Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Women at Church"

Okay ladies! Prepare yourself for an overly-reactionary post. I'm writing now out of frustration and trying to sort out my thoughts, so I'm probably not going to be entirely fair. This is one of the few groups in which I feel like I can say what I really think without having to account for dissenting opinions (not that you won't HAVE dissenting opinions, but I'm not afraid you'll be mad at me for having them).

So, I finally got Neylan McBaine's "Women at Church" on hold from the library and read through it (quickly). I think I already told you, I'm not a fan of Ms. McBaine but I think I came into it with a pretty open mind because several people I AM a fan of had recommended the book and said it was useful/thoughtful/faith-based. Maybe the best points in the book were already highlighted in the reviews I read, because I could hardly find anything else I liked. In fact, I almost didn't finish it because the book and its tone was making me so mad. (I try not to be afraid of engaging with different opinions, but I also try to be sensitive to my own limits of tolerance: e.g. I don't read comments on most online articles because I know if I do, I'll just get madder and madder and more helpless-feeling. I'm able to be more Christlike when I don't even listen to certain arguments. Then I can charitably assume people are more intelligent and well-meaning than they really are. :)) But, I pressed on to the end, where I found a few redeeming statements and a few interesting anecdotes, so I shouldn't say the book was a total waste of time. I'll get back to those good parts in a minute, but first:

1. Fully half the book was spent analyzing women's "pain" and how we must not minimize it. I think the author's argument was basically that if any woman feels pain related to her identity at church or as a Mormon woman, it is unethical to deny or try to minimize that pain, much as it is unhelpful/unacceptable to tell a depressed person to "just get over it and stop being so sad." I acknowledge, based on many discussions I've had with people who struggle with depression, that "just get over it" isn't helpful. However, I reject the idea that the "I-feel-your-pain" type of validation is a cure either. Certainly, just telling someone to "see things the way I do!" isn't going to solve anything---and yet this is just what Ms. McBaine seems to be telling those who DON'T feel "Mormon Woman"-related pain to do! You don't feel pain, but some people do, therefore PAIN is valid and NO PAIN is invalid. I reject that. I think we can acknowledge that we see things differently, but as in the case with depression, sometimes a solution- or skills-based approach is much more helpful than simply "validating" an (often inaccurate, or at least debateable) worldview. Validation may help begin the process and establish trust, but to truly COPE with depression, one needs tools: perhaps medication, therapy, practice in changing thinking patterns, mental exercise and repetition of positive thought patterns, formation of new habits, exercise, etc. etc. So, insomuch as "pain" needs to be "recognized," let's recognize it like this: We all feel "pain" from various incongruities in our lives. Some Mormon women feel "pain" related to lack of recognition or validation from the church. Some Mormon women feel "pain" related to being dismissed as ignorant or anti-feminist because they don't feel those same needs. Okay, let's be compassionate to each others' struggles. Now we all need to move past "pain" and let it stop defining us. How, then, can we move ahead? This book was touted as a "solution-based" book that I was HOPING would address exactly that question; instead, I found it was only "empathetic" toward the "pain narrative" and dismissive of (and condescending toward) those who dislike viewing the world through a "she-who-has-the-most-pain-is-most-important" view. Also: no acknowledgement that men, also, can experience "pain"?

2. Sorry for all the scare-quotes around "pain," but I just can't stand that overused, overemphasized word. Neylan McBaine runs in very specific circles and in those Women's Studies-type circles I'm sure it's popular. I was an English Minor, I can do that with the best of them; I can write paper after paper giving you literary theory from deconstruction or feminism or post-modernism or whatever you want. But our church is practical. It's not a facade or a "construct" like literary theory (or social science theory) is. Let's stop using the "pain" rhetoric and focus on self-determination, agency, and individual accountability like so many of the conference talks did. I realize you can't tell someone ELSE to suck it up and not feel pain. You can't even really tell yourSELF that when you're struggling. But certainly, the "Lord, is it I?" mentality (that Elder Uchtdorf talked about so beautifully in priesthood session) is more helpful than all this hand-wringing about who feels what and how fragile our personal narratives can be. The whole reason I LOVE the gospel is because it goes away from that academic mush. Am I having a problem with someone at church? Well, Lord, is it I? The answer is probably going to be yes every time. It is _I_ that can change my own attitudes, behaviors, and determination to be happy and grateful for what I have---no matter what I don't have. (See also this article:

