[This post originally appeared at Worlds Without End and is reposted here with permission.]
At the end of Roger Scruton’s controversial documentary Why Beauty Matters, the British philosopher arranges a performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in the St. Pancras railway station. The 13th-century hymn depicts the grieving Mary at the crucifixion of Jesus: “Stabat mater dolorosa juxta Crucem lacrimosa, dum pendebat Filius/At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last.” Pergolesi himself was suffering from tuberculosis when he composed his rendition in 1736 and passed away soon afterwards. Prior to the St. Pancras performance, there is a segment in which Scruton and the singers discuss the impact of the piece:
James Bowman (Tenor): “Even a completely unmusical person would get the message that it is a piece of grieving, wouldn’t they? There could be no possible doubt about that.”
Scruton: “The music takes over the words and makes them speak to you in another language in your own heart.”
Catherine Bott (Soprano): “It means that today in our secular world it can delight and move without people having to know what it’s about.”
Scruton: “We learn without the theological apparatus that there is thing called suffering and that it is at the destiny of all of us, but also is not the end of all of us.”
As the documentary ends, the camera focuses on the various faces of those who have stopped to listen in the station while Scruton’s voice-over summarizes the film’s message. Based on what is seen onscreen, several people stopped and were visibly touched. But the majority moved along.
This reminded me of the now-famous experiment put on by The Washington Post in which world-class violinist Joshua Bell played incognito in a Washington D.C. Metro station. In the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 7 out of 1,097 people stopped. One woman recognized him, having seen him play at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier. Her $20 tip was excluded from the final count (due to it being “tainted by recognition”), which ended up totaling $32.17. As the WP said, “Yes, some people gave pennies.” While the beautiful can sometimes reach us among the noise, it can often be difficult. Psychologist Paul Bloom sees the WP experiment as “a dramatic illustration of how context matters when people appreciate a performance. Music is one thing in a concert hall with Joshua Bell, quite another in a subway station from a scruffy dude in a baseball cap.” It was the latter example of Joshua Bell that Neylan McBaine used to open up her November presentation at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. She stressed that sometimes the beauty of the Gospel is often lost in the midst of its presentation, whether that be leadership rhetoric, Church structure, or cultural experience. This is perhaps especially true among women in the Church. The different reactions to Bell’s subway performance are similar to the very different reactions from LDS women:
Our doctrine around the eternal nature of gender and the importance of mothers is, in many women’s eyes, a unique theological gift resulting in worth, self-confidence, and self-definition. Many women find purpose in these doctrines and the roles they prescribe. The teaching that they are daughters of God, who loves them without their having to earn that love, results in a strong sense of personal worth. Many of these women happily leave to men the ecclesiastical structure of priesthood authority and the accompanying leadership roles; they also assume separate, less public, responsibilities themselves. Many mothers feel supported in their potentially isolating and thankless jobs, and in many homes there is a division of labor that works for both parties. Especially in developing countries, the gospel’s empowerment of women has resulted in positive seismic shifts in the way women are respected, families are run, and men rise up to their responsibilities…But not all of our women find themselves so aligned with these attitudes. For a range of reasons…women in the Church today can feel a tension between what they are being taught at church or how they’re being engaged at church, and what they feel is a true evaluation of their potential and worth. It is not uncommon for a member in the Church today–at least in the United States or developed countries–to know someone who is wrestling what it means to be a Mormon woman.
