Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Aside from polygamy, which was a most hellish imposition on women, Joseph Smith and the 19th Century Church had a mixed record of advancing equality for women in ways far ahead of their times. When Joseph Smith advocated for the Relief Society (although it was primarily set up to combat the gossip of polygamy) it was the first women’s organization in America that had its own leadership made up of women. That same organization was reformed later as a pro-polygamy and Victorian retrenchment system by Brigham Young under the hand of Eliza R. Snow, although the earlier incarnation had more autonomy. They were also given more latitude with different spiritual gifts, such as healing, and the laying on of hands. They had their own budget, publications, and point-of-view.
This lasted late into the 20th Century before it became a correlated appendage of the Twelve and lost of all its autonomy. The Relief Society was a radical institution for its day in the advocacy on the behalf of women, both in the ability to organize, and with respect to its advocacy for suffrage, among the first states in the nation to do so. In the early 20th Century, LDS women held hands to stand up for suffrage for women, helping to pass the 19th amendment. They also advocated for the 20th amendment . . . Prohibition . . . which was also seen as a woman’s issue for the time due the pernicious evils of alcoholism and what it did to the family. Prohibition was primarily a case of women fighting against a man’s need for a drink, even though we know now that the crusade to end alcohol was a miserable failure.
Any camaraderie with women’s groups began to fall apart, however, in the 1960’s. Women in the LDS Church now were exposed to retrenchment in modeling the wife’s role, partly in response to its then prohibition on polygamy, which was a radical departure from the American family. The Church was desperate to be seen as a traditional role maker for American women, an about-face that became the paragon of womanly homemaking virtue as well as a reversal for their earlier entrenchment in polygamy. Thus, when women began to fight for reproduction rights and contraception in the 1960s, the Church and its women groups stood against such things. When women began taking up careers outside of the home, the Church balked. Men were to be the providers; women were to stay in the home and raise the children. Contraception and oral sex were evil and prohibited God from sending down more spiritual children to the Earth. Abortion was worse. There was very little value for a woman who was single, by her own choice or not, even though there was the promise of a karmic fix for the next life not afforded a single man. Infertility was another horror born by women in the Church.
Fitting people into molds that don’t work is one of the challenges that causes women to examine their worth in the Church. Then they examine the history. Then they leave. Unless you can successfully transition into the roles set up for you, people tend to either suffer in depressions and self-doubt, or they bolt. And this can be devastating for those that also subscribe to the Mormon binary.
All this time in the LDS Church, women have not held the Priesthood. But for most, and for most of Church history, they didn’t seem to have wanted it or asked for it. That’s still true for most LDS women today. Like many clergy, priesthood is seen man’s role in God’s kingdom, no matter the denomination. Whether right or wrong, most women in the Church are traditionalists in this manner and uphold the practice of a male priesthood.
This only began to shift carefully in the 1970’s with the ascension of the Equal Rights Amendment movement, which would sort of be a Constitutional mirror to the 14th amendment but focused on gender. The LDS Church opposed the ERA. They politicked, using LDS women in the Relief Society and other auxiliaries to campaign against it. Donations were solicited. PSA’s were produced . . . to keep the tide from turning and to keep the ERA grounded. While the effort was ultimately successful, it began the push to marginalize liberal-oriented LDS members in a way not seen before. Here was a Church, supposedly politically-neutral, taking a stance on an issue and campaigning on behalf of a moral issue. Some could argue all issues are moral, thus the distinction is blurry. The LDS Church became at this point, a bastion of social conservatism and would begin building partnerships with other Christian social conservative movements. That’s not mentioned to marginalize this point of view, but simply to point out that the spoken neutrality of the Church on political issues was violated with this effort, and many some women felt bruised by the battle.
Now some thirty-odd years later, new efforts have been made to create more gender equality in the LDS Church. The Ordain Women movement has been at the forefront. This group explicitly campaigns for priesthood ordination of women, ostensibly because ordination gives one access to leadership in the Church, and the Church is run by men with some token female auxiliaries that appear to be elevated for optics (or at least this is the charge). On the principle of leadership, they have every right in the world to be concerned. And since LDS ordination equals authority at some level, then it should be understood why they would want ordination.
