What inspired you, Neylan McBaine, to write Women at Church?
Because I founded the Mormon Women Project almost five years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of LDS women through that effort. The MWP was founded as an attempt to highlight the beauty and variety of our female membership, in hopes that Mormon women would have a wider range of models to admire and follow. It’s been an immensely rewarding journey for me, and along the way, I started getting asked to speak and write about women in the Church. Inevitably, along with the inspiring stories I’ve heard and read over the past several years, I’ve encountered too the pain and sense of betrayal that some of our women face at church. I see the effort to make women more comfortable at Church to be consistent with my effort to highlight the diversity of our membership: it’s all an effort to widen our embrace of each other, inspire empathy, and emphasize the broad range of contributions we women make to our communities and to the Church.
The book itself wasn’t my idea; I credit Brad Kramer of Greg Kofford Books for asking me to write it. It took some courage and a lot of spiritual prompting to actually sit down and do it. I wrote the book in five months, but really I was writing it for years before that as I’ve been thinking about these matters.
What are some of the changes that the church has already put into place to help women at church? What are some that you hope to see implemented?
The emphasis of the book is on what we can do locally to see, hear and include women more thoroughly in our Sunday experiences. I believe that our relationship to our faith can be affected more by our local experiences than by what the institution overlays. That said, I do make a point in the book of saying that the general Church leadership has made some changes recently that we have yet to follow on the local level. For example, our general conference sessions have our female general officers sitting in the center of the rostrum for every session, regardless of whether or not they are speaking. This sends an important message to the membership as we see and recognize the women we are looking to for leadership. And yet we don’t do similar practices in our ward or stake conferences. Having members become more familiar with local female leaders would also be aided by having photos of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary presidencies in the stake or ward offices, similar to how the general female presidencies’ photos are featured in the Conference Center. These are small things, but they help us recognize those women who have stewardship of us and we could do better offering these visual cues on the ward and stake levels.
The purpose of the book is not necessarily to put out a list of changes that I want to see; it’s really more about starting conversations in local wards and stakes so that male and female leaders will think more creatively about what is best for their women. It’s also about sharing best practices and ideas that will help all of our congregations practice gender parity more consistently, whereas now there is a range of practices among our local leadership. I suggest a lot of ideas in the book, but I hope mostly that awareness, conversation and consistency will all increase in ways that work for each ward. I’m encouraging people to submit their own stories of what is working well in their wards and stakes at womenatchurch.com.
How can women successfully advocate for themselves and their sisters at church?
I think the first thing women can do is be aware that some women struggle with how the Church practices gender separation in our administration. Even if a particular woman may not herself feel tension from those practices, she can be aware that others question why the Church experience is different from her lived experience in the world, where very few institutions (schools, workplaces, governments, etc.) have positions and responsibilities that are by definition off limits to women. The Church is, for some women today, the only place that separate gender spheres exist, and it is the place where gender separation is being introduced to our daughters and granddaughters. Participating in Church administration in all of the available, meaningful ways possible is very important to many of our sisters because they can feel silenced otherwise.
Recognizing this will hopefully lead us to looking for ways our women can be seen and heard and included, even if we ourselves don’t feel the need to expand our influence personally. We need to encourage those women who want to be active participants in our ward councils, rally behind women who speak up for their needs and stewardships. We need to seek for creative ways to put women at the forefront and seize those opportunities when they come to us. So often in the interviews I did for this book, a leader (male or female) would tell me how disheartened they were to see the women limiting each other: chastising another woman for reaching beyond her approved responsibilities, declining opportunities to attend meetings or contribute her voice. We can start by being unified in our own efforts as women to build up and support the women around us who want to seize more public opportunities to participate. We’re talking a lot about these efforts these days at the Mormon Women Project blog and the conversations around how to support women have been lovely.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing Women at Church?
The book was made possible by my husband who took my kids out of the house every Saturday from January through May! I also worked on it from about 9 to 11pm on most weeknights. It was definitely a heads down time for me. I submitted the manuscript at the beginning of June, about two weeks before Kate Kelly’s disciplinary council became public. I feel that timing is important because I didn’t write the book in response to the summer’s events. It was written at a relatively quiet time in the recent gender conversations, and I hope that it provides a bit of hope after what was a difficult summer for many.
I am deeply indebted to the hundreds of people who shared their stories with me over the course of writing the book, either over the phone or in person or via email. People really opened up their hearts to me and made this book possible.
How does the Church empower LDS women?
I know that not every woman in the Church shares my opinions on this, but for me our doctrines of individual worth, Eve’s role in the Fall, and our vision of marriage as an interdependent journey towards exaltation all bring me deep peace. In addition, I spent my formative years in congregations where I had abundant female role models, ample opportunity to stretch myself with speaking, learning and leading opportunities. These opportunities weren’t always the same as the men’s, but I felt they instilled in me a deep reverence for femininity and separate feminine space while giving me all the tools I needed to be a confident and fulfilled adult.
Do you feel hopeful about raising daughters in the church? Why?
Yes! I see things changing all around us. I see a greater awareness of the tension between a girl’s experience in the Church and her experience at school/work. I see sincere efforts to not eradicate that difference but support our girls’ development in the face of that difference. I see the Church generally making more effort to celebrate female role models, both ecclesiastically and in the world. And I am confident that as a mom, I can help my girls see the gospel as a tool for developing their own strength and potential. It’s my hope they will be empowered women because of their Church membership, not in spite of it.