Neylan McBaine, author of Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, graciously agreed to answer some of our questions about her book.
1.) Do you think that there is a place for more radical movements (like, but not limited to, Ordain Women) in effecting change in the church? Do you see a way for radicals and reformers to work together?
If we look at social activism as the model for moving forward, then yes, radial movements have always been part of a successful equation for change. And I think Ordain Women has been effective in drawing mainstream attention to a subject many people previously didn’t want to or didn’t know how to discuss. The essential questions the group raised, the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable wrestling it prompted, brought women’s experiences in the Church to the forefront of mainstream conversation.
My concern is that overlaying social activism playbooks onto Church administration may not have the same effect we expect it to have in our external situations; in fact, we saw this summer that it doesn’t. The fact that the Church functions outside of known worldly structures is both the secret to its longevity, strength and divinity and also the thing that some struggle to understand. It is not a democratic government or a corporation against which workers can strike. I join many, I know, in hoping that in the future there can be more dialogue and compassionate understanding of where “radical” groups are coming from, but I also believe that social activism as we know it in the world will not have the same effect in the Church.
2) If every ward and stake in the church adopted the changes you suggest in your book, things would certainly be better for everyone. But the administrative authority, financial authority, and ecclesiastical authority would still be almost exclusively in the hands of male priesthood leaders. Do you see that as a problem? If so, what are your thoughts on possible ways forward?
If the Church administration were really functioning at fully cooperative capacity — meaning that essential mindset changes were made to include, recognize, lead with and trust women — I think male administered church governance would look very different than it does today. We would have a language to describe women’s contributions that simply doesn’t exist today; we would have channels for women’s voices to be heard by both men and women; we would have consensus-building in meetings instead of male decision-making. I think it’s hard to declare now that that world would still be a problem when we’re so far from experiencing what it really could be like.
3) What is your advice for women who don’t serve in local leadership capacities or enjoy relationships of trust with their bishops and local leaders? Can they play a role in moving conversations on gender forward?
One of the great things about our leadership structure is that leaders are members, potential friends if not current friends, and in many cases, neighbors or city-mates. There is nothing stopping any of us from calling up the executive secretary or stake clerk and setting up an appointment with a bishop or stake president. That’s an amazing thing. Does it take a little guts to go in and share concerns or ideas with a Relief Society president or ward council member? Sure it does. And nothing may come of it, which demands patience and perseverance. In addition, we are the makers of our own classroom experiences. We can each find ways to mention female scripture characters in lessons and talks, make comments in Relief Society that respectfully offer different viewpoints. This is a do-it-yourself church, and if we assume all power to create and perpetuate our culture lies only in the hands of a few men, then we are overlooking some of our most powerful tools.
4) Why do you position yourself apart from “those women” (women who want structural change) from the get-go, right in the introduction? Did you purposely set yourself to be a middle-women between those who take issue with the church’s treatment of women and the men in the higher-up positions who can do something about it? By separating yourself from “those women”, do you expect your voice to be heard with more legitimacy?
I’m not sure if “those women” was pulled directly from my Introduction; I’ve scoured those pages and I don’t think that phrase appears anywhere. But in approaching the book, I think it is critical for readers to understand that this is a book that strives to explain to people who may not already understand women’s frustrations why “some women” are not content. This positioning is not an attempt to separate myself from anyone or ingratiate myself to anyone. It is simply a practical attempt to talk to the majority of Church members who may not sympathize with women who are not content at Church and may not know what to do to help. The entire book is an effort to evoke greater understanding. If you are one of “those women,” take the book as my good-hearted effort to encourage detractors to take you more seriously.
5) Who asked you to write the book?
Brad Kramer of Greg Kofford Books. Sorry, no conspiracy theory fodder here. No, the Church did not pay me. No, Ordain Women did not pay me. I am making no money off of it; any proceeds go directly to the Mormon Women Project to pay for future transcription services.
6) Since you are an employee of the church, have you been influenced by or have you been mindful of protecting your employment in choosing the items you discuss in the book?
My company is owned by a large holding company that is responsible for all of the Church’s for-profit entities. I have the same ecclesiastical oversight by the Church as any employee of KSL Broadcasting or any of the owned radio stations in Seattle or Phoenix; that is to say, none. Church divisions may employ my agency to do specific work for them; church divisions can be our clients, and like any client, they appreciate working with an agency that shares commitment to their message. That professional understanding is the extent of the crossover I experience, and I am not one to protect my paycheck over honoring what I feel is my more essential contribution.
7) The book has been endorsed by Valerie Hudson, who has a particular view of women centered around fertility and reproduction (i.e. her Two Trees talk). Are you also endorsing this view of women?
If every author only sought reviews from thinkers whose theories lined up with her own, we would have a shallow intellectual community indeed. My particular critique of the Two Trees theory is irrelevant here; Hudson has her particular way forward, I have mine, others have their own. Her thoughts reflect profound insight and personal conviction. I admire her as a thinker. Plus, she’s the only Mormon woman I know of who is personal friends with Gloria Steinem and has been quoted by Hillary Clinton. To dismiss her because we don’t agree with her theory only reflects poorly on us.
8) Is this book meant to help re-activate women who have become disillusioned with patriarchal church structure by inviting them/us to “try again, but this way”?
I think it would be great if that were a takeaway for the particular audience you describe. I hope disillusioned women would find many of their feelings described and legitimized in the book. But even more at the forefront of my effort is trying to help women and men who are content at church feel greater understanding and empathy for those who struggle. After all, the whole first third of the book is concerned with explaining why some women struggle with current church structure, particularly as it contrasts with their lived experience in 21st century America. Women who are already familiar with tensions and pain will hopefully find this book to be a conversation starter with those who may not understand where they are coming from.
9) It seems like you are diminishing women who are frustrated with church policy in saying they do not have enough faith to persevere and continue to try to participate in a church that institutionally omits women’s voice. Do you intend for this, or is this a misrepresentation of your faith vs. church quote on pg 169?
If there is any part of this book that suggests I am “diminishing women who are frustrated with church policy in saying they do not have enough faith to persevere” then it is my failing as a writer, since that is the exact opposite of what I was hoping to say.
10) Why should LDS women read your book? Will it help us feel less alone and more empowered in the church and in our callings?
There are LDS women who feel alone and unempowered at Church, and there are LDS women who feel perfectly content. This book is intended to be a conversation starter that helps those who are content more fully understand why some women today — and our daughters and granddaughters tomorrow — may not be content. It tries to explain how the lived experience in the world for an American woman today diverges dramatically from the lived experience in the Church today. I do not say this divergence is wrong. I do not feel that is my place, nor do I necessarily believe it. But I do believe that reading my book will help all LDS women feel there is hope for understanding, greater inclusion and greater voice in the future.
11) What LDS audience are you hoping to reach? Are you hoping to defuse the radicals? Enthuse some passives? Reassure people who have one foot out the door? Make moderate bishops feel good about mild changes being enough?
Again, this book is an effort to help men and women who may not already understand why some women struggle to gain empathy and to seize opportunities that are in their control to ease the symptoms of gendered leadership. Each person is going to come at the book from their own experience and it can’t be all things to all people. Right now, the mainstream Church membership is only just starting to seriously consider the implications of gendered leadership. This book is simply an attempt to nurture that conversation and empower every member to make changes that are within his or her area of influence.