EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview is part of a series, “Sisters Speaking Out,” that features Mormon women speaking out on social and political issues. The opinions expressed here represent the speaker, and do not imply endorsement by the Mormon Women Project or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We ask that all readers maintain respect for the views of the interview subject.
On March 17, 2013, Kate Kelly launched OrdainWomen.org. Her efforts to draw attention to the possibility of female ordination have drawn both impassioned praise and criticism, but Kate feels that the example of her parents, the experience of her mission, and her training in human rights law has made female ordination a flag she’s prepared to carry.
How did your family and childhood experiences influence who you are today?
My mom in many ways is a pioneer. She was one of six women in her graduating class in law school, she was a Mormon woman who worked outside of the home and created her own career. She’s also a believing woman. She was a great role model for me.
Both my parents worked. My mom was an attorney and my dad was a newspaper publisher, and so they took turns doing the housework, shuffling us around, picking us up from school or when we were sick. My dad called himself the “Laundry King” and would do the laundry. They divided tasks, but each took a fair load. There were no “women do this” barriers or limits.
I’m grew up in Hood River, Oregon, where there were only a couple thousand people. We had a tiny town library, and in middle school I checked out “The Feminine Mystique.” It had old yellowed pages like a vintage copy. A lot of the suffrage literature spoke to me. I was interested in ideas, but I also cared about clothes and boys like most other middle school girls in the United States.
I don’t have any children, but my husband and I are complete equals in our home. We share (and neglect) household tasks equally. He worked to put me through law school and I’m now working while he’s doing his Ph.D. We make decisions together. We collaborate. It’s the most joyous collaboration of my life.
My husband is a miraculous feminist. He comes from a traditional Mormon family from Idaho, and he somehow emerged from that a strong feminist. For him, gender equality is intuitive. In that way, he’s similar to my dad.
Does your family share your political views?
My parents aren’t liberal at all. They’re die-hard Republicans and the farthest thing from radical that I can imagine.
I was definitely socialized to be a Republican, though. My grandfather was a state senator from North Dakota, and we had the elephant mugs lining our house from every election year. I went to BYU, and in so many ways was socialized to be socially conservative. But it was actually on my mission when I started interacting with a wide variety of people that I questioned whether I really bought in to all the conservative agenda. It’s not like a mission is a political time, but in some ways it was a political awakening for me just to know that all people should be treated equal, and should have equal access to the same things. I had a late political awakening for most people, but that was the start of it.
Were you as outspoken and outgoing as a child as you are now?
I was modeled from a young age that it was okay to be opinionated, and I certainly was. I also loved creating a magical space where my friends and I could be creative together, whether that was making costumes and going to a dance, or creating a fake news channel.
What was your fake news channel called?
Channel 5 News. We acted out the news stories (bank robbers, celebrities, athletes) and rotated as the anchors. We also made fake commercials for silly products like a trampoline weight-loss program.
How did you become so passionate about women’s issues and activism?
Growing up, a lot of the things were modeled for me in the home. My parents shared household duties and parenting equally. They were both breadwinners, and when that was pitted against what I was learning in church about what my role would be as a woman, there was a lot of dissonance. That started picking up later in my teens as I started thinking about what I wanted to be—a lawyer.
Since I didn’t have any Mormon friends in school in Oregon, when I went to BYU it was nice to be in an atmosphere with tons of enthusiastic Mormon kids. At the same time, I started feeling more and more pressure to adhere to strictly enforced gender roles, and I started realizing that those gender roles didn’t describe me and who I wanted to become.
A pivotal experience for me was when I took the “Teachings of the Living Prophets” class taught by Lloyd Newell, the voice of “Music and the Spoken Word.” He assigned a research paper on any topic that was important to us and what the prophets taught about it. I chose working outside the home because that was important to me and something I wanted to do. I remember reading talk after talk after talk, and all the words of the prophets on this subject—it was the middle of the night, the paper was due the next day, and I’m sitting on some shabby couch in some slum apartment in Provo, and I just broke down. I clearly remember sobbing on the couch and saying to my friend, “What am I going to do?” because I realized my dreams were incompatible with these things I was reading—that I was suppose to stay at home and have kids. I didn’t see any other way around it, there was no other option. That’s when it started to break down for me.
I served a mission in Barcelona, Spain, and this is where the priesthood comes in. I felt like there were a lot of jobs that sister missionaries would have been very good at. They would have been very capable and effective interviewing investigators to be baptized, baptizing them, or confirming them—any of the ritual or ordinance responsibilities that we weren’t allowed to participate in. Especially in Spain, a lot of congregations just don’t have many men, maybe one or two Melchizedek Priesthood holders in a given congregation, and those unfilled priesthood roles could have easily be filled by capable, faithful women. There was a lot of imbalance, and that’s when I started factoring in priesthood as being the root of all these gender inequalities.
