Expanding on President Nelson’s plea to sisters #ldsconf

sallyridePresident Russell M. Nelson’s talk began with some personal reflections on the loss of his dear friends and fellow quorum members over the past year but soon turned to focus on the wives of two of them: Donna Smith Packer and Barbara Dayton Perry. This made me realize again how little I know about these women and how much more I’d like to know. President Nelson held them forth as exemplars of the powerful influence that strong and courageous women can have “not only on families, but on the Lord’s Church, as wives, mothers, and grandmothers; as sisters and aunts; as teachers and leaders; and especially as exemplars and devout defenders of the faith.” While much could be said about this engaging talk, I’d like to focus on the last point about women as “exemplars and devout defenders of the faith.” 

I believe there are many different ways to be an exemplar and defender of the faith. Some defenders of the faith (like women who volunteer with FairMormon) try to directly correct inaccurate claims about church history, belief, or practice. Other women defend the faith by more generally exemplifying the traits of what Elder Neal A. Maxwell called the “disciple-scholar.” These are people who study and work in the academy, who produce scholarship that may or may not pertain directly to the Church, or even to religion, but who “express their beliefs with confidence and charity,” as President Nelson described in his talk. Such beliefs can be expressed by their very presence, things like believing that women have an important role to play in scholarly pursuits, that women can be mothers and scholars, or that not all scholars are mothers, and that rigorous research can be a rewarding way of fulfilling the 13th Article of Faith.

By focusing particularly on women, I think President Nelson can be seen as calling our attention to some of the ongoing imbalances we see for Latter-day Saint women in the academy. I’ve been working on a blog post for Exponent II that goes into more detail about this subject, but here’s a little preview since President Nelson’s talk seemed to coincide with it so well. Elder Nelson blessed women of the church to “rise to your full stature, to fulfill the measure of your creation, as we walk arm in arm in this sacred work.” There are many ways this could happen, and I’ll talk about one very small one.

I work at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. (Keep in mind I blog here under my own volition and not in my capacity as an Institute employee, please!) When I was hired in 2013 I was elated, but I also had little nagging thoughts that the Institute was adding another man when there were few women on the staff, and only in clerical and productions capacities (not that those duties are less important to the Institute’s operations, but that there were no women in the position of research scholar. We’ve had a few brilliant interns, though, and still do). During my interview I even asked the executive director Jerry Bradford about this. He told me he was well aware of the problem, shared my concern, and that he hoped to see the imbalance improve over time.

While gender imbalance remains, I’ve seen some marked changes over the past 2 years that suggest things are improving on this front. I’ll post more about this elsewhere, but for now let me just echo President Nelson’s direct call:

We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.”

I don’t bring this up as a means of promoting the Institute’s work, but rather to let people know that various church entities like BYU (and the Institute more particularly) really do see this issue on their radar screens. My upcoming blog post on the topic will go into more detail, but consider this:

It’s been difficult so far but as editor of the Institute’s “Living Faith” book series I’ve made it a top priority to include more women’s voices going forward. The series is one of the most obvious ways the Maxwell Institute continues to commend and defend the faith. The first four titles in the series (two of which are already published, one comes out on Oct. 27 and the fourth on Dec. 28) were written by men, but certainly not exclusively for men. Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon was written initially with Miller’s daughter in mind. Samuel M. Brown filled his First Principles and Ordinances with excerpts from Claremont University’s Mormon Women’s Oral History Project (as discussed in Rachel Steenblik’s recent book review). It may seem like a small thing, but three out of the five endorsers on the cover and inside pages of Steven Peck’s Evolving Faith are women who work in science and technology. And Patrick Mason’s forthcoming Planted (co-published with Deseret Book) repeatedly speaks candidly and directly to women’s issues in the church.

I’m excited and grateful to see these things happening, but I also know it’s not enough. It pains me to say the Maxwell Institute and its predecessors (CPART, METI, FARMS) have never published a single monograph written by a woman. That’s a drought of 36 years (only nine years if we count just the Maxwell Institute, est. 2006). We need our Sally Ride. Then a lot more. Otherwise, we are ignoring President Nelson’s call:

“We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.”

Needing suggests the idea that we’ve got to make the requisite space. I urgently want to see more books written by women who exemplify faith in search of understanding in the academy. I want these books for my daughter, but also for my son, who stands to benefit greatly by learning that both women and men are children of God with weaknesses and strengths, that women don’t bring “a woman’s perspective” to the conversation, but women’s perspectives, just like men don’t bring a man’s perspective, but different men’s perspectives, learning that the academy is not a place for mostly men (it’s actually becoming less and less so all the time, but perhaps not as quickly in fields like biblical or religious or Mormon studies). When I say “women and men” I also include people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Ideally, the Living Faith series will eventually exemplify a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives, because only in this way will it actually embody the living faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If you’re a woman in the academy and you feel called to think more about the Living Faith series, there’s contact info on the Maxwell Institute’s website. I echo President Nelson’s plea to our sisters:

We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.”

Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    That quote about needing women with executive ability stood out to me also. It feels like a change in direction.

  2. This is one fine silk purse, Blair. Thanks!

  3. Brian Hauglid says:

    Speaking of women who can teach and speak out.