3. This is already getting too long. But I'm not done. Sorry.

4. She mentions several specifics that I find laughable. Okay, fine, we disagree---but again, she presents these "pain-causing" events as something that should be addressed on a leadership level IF EVEN ONE PERSON FINDS THEM PAINFUL. This is the same idiotic "better to discard the whole program if even one person is offended" mentality that so many colleges and organizations are adopting, and it's SO harmful!! It teaches us that whichever worldview is most pain-centered takes precedence over every other worldview. I can't think of anything MORE likely to cause learned helplessness, powerlessness, and depression---especially in the very women (the "vulnerable" ones who already feel inferior) she is trying to help! "I am unable to thrive in a hostile environment." "I can only truly blossom when I am indulged and treated as a fragile, inflexible product of my emotions." Really??! They see this as progress? For example, she says "Why do scouts have a Blue and Gold Banquet and the Activity Days Girls do not have an event of their own." ????!?! What's stopping the A.D. girls from having whatever thing they want? Do we have to have our leaders TELL us to have a banquet (a "Pink and White" banquet, perhaps?!) in order to make us truly equal?? When I was in Merrie Miss, we had a Daddy-daughter banquet, a Mother-daughter luncheon, a fancy costume dinner---it was great! Way better than any Cub Scout thing I've ever been to. What, exactly, would Ms. McBaine see as a success in this area? If every single ward in the church was REQUIRED by the handbook to have a girls' banquet during the same week as the Cub Scout Banquet? If girls had TWO banquets to the boys' one? What about New Beginnings? There's no priesthood equivalent to that. She says later in the book,

"The point is not that the events have to be the same, but that the girls need to feel equivalent investment and significance to the event. They need to be able to say to themselves, ' I don't feel left out of the father-and-sons campout because because my father (or mother) and I get to spend special time together during the (fill in the blank) church activity, which is just as exciting and interesting to me as what the boys are doing." 

But the very fact that she gives absurd examples like the Blue and Gold Banquet shows that she doesn't believe this. And WHO DECIDES if the activities are "equally fun" or whatever? I can't believe the arrogance of ANYONE to assume that this can be settled so that everyone is happy! She talks about how it's unfair that "the girls have to do cooking activities while the boys do rock climbing and high-adventure." Who says? You're making an awfully big assumption to say that girls would all feel happier and more challenged if they had to do winter campouts. ALL GIRLS ARE NOT THE SAME! You are not going to be able to come up with any activities that make ALL the girls think "this is just as exciting and interesting to me as what the boys are doing"! When I was YW president, we went to girls camp at a Boy Scout high-adventure camp one year. It cost a lot and it was only 3 days, but we thought it would be different and fun. And it was, for some of the girls. But some of them absolutely hated it. They hated the constant forced-adventure, they hated the emphasis on "stretching yourself" physically, they hated the lack of down-time and traditional camp activities like playing games and braiding hair. The traditional girls camp, with its less-"adventure"-oriented focus, was a way better fit for these girls! So to insist that for every mountain hike the Scouts go on, the girls go on one too---otherwise "some girls" might feel slighted---seems totally short-sighted. Why not, instead, focus on telling the girls "The activities aren't all about you. You should come even when they don't seem fun to you, because you are learning to be part of a group. You are learning to support others. You are learning to think and be challenged in different ways." Sure, plan the high-adventure stuff if you want. Customize stuff to your ward and your girls. But don't try to make this attempt into some sort of noble vision that hasn't ever been tried in YW before. And don't assume it will make every girl feel more validated and happy "as a woman."

