Q&A with Women at Church author Neylan McBaine August 21 2014
Q: Two years ago you gave a presentation at the FairMormon conference on gender cooperation in the Church, both successes and failures. What motivated you to discuss the things you did with that audience, and what was the response to your presentation?
I wrestled for a long time with what to say in that presentation. My assignment was simply to talk about women, and since I was best known at that time for founding the Mormon Women Project, I think it was assumed that I would talk about my experience with the project or oral history work or something tame like that. I describe in Women at Church the moment that ultimately gave me the direction for the paper: it was the moment I realized we too often deny that faithful Mormon women have doubts and questions and real pain about gendered practices in the Church. The pain some women feel comes, I believe, from a disconnect between the glorious truths of our doctrine contrasted with the way our practices can sometimes set women on the sidelines. So, I decided to tackle that disconnect, which wasn’t exactly a tame thing to do but I felt that my professional experience in marketing gave me some of the tools I needed to look at cultural and sociological patterns with a trained eye.
I was so nervous to give the talk! I figured I had nothing to lose, but I knew I would be saying some hard things to an audience who I wasn’t sure would take them in the spirit in which they were meant. And some people didn’t get the spirit I intended; questions from the audience at the end of my talk asked how dare I criticize the Church, etc. Later, commentators tore apart every argument I made, questioned my sources, questioned my motives. But in general, the response was overwhelmingly positive in the sense that 50,000 people have read the talk, and I think it opened a door to fresh conversation. It was heartbreaking too in that people started writing to me about why the talk meant so much to them, and most of the emails were written from a place of pain.
Q: A lot has happened since then to increase the visibility of women and women's issues in the Church, from the age change for sister missionaries to Ordain Women. Why this book, and why now?
It’s hard to imagine now, just a short two years later, how new the ideas in the FairMormon talk were to many people. Two years ago, those of us engaged in the women’s conversations were still just trying to get much of the main church membership to consider the issue seriously. Hence “The Pain is Real” section of the talk. But the October 2012 announcement that girls could go on missions at 19 instead of 21 threw urgent focus on how well we are preparing our girls and women to be leaders in the global church and what we could be doing better. It was truly one of the best things that could have happened to draw institutional focus on how the female church experience is different from men’s.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ordain Women’s presence has also underscored for the mainstream church membership the need for discussion about women’s church experiences. Although taking a very particular approach, Ordain Women at its best moments was concerned about establishing parity in the experiences men and women have at church, in the way men and women feel valued and used, and in the practical contributions they each make to keep the community running. Even though I appreciated their drawing more attention to the conversations about women in the Church, I continued to feel that aligning our practices better with our existing doctrine was the most pressing need.
And so the book. My gratitude goes to Kofford Books for planting the idea of a book in my mind and giving me the confidence to pursue it. I was still unsure about doing it until I went to a work conference in New York last December. The conference was put on by Q Ideas, sort of a TED Talks for the Christian evangelical community, and the theme of this conference was gospel-focused entrepreneurship. Even though I was sent to the conference with an eye for professional projects, I felt a growing conviction while I was there that I needed to use some of the principles I was learning from the presenters to write the book. I wrote the book’s whole outline on the plane on the way home, and I started writing directly after Christmas.
Thanks to my supportive husband, I wrote the book on Saturdays when he was skiing with my kids, and on weeknights from 9-11pm. I submitted the book in June, two weeks before Kate Kelly was informed of her disciplinary council. I feel sure there was a divine hand in the timing of this publication. I hope that it is the Lord’s way of saying, “Look, there’s another way, another conversation to be had.” I hope it can fill a hole that exists in some people’s hearts after this summer’s excommunication, or open the hearts of those who thought conversations about women at church were shut down.
Q: Although you present a number of feminist ideas, achievements, and even examples of feminist activism in a positive light in the book, you never actually use the words 'feminist' or 'feminism.' Why is that?
The short answer is that I wanted to show that there is another way to talk about women’s experiences at church without resorting to labels that bring with them preconceived biases. As much as I respect the self-named Mormon Feminist community, understanding the Church’s history on women’s issues in the 20th century and the cultural perceptions of the mainstream member suggested to me that the only way to gain broad-based interest in and loyalty to the concepts was to not use the feminist label at all.
One of the reasons the “feminist” label can be problematic is because it really has two meanings. On the one hand, it simply identifies the belief that women should be able to magnify their potentials by developing their talents and contributing to their communities in recognizable, appreciated and safe ways. When members of the Church say they are feminists because they are Mormon or that all Mormons are feminists, this is typically the definition that accurately supports their claim. I agree that it would be an ultimate hypocrisy for someone who expresses faith in Heavenly Parents and the individual worth of souls not to claim this definition.