What I found so thrilling about Neylan’s book, presentation, and the conversation afterwards is that she is looking for ways to make actual, long-lasting changes in Mormon culture–the context of the Gospel music–regarding women by examining the current processes and constraints within the Church. When it comes to institutions and movements, too often we judge them based on their intended goals and/or their sincerity. Rarely do we look at their actual mechanics and results. “”Profit-making” businesses, “public interest” law firms, and “drug prevention” programs,” writes one economist, “are just some of the many things commonly defined by their hoped-for results, rather than by the characteristics of the decision-making processes involved and the incentives created by those processes. So-called “profit-making” businesses, for example, often fail to make a profit and most of them become extinct within a decade after being founded.” Movements and organizations “look very different when viewed in terms of their respective goals than they do when viewed in terms of their incentives and constraints.” Even though business is often at the receiving end of Mormon intellectuals’ criticisms (especially Nibley), I believe it is Neylan’s business and marketing experience that has been influential in her tendency to analyze gender issues within the Church through the paradigm of incentives and constraints. Business managers, wrote the late Peter Drucker, “have to focus [their] knowledge on effectiveness and results.” By looking at everyday church processes and bottom-up solutions, Neylan is uncovering ways of addressing current problems that might be more effective than mere top-down decrees (as important as those may be). By doing so, Neylan is able to make suggestions that can impact the lived everyday experience of the average LDS woman now. I think it also allows her to recognize that some of the supposedly obvious solutions to gender issues in the Church may not be so obvious. For example, her December 2014 WeForShe speech states,
Men and women today – in developing countries and even here in the United States – expect different levels of influence from themselves and from each other. Even when numerical representation is righted – in the media, in deliberative bodies, in governments and industry – we are stilled saddled with the unequal levels of authority that are expected and generated by men and women. In his new book, The Silent Sex, BYU political science professor Christopher Karpowitz and his coauthor Tali Mendelberg define “authority” as “the expectation of influence” and they prove through their studies that women claim and express less authority than men. In addition, “the types of considerations women tend to articulate, and how they articulate them, are valued less because they reflect ways of thinking and self-expression that have been socially constructed as less authoritative.” (page 26) Women’s devalued communication styles mean that even if we were to solve numerical representation in the governing bodies of our governments and institutions, we would still grapple with the lack of authority women perceive in themselves and men perceive in them.
Neylan excitedly shared Karpowitz’s findings with me after her presentation, seeing them as a validation of her overall approach to the subject. A position of authority does not automatically mean one is seen as authoritative or respected as such. Even beyond expressed authority, women often help more within organizations–the “office housework”–yet are less recognized for it. “When a man offers to help,” write Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant,
we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish.” …When men do help, they are more likely to do so in public, while women help more behind the scenes. Studies demonstrate that men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues.
The above evidence demonstrates that blanket authority isn’t the end-all be-all to solving Mormon gender issues. While ordination may help in shaping culture, it ultimately boils down to valuing the experience and views of women (and not just those deemed within the confines of a rigid, inflexible gender role). This is what makes Neylan’s contribution so important and (arguably) appealing to both sides of the female ordination question. Her focus on the regular processes in local wards and stakes can be applied whether female ordination happens or not.
It is easy to become engrossed with abstract causes and sweeping, overly simplistic “solutions” (I don’t really believe in solutions, only trade-offs). Plenty of people do it, from politicians to CEOs, Church leaders to activists. Stanford’s Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao have said that it is a
rare ability…to make sure that the short-term stuff gets done and done well, while simultaneously never losing sight of the big picture. This is a tricky balance for us human beings. Research by New York University’s Yaacov Trope and his colleagues shows that thinking about distant events is good because we focus on long-term goals–and it is bad because we manufacture unrealistic fantasies. We don’t think enough about the steps required to achieve those ends, and when we do we underestimate how much time and effort they will take.
Neylan appears to be aware of the time and effort and has made practical suggestions accordingly. Though she is sometimes viewed with skepticism and lambasted as being too moderate, too naive, or even in cahoots with The Patriarchy© (a term she seems to avoid, I’ve noticed), Neylan’s approach strikes me as one of the most useful in creating a culture of equality. Her suggestions, if implemented at the individual and local levels, could help Mormon culture bloom into its full potential. They could, in essence, help put the music back into the concert hall where everyone can recognize its beauty.
And that’s something we can all get behind.
1. Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), 118.
2. Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), xvii-xviii.
3. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1996), ix-x.
4. Ibid., xi.
5. Peter Drucker, The Essential Drucker (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 13.
6. Robert I. Sutton, Huggy Rao, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 17 (Kindle).
Brian and Laura Harris Hales are the co-authors of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding. Brian is the award-winning author of six books on polygamy, including the first three volumes in the Joseph Smith’s Polygamy series. Together they are the co-webmasters of JosephSmithsPolygamy.org and speak frequently about the history of early polygamy. Laura is an active blogger and editor of an upcoming anthology on 16 topics of historical and theological significance to members of the LDS Church (BYU Religious Studies Center, early 2016). Laura and Brian, combined, have nine children.
Questions addressed in the interview:
How did you both work on this, what was the work contributed from each of you?
There are three sources of information that you use for information on Joseph Smith’s polygamy and basically the earliest teachings and implementations of polygamy. What are those three main sources?
