A couple of people have brought this quote from President Hinckley to my attention over the last few days and I have been seriously pondering it. Especially interesting to me was how it could be contrasted with the interview he gave with David Random with ABC Australia news in 1997.
In both statements (on Mormon.org and interview with David Ransom), he says essentially the same thing "Women do not hold the priesthood because the Lord has put it that way. It is part of His program." However, one of the statements is much more definitive than the other. When asked by Ransom, if that could change, President Hinckley said that it could change but that it hasn't and won't because "there is no agitation for that."
My view is basically that in the quote published on Mormon.org, though he did not go onto state that the policy of women receiving the priesthood is subject to change, he could have. In a way, it does a disservice to the women of the church and those who care about equality for him to leave it like its a firm degree of God that women do not have the priesthood. In fact, there is no recorded revelation in the scriptures that says that only men are supposed to hold the priesthood. In my understanding of the doctrine, the scriptures are silent on that aspect of the priesthood.
Of course, him being prophet, he could have personally received a revelation saying that it was not God's will for women to hold the priesthood. Three problems though if that is the case: he did not ever clearly communicate this to the general membership of the church; he elsewhere mentioned that a revelation could be given that would change it (implying that a revelation did not set the policy in place originally); and any inspiration he had pertaining to women and the priesthood may have been applicable in that time but could be subject to change when revealed by the Lord that the time is right. For these reasons, I think its safe to say that the statement on Mormon.org is not authoritatively saying that it is God's will that women should not hold the priesthood. In any case, I highly doubt that he gave the matter serious attention and ever prayed to know if the current policy was God's will or not. I personally belief if he had asked, he would have received a very different answer (and the fact that he says a revelation could be received leads me to believe that he never did ask).
President Hinckley may not have been aware of the history of women and the priesthood. It would not surprise me that he hadn't read deeply into church history on that topic so he would not have known that Joseph Smith and many early Saints believed that women receive the priesthood (that is in the D. Michael Quinn chapter for quick reference).
It seems that the reasoning he is using in that statement follows like this: if women do not have the priesthood, then it must be because God revealed it to someone along the way that they are not supposed to. Because women do not have the priesthood, it must mean that God does not want them to." However, we both know how revelation works. People and prophets do not receive revelation by it coming out of the sky, but they must seek to know it. If no one ever received a revelation saying specifically that women cannot have the priesthood, then it has not been recorded and it is not contained within our scriptures. Many people speculate the reason women didn't receive the priesthood is due to cultural values of the time (though we have recorded in the Old and New Testaments instances of women as prophetesses and priestesses whether this was through the Melchizedek priesthood or not).
This is one of those cases where personal vs hierarchical revelation becomes tricky. What if Heavenly Father were to recognize that its important for a person's spiritual health to know specifically whether it is God's will for women to have the priesthood or not? Would HF reveal to a member of the church personally one way or the other? If He did, would that be different or the same as a person receiving revelation for the church or is it just for personal knowledge? Are there other examples of things that people can learn through the Spirit that may not be revealed to the leaders of the church but they can know for themselves?
I have my ideas but I want to hear yours.