Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Girls Just Wanna Have FUN-damental Human Rights”

An hourlong teleconference with

Kate Kelly

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

1 PM to 2 PM EST

WATER spoke with Kate Kelly of Ordain Women on her recent excommunication from the Mormon church and her strong feminist activism. We thank Kate for her beautiful spirit and enriching presentation on the fight for equal rights for women in the Church of Latter Day Saints, as well as her advocacy for human rights in the world of religion. What follows are her opening presentation and notes on the discussion period. These are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Kate Kelly’s opened with her history in the Mormon Church. Her story is of a devout person: she was baptized at eight years old (a typical time for Mormons to be baptized), went to Brigham Young University in Utah, served a voluntary Mormon mission term in Barcelona, Spain, and got married at the iconic Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City to another returned missionary.

Yet her parents, both converts to the religion, did not have the same level of orthodoxy as those raised in the faith. Because of their influence, Kate said that she never thought that there was any problem with men and women being equal until she went to university; her parents operated with total parity. Brigham Young University was an exclusively Mormon environment and a culture shock, the first time Kate experienced the extremely rigid gender roles enforced in Mormon doctrine and culture. The roles are prescribed by a document called The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which specifically states that men are to provide for the material needs of the family and women are to exclusively rear children.

In the state of Utah itself, more than 60% of inhabitants are Mormon, and Kate believes there is a correlation between the number of Mormons and Utah’s social issues. The state has one of the largest wage gaps between men and women; is ranked in the top five for domestic violence and sexual assault every year; has low graduation rates from college for women; in 2013 Utah had a mere five woman serving as state senators. As state government officials are largely Mormon, patriarchy affects all women in the state.

After law school, Kate began to work with women around the world. As an attorney, she litigates human rights cases before regional human rights bodies against countries such as Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe. “They were inspiring, extremely incredible courageous people and it started me thinking: What is it that I’m doing in my most intimate community to stand up for myself and my loved ones?” Kate said. “I knew that somebody had to do something. I realized, I am somebody, so why not me?”

In 2013, Kate founded Ordain Women to get at the root cause of sexism in the Mormon church: men are ordained and women are not. Mormonism operates with a lay clergy, and all men and boys are ordained at the age of 12, meaning nearly seven million men are ordained. That leaves seven million women and girls who are not. {Editor’s note: This differs markedly from many other Christian denominations in which ordination is reserved to a few who provide ministerial leadership in the churches. }

As such, women are categorically excluded from all decision-making. They have no authority or autonomy in their auxiliaries. They are permitted to be leaders over other women and children, but even those roles are supervised by men. They cannot perform rituals of marriage or baptism; they are not even allowed to participate in the ritual blessing of their own babies when they are born.

“It’s very gender segregated in pretty much every way conceivable,” Kate said. “If women were to be ordained in the Mormon Church, it would be all women and all girls around the world and it would effect every single Mormon family on the face of the earth.”

While there is a long history of writing and talking about women ordination, Ordain Women was the first direct action on the subject. Mormonism does not have a tradition of robust activism for social issues, so the group was a new experience for the small number of men and women who formed its beginning.

Ordain Women’s first direct action was attempting to attend the male-only Priesthood Session at the semi-annual Mormon worldwide General Conference. Most watch the series of five sessions by satellite. At the Priesthood session, no women are permitted to enter the building, including female ushers and non-Mormon female reporters. More than 250 women and male allies gathered outside the Priesthood Session, got in line and individually asked to be admitted. Each one was denied entrance.

“This sounds very mild,” Kate said. “One reporter said incredulously, ‘That was it? The Mormon Internet essentially imploded over this?’ But it was huge in the world of Mormonism, and broke open wide a conversation that had never existed in this way before.”

