I wish I could simply point you to easily accessible published material about women and the priesthood in mormonism, but considering the subject, that is quite the taboo. If you are interested in early Mormon perspectives on women, there is a great wealth of material, though obscure and out of print. You can see some of the e-books I have posted on the subject here:
To my knowledge there are no good commentaries to turn to on the subject of the women and the priesthood in the temple. There is however a robust oral tradition among temple workers. Sadly the only time this is usually shared with patrons is during sealing sessions, either before or after the ordinances. If you get the chance you should attend a sealing session.
The sealing ordinance is so elegant and in a very comfortable setting. doctrinally it comes across as simple and hopeful, and yet contains enough depth to keep the studious mind occupied for a lifetime. When going to the temple to do sealings you need only ask a temple worker if you could do sealings, they will point you in the right direction. There is no pressure to participate in any other ordinances, unless you also desire to. The sealing ordinance also summarizes the purposes and promises of the temple.
The Gospel is so called because it is the “good news”, what good news is that? the promises reiterated in the sealing ordinance. The power to come forth in the Resurrection, and enjoy eternal life with all those you love. The end of all suffering, and sin. If we can see the gospel, as taught symbolically in the temple, it will no longer seem strange. The temple is filled with symbolism. symbolism that will often seem strange to a person not already steeped in its study. This is why learning the sealing ordinance is helpful: because it is a more direct summary and is on the surface more easily understood.
As for the initiatory, it should be helpful for sisters to remember that this is a clear exercise of priesthood power. Sometimes women feel that the patriarchal system of the Gospel and the priesthood is an affront to them. The initiatory should remind them that they are not meant to be dominated by men but that men and women are to complement the other in their roles, even in Priesthood power and ordinance work. A Woman is anointed, set apart, or “ordained” to become a priestess when they become a temple worker. this is quite a literal and straightforward promise. The “Matron” of the temple was originally called the “High Priestess of the Temple.” And her assistants were originally simply called Priestesses. The title was changed so that this sacred title be not over used. much like “the higher priesthood after the order of the Son of God,” was changed to “The Melchizedek Priesthood.”
Women originally also participated in priesthood ordinances more. For example, mothers used to hold their infants when they were given a name and a blessing, and sometimes would anoint their children or other sisters for blessings on the sick etc. This type of thing is rare now and some bishops may disagree with doing this in church, so this information should be used carefully. If however a Woman would be benefited in her testimony from this information, use prudence in sharing it.
We must be careful in our distinction between the Gospel itself, and the church, and its subculture. The gospel is unchanging and eternal. The subculture is constantly changing, and therefore is not always exactly in harmony with the gospel. Still, if a peaceful co-existence is to be maintained with everyone in the ward, it is sometimes best not to debate touchy subjects like this with just anyone.
I think too many saints make the false equation that priesthood is for men and motherhood is for women. this is comparing apples to oranges. In fact Motherhood is for women, Fatherhood is for men, and the priesthood, just like parenthood, is also for both, simply with distinct roles. Being a Priest is for men, Being a priestess is for women. The process and functions are simply different, equal and complementary. This does not mean that they are both head of the house exactly either, just that being the head is the man’s role, But to quote a modern movie. “The man is the head of the house, but the Woman is the neck and she can turn the head the way it needs to go!” Thus she fulfills her role as “Helpmeet”.
The relief society originally had its own hierarchy, in parallel to the church. The general relief society president actually called and set apart her own councilors, and on down to stake RS presidents who would call the ward or branch RS presidents, etc. The bishop did not call or even “approve” these callings.
The Women’s Exponent was a relief society magazine of the nineteenth century, it was a method of not only creating an independent income stream for the relief society, it also acted as a completely independent voice for women’s issues, and accepted submissions from any member of the relief society who wanted to contribute. It thereby guided the discourse of the feminist movement in the church, which was really the most robust bastion of feminism in the world at one time.
There is an incredible disconnect among American historians between Mormon and non-Mormon history. There are very few who have any kind of well rounded perspective. Most historians treat the Mormon feminist movement with utter disdain and disregard on the grounds that any woman in a plural marriage must be weak minded and only a puppet, exhibiting feminist ideas in order to undermine the movement and prop up male dominance with an air of respectability. Most church historians likewise disregard this rich history, partially to deny that such a feminist legacy exists. The church would like to maintain a male monopoly on priesthood, as much as it is trying to maintain its image, and correlate its curriculum. Many in the church would like to see the world revert to the 1950s but are horrified by the more modern views of the 1850s.
I have been distressed at the consolidation of all power and almost Orwellian homogeneity the church has been encouraging, especially in the last thirty or so years. being united in faith, is very different from institutionalized conformity. Dissent and in some cases even liberal thinking politically or socially, is now termed apostasy. There was no such definition before the 1930s. Apostasy used to mean joining the mob, later it meant starting a rival sect, only since Heber J Grant has it come to mean daring to dissent, or debate, and only in the last thirty or so years it has come to mean failing to conform.