Let’s start out with theological polygamy, what is the theological reasons for the practice of polygamy?
What is the difference (if there is a difference) between plural marriage and polygamy and what does that distinction matter?
You also make the distinction that there were times where plural marriage was permitted, and other times it was commanded. What are the examples of those differences?
With an issues such as Race and the Priesthood, there are many who distance themselves from the idea that God commanded the priesthood ban in the first place. Is there such a position when it comes to polygamy? Is there any merit to a dismissal of the practice as having no divine origin?
One of the conflicts that seems to catch people is the concept of Plurality of Husbands or Polyandry. There is a couple sections of your book that discusses this particular issue. What is the main question that people have here, and in what way does your text resolve questions about polyandry.
Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first and primary wife, had a role in this story that is heart wrenching at times, and can leave a person feeling conflicted. What was Emma’s view of polygamy?
Explain the Mini-biographies on Joseph Smith’s wives.
Carolina Allen is a Brazilian native and US immigrant. She is a 2nd generation member of the church. A Philosophy major from U of U. She is now happily married to Dr. Kawika Allen, a professor of counseling psychology at BYU.
Her UN bio stayed that she Speaks, English, Spanish, Portuguese. She has an interracial family with 5 kid. She Loves community and family, homeschooling, sports, the outdoors, and is a soccer player and avid Brazil fan. The bio concludes with stating that she is an activist and grass roots founder. In this episode Carolina talks about her organization Big Ocean Women and their efforts to be a voice for motherhood, her own brand and philosophy of feminism, and the defense of morality and traditional marriage on a world wide stage. For more information visit bigoceanwomen.com
[The following is an excerpt from Neylan McBaine’s new book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. It is reposted here with permission of the author and Greg Kofford Books.]
In my August 2012 FairMormon conference talk, one of the most challenging points that I made is that I feel we do ourselves a disservice as Mormons—when communicating both to external audiences and internal audiences—when we continually assert that men and women are “equal” in our Church. While this may have made some listeners and readers squirm, almost all of the personal responses I received on this point expressed relief. It seems that while we feel confident in our doctrinal belief that men and women have the same worth in the sight of God, we feel uncomfortable doing the cognitive leaps required to claim that men and women are equal in our practice.
The questions seem to be: If we believe in equality, do we have an obligation to practice equality? And if we practice equality, what does that look like? These questions arise in our cultural consciousness because they are the same questions that American society has been wrestling with since the day we declared independence from Great Britain. It was literally “self-evident” to the founders of our country that all people are created equal. How that belief in equality actually translated into a practice of equality was a discussion that shaped the very foundation of our country: for our founders, practicing equality initially demanded that white settlers in America should have the same taxation and representation as their brothers in England. And from the first moments of the country’s founding, debate also raged over whether the equality the new Americans had fought to achieve extended to people of all races. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans asked themselves questions similar to those we had at our founding: What does equality look like? How do we practice it? What terms do we draw as a society to determine what opportunities, resources, and experiences are equal? How do our institutions support those terms? [Read more…] about Disconnect between Doctrine and Practice of Equality
Neylan McBaine grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in New York City and attended Yale University. She has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine, and the Washington Post to name a few.
Neylan is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project, a continuously expanding library of interviews with LDS women found at www.mormonwomen.com.
Neylan is the author of a collection of personal essays — How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) — as well as Sisters Abroad: Interviews from the Mormon Women Project (2013). She lives with her husband and three young daughters in Utah.
Your bio speaks volumes about your passions to support and place a spotlight on Mormon Women. When did your first feel the sparks of this passion?
I actually wanted to start with the cover of the book. Aside from it being warm and fuzzy paper, easy to hold in your hand as you read, the artwork is also quite gripping. I don’t always have much to say about the covers, but I love the painting on the cover of your book. Could you describe it and how the cover actually speaks well to the theme of your book?
This theme of feminism has a wardrobe of interpretations that attempt to clothe a given message. Because there are so many different versions of feminism, could you please take a minute to describe your own interpretation of feminism, and how you frame your self in reference to it?
Your opening sentence is as clear a thesis as I have read however, “This book is predicated on a single belief: that there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women in the church.” As I read it I wonder about one word in that sentence, the word “much” there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women in the church. How bold, italicized, and underlined did you want the reader to read into the word “much?”