After my mission, I finished my studies at BYU and got married in the Salt Lake City Temple. When I graduated from law school, I began working in human rights litigation. I work with some amazingly courageous people around the word, such as women in Zimbabwe who are routinely arrested, beaten and tortured for asking for simple concessions and to be treated equally, and it gave me a lot of pause. I began to wonder, I’m doing all this work around the world but what am I doing for my own community? It was one of those moments—you know that quote, “I always thought someone should do something about this, and then I realized I am somebody”? Well, for me, I wished someone would do something about women and the priesthood. I thought someone has got to start this conversation and no one seems to be doing it, so I’m going to do it. I am somebody.
What kind of responses did you get after OrdainWomen.org launched?
I wasn’t really out of the closet about ordination, so I was unclear how people would respond. My family has been extremely supportive. My mom submitted a profile; and my sister, an orthodox Mormon who I never thought would have, submitted a profile. My dad also just put up a profile; he’s a former bishop, stake high council member, also very orthodox. I think the hardest responses for me have been from so-called Mormon feminists who strongly disagree with ordination or are upset with what we’re doing. I didn’t expect pushback from a population that already publicly called themselves feminists.
I understand it’s a difficult issue to grapple with—asking for change means the status quo is insufficient and I think that’s a hard place for a lot of people to go. I totally understand the social and emotional cost, but I disagree that things are just fine the way they are.
The Sunday the website launched, I vacillated between enthusiasm and abject fear. I was nervous about how it would be received, not just by the church, but by my family and people in my neighborhood. But going to church that Sunday, March 17th, when we launched the Ordain Women website, was one of the most joyful Sundays I’ve had since my mission—I was able to be my authentic self. I think a lot of that was because that dissonance was resolved, not in the church or organizational structure, but for me personally. I was able to say publicly what I felt. For me the victory is just starting this conversation. Whether or not the church changes, we’ll see, I have a lot of faith it will change, but opening up in this public way was a very transformative experience for me.
How would you describe your relationship to the institutional church?
I think women should be ordained, but that doesn’t mean the spiritual benefits of being part of the body of the church don’t outweigh some of the challenges. That’s not to say those challenges aren’t real and painful and difficult at times, but as a lawyer I imagine the scales of justice, and the benefits of my church membership outweigh those other challenges.
There’s this amazing song sung by Paul Robeson, a civil rights leader and musician who, at the height of the civil rights era, witnessed horrible racism. America was turning the hoses on civil rights activists and firing rubber bullets at them. America was a difficult place to be, but he sung this song called “The House I Live In,” and it basically says, what is America to me? It’s the house I live in, it’s the people I love, it’s the men who made this country a democracy—he describes all these things; and to me that’s what Mormonism is. It’s the house I live in, it’s how I was raised, it’s my marriage, it’s my paradigm, it’s my family. So, no, I’ve never considered leaving. Just because I want the house to have a slight remodel or be more inclusive or larger, doesn’t make it any less of my house.
For Mormon women who don’t agree with your thoughts on ordination, what would you say?
I think that this movement is much bigger than ordination. It’s about creating a space where there is dialogue about controversial issues. I think that’s new territory for Mormons in general. I can totally sympathize with people who might find this a very threatening approach, but I think the tone of the website and campaign has been one of absolute respect and calmness because we are insiders. We are invested. We aren’t interested in diatribes against the church. Honestly, I don’t begrudge anyone who disagrees with me. This is a project of opening up a dialogue. And the dialogue isn’t just one person speaking or just one side speaking. All I want is for people to open up their imagination and think about what it would be like if a woman was a bishop, if women were integrated on the stand at General Conference, if women were integrated into all of the decision making? What would that look like? How would we act and feel?
I feel like Mormonism is a big tent. We are racially, politically, demographically diverse. We are a broad group and it can encompass so much more than the traditional views that are often conveyed. That’s what we’re trying to open up with Ordain Women—we’re a broad, wide group ranging from the Relief Society president to the radical, and opening up that space is really important to me.
What is a key message you hope your work is delivering?
I want women to know that they are valuable, but not from someone telling them. I want them to feel and see it. Images are very important to me, and when I look on the stand, I want to see women. When I hear people talk, I want to hear women. Functionally, there is no person that can tell me I am equal. I know I am equal, I know I am a daughter of God, I know he loves me … I feel that when I pray and when I go to the temple—I just think that needs to be reflected in the institution, in the everyday practice of the gospel I love. That’s why I created Ordain Women. It is an endeavor in radical self-respect.
At A Glance
Location: Washington D.C.
Marital status: Married
Occupation: International human rights attorney
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, American University Washington College of Law
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “For the Beauty of the Earth”
On The Web: http://ordainwomen.org/project/my-name-is-kate/
Interview by Kathryn Peterson. Photos used with permission.