This leads me to an interesting, if often inflammatory, question: are you familiar with the link between the history and ideology of Mormon feminism and plural marriage? the end of the independence of the relief society, the stifling of all preist(ess)hood and ordinance related roles for women, and even the teachings about heavenly mother(s) all ceased with the end of celestial (plural) marriages in the church. If it was not for the hymn “Oh my Father” written by one of these independent, feminist, plurally married, priesthood exercising, (she was even occasionally referred to as the “High Priestess” over the church!), women: Eliza R Snow, it is doubtful that the idea of a Heavenly Mother would even persist in our collective consciousness.
It is interesting to note that in the semi-autonomous state of Deseret, was the first place in history where women had the right to vote. This is however disregarded by history on the grounds that these votes were declared invalid after the fact by the US supreme court. Many feminists also disregarded the equality and rights of Mormon women on the grounds of their objection to polygamy.
I contest that it was not in spite of Mormonism, or plural marriage, that these women were such accomplished activists, professionals, and theologians, it was a natural outgrowth of the restoration of the gospel. It was precisely because of plural marriage that these women were liberated. The teachings and practices of Mormonism at the time were great catalysts for equality and a great check on misogyny. It is no coincidence that when women’s right to vote was finally accomplished it started in the western states where Mormons formed an ethnic majority. It is also telling that when the state of Utah was accepted into the union of American states, it was forced to include in its constitution a prohibition against women voting and against polygamy. fortunately at least one of these restrictions has since been rescinded.
You have no doubt by now also noticed that I am not exactly your average “all is well in Zion” type Mormon. I have a firm testimony of the truth of the gospel, but I do have a conditional view of just how true the church is at times in actually implementing those truths. In this view I consider myself “Orthodox,” but some members might consider me to be the “apostate” one. for this reason I usually keep certain knowledge secret unless I feel prompted to share it.
I would like to close this already too long post with a few observations about the priesthood. I would like to share with you a few insights I have gained, however be warned that while these teaching are in accord with the gospel they are often opposed by church leaders and you will need to use your own judgment in applying these truths. I desire to be void of offence toward anyone, yet some are offended by the truth. In such cases it must be carefully decided how much to make known. Yet, I feel that it may be beneficial to tell you what I have learned about women’s role in the priesthood.
In the priesthood, there are several divisions. We are all aware of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, there are however also the Levitical priesthoods which are part of the Aaronic, and the Patriarchal and Matriarchal priesthoods, which complete the Melchizedek. There are also further temple ordinances, rarely spoken of, and even more rarely performed. One is called the Second Anointing. I refer to these things because they are related to the feminine priesthood.
It is tempting to think that the priesthood is something that you can aspire to and claim because of reaching a certain spiritual state and this is partly true, but the Lord’s house is also governed by his eternal laws, and is a house of order. In order for a person to have the gift of the holy ghost for example they must receive it by the laying on of hands of those who are in authority to perform this ordinance. A person who has not received the ordinance may experience the holy ghost, but this does not fully comprehend the blessing or responsibility of a person who has received the ordinance. Likewise a person who has received the ordinance but does not seek to invite the spirit in to their life does not have it either. Priesthood works in a similar way. Ordination alone does not guarantee that the one ordained will have any true priesthood power, while one without ordination may experience priesthood power under certain circumstances. However only the person who has received the correct ordinances, AND who has lived worthy to be filled with the power of God will truly have the priesthood.
Likewise the priesthood is governed by principles that connect us together and link us to God. Every person who has the priesthood is linked, and each person has a priesthood head from which they derive their duties or the conferral of their authority. The power of the priesthood is also linked to these lines of authority. You can think of it like a circuit, if it is not a complete circuit there is no power, if lines are crossed in an disorderly manner then shorts can occur. It only works properly when each line of authority is in proper order. If I attempt to take the honor of the priesthood unto myself I will have no power, it is not a complete circuit (Heb 5:4).
So this leads to the difficulty of women in the priesthood. How can you obtain the proper authority through the proper channels? This is when it becomes difficult to know what to do. This is because true priestesses operate through the patriarchal and matriarchal priesthood. The ordinance that introduces you into that highest order of the priesthood is the second anointing, it is not often performed. The second anointing is only performed for married persons who have proven faithful in all things. It also completes the priesthood of a woman and she is then a high priestess, and Queen to reign in the house of Israel forever. The only scriptural account of this ordinance was when Mary of Bethany anointed Christ just before the crucifixion. (Mark 14:3 & John 12:3) The full import of that scripture is only understood by those who understand this ordinance, and why it was a woman who administered it to Christ. It is however a provocative thing to bring up to any Mormon, why was it a woman who anointed and set Christ apart in preparation for the supernal work of the atonement? He is called the Messiah with means “the anointed one,” and his highest anointing, truly the beginning of the atonement for all mankind, was under the hands of a woman.
