These days Mormons can’t seem to get off the op-ed page. As folks who share the faith of Mitt Romney, are subjects of a Tony Award winning musical, and an assertive ad campaign us Mormon are everywhere–and so are stereotypes about us. In a recent interview on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talked with a Romney biographer about Romney’s interactions with a group of Mormon women when he was a stake president. While the story about Romney is interesting, what is more interesting is the way the biographer describes the group of women: they wanted “a more liberalized set of standards”; they “were tired of not being able to speak in church and they wanted changing tables in the men’s restrooms”; “there were a series of things they asked for that they thought would bring women up to maybe not an equal level in the Mormon church but for them to have a greater voice in the life of the Church.”
Now, besides the gross error that Mormon women aren’t allowed to speak in Church, it’s pretty distressing to me that what characterized this group of women as liberals was that they wanted change tables in the men’s room. Really? Getting the men to help care for the babies? Isn’t that a little quaint? The picture this anecdote paints is one done in broad strokes with inexact coloring where the women come out in an ill-educated, unsatisfied, barefoot-in-the-kitchen kind of way. There is little nuance or subtlety and it is ultimately dissatisfying to me in a very personal way.*
However, what makes this piece stand out from so many other misrepresentations is the fact that there was a group of Mormon women who saw a need and found a way to get it met. They were polite, they were strong, and they got the job done. That’s the kind of Mormon woman I identify with–and the kind of women Neylan McBaine is seeking out and presenting to the world with through her Mormon Women Project. The stories she chronicles are the kind so many, many Mormon women identify with as their own. Subjects covered include women of many nationalities, races, and backgrounds. There are stories about surviving sexual abuse and difficult marriages. There are women who come from long legacies of Mormon membership and new converts. The portraits drawn by MWP are detailed, with many tones and hues, and offer a great richness to the picture of Mormon women.
Neylan graciously agreed to answer some of my questions regarding the project and it’s significance in Mormon culture.
Laura Hilton Craner: You have a unique name. How is it pronounced? Does it have any significant history in your life?
Neylan McBaine: I’m so happy you asked about my name! It’s pronounced “NY – lin,” (The first, stressed syllable rhymes with “high”.) It was my great-grandfather’s surname – John Francis Neylan – and thus my grandmother’s maiden name and my father’s middle name. John Francis Neylan was a powerful and brilliant man who was William Randolf Hearst’s lawyer and best friend and was known for his red-headed Irish temper. In fact, the Joseph Cotten character in “Citizen Kane” is based on my great-grandfather, and he was on the cover of Time magazine in 1935. But even more interesting to me is that he is a genealogical mystery: We can’t find where he came from, who his parents are, where he was born…
How much programming in our genes comes from our ancestors has always been a fascinating subject for me because, quite honestly, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the choices and personality traits I have made and cultivated in my life are not entirely my own but come from predetermined traits. However, either because of admiration or intrigue or some unknowable connection, I do feel a special kinship with John Francis and am honored to carry his name.
LHC:What inspired you to start the Mormon Women Project? How does it coincide with other work that you’ve done?
NM: Usually when I explain the motivation to start the MWP, I don’t have time or context to explain how my family and my upbringing played a critical role. But since I’ve already introduced you to my great-grandfather and my father’s side of the family, allow me to introduce you now to my mother: the middle of five children born to a humble school teacher of extensive Mormon pioneer heritage. How, you might now ask, did a Mormon girl who grew up in a trailer in Southern California end up marrying a lapsed Catholic of San Francisco high society? The answer was opera. What my parents didn’t share in socioeconomic or religious background was made up for in their love of opera, but the tension between the identities of my two extended families produced in me – the only child of this union – a paradox of interests and influences that has allowed me to have a foot in different worlds: it was my father who pushed me to attend the best schools possible, travel and enjoy the best and most beautiful the world has to offer, and it was my mother who kept me rooted to faith and family.
