Neylan McBaine Answers Exponent Bloggers’ Questions About Her Book

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.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. Thank you, Neylan, for replying to all these questions. Since I tend to come at these issues from more of a systemic problem standpoint, it’s very interesting to read your vision of what might be accomplished through local changes. I do very much hope that our local and general leaders read your book and become inspired to implement policies which would take us a few steps forward in welcoming women as collaborative partners in church.
    PS I love the cover art for your book.

  2. I have a lot of respect for Neylan and while I, too, believe that structural, institutional changes are necessary for a viable faith community in the future, I very appreciate her suggestions and work. If you have a chance to answer questions, Neylan, I am wondering if you could talk a bit more about the the issue of using methods “worldly” methods of social activism. This has been one of the major critiques of Ordain Women because as members, we like to set ourselves outside of social, political and even anthropological norms when, at least from what I’ve been able to witness, it seems that the Church itself is very much modeling itself after “worldly” structures and using “worldly” methods. The modern church has modeled itself after corporate entities such as IBM, not to mention the creation of financial investments, the use of lobbyists, and our own involvement in political actions such as Prop 8 and the current funding amicus briefs in secular political matters. It seems the Church is very much using “worldly” tactics so long as they are beneficial to the Church itself. As such, I fail to understand how grassroots efforts that borrow from secular political activism is somehow separate and “worldly” where the Church’s current actions are not. To me, the response to Ordain Women has been very much a reaction of a deeply rooted, even “worldly” patriarchy rather than a set-apart institution responding to a “worldly” group.

    • Thank you for this Amy. My “struggles” if we want to use that word are not with my ward, or my neighbor or my community of saints. The point where I stop consistently seeing Christ is in the church as a corporation, rather than as a community. My Bishop hears me and responds to my concerns with love and compassion, making changes when possible. I don’t feel that way about church headquarters — indeed the very word headquarters speaks to the sort of organization that is by definition worldly. When I saw PR people, and not God’s chosen prophets, seers, and revelators, answering the yearning questions of the flock, I had to ask myself whether I could believe in a corporation for a church. For this reason it is hard for me to hear feminists and their methods (even when I don’t agree entirely with them either) decried as worldly, when what could be more worldly than PR instead of prophets?

    • Not to mention that about 40 years of Mormon feminism has done close to nothing to move the church closer to gender equality. I think it’s high time for some “worldly” tactics that have done more to stimulate interest in Mormon women’s issues than anything that happened in decades.

  3. I appreciated these questions and Neylan’s further insight. Thank you.

    My biggest hope from the book is that it will help others understand those of us who struggle. Neylan’s FAIR talk has been useful to me as I’ve used it as a tool to help others understand our plight. I just had a productive email exchange with one of the most anti-feminist sisters in my ward who has said very hurtful things about MoFems (she’s one of the RS teachers), and she was open to reading Neylan’s talk.

    I intend to read this book and pass it along to our brothers and sisters who do not understand our pain. It’s a first step, at the very least.

  4. Neylan, thank you very much for taking these questions – I’ve been curious about many of them, particularly about who you see as the primary audience. I’m glad you’ve written something for the purpose of educating those who don’t understand why some of us have particular critiques around gender in the church. I have lots of family and friends in this position, and it’s hard to know what literature I should share with them. As much as I love my feminist blogs and Exponent II, it’s too much of a leap for some of my dear ones to read them. I hope your book will be the beginning of more and more writing that meets traditional-minded people where they are, and moves the conversation forward.

    My question was #2. I thank you for answering it, and I’ve heard a similar sentiment from others – that we shouldn’t expect more revelation when we’re living our current revealed truth so poorly. For some reason this idea gets under my skin terribly, and it’s hard to agreeably disagree about it. My sense is that when people faithfully seek revelation it comes, whether they’re fully worthy of it or not (because really, are we ever fully worthy). And I think human nature doesn’t change – men and women alike will always gravitate toward hoarding, not sharing power, and until we have structural changes that make power-sharing more the default than the exception, we’ll continue to see problems with leadership and gender in the church.

    • The answer to #2 sounds like a dodge to me as well. I don’t know whether this question almost never gets a straight answer because the champions of local/tonal/optical change either a) don’t think anything else is necessary and/or even possible, or b) they just don’t want to frighten or enrage anyone by addressing institutional change in the current climate. It reminds me of the Elder Holland quote, “one miracle at a time.”

  5. Neylan, thanks for responding to these questions in such a thoughtful and articulate way. I appreciate you putting yourself out there and taking on this subject. I have already had several conversations with people who know I am a Mormon Feminist and have been reading the book and have reached out to me to talk about it. It is opening up great conversations.

  6. I enjoyed reading the answer. I thank the author for taking time to do so.

    I did find the tone in some questions (4, 5, 6, 7, 9) a little too aggressive and disparaging toward the author. Maybe I misunderstood the tone and if I did, my apologies. From the way I perceived the tone of these questions, I felt that there is so much distrust among feminists just because we propose different solutions to the problem or because the book doesn’t propose exactly what we want to see.

    I have not read the book yet and I do plan to give it as a gift to myself and others who serve in leadership roles in my family. As a feminist, I am very thankful that the focus of this book is on the people that do not understand the women and men that have issues with the inequality in the church. It is always very difficult to bring this kind of people to see some of our concerns. I personally think that this is a great strategy to move the cause for women’s empowerment forward in the church and within our community.

    • I, too, was uncomfortable with the tone of some of the questions, but was glad that NMB’s answers didn’t feel defensive in response. Thanks, Neyland and bloggers, for putting this together.

  7. Thank you for these thoughtful answers Ms. McBaine. These were tough questions. I am glad we can discuss different approaches to Mormon feminism with mutual respect, and I am glad that there are many people attempting to improve the status of women in their own ways.

  8. For those who are interested, the painting on the cover is by Utah-artist Caitlin Connelly, who I highly recommend you look up and support if you have the means.

    Thanks Neyland for the thoughtful answers and thanks especially to the thoughtful questions. I look forward to reading the book!

  9. Thank you for your your time answering these questions, Neylan. I appreciate your candor and grace. With April, I completely agree that it will take all of us as Mormon feminists, working from many different positions, to move the Church we love forward. So glad you wrote this book for people like my parents, siblings, and entire extended family who don’t see the inequality. I dearly want them to understand, and your book will help so much.

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