5. Another example she gives:
"If there is a father-and-son campout, is there also a father-and-daughter or mother-and-daughter campout?" 
"My ward recently announced from the pulpit that our annual father-and-son campout was now a father-and-child campout. There were audible cheers from the congregation, and not just from my three daughters."  
I find this worldview condescending at best and stifling at worst. It would be like saying to your kids, "It would be unfair for me to spend time with one of you if I can't do it with all of you. Therefore, all interviews and conversations will now be conducted as a group. I will take all of you shoe-shopping together. If we have a lunch date, either all of us will go, or none of us." How absurd to say that there's no value to one-on-one time with one gender. Or even that that one-on-one time must be spent equally, doing the same thing, with both genders at different times! I would be horrified if I had to take my daughters camping alone. I would hate it and I can guarantee that for me, there would be more frustrated fiddling with the tent poles and tossing and turning on rocks all night than there would be Sisterly Female Empowerment. To me, the "equivalent" of the "male bonding" that occurs during the father-son campout could be achieved by sending the moms and daughters to the art museum. Or to an ice-cream party. I'm not saying we can't do mother-daughter campouts! If my ward planned one I might even go. But to say without them, there is no true equality (as long as there's a father-son campout)? Ridiculous. And you are depriving both girls and boys of enjoyable opportunities if you believe that. Again, how whiny are we teaching our daughters to be if we let them get away with saying, "The boys always get to do campouts! We never get to! The church likes boys best!" I would tell a daughter who said that, "The activities are to benefit everyone in the ward, not just you. This is the boys' chance to be singled out. You should be happy for them, not jealous. You will have your times to feel special too, but if you're keeping count, you're missing the point of the gospel, which is to 'forget ourselves and go to work'."

Related: I recently saw an advertisement for a "mother-daughter" bowling night organized by the community association. Someone had commented on the article, "What about sons? Can we bring them too?" To which the reply was, "Of course! Feel free to bring sons!"  Well, way to make the entire event totally meaningless. "What about those of us who don't want to go bowling? Can we do hiking instead?" "We don't have parents who can come, so can we come as a brother-sister pair, is that okay?" Why not just call it "Any-combination-of-people-come-and-do-anything-at-whatever-time-and-place-you-choose" Night (Or Day)"?

6. Ms. McBaine says,
"These questions" [i.e. like the one above, "If there is a father-and-son campout, is there also a father-and-daughter or mother-and-daughter campout?] "might make us uncomfortable; they might even feel wrong. But there's a lesson there, an opportunity to stretch our empathetic stance by seeing the church experience through the eyes of a woman who may feel invisible or underappreciated. As one woman wrote to me, women have 'vastly different experiences' in their church membership than men. By walking in women's shoes, we can make sure we are asking the right questions about what we can do to improve the impact of women at church."
Oh my goodness. Where to start. First of all, I can hardly think of a more condescending attitude than to say someone who rejects her loaded questions must simply be "uncomfortable" with them. We poor misguided, anti-intellectual souls, being forced (for our own good!) out of our naïve and ignorant "comfort zones" into the stimulating and utopian world of Neylan McBaine! My objections to her questions have nothing to do with being "uncomfortable" and everything to do with the fact that I, as an intelligent and independent being, think they won't solve our problems! In fact, I think they will exacerbate our problems by teaching women that helplessness and "pain" trump agency and conscious gratitude. "Asking the 'right' questions", ha! How laughably egotistical! In this worldwide church, why are "right questions" defined as "the questions Neylan McBaine and her Facebook group of high-powered New York women think are profoundly important"?? (She talks elsewhere about how she was so happy that a lady she knew that "raised four kids in a townhouse in Brooklyn" was on the YW General Board, because "Only a handful of Mormons understand my personal identity as Mormon New-Yorker, and she is one of them . . . she is my tribe, my people." Okay, but I'm sorry, there isn't going to be someone on the YW Board that represents every identity group in the church. I find the fact that she craves the leadership positions of 'her people' disturbing, since part of the whole point of the way leadership happens in this church is that we learn to get along with those that are different from us. Isn't that her whole point about how men need to think of other viewpoints besides their own?)