The campaign’s website ( features hundreds of individual profiles and testimonials that Kate describes as “extremely faith based, touching and very personal.” The site was designed to “take control of our own narrative because we knew the church would try to treat us as outsiders,” she said. “We wanted to be proactive in claiming our insider status.” Ordain Women also organized an interfaith worldwide fast in 2013 called Equal in Faith, with Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon and other participants who fasted for gender justice within their faith traditions.

“Before we founded Ordain Women, you could literally count on one hand the Mormons who would publically affiliate or advocate for female ordination,” Kate said. “Now there are hundreds, even thousands of people openly advocating for it. This is an astronomical change.”

In Kate’s personal journey, three local leaders (all men) convicted Kate of apostasy in absentia in June 2014. Her first level of appeal in November was unsuccessful; she is now appealing to the Prophet and First Presidency of the church.

Even the excommunication process highlights the sexism in the institution – a man has to be excommunicated by a formal process of 15 people with a regional presidency presiding, while a woman can be dismissed by three local leaders.

Excommunication for a thought crime is rare; the most common are for murder, child abuse or serious harm inflicted on others.

Kate’s work as a human rights attorney gives her a different perspective on how activism and religion intertwine. “In the human rights world, religious people and organizations are often wholly discounted,” she said. “In some ways, the secular side of human rights is a religion in and of itself. But I think human rights and religion really need each other. I think both share a core belief in universality of the human family, the inherent dignity of all. Both in universal human rights documents and scripture, the worth of all people is reinforced. “

Yet religious institutions, Kate continued, have a tremendous impact on social policy worldwide, both for better and for worse. Religious teachings can promote bigotry and hatred and sexism, or in times like the civil rights movement in the U.S., many leaders were preachers and pastors who used religious language for good.

“There are a lot of countries in the world that, if not totally dictated, are extremely influenced by religious institutions,” Kate said. “It’s unrealistic to expect that women’s rights will be respected unless we see change within these faith traditions. I think full respect for human rights worldwide, and women’s rights in particular, correlates with a decrease in the influence of religious fundamentalism and ultimate acceptance within all major faith traditions…of basic human rights for all.”

And these changes, Kate concluded, come from within the traditions themselves, when men and women stand up and advocate for the dignity of all. As Kate puts it, “We believe what the Book of Mormon tell us: all are alike unto God.”


Discussion followed:

  1. The first question focused on what’s happening for the other women that are involved in Ordain Women. A caller commented that the way that the media has portrayed the movement, it appears that Kate has taken the brunt for the political activity. Have there been hints of other excommunications?

KK: Out of hundreds of people who have profiles on Ordain Women’s website, Kate is, and will be, she believes, the only one subjected to formal discipline. Excommunication is very rare; the last person excommunicated for a thought crime from the Mormon church was Margaret Toscano in 2000, after she advocated for women to hold the priesthood in her academic writing.

There are many people who have suffered informal discipline or social consequences – women who lost their jobs working for church-owned universities; people ostracized by their neighborhoods and faith communities. Many Mormons live in neighborhoods that are almost exclusively Mormon. “Imagine if all of your children’s teachers, your mailman, everyone you know is Mormon,” Kate said.

Her parents have been targeted in others ways; their temple recommends were revoked (this is what allows for temple attendance to special rituals, like marriages) and they were released from their callings in the church (her mother was a Relief Society teacher and her father was secretary of his High Priest Group).

One consequence of excommunication is that all religious ordinances are voided. According the Mormon Church, Kate is no longer baptized, no longer married to her husband and no longer able to go to heaven. “They literally think they have kicked me out of heaven,” she said.

  1. A second caller asked how Kate connects the line between her excommunication and Sonia Johnson’s [who founded Mormons for the ERA and was similarly expelled from church membership] in the 1970s.

KK: Their experiences were quite different, Kate said, because Mormons for the ERA never advocated to change the church. The Mormon push against the ERA was strong, but Johnson was an activist for the ERA. Ordain Women is seeking a revelation to radically change the church, whereas Mormons for the ERA was political.

