Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact, by Neylan McBaine, Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2014


OK, bottom line in case you are not interested in reading a lengthy book review and would rather have the Twitter version: BUY THIS BOOK!  Buy it in bulk, and give it to every member of your bishopric, stake presidency, and local leadership.  This book is going to start thousands of conversations in wards and stakes about how to change Church culture and chapel practice for women—for the better.  It’s a game-changer.

Now for the more formal review . . .

It seems that while we in the LDS Church 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 . . . it seems evident that our practice of equality in the local Church experience is, in many cases, falling short of the vision being put forward by our Church leaders.   (52, 64) As one woman put it,

“If the men at church treated me the way the men at work do, I would weep for joy.” (Anonymous professional woman, quoted on p 105)

Neylan McBaine, who founded The Mormon Women Project and who works in the advertising field where most of her clients are subcomponents of the LDS Church, has written a timely, faithful, and practical book that deserves to be read by every bishopric, stake presidency, and local Church leadership (male and female) in the entire LDS Church.  (Seriously, can we get this translated in as many languages as the Book of Mormon?)

McBaine’s position is that our “women problems” are not so much doctrinal as they are ones of culture and practice.  She rightly suggests we start changing culture and practice first.  Two reasons here: 1) as the opening quotation notes, we are not yet living our doctrine concerning women, and 2) until we do so, why would we expect any further light and knowledge to come from heaven on the subject?  As McBaine puts it,

If President Monson announced tomorrow that women would now be ordained to priesthood offices and thus equally eligible to be local and general leaders, I wouldn’t complain. But I do not believe such a change would fix our challenges overnight. After all, we currently have one of the most progressive gender doctrines among any Western religion—an acknowledged female deity, a “fortunate fall” which lifts Eve from condemnation, a doctrine of divine love despite gender, and an endowment of divine power for women in the temple—and yet even these revolutionary beliefs have not inoculated us from gender challenges in our culture. (xvii)

The stance from which she writes this book, then, is a very healthy one:  “accepting the doctrine and policies we have in place in the Church today, how can we help improve gender-cooperative practices on the local levels so as to relieve unnecessary tensions caused by cultural or historically normative practices?” (xvi)  This stance skirts the Charybdis of demanding and lobbying for doctrinal change, but simultaneously avoids the Scylla of equating orthodoxy with stasis or a dismissal of women’s justifiable concerns. Too many ships have foundered by veering too far to one side or the other.  McBaine skillfully steers us through that dangerous passage to reach a far better place than we have heretofore found.

The book is divided into two parts: the first part explores the need for change in the culture and chapel practice of the Church to better live our doctrine concerning the equal partnership of men and women in the Great Plan of Happiness.  The second part of the book offers a survey of the wide variety of positive changes made by wards and stakes in the Church with regard to women.  While I found the first part interesting and moving, McBaine did not need to sell me on the need for change.  However, there may be some members of bishoprics, stake presidencies, or even Relief Society presidencies who are not yet convinced—and therefore McBaine is right to include those chapters.

She notes with happiness that, as a people, we seem to have moved beyond the stage of “I’ve never felt that way so I don’t care.”  (Actually, after reading comments on sites like the Deseret News, I am not quite as convinced as she, but no matter.)  She notes,

I have sensed an increased tolerance and genuine concern for the feelings of women who are plagued by what they perceive to be gender inequities at church. If a loved one is depressed, do we tell him to just get over it because we think everything in his life is fine? Happily, our modern public health sensibilities have made us aware that such a reaction is not just inappropriate but useless and completely irrelevant to the patient’s experience. Why then is it appropriate for us to tell a woman expressing pain and frustration that she should just get over it because we aren’t experiencing pain and frustration too? It is neither appropriate nor useful nor relevant to that woman’s experience. (23)

Some seem to feel that if we state there is a problem with culture/practice, then we are somehow saying the Church is not true, or our leaders are bad or incompetent.  McBaine tackles this misconception head-on by asking, “Despite the fact that we already have dedicated and good-hearted leaders, don’t we want to make the Church experience even better if it is in our power to do so?” (68)  Shouldn’t the answer be yes?