But on the other hand, the “ist” on the end of the word suggests that being “a feminist” is something one awakens to through a process of recognizing unjustness and ugliness in the world, necessitating a separation and even a perceived elevation from those who have not themselves identified ugliness in practices or behaviors. In this sense, “feminist” is an action word: it brings to mind someone who is actively protesting against what others may consider to be normative, and so it can seem threatening to those who haven’t had a similar awakening. It can be perceived to be a distancing word, a designation of a fighter, a title for someone who sets herself apart because she knows better. In addition, the “ist” brings to mind other descriptors like “racist” and “sexist” and “misogynist” and other words that describe behavior that is contrary to desired behavior. The word fails to inspire the idea that magnifying women’s potential is the norm, not the exception, and it is instead rhetorically categorized with words that condemn non-normative behavior.
Q: In the book you argue that there's a lot we can do, particularly at the local level, to improve and increase gender cooperation and women's participation without pushing for major or radical changes from central Church leaders. Indeed, you suggest that these improvements will help us to better live up to what we already have. On what basis do you argue that existing Church policies demand greater effort at gender cooperation from us?
One of the great delights in writing this book was the periodic feeling that institutional Church advancements needed to slow down or else my book was going to be dreadfully out of date when it came out! The addition of the female general officers’ portraits in the Conference Center and in the Ensign centerfold, the creation of the sister training leader position, Elder Oaks’ talk on priesthood at general conference all confirmed for me one of my central theses: that in some ways, general church leadership is more advanced than local congregations in seeing, hearing and including women, and that we can do a better job of taking our lead from them. How many stake offices have added the pictures of the Stake Relief Society presidency? How many female stake officers sit on the stand during stake conferences, following the practice of having female general officers on the stand for every session of general conference? Not many. I also delighted in studying Elder Ballard’s book, Counseling with our Councils, which explicitly shares stories of women being improperly used at local levels, and pleads with members to use women more wisely. There is obviously a long way to go to, both on the local and general levels, but I see encouraging efforts.
But here’s the real evidence: If our leaders wanted us to practice a true separation of men and women, and not true cooperation between the genders, they could make us do it. They didn’t have to make it easier for girls to serve missions. They don’t have to encourage girls to get all the education they can. They don’t have to instruct husbands and wives to make choices that are right for them and their circumstances. The Proclamation on the Family could be way more cut and dry than it is. We could still be reading articles in the Ensign about the patriarchal order of the home. But we’re not. We are in the process of taking the best that the world has to offer women and, I believe, enhancing it with overlaid truths about what it means to be uniquely female and uniquely male. And I don’t believe our leaders want us waiting around to have every little policy outlined in the Handbook. We’re agents unto ourselves. We’re a do-it-yourself church; if we members don’t do it, it likely doesn’t get done.
Q: What is a specific example of something that can be improved in our wards and stakes to increase women's participation that does not require doctrinal or major procedural changes from Salt Lake?
Well, there are lots and lots of examples in the book! And I hope people share their own examples at the book’s website, womenatchurch.com, or by using the hashtag #womenatchurch. The idea of the site is to create a crowdsourced repository of ideas that can be shared across local congregations.
But to whet your appetite before you read the book. . . . One of my favorite ideas addresses the need for Young Women to be better prepared to teach the gospel and be leaders before they serve missions. I learned about a number of stakes that have implemented programs whereby the Young Women serve as visiting teachers with Relief Society sisters. In some stakes, the Young Women visit teach with their mothers; in others, the girls are assigned adult companions just the way the boys are assigned adult companions. The ideas of how to better incorporate girls into the Relief Society program and into leadership roles start to flow when we look at how the Young Women and Young Men organizations might be structured with more parity in the experiences, opportunities and budgets of each group. I could go on and on . . .
Q: Who, then, is the target audience for the book---women, or local male Church leaders?
The book is about a community—our community—and the way we interact with each other. It’s a call to change some cultural practices that don’t live up to our doctrine. And the way to change culture is to create new culture. The culture of a ward or stake is the result of all of the people in that area working together, not just men and not just leaders. This is not just about how men treat women; I have a lengthy and impassioned section in the book about how women treat women and how women treat men. So the answer is that, no matter what someone’s current calling is at church and regardless of gender, this book is for everyone.
Q: What is the Mormon Women Project, and how has your work there influenced the writing of this book?
The Mormon Women Project is a continuously expanding digital library of interviews with LDS women from around the world. We’re a non-profit 501(c)3 and the interviews are all accessible to the general public at www.mormonwomen.com. I launched the MWP in January 2010 with 18 interviews of my own, and now we’ve published almost 300 interviews from 22 countries. All of the proceeds from this book go to supporting the Mormon Women Project.
I didn’t set out to be an oral historian; I wanted to create motivational profiles of women I admired and who I thought might help other Mormon women craft their own identities as mothers, daughters, professionals, students, humanitarian workers, survivors, whatever. But in the process I’ve gained unprecedented access into the lives of hundreds of our women. It is a tremendous blessing in my life to do these interviews, and each is a privilege and a faith-promoting call to me personally to endure to the end. More than the insights I’ve gained into Mormon women, I’ve gained a tremendous love for them. The gospel produces absolutely remarkable women.
Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact is available August 28th in paperback and e-book. It can be pre-ordered here.