In the Sunday morning session of General Conference this weekend, President Eyring told the story of how he traveled to a “small city far away” to confer the sealing power on a man whose “hands showed the signs of a lifetime of tilling the soil for a meager living.” The man’s wife sat in the room, weeping, and when President Eyring asked her how she felt, “She looked up and then said timidly that she was happy but also sad. She said that she had so loved going to the temple with her husband but that now she felt that she should not go with him because God had chosen him for so glorious and sacred a trust. Then she said that her feeling of being inadequate to be his temple companion came because she could neither read nor write.” President Eyring reassured her and spoke to her about her spiritual gifts, and her great faith in the gospel.
What struck me about this exchange was not just the kindness President Eyring showed, or his ability to discern that this sister had received personal revelations which she held dear, but the fact that her husband’s new church responsibilities highlighted her own feelings of inadequacy. While I don’t know enough about this woman’s life experience to even begin to guess whether her church experiences or experiences in her culture of origin helped shape this feeling, the anecdote highlights the fact that women in the church can struggle with feeling less than their male counterparts. We see men on the stand every Sunday. Our boys pass the sacrament. Few women have the opportunity to work in church leadership. Our religious language is often gendered. There are so few female voices and role models and leaders for us to turn to as examples. As more women work closely with men in the workplace and work toward egalitarian relationships with their male partners, church may be one of the few places where women may feel limited by their gender. I’m not saying that every woman feels this way; many women feel that their membership in the church empowers them. I just want the church to be a place where every member can feel that she belongs.
But enough about me, let’s talk about McBaine’s important book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. First, I want to talk about something the book doesn’t do– in a time when the ordination of women has been a hot-button issue, Women at Church doesn’t doesn’t address female ordination. Instead it’s a primer for what leaders and everyday members can do to capitalize on the talents of women in the church. McBaine lays out the mission of the book in the opening sentence: “This book is predicated on a single belief: that there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women at church.” She continues, “I have written this book as an inducement toward greater empathy for those who feel unseen, unheard, and unused, and a strategic guide to improving our gender cooperation in local Church governance.”
If you’re a woman who has never felt marginalized at church and can’t understand what the fuss is all about, this is the book for you. In Part One of the Women at Church McBaine talks about the history of women in the LDS Church and also explores some of the reasons why women may struggle with their roles in the church, and why women who do struggle deserve empathy, not judgment.
If you’re a church leader who wants to make sure that members in your stewardship feel comfortable in their roles at church, this is the book for you. Part two of Women at Church looks at church practices and examines how we can improve those practices without doctrinal changes.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Women at Church is that McBaine draws from all of the best sources available to her. She has interviewed hundreds of women in her role as the founder of the Mormon Women Project, and she draws on interview, official church sources (including church handbooks), quotes from church leaders, personal experience, and experts in communication, business, and organizational behavior.
When I review a book, I underline passages I might want to quote in my review. When I’m constructing the review, I go back and look at the passages, pick a couple of my favorites, and quote them. However, as I sat down to write this review, I found that I had more than seventy bookmarks in a book that’s less than 200 pages long. While you might say that means that I was playing a little fast and loose with my bookmarks, I think it’s because the book has so much information that’s useful, as well as stories and anecdotes that either resonated with me and reflected my lived experience, or helped me gain empathy by presenting me with different experiences.
McBaine comes at her subject matter as one who is offering helpful suggestions to help the church better meet the needs of its members without changing doctrines or even official policies. She spends a significant amount of time pointing out things that the church does well in regard to gender roles. I especially liked the story about a shy primary president developed leadership skills she wouldn’t have had the chance to develop in her everyday life and those about how women in other parts of the world where gender roles are very clearly delineated often find that joining the church is revolutionary and empowering. But she also doesn’t shrink from pointing out places where our culture and traditions can be limiting, even if unintentionally (which I think was the case in the story President Eyring shared in General Conference). I wholeheartedly recommend Women at Church. Read it yourself, then give a copy to your mom, your husband, your bishop, your Relief Society president, and your best girlfriends.