On the topic of priesthood, however, God makes it simple in Alma 13 and in D&C 84 that heavenly priesthood (the second priesthood) is independent of gender. God is no respecter of persons. God can ordain anyone to His order whenever He wants. Aside from the vocabulary instances of “Brethren,” and “priests,” there is no prohibition in Alma for priesthood to be gender-based. These semantics could easily be explained the same way Hebrew pronoun genders work where the masculine is used to cover both genders.
1 And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.
2 And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.
3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.
5 Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared—
6 And thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest—
7 This high priesthood being after the order of his Son, which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things—
8 Now they were ordained after this manner—being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end—
9 Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth. And thus it is. Amen.
But if earthly churches equate priesthood with ordination, they will be increasingly bombarded with pressures to change, particularly with the current zeitgeist of #meetoo and events of ecclesiastical abuse coming more into the light through leaks and confessions, even as high as MTC mission presidents. The moment of female push-back against patriarchal abuse in the Church is about to hit its stride, including trying to reboot the ERA.
When one looks back at how blacks received ordination, the widely accepted if somewhat-flawed theory of social pressure is often used as a harbinger for more change. Furthermore, earlier concepts of common consent could be used as an agent of change without unnecessarily tipping the doctrine of authority and keys totally upside down. There’s enough wiggle room for advocacy.
The early Church was certainly more open to increasing female participation in leadership, ordinances, and power. Early women were allowed their own separate and uncorrelated organization, the ability to give healing blessings, mother’s blessings, and were also invited into the Anointed Quorum. The LDS endowment ceremony seems to implicate female priestess-hood in those ordinances, commensurate with the male ordinances. There seems to be a hint of greater equality at least in the future or in the afterlife. But that hint seems very slow to progress as it battles non-doctrinal cultural traditions that many LDS institutionalists hold so dear.
From what we can see women have a few options:
Remain patient for LDS Church changes to women’s issues
Activate and agitate for change (Ordain Women) (ProtectLDSChildren)
Develop a relationship with the Heavens where power is obtained through righteousness regardless of your preferred institution
Some combination of the above
In understanding the full measure of the gospel of Jesus Christ, perhaps a special emphasis should be placed on number three. Social change is secular window dressing if you cannot connect spiritually to the underlying foundation. It simply moves the power structure . . . it does not necessarily end abuses of power but can shift who does the abusing. Option three seems the main approach to come out from the Mormon binary, focusing more on the heavenly endowment of power. Agitating for change or not is secondary to that approach and in the end, while useful, is probably unnecessary in matters of faith, at least with respect to God’s ability to endow one with power. It can however, within institutional Mormonism, help add a needed check and balance to the power equation, but only if married with the spiritual side of the equation.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relief_Society  https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V37N03_75.pdf  https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/2018/02/receiving-losing-and-winning-back-the-vote-the-story-of-utah-womens-suffrage/  http://prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/how-prohibition-changed-american-culture/womens-rights/  Chen, Chiung Hwang (20 February 2014). "Diverse Yet Hegemonic: Expressions of Motherhood in "I'm a Mormon" Ads". Journal of Media and Religion. 13 (1): 31–47  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Equal_Rights_Amendment_and_Utah  Anson Shupe and John Heinerman Review of Religious Research Vol. 27, No. 2 (Dec., 1985), pp. 146-157  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordain_Women  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/alma/13?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/84?lang=eng  https://kutv.com/news/local/former-mtc-president-says-church-leaders-knew-of-sexual-indiscretions-with-missionaries  https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/nation-world/story/2019-12-06/push-to-ratify-era-launched-in-utah-eyed-in-other-states  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual/section-26-the-law-of-common-consent?lang=eng  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anointed_Quorum  https://protectldschildren.org/