I also find the statement that "women have 'vastly different experiences' in their church membership than men" to be banal and substantively misleading. I think PEOPLE in the church have vastly different experiences than EACH OTHER. The fact that Neylan McBaine and I are both women does not mean that we share a "worldview," any more than the fact that a geranium and I are both carbon-based lifeforms means we can both live in a window box. So yes, restate if you want the obvious truth that "we all have different experiences in the church." But you CAN'T make that statement about just women! And you CAN'T pretend that only women struggle with knowing what their place is, what their role should be, and how they can best fulfill that role. Those are questions we all seek answers to, and if you're going to ask people to walk in each others' shoes, let's make it reciprocal and ask these "pain-filled" women to "walk in the shoes" of other women that might feel uncomfortable with more recognition---or men that might not like church basketball---or men that might wish they had less responsibility---or whatever. In short, let's keep asking the church members to "be a little better" as individuals and as organizations, and skip the one-sided pyschobabble about "stretching our empathetic stance."

7. She responds (sort of) to point #5 above about how including everyone in everything, girls and boys, may diminish the experience for all, by saying this can be worked around:
"Alternate solutions can be found if there are sensitivities. What about a separate girls' Pinewood Derby on the same night where the boys cheer on the girls and the girls cheer on the boys? Or what about a wooden boat race for the girls? . . . If there is a feeling that the separate gender experiences are valuable and thus the activities shouldn't be integrated, the ideas are endless."
Oh wow, "the ideas are endless," are they? What about the idea that as mature and rational people, we don't have to keep score (or teach our kids to keep score) to make sure every church endeavor has its perfect gender-mirror equivalent? She continues:
"One reason some people advocate for boys and girls to participate in the same activity as opposed to different, gendered activities is because different activities can rarely be objectively deemed comparable if they are defined by gender stereotypes." [My note: Wait! You don't like gender stereotypes? But what about your statement that "women have vastly different experiences in their church membership than men"? What about the research you cite that women tend to use "rapport-talk" while men tend to use "report-talk" and this creates communication barriers?] "For instance, we may find ourselves saying, 'Well, the boys have the Pinewood Derby but the girls get to make scripture bags.' Who says those two things have parity? Who says a girl won't feel the Pinewood Derby to be a closer expression of herself and more appealing than making a scripture bag? Also, Pinewood Derby, like Boys Scouts overall, has a heritage, a brand, a code word that sends ripples of understanding through our whole community and binds us together. Unless making scripture bags has that same longevity, that same nostalgia and parental bonding opportunity, it does not have the same emotional payoff for the girls."
So . . . according to this, not only do girls' and boys' activities have to be equivalent in budget, duration, "excitement and interest" in the mind of every participant, significance, and frequency, they also have to have equivalent heritage, brand, "code word" potential (!?), nostalgia, and opportunity for parental bonding in order to satisfy the cause of Mormon Women. Wow! I can't even imagine the pressure for Young Women and Men leaders trying to do this. They would have to plan everything together, and add in or cut out a bunch of stuff to make sure everything was fair! And "objectively [as if that's even possible] deemed comparable"! Heaven help the ward that had more girls than boys, or more Beehives than Laurels, because activities would have to be tailored to girl/boy equality rather than age-appropriateness. And, Ms. McBaine, who says the Pinewood Derby and scripture bags DON'T have parity? Who has to agree that they're equal before we get to call them equal? Every single person in the organization? In the ward? In the church? What are we teaching the girls when we encourage them in thinking, wrongly, that the Pinewood Derby is more important than scripture bags? Again, whose paradigm are you accepting when you say, "Girls aren't intelligent enough to distinguish between different types of activities, so they will inevitably perceive favoritism when theirs differ from the boys'." Is it so radical to believe that we can teach the girls, "Pinewood Derby has been a tradition for the Cubs forever. But we get to make our own traditions! And competitions and trophies don't automatically make an activity more worthwhile!" Sure, let the girls plan a wooden boat race if that's what they get excited about, but it's so LIMITING to say that's the only way we can be equivalent! And it's so LAZY to say that the best criteria for activities are "excitement and interest" on the part of the girls. What about service? What about selflessness? What about the inspiration of the leaders to plan things the girls didn't think of themselves? What about educating them about something new, something they might not think is valuable initially but will learn to love and cherish once they have been gently pushed to do it?

