Midwest Pilgrims, Reflections on Kirtland Retreat, Sept 13-15, 1991 (slightly edited)
Probably the most difficult aspect of Mormonism for the religious world at large is its anthropomorphism of deity—that is, Latter-day Saints believe that human beings and God are of the same species; the difference between mortals and deity is essentially one of degree. In modern Christian feminist writing, care is taken to use neutral or gender-inclusive language when referring to deity; to them, God is neither male nor female, but rather includes and transcends all gender classifications. Much of the justification for this point of view is based on thoughtful analysis of the use of feminine images and metaphors in the Bible. More to the point, virtually all the very well-thought-out rationales arguing for inclusive language from the Christian feminists are even better used for LDS feminists in their quest to have the Mother In Heaven doctrine become a theologically viable part of belief and practice.
Despite its internally logical position vis-à-vis humanity and deity, Mormonism is plagued by its own insidious efforts to deny full equality to women. This is evident not only by the proliferation among Mormons of popular folklore-like "explanations" which erroneously promote culturally-imposed stereotypes about men and women, but also by its exclusion of women from ordination to priesthood. This last can be shown as never having been a revealed doctrine, but simply an unquestioned continuation of millennia-old sexist tradition. However, lack of priesthood ordination is really a secondary effect when one considers what Mormonism has done to its own concept of Mother in Heaven. Not only is the Mother not worshiped, She is not discussed, not acknowledged in any way as being relevant in any sense. Most Mormons don't pray to Her, know Her name, believe that revelation can come from Her or about Her. It is not even known if there is one of Her or more than one of Her.
God the Mother's lot is even grimmer than the usual fare served to LDS women which constrains their freedom to choose their roles and which straitjackets their possibilities for service by imposing artificial constraints based on gender. Her lot is one where God the Father must protect Her name from being abused; She, although a goddess, cannot take what mortals can dish up in terms of disrespect without male protection. She is not allowed to talk to her children; they are not allowed to talk to her. She occupies herself with unending 1950s American middle-class motherhood roles—she's off in the celestial incubator having babies, rearing children, and is too busy with the spirit children to interact in any way with those children who have already moved into the test phase of their existence (mortality). Of all the ironies, this must be the greatest: LDS women are constantly told that women are nurturers by nature, but that our Heavenly Mother—ostensibly what all worthy LDS women are ultimately destined to become—our Mother is not on the scene to provide nurturing to her mortal children. “Maternal deism” best describes her relationship to us: she co-created us, but is too busy to be involved with her children who are undergoing the ordeal of mortality on earth.
According to the above scenario, the lot of nurturing mortal children is the exclusive venue of the Father. While there is no question that He does nurture us, it is obvious from both our rhetoric and practice (and that of the larger culture) that this particular lesson has not been divined by Mormonism in general—namely, that males can naturally nurture, too, and that that is a principal role of a god. Why is this not translated into our mortal lives and experiences so that men are expected to nurture and care for their children as well as mothers?
Part of the problem lies in the assumption, borrowed from traditional Judeo-Christian theology, that it is somehow solely a man's role to be the provider of food and temporal shelter. God's words to Adam and Eve as they were being driven from the Garden of Eden have nearly always been taken as prescriptive (that is, as a reflection of God's will with respect to gender roles) rather than descriptive of an unequally-yoked, dominant-submissive, telestial lifestyle. Never mind that Eve worked alongside Adam for their sustenance (Moses 5:1, also v. 3). Never mind that the picture of the family that the church insists is the ideal didn't have the possibility of even existing except among the well-to-do prior to the mid-20th century, and even now exists only in wealthy pockets of first-world industrial countries. The fact is that women work, have worked, and have been and are and will be providers for their families alongside men, just as they have been since the time of Eve.
Finally, the "ideal" LDS family consists of a father, mother, and children. But our daily relationship with deity is strictly that of a father and his children. No mother. How is it that we have been so accepting of this blatant imbalance?
There is a faint glimmer of hope dawning on the horizon: questions about Heavenly Mother are being officially acknowledged for the first time. The answers (or, rather, non-answers) at this time are not satisfying, but the fact that those in authority have recognized the existence of these issues gives cause for cautious rejoicing. Full emancipation for both women and men will not come about until Mormonism fully embraces the image of both a loving Father and Mother being fully involved with their mortal offspring. The ramifications of this realization will have a far-reaching impact on the everyday lives of men and women in and out of the church. Isn't it time that the church return to its role as a leader in the cause of individual liberty and a champion of the true relationship between deity and humankind? One can only hope so.
(Update, some 22+ years later: Pretty much nothing has changed. NB: I incorporated much of the content of this essay into a much larger work, "Issues in Contemporary Mormon Feminism," 1995.)