Leaning In


The internet has been abuzz recently with discussion of a new form of feminism developed by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. In her new book, Lean In, and in a now famous TED talk, Sandberg argues that women need to do a better job advocating for themselves in the workplace, in taking opportunities even if they may conflict with a future reality, sitting at the table and expecting more from the men in their lives. As she says,

We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.

Sandberg has received criticism, including from other feminists, that she does not fully account for the systematic barriers in place that limit women’s equality in the workplace and in society. A lot of that criticism has been unfounded but regardless, in order for women to achieve true equality, there needs to be both systematic policy change and women leaning in and demanding their rightful place.

This philosophy can also be applied to women in the church. Indeed, Joanna Brooks did just this at Religious Dispatches this week in her article, Lean in Feminism…Religion Style

Are you a Mormon woman who dreams of the day someone like you might actually be allowed to offer the invocation or benediction at your faith’s semi-annual worldwide General Conference? Be sure to adjust your posture and tone of voice you use when you take your seat at the table and negotiate with… oh, wait. Are there women at the table where such decisions are made?

Her powerful thought experiment speaks to the same question and criticism that Sandberg received for her secular philosophy, “[i]f segregation is doctrine, where exactly should one lean?” I believe that, for some of us, the answer is in continued church activity and our local congregations. The pants activism is a perfect example of this kind of leaning in. It makes the pain visible and it also refuses to go anywhere else, despite other’s discomfort. This is not the kind of action that brings about huge change but it keeps our hands raised.

Additionally, there are things to be gained as a sister, feminist and person from leaning into a patriarchal system. Probably the most important for me is that it has allowed me to understand and commune with women I have nothing in common with. At the very least, meeting my sisters where they’re at and loving them despite our disagreements has made me a better advocate for the women I purport to be helping.

Is this the right way for every Mormon woman who struggles with the gender inequality in the church? No. Is it the only right way to do Mormon feminism? No. But neither is leaving the church and chaining one’s self to the temple gates. It will take all kinds of action for our cause to be successful.

What do you think of “Lean In” feminism? Do you think it can be applied to Mormonism? Are there merits to leaning into a system that is inherently problematic for women?


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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10 Responses

  1. April says:

    Elder Scott recently observed that too often, women are silent members of ward councils. He seemed to want more “lean in” behavior from women and offered tips for presiding officers to encourage women to contribute more. http://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/worldwide-leadership-training/2011/02/sisters-in-councils?lang=eng

    I appreciate his astuteness in noticing that this problem exists and I agree that his counsel to presiding officers would be helpful.

    However, he did not mention any of the systemic barriers to female participation in ward councils. I believe that addressing these systemic barriers is absolutely necessary to achieve the results Elder Scott would like:
    1. The presiding officer in these councils is always male.
    2. At the ward level, there are three councils; women are members of only one of these three councils.
    3. On the one governing council in which women are included, men outnumber women by a ratio of 10 to 3.

    • mraynes says:

      I think you’ve hit the upon the limitations of lean in feminism, April. You can only lean in so far without toppling over–in order for this to work there has to be some give back. One of my fears about this paradigm is that some men could use it to continue to exclude or minimize women by saying women just aren’t participating and so there is no need to address the systemic barriers.

  2. Justine says:

    The entire “lean in” way of thinking puts the onus on individual women and takes structural factors completely out of the equation. It may be useful advice for some women (usually those in privileged positions), but it can’t achieve systemic change.

    So, in the working world, what good is leaning in and not leaving until you leave, if your job won’t even be held open for you during your maternity leave? In the church context, what good is leaning in and enthusiastically participating if you aren’t *allowed* to participate at the level of real decision-making?

    • The problem with this way of thinking is that as Justine says it leaves structural disadvantages/advantages out of the equation, but these are essential to understand feminism and they are also essential in overcoming inequalities based on sex/gender.

  3. Caroline says:

    I love your reflections on this, mraynes.

  4. RachL says:

    [Lurk alert: hopefully I’m not breaking lurk code by commenting.]
    I feel like this has been my strategy the last few years as I’ve had an influential calling. I’ve sat in councils with the stake presidency often, sometimes even general authorities. I hope I made a difference while I held that position, and I think my willingness to ‘lean in’ during that time helped me make a feminist difference, at least in my geographic sphere.
    But now that I’ve been released, the lean-in strategy isn’t as appealing. What’s the point if my voice won’t be heard? I’m unsure now how I’ll navigate certain difficulties…
    This post was great food for thought and gives a nice way of expressing something I’ve been feeling but have been unable to articulate.

  5. Melody says:

    Yes. Lean in. That’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we’ll continue doing.

    We live in a world of masculine-centered (male-centric? I don’t know all the fancy terms, but you know what I mean) models – social, religious, political. I think there are effective ways to interact within the current system without selling out on feminine models. It requires some finesse because we are the “other” – which fact makes me want to throw up – but it’s what we have to work with, so let’s get in there and work.

    I agree wholeheartedly that real and lasting change will happen in the world as women assume positions of authority in greater and greater numbers. How that will work within the LDS church, I do not know. But times they are a-changin” even now. I have hope that my grand daughters and great grand daughters will see a better, more balanced and more ideal model of power and leadership shared equally between men and women in the LDS church of the future. Call it a mustard seed. It’s what I’ve got.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    A beautiful and thoughtful post again, mraynes. I think we can “lean-in” by offering thoughtful comments in Sunday School and giving powerful sacrament meeting talks, which can counter stereotypes of women being the weaker (or meeker) sex, but that doesn’t change the inherent patriarchal structure or the fact of the imbalance of power at meetings that women are allowed to attend.

    I get sad and frustrated at how often I have to use my husband to relay a message to local leaders because they don’t take me seriously.

  7. Suzette Smith says:

    I think the philosophy does apply to us. And I think we should use it. Keep leaning. Keep claiming what is ours.


  1. March 6, 2013

    […] By Mraynes […]

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