And a side note: My personal experience with the Pinewood Derby is that it's time-consuming, frustrating, and Sam hates having to deal with it, during the "building" phase---and it's chaotic, wild, confusing, disappointing, and exciting during the "racing" phase. The boys like it, so we keep doing it. It's a fun and bearable thing to do once a year. But to hold it up as an ideal of "nostalgia," "binding us together" and "parental bonding" strikes me as so naïve as to be laughable. Has Ms. McBaine, mother of all daughters, ever actually attended a Pinewood Derby? I have attended probably a dozen New Beginnings programs that were better-planned, better-attended, more enjoyable, more educational, and more spiritually uplifting than any Pinewood Derby. (Although I guess we aren't allowed to equate those two things, since they are for different ages! Okay, fine, substitute my Merrie Miss Father-Daughter Party. Same thing applies.) And yet she sees this as an example of "pain-causing" gender bias in the church! I would guess that at least half of the Cub Scout leaders would give their right eyes to dispense with the mandated Pinewood Derby and the Blue and Gold Banquet and plan their OWN activities, as the Activity Days girls get to, instead.

8. Let me end by quoting another statement which I find unobjectionable by itself:
"Let us not, then, dismiss our accountability for our sisters as Cain dismissed his accountability for his brother. When their potential is not explored, we are all responsible. When their impact is not magnified, we are all responsible. When they feel marginalized or underutilized or unappreciated, we are all responsible. When they are not brought to Christ, we are responsible."
I agree that we should not tell people, men or women, that their feelings and experiences don't matter. I agree that when possible, leaders should be free, under the guidance of the spirit, to make non-doctrine-related changes or adjustments to their organizations. The examples of wards in other countries holding their meetings on Mondays instead of Sundays because that's when their ward members can get to church, or wards that call a woman as Ward Mission Leader because that's who the bishop is inspired to call, are great. I think those examples of changing the cultural norm are probably great blessings to their wards. But although this book gives lip service to the idea that we should all listen to and adapt for each other, in practice she seems to be advocating that we ONLY adapt for and sympathize with one very specific viewpoint: that of the alienated, achievement-oriented, LDS woman who sees success and equality as being defined by our current American understanding of those terms. No doubt Ms. McBaine knows and has heard from many of those women. But that viewpoint is not the only valid viewpoint, nor the only one that deserves consideration and courtesy. By putting other church members into a group that she says are "all" responsible when some feel "marginalized or underutilized or unappreciated," she denies "our sisters" (and ourselves!) the fundamental dignity of choosing how to respond to our own circumstances. She talks in the last chapter of the book about how each of us, when we think of things we feel are wrong in the church, should say to ourselves, "I'm the someone that can do better. I can change myself instead of waiting for someone to make things better for me." I fully agree with this idea, and yet practically every "solution" she proposes, every policy change she suggests, contradicts this idea by saying that we are "underappreciating" women when we don't make them feel valued in every aspect of their church experience. But how can we "make" someone feel anything? Praising women for their goodness is offensive to some women. Criticizing women for their shortcomings is offensive to some women. Pointing out differences between women is offensive to some women. Pointing out differences between men and women is offensive to some women. Of course, I'm not saying we should give up on the idea of valuing and validating others if possible. But I think the only true solution is to do as our leaders are already doing: teach doctrine! Teach people to choose to do good and be unselfish and be happy for the blessings of others! Teach people (like President Uchtdorf did in his last conference talk) that they can be grateful IN their circumstances, even if not FOR their circumstances---e.g., if they are in a ward where their bishop doesn't seem to value women's voices. Yes, some men should be better at listening to women, but it's not an institutional problem, it's a "natural man" problem which can be addressed by teaching the word of God, non-gender-specifically. I do think there is a place for gendered dialogue in the church, but it should focus on how we can better adapt ourselves for and magnify our God-given roles, as set forth in the Proclamation on the Family and the scriptures, rather than on "what women need from men" or "how we can be more equal."

9. Whew! That was long. And perhaps I read Ms. McBaine unfairly in places. I have lots more I could say, but we'll leave it there. I hope you'll go ahead and correct me where I'm off-base; that's always a very real possibility when I get emotionally invested in something like I did with this book. :) Thanks for letting me vent!

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