My years working at BYU taught me that members often cannot psychologically reconcile strong faith with incomplete satisfaction with the status quo in the Church.  I have never understood this.  Given the 9th Article of Faith, shouldn’t we believe that having faith always means incomplete satisfaction with the status quo in the Church, at least until the Savior reigns?  McBaine expresses it well:

Policies, systems, programs—any method for encouraging change—will never function fully until people know how to talk to one another about deviations and disappointments. . . . No matter how many changes are made at the general Church leadership level, it will still take particular imagination and effort for those of us on the ground to echo that dedication to women in our local culture. . . New cultural practices don’t just spring out of the ground. The way we shift culture is to create culture, to offer another version of a practice, another way to show obedience to the word of God. And any other version starts with a vision of how things could be. (172, 177, 81)

So let’s shift some culture and practice, shall we?  Some at this point might ask, “Are we allowed to?”  One of the most overlooked sections of the Church Handbook of Instruction (2), according to McBaine, is the section that encourages us to do just that:

Handbook 2 outlines those things that are needed to maintain unity. But beyond that, diverse applications of principles are not just tolerated, they are encouraged. In the 2012 edition of Handbook 2, section 17 is entitled “Uniformity and Adaptation” and prefaced with these words: “Members of the Church live in a wide variety of political, social, and economic conditions. Wards and branches also vary in size and leadership resources. These conditions may require local leaders to adapt some Church programs.” A subsection on Uniformity outlines how to keep doctrine and programs pure; a subsec­tion on Adaptations discusses leaders’ “discretion” to consider changes. Sometimes in our commitment to unity, we don’t stretch ourselves to see beyond traditional practices. But our accountability to our women de­mands that we think creatively and compassionately about their needs, even when they are different from our own. (20)

McBaine offers an example that really clinches the argument that our rigid adherence to legacy practices does not coincide with the more expansive view of our leaders. A member in Hong Kong tells her,

Mormon domestic workers whose days off do not fall on Sunday attend the Sabbath services on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. Two senior missionary couples from North America are assigned to superintend these full three-hour-block weekday meetings. They get Sundays off. Most Mormons are shocked to learn that these missionaries have official Church sanction to go to Disneyland on Sunday, but so it must be: Sunday is their Sabbath from the Sabbath.
Another way in which the Hong Kong domestic worker units are unusual is in their leadership structure. . . . In the overwhelmingly female domestic worker branches of Hong Kong, . . . the Relief Society President exercises stewardship over nearly everyone in the congregation, and the executive secretaries and branch mission leaders are women. (When I asked a sister in the Island 1 Branch if the branch mission leader was really a woman, she gave me a blank look, as if I had asked whether President Monson, the Prophet, was really a man.) (62)

There is certainly a diversity of operations and differences of administration in the Church (D&C 46).  We are not “stuck” with what has been the practice in times past.  As long as a change is not inconsistent with our doctrine, it can be contemplated.  McBaine quotes the same member in Hong Kong as saying, “Change in the LDS Church is not a process of lobbying higher-ups, but of each person seeing what needs to be done and then doing it within his or her own sphere of influence.”  Absolutely right—this is precisely the attitude we need among our local leaders, both male and female.  One stake president quoted in McBaine’s book offers a template:

I went through the handbook. I couldn’t find anything that proscribed young women visiting teaching with Relief Society sisters. I think going through the handbook is always a good practice because a lot of times things are rooted in tradition or folklore or it’s just the unwritten order of things, which is important, but many times the handbook is silent and we are free to make our best decisions. (140; emphasis mine)

In my own ward many years ago, my husband and I decided our pre-YM-aged daughter needed activities like boys her age were getting in Scouts.  We got together a “troop” of five girls in the ward, and we did all sorts of great things—visiting the fire station, painting, you name it.  We saw a need and just went ahead and fulfilled it.  A year and a half later, Achievement Days were introduced in the Church.  We were very happy about that development, but our attitude was that we weren’t going to just stand around and wait for some program to descend upon our ward from on high.  We just rolled up our sleeves and did what clearly needed to be done.

