The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time has appointed women to three high-level church councils previously reserved only for men.
Scholars and Mormon feminists say it marks a small, but noteworthy step in an ongoing push to increase visibility and prominence of women in the faith.
The church announced the appointments Tuesday evening of three high-ranking women to committees that make key policy decisions for a faith of 15 million worldwide members.
The women are: Linda K. Burton, president of the faith’s largest organization for women called the Relief Society; Rosemary Wixom, president of a branch dedicated to teaching children called General Primary; and Bonnie L. Oscarson, who leads the Young Women organization.
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Mormon leader Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in a statement that he is pleased the councils will have the women’s wisdom and participation.
Jan Shipps, a retired religion professor from Indiana who is a non-Mormon expert on the church, called it an important change that was likely a response to pressure being applied in recent years by feminist Mormons.
“It’s a way of saying women are important, but we are not going to make women members of the priesthood,” Shipps said.
The church doesn’t appear close to opening the faith’s lay priesthood to women, but they’ve made other concessions in recent years that have marked steps forward for Mormons seeking to end gender inequality.
In April 2013, history was made when a woman led the opening prayer at the faith’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City. Since October 2013, a church conference session that had previously been limited to men has broadcast live for all to watch.
Mary Ellen Robertson, a representative of a prominent women’s group called Ordain Women, said she’s pleased by the appointments of the women to the councils, which will now make better decisions thanks to having the perspective of women.
But Robertson questioned why it took so long to make the change and why more councils aren’t opened to women.
“Sometimes it’s a little hard to get enthusiastic for baby steps that Mormon feminists have been advocating for quite some time,” Robertson said. “One is a good first step, but why not have an equal number of men and women on these councils?”
Women can hold many leadership positions in the religion but aren’t allowed to be bishops of congregations or presidents of regional church organizations. The church’s highest leaders, called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are also all men.
Ordain Women was created in 2013, asking that women be allowed to be part of the religion’s all-male lay priesthood. The group organized marches during Mormon conference weekends to bring attention to their cause, drawing rebukes from church leaders.
Church officials say their doctrine states men and women are equal but say only men are allowed in the lay priesthood because the religion follows the “pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination.”
The group’s original leader, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated by the church in 2014 for apostasy, defined as repeated and public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings.
Robertson said it’s difficult to draw direct correlation between the recent changes and the group’s work, but she thinks they’ve made an impact.
“What Ordain Women has done with the big ask for priesthood is make it possible for the church to consider other alternatives,” Robertson said. “They are making concessions in other arenas.”