Margaret Toscano [excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism] talked about the excommunication process as being “raped by Care Bears,” Kate said. “It’s euphemistically called a ‘Court of Love,’ but classic abusive language is used. They say ‘You’re making us do this to you. We’re doing this because we love you.’”

  1. One listener compared Kate’s words to nourishing bread. She wondered how Kate was doing in the face of excommunication, and imagined there were new streams of love and creativity and friendship springing up in her life, new ways of worship and sustenance on the journey.

KK: “One thing I’ve learned through this journey is that men do not control my happiness or my connection to God,” Kate said. “That’s something that’s very difficult for Mormon women to learn. When men tried to tell me that I don’t get to go to heaven because they disagree with something I said, I think that was revolutionary for me to say, ‘Nope! That’s not true. You don’t get to decide that.’”

Mormonism, she continued, has a rich doctrine of Heavenly Mother, one of the few Christian traditions that explicitly states God is both father and mother. While it’s one of the most unexplored pieces of theology, officially deemed “too sacred to discuss,” Kate cited exploration of her the relationship with the feminine Divine was powerful in a situation like this.

“There’s also something extremely transformative and powerful about acting with your body something that you believe in your heart, and no longer being afraid to tell the truth,” she said. That’s very difficult for Mormon women. We are extremely socialized to put all others above self. We are taught to put personal beliefs and opinions aside for the greater good. We’re extremely polite, extremely deferential. Even to stand in a line and politely ask to be admitted to a meeting is a revolutionary act in every way.”

  1. One participant wondered if Kate has come into contact with Muslim feminists who are also working to be accepted in their faith as leaders in her ecumenical work around the world.

KK: Kate cited Muslim feminists such as Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer in the DC area who participated in Equal in Faith and spoke about the rich feminist history in Islam, including one of the wives of the prophet Mohammed. In the Western Sahara, Kate said, Muslim women live a form of Islam that is more moderate: they actively participate in government, can get a divorce, and are highly literate. While Muslim women live in oppression in other countries, that isn’t always the case in certain areas of the world.

There’s also a Muslim group seeking to make prayer spaces, which are traditionally segregated with women in the back, gender neutral. See more about the movement at

  1. A person asked how non-Mormon people can be helpful in the Ordain Women movement without seeming anti-Mormon.

KK: Any criticism of the Mormon hierarchy is considered anti-Mormon, Kate responded. Mormons have been traditionally oppressed, forcibly driven west from their stronghold in Illinois to Utah. There is a discrimination complex that allows Mormons to say that any criticism is anti-Mormon. Kate suggested writing and Tweeting about the gender and race discrimination within the church. There will also be another Equal in Faith manifestation on March 8, 2015, with a fast and events all around the world.

“I think it’s important for us to feel solidarity with one another,” she said. “There was a vigil held for my excommunication, and Catholic women came to the vigil in solidarity with our struggle. A lot of productive conversations can be had with very diplomatic language. We have a lot to teach each other.”

  1. The final question was how Kate’s personal faith informs the importance of her work in human rights throughout the world, and how that human rights work also helps to shape her work for ordination.

KK: Kate highlighted her Mormon mission in Spain, and how mastery of Spanish opened up an entirely new world of people she could speak with.

“I got to learn how immigrants are treated in other countries, about poverty and all these different injustices on a personal level and to see them for the first time,” Kate said. “I came to the radicalization process through a very intimate perspective…because I was acting out how to be Christ-like in a very real, everyday way.”

These experiences have continued to inform Kate’s work with migrants, poor and disenfranchised people, women’s rights. She calls the work “an extension of my Christianity and testimony,” and ended with a favorite quote by Susan B. Anthony:

I pray every day, not by kneeling down but with my work.

Work and worship are one with me, and my prayer

is to bring women and men to equality.

“She saw her work as a prayer and that’s how I see my work, both in my professional life and with Ordain Women,” Kate said. “My prayer is to bring women and men into equality.”

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland

November 2014