Forget priesthood - some Mormon feminists seek a middle way

LDS women see paths to greater equality and fulfillment that won’t require ordination.

The Salt Lake Tribune/August 25, 2014

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Neylan McBaine doesn’t see herself as a feminist crusader.

When McBaine, a lifelong Latter-day Saint reared in New York City, accepted an invitation to speak about women’s issues at a Mormon apologists’ meeting two summers ago, she simply wanted to communicate to an orthodox audience that the pain of some women within the Utah-based religion was real — and potent.

But that speech — which outlined ways LDS women feel marginalized, offered statistics on female members who are leaving the faith over gender issues and proposed small changes in church staffing and rhetoric that might make big differences — set off a new wave of Mormon feminist activism and awareness that no one could have predicted.

Since then, LDS women pushing for change — from wearing pants to church services to praying at General Conference and seeking female ordination to the all-male priesthood — have attracted local and national attention.

But such efforts also have divided the faithful in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kate Kelly, who helped launch the Ordain Women movement in 2013, was excommunicated in June, while many an online discussion about Mormon feminism has devolved into name calling and polarization.

McBaine, a brand strategist at LDS Church-owned Bonneville Communications in Salt Lake City, has tried to chart a moderate path — pointing out problems and asking for change while resisting radical moves such as ordination.

“I didn’t start with the goal of being a spokeswoman for a particular vein of thought on Mormon women,” she says. “I feel I have been thrust into this position.”

Other like-minded Latter-day Saints in the U.S. and abroad — some of whom consider themselves feminists, while others avoid that label — also have embraced a careful approach short of ordination, trying to help the church they love navigate the gender storm that seems to building all around.

An urgent need • McBaine, whose mother was an accomplished opera singer and a single mom, was surrounded by strong Mormon women.

When she moved to Utah in 2010, she launched The Mormon Women Project, an online library of interviews with a variety of accomplished female Latter-day Saints.

Now, McBaine, who is married and has three daughters, has unveiled a volume from Greg Kofford Books, “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact,” an expansive look at the issues, scriptures and history that formed the basis of her 2012 speech.

McBaine interviewed a handful of key Mormon leaders in Utah, two dozen male and female leaders across the country, and more than 100 members via email to gather stories about LDS congregations that had discovered ways to enhance the role of women.

Among the suggestions:

• Establish parity in budgets and fun activities between Cub Scouts and girls’ Activity Days.

• Honor girls in front of the congregation at key ages, just as boys are.

• Involve women in baby blessings led by the all-male priesthood.

• Assign young women to be permanent Sunday greeters.

• Have young women hold the microphones at testimony meetings.

• Allow members to have a woman sit in a worthiness interview with the male priesthood leader.

• Quote female sources in sermons, Relief Society and Sunday school lessons.

There are many such structural tweaks Mormons can introduce to “make the church a place where struggles are supported, not compounded,” McBaine writes, “...a haven, not a hindrance, for those who seek greater gender cooperation in their church experience.”

After all, she adds, “communal relationships and interactions are the road on which faith finds its way.”

Such revisions may be even more important outside the Mormon corridor, Intermountain West or the U.S.

A global view • Earlier this month, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, a Mormon in New Zealand who has a doctorate and four kids, penned a widely read essay about LDS women’s invisibility.

“An investigator who walks into a Mormon congregation on Sunday sees a row of older men sitting on the stand and a group of younger men administering religious rites,” Inouye writes on the Patheos website. “To this outside observer, neither the formal leadership of the [women’s] Relief Society president nor the informal influence of women within the community are immediately apparent.”

The issue of visibility is not insignificant, she argues. “Visible equality is important, not just for the sake of correcting outsiders’ negative public perceptions, but for the sake of our youth — especially the young women — who are in many ways still ‘investigators,’ looking at the church in the context of the many life paths that are open to them and trying to decide whether the church looks like a place where they belong.”

LDS authorities boosted the visibility of the church’s general women leaders during April’s General Conference by seating them in the middle of the all-male Quorum of the Seventy. Before that, women sat off to the right.