It is your clear assumption that women are not being heard, and in this same first chapter where you state that a good portion of your book is going to talk about the problem: that some women are feeling neglected, overlooked, and silenced in their church experiences. Is it that these women are feeling neglected and overlooked and silenced by men? By other women? Both?
You address the issue of hurt, of pain, that women are feeling. There are multiple accounts of this happening throughout the church. In a recent interview Terryl and Fiona Givens talked about their new book, The Crucible of Doubt. In that book they talk about the utility of suffering, of trials and tests. They consider these as part of the experience of worshiping deity. Then I read your book and I read about the primary effort to alleviating the hurt. For those that might see these two and feel that both offer some truth they may also seem paradoxical. How then do you define the place, utility, or role of hurt?
You call for greater empathy from general church membership with those who struggle or have hurt. The Savior called for the same thing in his day, and one could argue that seeking for greater charity is the cause of all who wish to be considered disciples of Christ. Discipleship, for men or women, tends to operate on a metaphorical scale where there is a balance of helping others being in ratio to others helping themselves. In reading your book, there is a clear indication that you feel that the church has not done enough to help women or to reach out to embrace women’s voices. What then is that balance as you see it?
We believe in a church of continuing revelation, a living church, one that should not fight flat out the idea of change. But that belief is also tempered by understanding from which changes are to come, and why they come. The first half of your book is meant to lay out the case that there is a need for change. The second part offers some perspectives and examples on how changes can come. How then are we to first acknowledge the need, in a faithful way, without doing so in attacking the system or those who are doing their best to administer the gospel with limited capacities?
In going through part 1 of the book you spend a lot of time talking about the deep need for change on these issues. It can be uncomfortable to sit with that material. While Part 2 of the book is example after of example of how people have enacted changes locally, things that people have done to adopt more equality. This is more a fulfillment of D&C 58:27 where people are being anxiously engaged in a good cause. What are some of those examples
At the recent 2014 FairMormon Conference, I picked up a pre-release copy of Neylan McBaine’s new book “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact”, which is being released publically today. I started reading it on the airplane ride home on Saturday and couldn’t put it down and I finished it the next day after Church. It was amazing. Since it is officially being released today, I thought I would share my thoughts about the book and about the message that I think Neylan is trying to convey concerning how we can improve our Church culture and our rhetoric to match our doctrine.
This is not a book about doctrine, nor does Neylan intend for it to be. Instead, it is written for men and women, Church leaders and fill-the-pews-every-week Church members. First, it illustrates how some Church culture, rhetoric, and practices unnecessarily make some women (and in many cases the men who love and support those women) feel less-than, and then it provides several suggestions for how we might change our culture, rhetoric, and practices without requiring any changes in doctrine or official policy.
Both the descriptions of “the problem” and the suggestions for “solutions” are backed up by anecdotes from a wide range of sources that Neylan collected after considering some of the reactions to her 2012 FairMormon Conference address and being encouraged to expand her work there into a larger project. She sought for stories and suggestions from Church members across the belief and political spectrum. She then pulled them together to illustrate how, when we talk about gender balance in the Church, we are not only dealing with doctrine – we are dealing with emotions, culture, public relations, and long-standing group dynamics, many of which have little or nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Neylan’s message was full of “a-ha” moments for me. One occurred when I listened to her 2012 FairMormon Conference talk and heard her describe why language matters, both internal and external to the Church, when we talk about things like “equality”. For example, When we use the words “equal”, “alike”, or “equality” in a gospel setting:
“…and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike [or equal] unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Ne 26:33),
we have developed a good internal (as in, inside the Church) understanding of what “alike” or “equal” means and looks like: God loves everyone without regard to race, color, gender, occupation, etc., and we, as disciples of Christ should seek to emulate that same principle.
Where we run into trouble is when we try to pass off this internal definition or understanding of “equal” in our external public relations messaging as a Church. The rest of the world uses a measuring stick that is vastly different to measure “equality”, and our rhetoric will fall on deaf ears if we do not recognize this fact and adapt our message accordingly.