A woman’s priesthood leader is also ideally to be her husband. this is why the Early Presidents of the Church were so fond of pointing out that Mary of Bethany was the Wife of Jesus. This is only possible if a Husband is ready and worthy to do so. This was one reason for polygamy: so that all worthy women could have access to the worthy man of their choice. This is also the reason why dissolution of sealings are taken to the first presidency and are not always granted, even if the marriage has been annulled or a divorce happened many years ago, because doctrinally a woman derives additional authority from the sealing ordinance.
I will now explain a few things about the line of authority of the feminine priesthood, because it does not work in the same way as it does for the men. Women are never ordained in the same manner nor do they receive the same offices, but a priestess does hold actual priesthood power. You could think of it this way: a woman is ordained to a preparatory level of priesthood in the initiatory. There are priesthood powers associated with several of the blessings. At this point a woman can now anoint for the healing of the sick and she can be a witness to ordinance work, set apart or be set apart to special ordinance work etc. She is proclaimed “Clean every wit” but the confirmation of her authority is contingent upon her faithfulness. What it is she must then be faithful to do is another huge subject. But it is unlikely that she would be authorized to perform baptisms, ordinations, or other ordinances that are specifically performed by men.
Next, when she is sealed then there is a complete established line of covenant priesthood authority. This then gives her access to administer under the direction of her worthy husband in all things he can administer, as he is under the direction of the father. This means that if her husband cannot perform any priesthood duty, or if he is inspired to ask her to perform any ordinance she can then do so. She is however to respect her husband as her priesthood leader, and follow his counsel in her priesthood work.
She is under her husband’s direction in her use of the priesthood, but this does not mean that she does not have authority. It should be remembered that every man who claims priesthood is also linked to his priesthood head and cannot use it except under his leader’s directions as well. “The head of the woman is the man, and the head of the man is Christ” it says in the scriptures. This is simply a priesthood leadership diagram, and even Christ reports all his work to his father. Everyone has someone above them in the priesthood. This should not make a woman feel inferior any more than it should make a man feel inferior. The proper way to look at it is that we are linked in an unbroken chain of authority to God and to those we love and should love: our families and the other faithful saints with whom we hope to rejoice in the Kingdom.
Lastly when the second anointing is performed it must be done by matriarchal priesthood authority. after being herself anointed and essentially ordained an apostle, The woman anoints her husband, and places her hands on his head and gives him an inspired blessing as part of this ordinance. When they both have been anointed she then has within herself all the priesthood necessary to perform any ordinance of the gospel. She is even promised that whatsoever she binds on earth will be bound in heaven. This comprehends all the power, keys, and authority that any person can hold while in the flesh. This is the highest ordinance given to mortals. In some of the historical accounts it was confirmed at the end by the savior appearing in person. This is also called the more sure word of prophecy. In each step the woman’s role increases. Until, at last, the highest ordinance on earth is confirmed and completed by a woman for her husband. they are then “sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise”
While many of these ideas may seem incomprehensibly far off, I felt that in telling you about a few of the things that have been experienced by our fore bearers, and the methods by which women have exercised the priesthood in the past, you would be able to have hope for what is possible. It is my testimony that these blessings are only the beginning, for the heart of (wo)man cannot conceive what great things the Lord has in store for them that love him.
The keys, and priesthoods have been restored to the earth, and the revelations of the Lord will continue to be poured out upon the saints who are prepared to receive them. The Lord will come and set all things in order for his millennial reign and then the earth shall rest for a season. I hope that even if this post opens up more questions for you than it answers, that it has been helpful to you, and been accompanied by the spirit. There is so much more that I would like to share with you about saints who are gathering and living all the commandments today. There are true prophets and apostles on the earth today, who can help you find all the answers you seek through revelation. These priesthood bearers are actually still receiving revelation, performing all the ordinances of the temple for the living and the dead, and gathering saints into consecrated communities. The difference in the platitudes you are fed in general conference and the depth of the principles of the Gospel taught by true prophets is stunning, it is like comparing night and day. If you are interested in the idea of learning more about this or any other subject, please feel free to send me your questions and I’ll try to respond in a timely manner. I am so grateful for the revelations of God, and that there is an eternity of light and knowledge to explore as we draw nearer to him. I testify that you can also come to know that the things I have spoken of here are true, by the spirit of God. If There is anything here that causes you to feel offended, please let me know and I will seek the spirit to overcome any misunderstanding I have caused. The Lord will draw near to us as we draw nearer to him. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.