“Deliberate disorientation” is a phrase Neylan McBaine uses to describe her work with The Mormon Women Project. She achieves this state, as mentioned in Part I of her interview, by choosing stories that focus on “women who prioritize the gospel and yet still make unique and intriguing choices about how to maximize their potential.”
Take the story of Meredith, for example. When her husband of fifteen years decides he is gay and leaves her, it is almost unbelievable that she could ever find that “eternal perspective.” But in reading the details of her story you find out that, well, it actually possible for a woman to move forward with faith. Jana Reiss (of Flunking Sainthood fame) is startling–both in her bifurcated path to baptism and her tendency to pray with people at the drop of the hat–but also delightfully familiar in her struggles for devotional perfection. And then there’s the story of Bindu that makes you stop and say, “Wait. There are Mormons in India? I never even though to ask that question.” What is most astounding is how many, many Mormon women are changing the world at large through creative humanitarian forays.
Reading the MWP interviews is a little bit like climbing on a merry-go-round. The stories spin quickly enough and pull you in enough different directions that you think you will be pulled right off the ride. But what you are really experiencing is like centripetal force–something that pulls you in enough directions that you end up being held exactly in the center.
LHC: Do you have any favorite stories that have been shared on MWP?
NM: I think every interview we publish is the best one yet, so it’s hard to pick just a few! What I love about working now with a group of volunteers – I have about half a dozen saintly interview producers who work with me regularly – is that everyone finds different stories interesting. I’m constantly surprised by which interviews on the site go through the roof and which have a more tepid response. A volunteer will suggest a story or pick someone from off our list of nominated women and I’ll think, “Well, I guess that’s okay,” and then when then interview’s published it’ll be hugely popular. Objectively though, the interviews that have been read most are our anonymous interview with the author of Seriously, So Blessed, and our interview with Elaine Bradley, the drummer for the Neon Trees. I am most proud of our forays into the “unspeakable” subjects: our sexual abuse forum, our interviews that discuss eating disorders, infertility, divorce, pornography, homosexuality, adoption, etc. I feel that in these interviews we uncover not the proactive choices a woman makes about her job or how she’s going to spend her time, but the reactive choices about how she’s going to respond to a situation and who she’s really going to be, which are usually even more defining than her hobbies or jobs.
LHC: Are there themes or ideas that come up again and again in the interviews?
NM: The theme that arises in almost every interview is the idea that Heavenly Father knows who this woman is and He is directing her path. Regardless of whether that path leads her to be a drummer in a rock band or the mother of twelve foster children, God knows each woman and acts as a cheerleader, a prompter, a supporter and even an instigator of dreams, ambition and righteous goal setting. The common thread of His presence in these interviews never reveals Him to be an oppressor or a killjoy.
LHC: MWP is coming up on its second year anniversary in January. How has it grown in its second year? What hopes do you have for its future? In what ways can others who are passionate about the stories of Mormon women help out?
NM: Although I launched the MWP in January of 2010 without a distinct publication calendar, we’ve managed to average one new interview per week since that launch. We just published our 114th interview, and we’ve featured women in fifteen countries. There is power in that sheer volume of contemporary Mormon women’s stories. We also introduced this year Snapshot Portraits, which offer our readers the opportunity to submit their own short essays in response to specific prompts.
Our major achievement as an organization this year was to receive our 501©3 status, designating us as a non-profit. The MWP follows in the grand Mormon tradition of being a volunteer endeavor, but we chose to pursue this designation for a few reasons. First of all, it was an issue of establishing our brand as something that is of valuable even outside of the Church community. One of the pieces of feedback we receive time and time again is that members really like to share our interviews with non-member friends because they feel like it looks like and has the quality of a professional endeavor. Of course it takes money for the MWP to look that way, and for us to maintain the website. Even though we don’t need very much money, establishing ourselves as a 501©3 allows us to raise money from official sponsors as well as from private donors. Above and beyond website upkeep, we want to continue doing live events, like our annual Salon, so that the MWP has a physical presence in our community and provides us with a forum to come together as like minded women in person. I also have a dream of being able to subsidize transcription services for our volunteers so they don’t have to spend 5-15 hours transcribing (and sometimes translating) the interviews from the recorded conversation.
I think it’s quite obvious that the MWP approaches the subject of Mormon womanhood from positive, almost culturally apologetic, positioning. Some have called this naïve, that you can think the Lord loves you to bits but it doesn’t make up for the fact that the currency of power is not distributed equally within the institution. I believe there are many valid and important conversations going on online about the role of women in the Church, but I think the MWP plays important role in those conversations by reminding women that our spiritual lives are played out in our relationships, our actions and our prayers, and not in our institutional roles. I’ve had MWP readers tell me they appreciate the safe haven the project offers, the ability to step back and say, “God’s plan for me is real and it is beautiful,” rather than focus on the deficiencies of the modern church. For women who are seeking for a way to be actively involved in forwarding this emboldening vision of Mormon womanhood, I invite them to join us at the MWP. We’re always looking for more interview producers. Reading the interviews, discussing them, sharing them and letting them resonate really is the best way women can support the project.
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.