    BYU Professor Kristen Matthews will deliver the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies lecture this Tuesday evening (Oct. 6) at 7 pm in the Hinckley Assembly Hall (Hinckely Bldg).

    In November BYU Professor Bonnie Brinton will deliver the Maxwell Institute lecture (stay tuned for details).

  4. Blair, I’ve been thinking about this too. I know a lot of extremely bright women in the Church. I love the books they write and will yet write. It occurs to me that writing a devotional book is really a kind of indulgence, and for indulgence one needs time. And lead parents generally lack the time for such an indulgence. I wonder whether a good use of MI fundraising might be developing the equivalent of the book grants that humanities academics get from ACLS or other organizations. The idea would be that you submit a proposal, and if you are selected you get $30,000 to write the book. I know that sounds exorbitant, but realistically many of these women would need to pay for the professional help that could liberate their time from pressing issues related to lead parenting. And I think MI would need to be open to the kind of books that they would want to write and read, as they may differ (may not, but allowance should be made that they may) from more traditional titles that MI has published in the past. Would definitely require external fundraising, as there’s no way these books would make back a $30k advance, but I think if we want to help these books to flourish, we’ll have to pay for it.

  5. I want to add here, make sure to read my other posts when they come out. I talk there about how the past two years have seen marked improvement in women’s participation at the Institute. Editors of our journals have created editorial boards including women, brought in more women contributors, etc. Stay tuned.

  6. Yes, Brian! Our two landmark addresses this year will be delivered by women. I’ll talk about the improvements soon very soon.

  7. Erika E. Decaster says:

    “If you’re a woman in the academy and you feel called…” and herein lies the problem. Most LDS women are not in the academy, they are in the trenches. Just this week I met with a PhD friend of mine to talk about possibilities for my future study. The research I am interested in doesn’t fall neatly into any one category, but intersects several. She told me that Religious Studies might be a good fit, but that I should be aware it’s a very male-dominated space and there would be few accommodations for my needs as a mother of young children. It struck me as both strange and sad. Women far outstrip men in their religiosity, and yet are effectively boxed out of the traditional scholarship thereof. It is either time to expand the meaning of religious scholarship to include the field work actually being done on the ground by devoted and dedicated women throughout the world and to re-examine the credentialing required to publish, teach, and speak out in the formalized way you discuss, or to make significant accommodations so that women with the skills and inclination to do so might succeed on the path required in the current system. I appreciate your recognition of the institutional need and responsibility with regard to President Nelson’s plea, and I was powerfully moved and validated by his words as an individual woman. It will be a glorious day indeed when we are all able to find the way forward together.

  8. Erika, thanks. Yes the numbers are disappointing, frustrating, unsettling, etc.

    It is either time to expand the meaning of religious scholarship to include the field work actually being done on the ground by devoted and dedicated women throughout the world and to re-examine the credentialing required to publish, teach, and speak out in the formalized way you discuss, or to make significant accommodations so that women with the skills and inclination to do so might succeed on the path required in the current system.

    The Living Faith series is open to manuscripts from people with degrees, people working on degrees, and people who may not have received degrees but who do the kind of field work you mention. As for accommodation, smb’s comment makes an interesting suggestion that should also receive some consideration.

  9. BHodges, I am so glad to hear that about The Living Faith series. I will pass on your invitation to all of my fellow sister scriptorians and will look forward to the next books in the series.

  10. Thank you Blair.

  11. I find it ironic that, despite the assertion that the church needs women to step up and speak out, there are still only 2 women invited to speak in the general sessions of conference. The invitation to pray a couple years ago was long overdue. An article on KSL.com claims that women were the focus of the conference. There were two talks (given by men) about women in the dozens of talks given in the general sessions. Hardly a focus.

    He says “We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.” We’ve had women who can do these things all along, but they have not been given a place at the table (until just recently, and in small number) or authority to act.

  12. When I heard the talk I assumed he meant that the church needs women to speak out to the world –ie, be defenders of the family, gender roles, the church…..

  13. Thanks for this article, I enjoyed it, although when I saw the quotation at the top I thought it would be about something else entirely; it made me think of how lost I sometimes feel because I know so little about my Mother in heaven and often seem to have no example to look toward to become like the feminine divine.

  14. I think it’s important to note that two of the major examples used in the talk (1) the apostles wives being lovely, faithful and supportive, and 2) the example of his own wife after he had a rough night as a doctor) were about women supporting men, with the men doing amazing things. In all honesty, the talk felt unintentionally condescending, like an EFY pep-talk to women about being the “chosen generation”/ or being an awesome side-kick to men. I find it very difficult to put much stock in the idea that the male leaders of our church actually do want to hear what we women have to say, when so few women were even asked to speak in Conference… And it’s not that I don’t value the role of supportive spouse, but it wasn’t presented as how a spouse should be supportive, it was about how a woman can cheerlead her man… also when I hear “we need covenant keeping women” it usually translates in my mind to “we need women who listen and obey their husbands” … certainly not a message of empowerment (thanks to the temple and my vigilant seminary teacher who made sure the class understood what the word “hearken” means)… and “we need” would have sounded softer on my ears if the royal “we” had instead been “The Lord” or “God” needs. In short, just because a talk is *about* women, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the talk is uplifting, encouraging, empowering or even well received *by* women. I wold have much preferred to hear from “women who can teach, women who can speak out.”