When I say “vastly different” from the rest of the world, I mean we are different by almost every criteria the world uses to gauge these sorts of things: prominence of women’s events compared with men’s, prominence of women leaders compared with men, emphasis on women’s public teaching and influence compared with men’s, opportunities for institutional or organizational “span-of-control” and “span-of-influence” positions for women compared with men, etc. All of these are simple, basic, easy-to-calculate, easy-to-see, measuring sticks by which the rest of the world gauges the word “equality”. We have to consider what the rest of the world hears when we put out our public relations messaging or our social media posts about media stories regarding gender-related issues in the Church. We need to realize that when we talk about “equality” between men and women within the Church, but then the world sees something totally different when they look at our organization, their reaction will be to discount or dismiss our comments and messaging as not credible or misleading. When we try to pass off our internal definition of “equality” as equivalent to the world’s definition of “equality,” we will fail every time. And when we fail in the public relations space, we lose credibility.
“But who cares?” we might ask. “Since when are we concerned with what the rest of the world thinks of us? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with what God thinks of us?” Sure. Absolutely. But if that were the only consideration, we would have no need for a Church Public Affairs function! It seems like at least one of those reasons should have something to do with aligning our internal and external rhetoric. As long as we want to maintain our ability to appeal to the rest of the world through our missionary efforts, we would do well to listen to people with the experience and expertise to help us at least reduce the number of “unforced errors” on this subject.
This is where I think McBaine’s approach is so valuable. By challenging us to refine our rhetoric first, and not agitating for changes in doctrine, she is reinforcing the point that it is not only important what we say, but how we say it.
One of my favorite parts in “Women at Church” is where Neylan points out the strong and empowering message that we could send to the world about the importance of women’s contributions in the Church by making those contributions more visible. We live in a visual world, and while words are important, so are images. The recent changes in seating assignments during General Conference, for example, where Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary General Presidencies have been invited to take a more central position on the rostrum, and the addition of these women’s portraits in the lobby of the Conference Center and in the center page of the Conference issue of the Ensign and Liahona alongside the General Authorities are some examples of this being put into practice. One of Neylan’s suggestions is that we consider inviting ward or stake Relief Society, Young Women, and/or Primary presidencies to sit on the stand during Ward or Stake Conferences.
Some may consider this an example of tokenism or window dressing, since these women do not preside over the meeting. But whereas changing who presides would require a change in doctrine (as Elder Oaks’ April 2014 General Conference address made clear), the change suggested by Neylan would require no change in doctrine, nor any change in official church policy. And the benefits could be great: both men and women, old and young, would see women as well as men recognized on the stand for the important work that they do in the Church. Our doctrine is clear on this: the work that Priesthood brethren do in the Church is no more nor less valuable than the work that sisters do in their Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, and other callings. So how can it hurt us to have a visible representation of the equal value of those contributions on the stand? Making women’s roles and responsibilities more visible to both the men and the women in the ward by having RS, YW and/or Primary leaders sit on the stand, even if only for Ward and Stake Conference, does not fly in the face of anything more than our traditions and customs (and perhaps in some cases our prejudices). And if it removes a potential hurdle for our youth or other members struggling because of the imbalance in the visibility of women’s contributions, all of whom are growing up and living in a world where the world’s definition and visual depiction of equality is what they live and experience every day at school, at work, and in their other non-Church associations, and if it can remove that hurdle without changing doctrine or policy, then indeed, why not!?
We ignore or minimize the distinction between our “gospel” understanding of these terms and concepts and the “worldly” understanding to our great detriment, as it undermines our ability to be “in the world but not of the world.” We need to be not only multi-lingual in our missionary training centers as we teach the various languages of the world, but also multi-lingual in our cultural rhetoric and understanding. This will help us guide those who would welcome such empowering and ennobling doctrines if they could see them through a gospel lens, unburdened of the rhetorical baggage that otherwise prevents them from seeing the beauty of our doctrine.
Kathryn Skaggs is the founder, and Angela Fallentine the co-founder of the Mormon Women Stand Website and Mormon Women Stand Facebook Page—an effort that focuses its efforts on defending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s leaders and its teachings by using a united voice of faithful women from the Church.
Kathryn Skaggs is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She took the Ann Romney approach to womanhood by staying home and raising her children, and making no apologies for doing so. Her online efforts started in 2008 with the blog A Well Behaved Mormon Woman where she shares her voice on a variety of social issues.
Angela grew up in Alberta Canada, and later attended Rick’s College/BYU Idaho, and Utah State University with a degree in Journalism with an emphasis in public relations and corporate communications. After graduating she interned for the Church Public Affairs Office and also worked for the Church’s Office of International and Governmental affairs in Washington D.C.
