Women Exit Quietly: A Review of Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church
Women are most likely to leave an organization after experiencing a psychological contract barrier, which is a belief “employees have about the entitlements they will receive and that they perceive were promised to them by their employers…. Violations of psychological contracts occur when the perceived implicit and explicit promises of employers are not fulfilled or are broken” (Hamel, 2009, p. 235). When these violations happen, instead of putting up a fight, standing up for one’s self, or speaking out, women quietly leave. In her research, Hamel found that some 90% of those interviewed left quietly.
Is this what is happening in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Elder Marlin K. Jensen, former Church historian, “would not provide any figures on the rate of defections, but he told Reuters that attrition has accelerated in the last five or ten years, reflecting greater secularization of society” (Henderson & Cooke, 2012, para. 6). While numbers aren’t available, I’ve heard talk of more women than men leaving the church. I know in my own family and circle of friends, there are many women who have left, primarily because of cultural misogyny and bigotry. Many of these women have strong beliefs about equality (for women and the LGBT community). They part with the Church because of their disgust over the treatment of these groups, both officially and in cultural settings.
I wonder if we are perpetuating bad practices in our culture and church by “exiting quietly” and allowing those psychological contract barriers to be broken and to break us. Instead of speaking out and effecting change, many of us walk away, leaving our less out-spoken sisters to fend for themselves. By exiting, I worry that we reinforce unhealthy cultural norms and allow others to push us away from our families, our faith, and ultimately our Heavenly Parents.
Neylan McBaine’s new book Women At Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (2014) attempts to change this culture of silent exiting, and instead posits ways that we can stay and improve our church experiences and the overall culture. Her book draws from what she has learned in interviewing hundreds of women for the Mormon Women Project, and she did additional research in interviewing local leaders, both male and female. She wrote, “Few practices change overnight. . . . Our process of cultural change is not revolutionary. . . . So adapting practice within our culture often requires assessing, attempting, pausing, reassessing, reattempting, and building consensus, rather than just putting a lead foot down on the pedal” (p. 167).
The thrust of the book is that the structure of the church may not change drastically or even soon, but that within the policies and procedures already in place, “there is ample room for us to imagine, innovate, experiment, and refine on the ward, stake, and mission levels” (p. xvii). She advocates maneuvering within the established hierarchy in ways that can improve Church culture and community. However, it is not possible to innovate without understanding the issues we face when it comes to gender inequality in the Church, so McBaine devotes the first section of her book to identifying these problems, acknowledging the pain of women within the church, and validating the concerns of many men and women who long to see culture not be mistaken for doctrine. It is a thorough attempt at understanding and explaining the landscape of gender concerns within the LDS Church.
McBaine identifies six major reasons for identity struggle within the Church. First, there is a “[d]isconnect between lived experience and Church experience” (p. 31). Women who might be validated or in leadership positions in their public lives likely do not receive the same recognition within the Church hierarchy. Second, women may not see any role models within Church structures or materials, and we “need to see ourselves reflected in our role models and leaders” (p. 36). Third, we might see unrighteous dominion and the misuse of Church councils. McBaine argues, “When female voices are not included in the counseling process, the council is working at half capacity. . . when our ideas are not heard or acted on, a little part of us shuts down” (p. 43).
Fourth, single sisters may be lost or ignored at the local level. McBaine wrote, “single women feel like they are less likely to be considered for local callings because they are unfit in some way to teach and preach to those having traditional family experiences” (p. 46). This perceived problem and resulting feelings for many women can be tempered by McBaine’s idea that “we should not confuse diversity with disunity. . . . difference does not have to breed disunity” (p. 19).
Fifth, many women and men in the Church are unaware of the unique and wonderful beginnings of the Relief Society, and just how important that organization was to the women of Nauvoo. McBaine notes the differences in the way Relief Society is run today, saying, “I’m not saying the way Relief Society functions today is wrong; I’m saying the comparison can be hard” (p. 52). Once we realize how differently the society functioned, it can absolutely be hard to reconcile how much autonomy and public influence the early sisters had in both Nauvoo and Salt Lake City compared to their visibility and influence today. Sixth, there is often a disconnect between our doctrine and our practice when it comes to equality. Women may not see “the institution of the Church practicing that equality doctrine in the same way as the world around them” (p. 53). We may have glorious doctrines about Mother Eve and Mother in Heaven, but those often receive little acknowledgement in curriculum and practice.
I’ve experienced my own disappointments at Church because of my gender, including advice from male leaders that made me uncomfortable or that blamed women for the problems men were experiencing. My mother’s bishop told her that my step-father’s pornography addiction was her fault and that she should sleep with him more. The bishop who interviewed me before I got married fourteen years ago told me to sleep with my husband whenever he wanted; if I didn’t, he would find it somewhere else. Such false cultural ideas contribute to the pain women experience at Church, especially when it is perpetuated by untrained and unaware male leaders.
Comforting to me, and I’m sure to many others who might feel confused and upset over the many events surrounding gender equality in our church community, many religious institutions are having conversations about women’s roles. McBaine wrote, “There can be a perception that we Mormons are wrestling with these challenges in backward isolation and that the rest of the world has figured this all out already. Let me assure you: nobody has figured it out. And it’s not just faith communities that are navigating this path” (p. 173).
