Q&A with Voices for Equality Editors June 23 2015
Voices For Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Mormon Feminism
Edited by Gordon Shepherd, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and Gary Shepherd
Approx. 425 pages
Paperback $32.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-758-8)
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Q: What led the three of you to this project? How did it come together with so many authors?
Gary Shepherd: Lavina, of course, is a long-time Mormon feminist who has been at the forefront in challenging the LDS Church to re-examine traditional assumptions about a variety of issues and to become a more open, flexible, and tolerant organization. Gordon and Gary have written about processes of change in Mormonism and the LDS Church for over 30 years, and specifically predicted in their first co-authored book, A Kingdom Transformed (University of Utah Press, 1984), that women’s status would become a major issue in the church in the decades to come. When OW first began to stir publicity for its cause in March of 2013, Gordon and Gary saw an opportunity for first hand sociological observation of what promised to be a potent new expression of LDS women’s movement towards status equality with men. The three of us were well- acquainted from many years of overlapping scholarly involvements and agreed that a book that drew from a wide spectrum of Mormon scholars and activists on this subject could be an important stimulus for a larger, constructive discussion within LDS circles on the prospects for change. Lavina was especially well-connected with key people involved in both OW and Mormon feminism generally, and we were able to successfully tap into her network for authors who could address the various issues we thought were important.
Q: Who are the intended audiences for this book? What do you hope each get out of it?
Gary Shepherd: We hope the book will particularly have wide enough appeal to attract a general, lay LDS readership. Many LDS members know only what they read and see in media sources about Mormon feminist goals and their rationale, or what they hear in church from both leaders and ordinary gossip. At the same time, Mormon women tend to be uncommonly well-educated, especially younger generations, and their personal experience in contemporary secular society—in school, careers, organizations, and every other arena of social life—fosters increasingly taken-for-granted assumptions about their equality with men. When these assumptions are not institutionally applied within the LDS religious realm, it must cause some degree of dissonance and at least private musing about the causes, consequences, and possible resolutions of this significant discrepancy. So this is the first audience we hope will be reached, at least enough to provide an impetus for further personal reflection and conversation with family, friends, and colleagues.
Otherwise, there is enough of a scholarly approach taken in many chapters of the book to certainly appeal to Mormon intellectuals, academics, and scholars. For those among these categories who are themselves committed in various ways to advance gender equality in the Church, we think this book will help crystallize views and perhaps serve as a catalyst for more effective efforts to bring about change through writing, speaking, discussion, and assignment of the book as a text in Mormon studies courses.
Q: This book appears at a time when social media and podcasting have soared in popularity as perhaps the primary ways, especially among young people, to communicate about people, events, and ideas. How does an academic book like this fit into that crowd? Can it say and do things that these other forms of communication cannot?
Gary Shepherd: Yes, certainly. As you note, we have brought together a relative large and diverse set of authors—some activists, some scholars—in one place—this book—and have solicited and organized their diverse, expert, well-reviewed, written contributions around a set of pre-planned, coherent topical subjects. We don’t think you can easily get this kind of all-in-one-place coherent, quality education from popular social media sources.
Q: The title of your book, Voices for Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Mormon Feminism implies that in Ordain Women there is both an intimate connection but also possibly a significant divergence from prior iterations of Mormon feminism. Is this the case? And if so, how?
Gary Shepherd: Ordain Women is not exclusively a younger generation movement, but certainly many of the leaders are of a younger generation (e.g, 20-40 or so years of age), and many of the women (and men) who have posted OW Profiles on-line are also younger. These are the generations mentioned above who take-for-granted gender equality in a modern, secular world and yet experience its absence in the realm— religious and spiritual—that for many is most important to them. They are action oriented, more prone to speak directly to power, and are genuinely committed to bringing about the gender equality they see lacking in their church within their own lifetime. At the same time, OW would not even exist without the conceptual framework and organizational foundations established by second wave Mormon feminists in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s and the steps they took to challenge established patriarchal traditions through their persistent and persuasive writings and personal witness. And, in fact, several of the founding and continuing leaders of OW are older Mormon feminists who have never stopped working for change and are grateful to see that their earlier contributions are now being incorporated into this new, energetic, and concrete activist expression of hope for reform. This intimate connection you speak of between prior expressions of Mormon feminism and current OW activists is, in fact, one of the points strongly made in several chapters of Voices.
Q: In the preface to the book, Lavina writes that she considers this volume to be the third literary voice in an intensifying conversation about women in the LDS church, along with Sheri Dew's Women and Priesthood, and Neylan McBaine's Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact. Tell us more about this dynamic and how Voices for Equality makes its contribution.
Gary Shepherd: Simply that Dew’s position—although perhaps had it been given voice several decades ago would likely have been perceived as quite liberal for simply discussing issues of equality—currently occupies the most conservative end of the contemporary continuum. McBaine’s book occupies middle ground, advocating changes that give women more recognition and participation opportunities in worship and ecclesiastical affairs but not fundamentally moving LDS women into the same sphere of equality within the Church that they claim as their intrinsic right in the larger world. It is movement into this ultimate sphere that of course OW advocates. Our book, represented by a diverse set of authors, is not unanimous in its endorsement of OW strategies and goals or single-minded in its preoccupation with OW per se. But anyone who reads our book in its entirety with an open mind should at least be forced to re-examine prior assumptions and begin thinking more clearly and systematically about the values and changes that Mormon feminists are so earnestly and persuasively advocating.
Q: There are a variety of methodological approaches you and the various authors have taken in documenting and narrating the phenomenon that has been Ordain Women within the wider context of Mormon feminism. Tell us a little about these various approaches and how they contribute to our understanding of these events, people, and ideas.
Gary Shepherd: No issue of broad social scope can adequately be comprehended by a single method or point of view. There is always a historical, social, and cultural context within which every current concern is embedded. So we have solicited historians to identify and narrate the complex of interrelated events that generated both original Mormon feminism and subsequently OW. We have solicited sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to explore both past and present patterns of social interaction and cultural meaning that give shape and substance to Mormon feminism and OW and reveal the nature of conflict between these movements and the established institutional authority and traditions of the LDS church. Theologians have helped us to understand the rationale behind authoritative proclamations of belief, doctrine, and religious practice and how, within these proclamations, there is ground for change and reinterpretation. And, importantly, individuals who have made history by engaging with others in thought, hopeful prayer, organizational participation, and direct action are drawn upon to provide accounts of their own lived experience.
Q: How do you see Voices for Equality positioned within the wider universe of Mormon feminism and questions revolving around Mormon women? What might you hope to see in the future as far as scholarship on these subjects is concerned?
Gary Shepherd: Most of all we hope that Voices will prove to be a stimulus for both continued and more informed conversations among lay members and church leaders, as well as a stimulus for ongoing scholarly research building on cues and directions suggested by virtually all of the chapters in this book. The newest expression of Mormon feminism through the very public actions of OW is ripe for such further research and investigation as news stories in the national media, Mormon feminism in general, and OW in particular have become a big deal, with major articles regularly appearing in such outlets as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post and coverage by all the major TV networks. This coverage is deemed newsworthy because the LDS Church, given its significant international expansion and growing political and even economic influence, is deemed newsworthy. What journalists report on as current news becomes a roadmap for subsequent in-depth studies by scholars of the fresh issues that are uncovered. Perhaps our book will get some media coverage in this regard, or at least significant reviews, and thus bring suggested directions for new or supplementary research to the attention of a larger audience of scholars beyond regular MHA, Dialogue, and Sunstone contributors.
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