My mother was a professional opera singer the whole time I was growing up in New York City and, as you might have already guessed, a single mother for much of that time. As a single, working mother with only one child, you wouldn’t imagine her to be the poster child of the Mormon faith. But she was. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, my mother was asked by local church leaders and general authorities to present firesides, perform for church and political leaders, and to appear in official church videos and messages. Her skill as a singer and her willingness to share that talent for the glory of God catapulted her into a position of spokesperson for the Church. As a child witnessing the tremendous affection of church leaders for my mother and, in turn, my mother’s affection for the Church, it never occurred to me that there wasn’t a place in the Church for women whose lives don’t fit a mold.
My mother also did a beautiful job of teaching me that getting the best education I could, working as hard as I could, and enjoying the beauty of the world as much as I could – all those good qualities my dad had brought to the table – were actually a way of magnifying God’s presence in my life and honoring Him. Our doctrine encourages us to aim high, and she fiercely taught that performing at the “worldly” standard that my earthly dad expected was actually the way I could magnify my Heavenly Father’s expectations for me. “The world” was never a scary, evil place in my home; on the contrary, it was a glorious gift to be enjoyed and learned from. It was simply my job to bring God into it through my active participation.
But when I left my home in New York and started functioning in a broader community of LDS women, I realized that I was unusual in feeling that my doctrine was the very thing that gave me permission to explore my potential. Even at Yale, where I went to college, I encountered Mormon women who were pursuing education sheepishly, fighting a constant internal struggle between the seeming paradox of their innate gifts and the kinds of pursuits they believed were “right.” I saw these internal struggles continue among some of the women in my San Francisco ward after college, culminating in one very dear friend leaving the Church over these issues and several more since then, and I was forced finally to ask myself the question, “What does it mean to be a Mormon woman? Is it a limiting proposition, or an emboldening one?”
Both because I think it is a much happier way to live and also because I fiercely defend that it is true, I see being a Mormon woman as an emboldening way to live. In contemplating an effective and positive way to assert that belief so that it might take root in our broader culture, I turned to the age-old tradition of story-telling. My mom had been held up throughout my childhood as a woman for Mormons to look to; why couldn’t I take some of the other women I admired and share their stories in a similar way? In Mormon culture, we don’t have a systematic way to tell the stories of our women, the way many of our men do in formal speaking and writing assignments. My goal was to create an environment of “deliberate disorientation” for the reader: by sorting through hundreds of stories about women who prioritize the gospel and yet still make unique and intriguing choices about how to maximize their potential, it is impossible for a reader to pick any one story and say, “This is who my church wants me to be or that is what my church wants me to be.” The breadth of examples forces the reader to turn within herself and ask, “What does the Lord want me to be?”
LC: You are not only an accomplished writer, but you are also the mother of three young girls. How has being a woman in the Church and then having daughters to raise in the Church influenced MWP?
NM: Like many other Mormon mothers, the foremost goal I have for my daughters is that they have a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. (And that they love music comes in a close second.) But I recognize that, at some point, they will have to define for themselves what it means to be a Mormon woman and decide if they are emboldened or limited by that definition. For many Mormon women, that internal struggle surfaces in young adulthood or even older as they come to terms with the Church’s gendered institutional structure and so I don’t expect my little girls to self-define for quite some time yet. However, I believe the MWP can play a role in their lives now by establishing a paradigm for that self-definition in which doubt of God’s intentions regarding His daughters is not a factor in their construction of themselves. In other words, as they grow up with the MWP as a presence in their spiritual lives, they will launch their self-defining journey from a solid foundation of trust in the Lord’s support for them as women.
Growing up with Mormon women I admired allowed me to sidestep the question “What does God think of me as a girl?” and focus instead on developing a very personal relationship with Him as my Heavenly Father. I am trying the best I can to provide a cleared path of spiritual development for my own girls as well.
Tune in tomorrow for Part II: Emboldening Women (Through Story)
For more of Neylan McBaine’s writing check out this podcast at The Round Table, this post at By Common Consent, or her articles at Patheos.com and Busted Halo. She has also authored a book, How To Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman.
*Now, now, I know this interview was about Romney and the anecdote was meant to show how he was able to deal with politics within a charged religious setting. But still. Gross factual error and dirty diapers? Come on.