While much of this turmoil has interested, confused, and saddened me, I have been mostly grateful that conversations are happening within my faith community and that it seems like we have made progress at listening to each other’s concerns and embracing difference and diversity, as suggested by Bonnie L. Oscarson in the April 2014 General Women’s Meeting. I especially appreciated McBaine’s report on one stake’s gender forum as part of their annual women’s conference. A member of the stake presidency particularly attuned to gender issues moderated the forum at the suggestion of a local member, and women within the stake felt free to discuss and share their ideas and concerns. They reported, “Many expressed frustration that people assumed they were unfaithful or ‘didn’t get the gospel’ because of their concerns. . . .Their relief at being able to publicly discuss their concerns was palpable. . . . [W]hat great power there is in talking face to face to others about the closest issues to our hearts” (p. 121-122). Such a forum is just one idea about how to address and face gender issues at the local level.
The second half of Women at Church outlines solutions to challenges surrounding gender inequality. McBaine advocates tactical moves and cooperation in an effort to lessen pain, increase unity, and lead to a better sense of community at the local level. This approach requires that members speak up, learn to deal with conflict in constructive ways, volunteer their time and talents (which they already do, as this is a rich part of the Mormon experience), and learn to deal with disappointment. She approaches all of this through Dave Blanchard’s framework of prayer, people, process, and perseverance.
We learn that “prayer is the critical first step in which we should all be constantly and meaningfully engaged” (emphasis mine, p. 84). McBaine sees prayer as an obvious source for inspiration, and a buffer against disappointment if we know that a “recommendation has come from a place of inspiration and pure desires” (p. 84). By focusing on people, we might use strategy “when approaching male leaders” (p. 90) or be more likely to open lines of communication with our leaders. We also need to work on strengthening ward council relationships and be aware of the research on different communication styles for men and women. I especially liked the innovation mentioned by several bishops, that they formed 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 [do] in ward council meetings” (p. 101). This gives the female leaders more of a voice, and consequently leads to greater awareness of other women in the ward.
In the section on process, we learn that there’s nothing wrong with creating adaptive gender practices. She specifically mentions involving more women in Sacrament meeting on the stand. Claudia Bushman, at a symposium in her honor, recently mentioned getting the Young Women involved in the Sacrament meeting music. McBaine shares the idea of having “the Young Women act as permanent greeters” (p. 127). There are numerous ways to adapt practices to be more inclusive of women, especially our Young Women. This may also include equal budgeting and equal activities for both boys and girls in our wards. In my ward, the Young Women have been on river rafting trips and skiing trips as many times as the boys have. McBaine argues, “girls need to be able to feel equivalent investment and significance in the events” (p. 133). I especially liked the idea she reported, that when a Young Woman receives her recognition award, she and her parents be invited to sit on the stand and that they all be allowed to say a few words about her achievement. McBaine also touches on a major concern of many parents, that of having a female leader or parent in the room with a young woman when she is interviewed by the bishop. If this practice can be adapted, why not address the discomfort of “any man having the responsibility of asking a teen girl questions about her relationship to her body” (p. 136)?
McBaine suggests in the section on perseverance that we might need to learn how to handle and face disappointment with grace. Our suggestions to leaders and efforts to enact change might not work and we still might not be listened to. McBaine notes that “our interactions with others here on earth have the power to affect the way we feel about our faith. So when things go wrong, our relationship to our faith can take a hit if we’re not adept at assessing our spiritual lives separately from our Church experiences” (p. 169). We need to learn to protect our faith and our relationship with our Heavenly Parents no matter what others of our community might say or do that upsets us.
Overall, her approach is one of consensus building, while taking into account the very real differences that occur among members. She is hopeful, and calls for ways of staying within the church in order to improve it for everybody. I like her approach. I find her hope infectious. She reminded me that “efforts are being made at the general level to see, hear, and include women that we still have yet to mirror at the local 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” (p. 177). I see value in focusing on what we can do to improve the situation, rather than lamenting what we cannot.
I felt slightly disappointed at some of the ways in which she counseled women to approach leaders and to tiptoe around issues, as it seems that we should be able to speak our minds without fear of reprisal or reasonably approach a male leader without having to stroke his ego first. However, as a scholar in professional communication, I understand how important rhetoric and reaching an audience is. If that audience isn’t ready for more direct tactics, then those of us interested in change must likely stick to McBaine’s measured and careful approach to enacting awareness of gender inequality at the local level.
Upon finishing, I handed this book to my husband. If we are going to talk about gender issues at church, men need to read this book as much as the women who might be confused or suffering. I hope many local leaders take the time to listen, whether to McBaine or to the men and women who might approach them with concerns and suggestions. For as Lucy Mack Smith said, and as McBaine quoted, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together” (p. 69).
Hamel, S. A. (2009). Exit, voice, and sensemaking following psychological contract violations: Women’s responses to career advancement barriers. Journal of Business Communication, 46(2), 234-261.
Henderson, P. & Cooke, K. (2012, January 30). Special report—Mormonism besieged by the modern age. Reuters. Retrieved from http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/01/30/uk-mormonchurch-idUKTRE80T1CP20120130
McBaine, N. (2014). Women at church: Magnifying LDS women’s local impact. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books.
(Emily January Petersen is a Ph.D. student and research fellow in the Theory and Practice of Professional Communication program at Utah State University. Her research focuses on professional identities from a feminist perspective. Her work has been published in Intercom, Indiana English, and Sunstone. She has forthcoming articles in JTWC and SIGDOC. She blogs at thebookshelfofemilyj.com.)