Such efforts to spotlight female Latter-day Saints are crucial in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Inouye writes, a “deeply patriarchal culture” where “women do most of the everyday chores, defer to their husbands on decisions like whether to become pregnant or what to name their child, and generally act as servants to the men of the family.”

In many LDS wards there, men often teach both Young Women classes (for girls 12 to 17) and Primary (for children ages 3 to 11), she writes, “because the women who are called to teach don’t come prepared. ... Congolese women members do not see why they can’t be the ones to fulfill a leadership or teaching responsibility at church.”

Young women also need visible assignments at church — like young male priesthood holders bless and prepare the sacrament, collect financial offerings and count the number of attendees.

Inouye envisions young females “called to serve as ushers, musicians, local missionaries ... and teachers.”

In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, young women could be “called to learn and eventually to teach French (the language of education and of church materials in that country),” Inouye writes, “or young women in Newport Beach, California, called to learn and eventually to teach Spanish [for local service as a stake missionary working in humanitarian services].”

Inouye imagines Laurels (older teenage girls) “trained to be doulas, supporting women physically and spiritually through long hours of labor,” she says, “in the tradition of generations of Mormon women in the 19th and early 20th centuries who ministered to laboring sisters through the laying on of hands.”

Equal partnership between men and women needs to be modeled at church, Inouye says. Women must be visible to be respected.

Back to the future • Boston-based Helen Claire Sievers believes Mormon women were much more visible — and empowered — in the 1950s through 1970s, when the faith’s female auxiliaries were independent entities. They controlled their own budgets, ran their own organizations, had their own magazines, and stood atop large, traveling general boards.

“I had no problem with [not having] the priesthood or anything else when I was a young adult and working in the church because we, as women, were doing such serious things, things that were important to the church membership,” says Sievers, executive director of WorldTeach, a nongovernmental organization that originated at Harvard and partners with ministries of education to send volunteers to teach in low- and middle-income countries.

She would like to see the church harness its women and resources to do “saving-the-world sorts of things.”

Classrooms in LDS chapels could be used to teach language classes, and not just on Sunday. Women paired as visiting teachers could become “community health workers,” going into homes to talk about hygiene and simple lifesaving techniques.

“We are bubbling over with talent in the church, people who are retired or who have extra time, who could advise on committees to develop targeted materials that would greatly improve the quality of life of members everywhere,” Sievers says. “We could also craft and sponsor programs that would improve skills of men and women, especially in middle- and low-income countries, and make them more employable in targeted ways (see what the job opportunities are in the region, and then train the people to have the needed skills).”

Young women could be learning languages, speaking and organizational skills in their Sunday or weekday meetings, she says, preparing for missions.

“Forget the priesthood,” Sievers says. “Let us work on something substantive, like we used to ... and work with the men, too.”

And all of this could be achieved without ordaining Mormonism’s first female elder.

How to enhance LDS female roles short of ordination

Establish parity in budgets and fun activities between Cub Scouts and girls’ Activity Days.

Honor girls in front of the congregation at key ages, just as boys are.

Send girls out visiting teaching with women.

Assign a woman to coordinate sacrament meetings.

Involve women in baby blessings led by the all-male priesthood.

Address all female auxiliary leaders as “president,” just as Mormons do male leaders

Call young women to be permanent Sunday greeters.

Have young women hold the microphones at testimony meetings.

Allow members to have a woman sit in a worthiness interview with the male priesthood leader.

Quote female sources in sermons, Relief Society and Sunday school lessons.

Name women as coordinators to connect full-time missionaries with service opportunities.

Book excerpts

“It feels like there has been a heightened pitch and urgency to the dialogue around gender that has been bubbling since our church’s earliest days. The major shift is that the Internet is no longer used just to discuss ideas and experiences; it has become a tool for crowd-sourced action.”

“Some of us are thinking about what it means to be a Mormon woman for the very first time, either in a process of self-reflection or by putting ourselves in a Mormon woman’s shoes. Our history — in the past, yes, but also as it unfolds in real time before our eyes — challenges us to engage in the conversation and remain tethered to each other through our dedication to our heavenly family.”

Source: “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact” by Neylan McBaine

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