Both are here today to talk about what it means to be a voice on the internet, more specifically a female voice on the internet and the opportunities that effort has in sustaining Church leaders and furthering church dialogue online.
Questions we address in this interview: We are here (being recorded) at the Provo City library because you are both in town for BYU’s Education Week. How has your experience been so far?
In what ways does attending this conference help you in your efforts as a voice online in defense of the gospel and the church.
You have a combined effort that you co-founded, Mormon Women Stand. Was this a response to something in particular, the ground up inspiration to add your voice to the discourse online?
How and why is MWS different? (how many people involved and what is your audience?)
Who is the intended audience of your work with MWS?
There is an article posted on the Mormon Women Stand website entitled Chipping Away at Priesthood Authority of Mormon Prophets to Undermine Faith. This was written by Angela, but I was told by Kathryn that she shares your words. While neither of you have been guilty of too much subtlety when it comes to your online articles, I am sure the title is a bit of a giveaway, what is the genesis of the article?
The warning that you give in the article is that we need to give care and attention to the idea that the more we seek out the faults of our leaders, and they will be found as all of them will have them, the more we give place for discord, for distancing ourselves from orthodoxy. Is that accurate? What then is the remedy as many will say that there is nothing wrong with becoming aware of even the self proclaimed faults of the leaders themselves?
You give a statement in the article that might come across as strongly worded so I want to give you the opportunity to develop it further, “Is it wrong to speak ill or critically of church leaders or of a talk they give in General Conference? Yes. How serious is speaking and writing against the leaders of the Church? Very serious.”
You give in support of the thesis and title of your article, a quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. … When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and His cause.”
You encounter people everyday leaving comments on your articles and your accompanying Facebook posts. You are actively engaged in online discussion, which leads me to Elder Bednar’s talk here at Education Week regarding the proper use and role of social media online. In what ways has that presentation effected you, in what ways might you change and in what ways did you find yourselves affirmed by his presentation?
Kathryn Skaggs is the founder and Angela Fallentine the co-founder of Mormon Women Stand, found at mormonwomenwomenstand.com.
Neylan McBaine is one of several notable and thoughtful participants in the conversation that has been taking place about the roles and situation of women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her soon-to-be-released book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, is both a tremendous synopsis of that conversation for those who are still trying to get a handle on its many facets and a valuable and constructive contribution in its own right. Sister McBaine is the founder of the Mormon Women Project, which collects stories of LDS women for the purpose of celebrating and highlighting their lives, accomplishments, and contributions, a worthy goal in a church that celebrates that which is of good report and praiseworthy, but also a worthy goal for one interested in better understanding the human condition.
Her book draws upon a wide variety of sources. I saw mention of most of the major discussants, a host of more minor ones, and many individual women and men who shared their experiences navigating the labyrinth of gender relations in the relative privacy of their own lives. Apart from merely having a large pool of sources from which to draw experience and wisdom, this book also accomplishes a measure of balance. The author explains both sides of many of the issues in LDS gender relations in terms proponents of each position will likely relate to. Thus people with a variety of opinions will be both informed and challenged by this book. The author also presents some challenging perspectives. Not all of her anecdotes end well. But this also plays the important role of highlighting the real human lives and souls that are at stake in the effort to live our religion in a truly thoughtful, inclusive, and Christ-like manner. Though the book contains a number of stories that are necessarily sorrowful, the book maintains a genuinely hopeful tone of focused optimism. This is not a book that should leave people depressed or hopeless, but instead give them perspective and ideas for how to improve.
For me personally, this book succeeded in accomplishing several important things. It helped me understand some of the more common or characteristic sources of frustration. It convinced me that having sisters more visible is important for spiritual reasons beyond any worldly arguments that may exist for it. And it helped reinforce my confidence that our leaders are working to improve these situations, and that there is significant scope for us to work for better relationships within the scope of our own stakes, wards, and branches.
Why is it important for women (or any sort of person, really) to be visible to others? In reading this book, a few reasons become apparent. One that the author brings up is that the process of creation necessarily involves models. When God created the earth, those creations were “spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” And it makes sense for us to desire models to use to form our own worlds as well. Jesus, who also famously counseled that we should do our alms in secret, commanded the disciples to “let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (3 Nephi 12:16). While on the surface these two directives appear to be at variance, the principle appears to be that we are not rewarded of God for self-aggrandizement and seeking the praise of the world, but we nevertheless help to glorify God when our example teaches others how to succeed in living in accordance with His plan. Not every woman’s path will look the same, and it is important to have women who represent the variety of possible righteous lives visible so that others seeking to find a righteous example upon which to pattern a faithful life in their own circumstances can have the undergirding benefit of an example. The life of faith is one of challenges, but challenges that need not be encountered alone and without a map.
