Book Review: Women at Church by Neylan McBaine
Who this book is for: Local church leaders, specifically Bishops and Stake Presidents. Additionally, members who want to know more about the resurgence in discussions on gender roles within the church, and where they come from. Anyone interested in getting a brief introduction to Mormon Feminism
Note: I feel a bit uncomfortable writing this review for one reason: I am a male. I don’t understand the female experience in the church. I can sympathize, but I won’t truly understand it. So I’ll acknowledge from the outset that my views aren’t meant to be authoritative, or even representative of many women. So while I speak as someone who is sensitive to these issues, I also speak as someone with a certain amount of privilege who won’t truly understand the impact that those issues or this book might provide.
It’s hard to really pinpoint the recent resurgence in looking at women and the church. Depending on who you talk to, this current wave began back in 2013 with the official founding of the Ordain Women movement and the role social media played in galvanizing movements and Mormon discussions. To others, we might go back to around 2004-5, with the founding of Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, the Exponent II blog, and the emergence of the Bloggernacle. To some, we could go back to 1993, and the excommunication of the September Six (including Maxine Hanks, Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, who were strong proponents of women’s rights). Or earlier, back to the 1970’s, with the consolidation of the Relief Society into Correlation, the beginning of the Exponent II magazine, and the opposition from some to the Equal Rights Amendment. To others, we could go back to the role Mormon women played in the suffragist movement, allowing all women to vote. Or the role of women in polygamy. Or even the founding of the first Relief Society with Emma Smith as president back in 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Wherever you decide to look, women and the church have had a long (and sometimes complicated) relationship.
With that long relationship comes tensions, some of which seem to be born out of our cultural way of viewing the world as Mormons, especially the world in the context of the church. There is a tendency for us as a people to think that the way we see the world, through our particular Mormon lens, is the way all should see the world. This is easy regarding those outside of the faith – “They just haven’t received the light and knowledge that we in the faith have received.” But what about when that happens within the faith? How do Mormons, and especially Mormon women, come to terms with the fact that some Mormon women have vastly different religious experiences within the church different from each other? And how can we work together to overcome this?
The genius of Neylan’s book is that she takes many of these conversations that have been happening for a while in many different forms and mediums, and puts them in Mormon-ese. Not just language that orthodox Mormons would understand, but language that is comfortable to them. Language that speaks to them. But McBaine doesn’t shy away from some of the more uncomfortable issues, and that’s by design. By using language that speaks as insiders-speaking-to-insiders, she communicates some of the very real pain and hurt that is felt by some Mormon women, but also proposes solutions to inclusion and offering a more satisfying church experience in two separate sections.
From the outset, I can hear some responses to both McBaine’s book and the issue of women and the church in general. Tell me if these sound familiar:
- “I don’t feel unequal.”
- “I don’t have any problems at church.”
- “I don’t feel disrespected.”
- “I don’t understand why these women get so uppity.”
- “If they would just understand X or Y, they wouldn’t act this way.”
I think we’ve all heard these statements in response to some of the current gender issue discussions happening. As an experiment, I brought the book with me to church and a few other church-related meetings, mostly to get people’s impression of not only the book, but the issue at hand. The book caught everyone’s eye, and their first comment was “That’s not about *those* women, is it?” But secondly, I was surprised how much people wanted to talk about the issues, not because they knew their answer was right, but many people (in my little part of the world in Detroit) genuinely could not understand if there was discomfort among some women. Once I began describing some of the things McBaine discusses in the first part of her book (which discusses the “Why” behind many of the discussions happening regarding Women and the Church), the conversation softened, and people were very interested in the discussion.
I think the most powerful part of McBaine’s book is Part I. Without using too much hyperbole, I really think Part I of McBaine’s book should be required reading for anyone in an LDS Leadership calling. It’s uncomfortable. It’s meant to be that way. Not that it’s uncomfortable in an “I don’t like reading this” type of way, but it’s uncomfortable because she articulately lays out some of the driving forces behind the tensions in gender issues.
Part Two of the book, which discusses practical solutions to more female inclusion is just as good, though might not resonate with as many people. If one considers themselves a progressive Mormon, or a liberal Mormon, the suggestions that McBaine has found from various wards and stakes across the world might be refreshing. To someone a bit more orthodox, some of her suggestions and applications might seem borderline heretical. But McBaine makes a great statement that I wish more members would internalize:
“In the stories I’ve collected, it has occurred to me that for us as members and leaders, the last of the above questions is the most difficult for us to answer. This is not because we don’t trust the Church to deliver on the job to be done. It is more often than not because we hesitate to see the Church as a flexible, living organism that is built for the members. Instead we make the mistake of thinking that it is the members that are built for the Church. We lose sight of the Church as the support system, and, in President Lee’s words, we “mistake the scaffolding for the soul.” We think that because we have always done things a certain way, that it is the only way that a need can be met—when, in fact, individual members’ needs usually require some spiritual and organizational imagination to comprehend and address.”
In essence, her point is that there seems to be many different views on how the church “does things.” One example might be the approach to the Official Handbook, which seems to dictate many organizational, administrational, and a few ministerial methods within the church. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s take the handbook as the “official voice” on an issue. To some, if it is not explicitly outlined within the Handbook, we can’t do it. Permission is not given, because it’s not in the Handbook, and it’s a grey area (something we Mormons don’t do well with). But to others (and I think McBaine is in this camp), unless it is specifically prohibited within the Handbook, we should be viewing it as “fair game.”
A personal note – I visited with my parents yesterday, and we discussed the book. My mother, a proud woman who has overcome a lot in her life to become a very well-educated professional, said to me “Brandt, I don’t feel unequal, and you know that I won’t stand for any perceived inequality.” She seemed to feel defensive that someone would tell her “You are unequal, and your feelings are wrong.” She’s the type of woman who embodies a feminist, but doesn’t want to be called “that f-word. I’m not one of them.” As we talked about much of the examples and possible solutions in Neylan’s book, I noticed my mother approaching it from a different level. I noticed her getting behind Neylan, and saying “I think she’s absolutely right” when discussing the importance of equally recognizing some of the young women’s accomplishments with things like Personal Progress along the same level of recognition with Young Men and their Eagle Award. I saw her softening when we talked about the importance not only to the young women, but the symbolic appearance to the congregation of making sure we publicly recognize the advancement of Young Women within the Young Women’s program the same way we recognize the advancement of Young Men through the Priesthood program. Finally, I saw her mention that it seemed only fitting that the heads of women’s auxiliaries be referred to as “President Smith” like their male counterparts instead of “Sister Smith.”
In my mind, this is the essence of this book. It’s not going to change everything, nor does it want to be. But I think what Neylan does, and does at a much-needed time, is allow the discussion of the roles and experiences of women and the church to be presented in a non-threatening manner. I don’t mean this disparagingly, but I don’t think the most important part of her book is the content inside. While the content is good, the read is easy, and the stories applicable and diverse, I wonder if Neylan didn’t want her book to be taken as a “Mormon Women’s Bible.” Instead, I think the lasting effect of her book is going to be a door that is opened. A door that might be opened to a bishop or stake president viewing his councils much differently. A door that might be opened to the Young Women’s or Relief Society President who feels that they have no recourse in navigating the lay-leadership hierarchy of the church. Or perhaps, a door that might be opened to bigger and better things on the future.