Book Review: “Women at Church” by Neylan McBaine
Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local ImpactBy Neylan McBaine. Reviewed by Geoff Openshaw
“Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church.” That quote by former LDS Church president George Albert Smith perfectly reflects many of the ideas proffered by Neylan McBaine in her excellent new book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact.
McBaine’s sensible approach comes at a time of strained relations between Mormon feminists and the more traditional church hierarchy, but in keeping with the Smith quote above, the author implies that many of the struggles currently surrounding gender issues are a result of Mormons not thinking independently enough. Perhaps Latter-day Saints are too prone to boxing themselves in.
This book is not for those of the Kate Kelly/Ordain Women persuasion. It does not push for radical, zero-sum change. Instead, McBaine has crafted a treatise on womanhood in the church and what small steps can be taken within current church administrative parameters to improve the role of women. Some are critical of this approach, as if it isn’t respectful enough to the real needs of women – and there are some merits to those arguments – but McBaine knows that change in the LDS community comes slowly and deliberately, and Mormon men and women are better off changing their attitudes, assumptions, and cultural leanings within existing church structure than attempting to force change from the top down. Women at Church encourages us to engage in constructive – not destructive – activities to reach a goal.
For those unfamiliar with the issues facing many women in Mormon culture, Women at Church demonstrates incredible empathy for all parties involved, not just disaffected women, but perhaps more importantly, well-intentioned but at-times insensitive or unaware male church leaders. This is a very well-measured work that should open the eyes of LDS priesthood leaders who think that feminist issues in the Church are just the concern of a few radical rabble rousers. As is evidenced through McBaine’s tireless research and anecdotal evidence, there are droves of devoted Mormon women who consider themselves active and dedicated to their faith, but also feel marginalized.
In McBaine’s view, female empowerment does not mean a neutering of male priesthood leadership. On the contrary, she offers up countless action items that, if employed, will ostensibly elevate both genders and result in a stronger body of church members in the long run. And while there are a few instances of he said/she said with default favoritism toward the female viewpoint, it is difficult not to agree with McBaine’s analysis of the problems faced and the solutions available to those willing to take proactive steps.
Should male priesthood quorums teach lessons out of the Relief Society work Daughters in My Kingdom? Sure. Why not? Can a Relief Society President address a priesthood meeting? Of course. What about female stake leaders visiting wards once a month along with a high councilor, instead of a returned missionary? Absolutely. The beauty of these and countless other ideas is that McBaine makes no overture toward stepping outside currently existing boundaries. She only quotes Handbook 2, which is publicly available to all, as well as other official Church publications.
There is also no mention of female ordination. Indeed, she says,
“If President Monson announced tomorrow that women would now be ordained to the 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. Universal priesthood ordination would not safeguard us much more effectively, I believe, than our current doctrine already does.”
The sheer breadth of McBaine’s research is astounding. She has collected stories from droves of LDS women, all with a story to tell, some still a part of the church, others having left the faith after unpleasant experiences with gender issues. Women at Church is as much a clarion call for male leadership in the Mormon Church to think a bit more proactively about how to better utilize women’s abilities in their wards and stakes as it is a plea for wounded women to not give up, but to be patient and find pragmatic solutions to current problems.
And notice the language a few sentences ago – utilize women’s abilities in ward and stakes. The subtitle of Women at Church is Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. McBaine wisely knows that institutional change comes at the local level, not by firing shots across the bow of the Church Office Building.
This is a monumental piece of work that comes at a time when it is sorely needed. McBaine is a vocal advocate for women, no doubt, but she represents the more pragmatic middle ground that can be accessible to everyday Mormons as well as more activist-minded ones. The institutional policies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are actually designed to give its members plenty of wiggle room to incorporate their own ideas and practices into their local areas. But while the Church is, on paper, flexible in these instances, too many hearts have been hurt due to established norms and mores – ones that need not confine us – and Neylan McBaine makes an excellent case for healing and pushing forward as a unified front in Women at Church.