Turning attention to some of the means the author proposes for providing female role models, one of the most encouraging points she brings up is the fact that many of the practices that could be adopted to provide visibility to women on a local scale are already being modeled by our general leaders. She notes the recent deliberate inclusion of women auxiliary leaders in prominent positions in the seating arrangements for General Conference, as well as their inclusion in the Conference Ensign center sheets showing general leaders. Of particular interest in this last conference is a talk by Linda S. Reeves dealing with protecting the home from pornography. This talk sets a strong example of a general leader speaking to the whole church, just as one giving a talk in sacrament meeting (who likely holds some particular stewardship in the ward) speaks by default to the whole group rather than only those who they are assigned to serve in some particular capacity. This was further driven home by her choosing to address what has traditionally been thought of as a male problem, though participation by either gender is thoroughly unfortunate.
This idea of leaders speaking to the needs of the whole church rather than just one particular subset of it is further amplified in the council setting. In a ward council, the sisters who preside over the auxiliary organizations are asked to share their insights and inspiration on all matters that come before the council. The inspiration of these sister leaders is then able to benefit the entire ward body. When all functions properly, input from sisters functions on an equal footing with input from the brothers in the ward. This practice has likewise been modeled at the general level. Sister Eubank’s recent FairMormon talk included her recounting of her experiences with councils that made sure they heard and understood her insights before proceeding. Properly conducted ward councils have received strong encouragement from Elder Ballard, who has been counseling leaders to properly harness the full potential of their Ward Councils for 20 years. The more these councils fulfill their full potential, the more our sisters are able to fulfill theirs.
Neylan McBaine also discusses the great latitude that local leaders have to solve problems of visibility and recognition on the local level. She emphasizes the importance of spiritual creativity by leaders in the process. She discusses a number of approaches that have been taken with baby blessings to make sure the mother was recognized, while still keeping within the bounds of church policies. One of several discussed was inviting the mother to sit on the stand at the meeting where the blessing occurred so that she had a good view of the ordinance and so that she could be seen and receive the recognition of the congregation. A number of other good approaches were discussed. The key really does seem to be in spiritual creativity, and a willingness to explore ways to include and recognize the real and significant contributions and accomplishments of women. There is enough space within the church policies for these things to happen, if people are willing to experiment a bit, be patient with one another, and withhold judgment.
Another area where she identified possibilities for women to contribute is the sacrament. Apparently, (something I was less aware of before reading this book) women have historically provided bread for the sacrament, and any way you look at it, purchasing Wonder Bread is an assignment not strictly necessitating priesthood authority. Reading the beautiful account of a sister who prepared the sacramental bread, I couldn’t help recalling that the bread represented the flesh of the savior, and that, indeed, that flesh was molded and formed and prepared by a woman. Inviting then the Lord’s handmaids to provide the bread might even enhance the meaning of the ordinance and at the same time highlight one of the most uniquely key and feminine contributions to the salvific history of the human family.
The insights shared in this review are a very small sampling of what one person got out of a remarkably thoughtful book. Anyone that would like to get up to date on the conversation about women in the Church of Jesus Christ should locate a copy of it immediately. I’d loan you mine (with a deposit), but I am but one man with but one copy. If you’d like, though, this is important enough of a book that we have them available for preorder at the FairMormon bookstore at a bit of a discount. The author was kind enough to personalize my copy while I was at the FairMormon Conference, where she received the FairMormon Award of Excellence. She wrote, “With hope in the future.” This book gives me a lot of reasons for hope.
Best of Fair Podcast episodes feature great presentations from FairMormon conferences, and Sharon Eubank’s presentation is no exception. We are grateful for her comments and perspective. This audio comes from her presentation at the 2014 FairMormon conference entitled, “This is a Woman’s Church.”
You can purchase access to video streaming of all the conference presentations at the FairMormon Bookstore.
Note: The audio presented in this podcast is “cleaned up” from the original video. So feedback issues and other noise previously present should be reduced if not unnoticeable. Other audio artifacts might be present, for this we apologize.