volunteer church spokeswoman in Belmont who has served in a leadership position at the regional level, said she has not noticed pent-up frustration among the women she knows.

“I have always felt a strong sense of mutual respect with members of my congregation,” she said. “I’ve always felt my opinion is valued.”

O’Loughlin, who has three young children, holds a high-powered job in a religious culture that prizes stay-at-home motherhood; she attended Harvard Business School and works as a consultant at McKinsey & Company.

“Certainly, it is not necessarily the norm; I think I do get more questions,” she said. “But it feels much more like curiosity — ‘how do you balance it?’ ”

Allowing women to pray at the General Conference is a relatively easy request for authorities to grant because there is no doctrinal issue at stake. Since the late 1970s, women have been allowed to lead prayers in any meeting of the church. But that invitation to lead prayer has never been extended to women at the General Conference.

Women’s ordination is another story. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like the Catholic Church, traces the tradition of a male-only priesthood back to Jesus’s ordination of his all-male disciples.

“The practice of ordaining men to the priesthood was established by Jesus Christ himself, and is not a decision to be made by those on Earth,” Moody said in a statement to the Globe.

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.