So what have other wards and stakes done?  This is the heart of McBaine’s book, because it gives readers a sense of the possible—and it is a very, very exciting feeling indeed.  I’m going to relate several of McBaine’s examples, compiled from members responding to her call on the internet.

Example 1:  "For example, a member of a stake presidency described to me one practice his stake has adopted for including women rhetorically in priesthood blessings. “We tell all of the priesthood holders in our stake,” he told me, “that when giving a father’s blessing they should always reference their wife: ‘I’m giving you this blessing in the presence of your mother who joins her faith with mine to work in unity and as an equal partner. Our faith is united in this moment. . . .’ And then proceed with the blessing. When men are blessing babies, we ask them to do the same thing: ‘The name that your mother and I choose is . . .’ There are lots of opportunities to acknowledge the woman’s faith and the importance of her presence in priesthood blessings.”" (144)

Example 2: “When my father was released, the stake president asked the bishopric and their wives to all stand for a vote of thanks, and then he asked the new bishopric and their entire families to stand and be sustained.” (120)

Example 3: "On one Sunday in my ward, the final assigned speaker was a woman. She seemed flustered to be in the last slot, was apologetic to the audience and lamented that we weren’t going to get the final word in the meeting from a priesthood holder. And then she gave her talk. The stake president happened to be visiting, and after she finished he stood to make a few comments. He thanked her for the talk, and acknowl­edged she was just being self-deprecating. But he said it was his responsibility as presiding officer in the stake to correct misinformation. He then affirmed that there is nothing wrong with scheduling a sister to speak in the last slot in sacrament meeting, that that is perfectly appropriate. When we don’t do that, it is just a tradition. He especially wanted the Primary girls and the Young Women to understand that they have the same responsibility to teach the gospel as the boys do." (111)

Example 4: "One bishop I interviewed has addressed the disparity of numbers by inviting the female auxiliary presidents’ councilors also to join ward council meetings so that the gender ratio is more balanced. A practice mentioned to me by several bishops is to form a “women’s council” of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary presidents, who meet monthly with a member of the bishopric to discuss the needs of the women in the ward in more depth than they in ward council meetings. A stake presidency in Northern California counsels every bishop to treat his Relief Society president as an additional counselor, not as the assistant or peripheral contributor that the “auxiliary” designation might connote." (101)

Example 5: "One ward [had] the stake Relief Society presidency teach the priesthood quorums during ward conference, while the stake presidency taught the Relief Society lesson." (98)

Example 6: “The bishop told me before the sacrament meeting, as the mother of the baby getting blessed, that he would like me to bear my testimony right after the blessing. As the men were sitting down, I was able to share my thoughts about the moment immediately after it happened. I felt like an honorary participant. With the blessings of my other babies, I felt like nobody would have noticed I was even there unless I had forced myself to bear my testimony with the rest of the congregation.”  “Today I watched a mother hold her new baby as the men circled to give the baby a name and a blessing. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, but it was beautiful and right and lovely.” (78, 79)

Do these examples leave you yearning to hear more?  Then go buy this book.  And buy it in bulk—buy it for your bishopric, your stake presidency, for your Relief Society presidency, for all your local leadership.  Start a conversation in your ward and stake right now about what could change.  Sometimes all we need to know is that others did make changes, and made them successfully.  As McBaine puts it, “more often than not [we] hesitate to see the Church as a flexible, living organism that is built for the members. Instead we make the mistake of thinking that it is the members that are built for the Church.” (77)

While I believe the heart of the book is these examples, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are many other thought-provoking elements of the book.  Consider this insightful anecdote:

While discussing women of the Bible at work recently, a good-hearted male colleague happened to mention that he hadn’t really paid much attention to any of the women in the Bible because he couldn’t relate to them. The moment he said this, his hand flew to his shocked mouth and he apologized profusely to me. We had a good laugh about his response because it was such a textbook moment of realization for him: women are constantly engaged in a process of likening male role models unto themselves, while men rarely have to go through the same process of disassociating their own gender to find inspiration in female characters. (71)

That anecdote is worth its own essay, and similar fascinating insights are sprinkled throughout the book.  McBaine also steps into some interesting theological territory, as well.  For example, consider this question posed by McBaine:

There is presumably a certain degree of sameness and difference that fulfills the divine vision for how men and women relate to each other. There is presumably a horizon at which sameness needs to end so that divine difference has room to rise. We are working out where that boundary lies. Some secular voices push that boundary almost to nonexistence: many today would say it is ideal to have no boundary at all but a complete eclipse of male and female identities. Our Church leaders instead teach that the Lord doesn’t endorse a complete eclipse. But we are still left with the question: Where does our commonality end and our difference begin? (61)

Wow, yes, that is the question, isn’t it?  McBaine has an unerring ability to put her finger on precisely the issue at hand, and that is what makes this book such a pleasure to read.  Lest you think McBaine’s book is soft soap, she has some hard-hitting questions to ask—

The Young Men president is a permanent member of the priesthood executive committee, but the Young Women president is not even on the list of potential invitees. Why the disparity? . . . [Why doesn’t] the Relief Society presidency have direct access to the First Presidency? . . . Why do Boy Scouts have a Blue & Gold Banquet and the Activity Days girls do not have an event of their own? Why do boys go home teaching with their fathers but girls do not go visiting teaching with their mothers? Why are boys honored in front of the congregation when they turn twelve and receive the priesthood, and girls are not required to receive the same recognition when they enter Young Women? Why are individual priesthood leaders introduced and sustained at ward conferences when female leaders are not? If there is a father-and-son campout, is there also a father-and-daughter or mother-and-daughter campout? (44, 50, 72)

In the end, what becomes clear while reading McBaine’s book is that what our people require is a new way of seeing, a new way of speaking [1], and a new way of partnering with women in the Church.  This is how McBaine sees it:

Male leaders can tell women they love them and they’re important, but if at the end of the day they push aside the women’s gifts, the words will have no meaning. . . . I am convinced good-hearted male leaders are constantly asking themselves, “Am I telling women enough how much we love and appreciate them?” Many times the answer is yes. This is a question that can, to some degree, have a quantifiable answer on paper. From general conference talks to Mother’s Day flowers, women at church are told regularly how much we are loved. And yet we still are having problems with women feeling sufficiently heard, respected, and involved. If we adjust the question just slightly, we might get closer to the heart of the problem: “Are we showing women how much we love and appreciate them?” Better yet, “Are we seeing, hearing, and including women at church in a way that shows them we love and appreciate them?” And I will take it one step further: “Are we seeing, hearing, and including women at church in a way that allows them to know we respect them and their ideas?” . . . Hearing, seeing, and including women isn’t just about putting out more videos about them or giving them a seat on the stand, as important as those things are. It’s about asking ourselves whether or not we hear women’s contributions as authoritative. It’s about asking ourselves why we take a bathroom break during the female speaker in general conference. (43, 75, 145; emphasis added)

And it’s not just about men developing new eyesight—it’s about women, too.  After all, it’s really the women who police other women, isn’t it?  (On that note, please see my review of the film Maleficent in this issue.)  We’ve got a lot of work to do, both men and women in this Church, to set things on a better foundation.  McBaine gives us all a great head start--let’s take it and run with it.  Buy the book, pass it around, start those conversations . . .



[1] McBaine suggests that it’s time to clean up our language.  We need to call Relief society presidents, “President.”  In like manner, “temple matron” and “mission president’s wife” are unsatisfactory titles.  What we should call them, in my opinion, is “temple matriarch” and “mission matriarch,” for that is precisely what they are. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Hudson, Valerie M. (2014) "Book Review: Women at Church by Neylan McBaine," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHudsonMcBaine.html, accessed <give access date>.

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