Neylan McBaine attended Yale University. She currently lives with her husband and three young daughters. Neylan has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Meridian Magazine, Segullah, and BustedHalo.com, among others. She is the Personal Voices editor of Dialogue. Her collection of personal essays, How to be a Twenty-first Century Pioneer Woman, was published in 2008. She blogs regularly at www.neylanmcbaine.com.
I'm a born-and-raised New Yorker. A Manhattanite at that: I went to one of those Gossip Girl schools, the one Jackie Kennedy attended as a girl. I am the daughter of an opera singer and lawyer, and that makes me a bohemian with a Wall Street sensibility. My educational pedigree continued at the Julliard School where I studied piano and Yale University where I majored in English. But there is one label that defines me more than all of these fancy designations:
I am a Mormon.
Not just any Mormon, a Mormon woman. Which means that people I meet, when assaulted with all the brand names and movie-set locations of my childhood, get a very confused look on their face when they also find out I go to church for three hours a week, sustain a living prophet and believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God. “But aren't you a thinking person?” their look seems to ask. Or, as one of my dearest New York friends revealed one tipsy evening, “How did I become friends with a freaking Mormon?”
If left merely to the impressions of the media, one might understandably think that a woman with my background couldn't possibly be affiliated with an organization that — as it is so often presented — funnels its women into wifely and motherly servitude and has some sort of relationship (no one's quite sure) with polygamy. But Mormonism's best kept secret is that intelligent, engaged and proactive women are legion in our culture. Why does no one know about us?
Part of the problem is many Mormon women themselves don't recognize that these intelligent, engaged women are in our midst. Many are afraid to admit they are one of these women. “If I were a ‘good' Mormon, I wouldn't have gotten my master's degree. I wouldn't be working, and I wouldn't want to work so much. I'd want to be a mother and have kids and stay home,” one young filmmaker said to me recently. How did we get to a point in our culture where our free agency — the ability to choose that our doctrine holds as the most ennobled quality of our human condition — has been disparaged to the point that a young, talented woman feels ashamed of her pursuits?
The importance of marriage and motherhood is never in question among faithful Mormons, but my own youth was filled with female role models who remain true to themselves, their talents, their interests and their families. With the help of prayer, faith and a hard-won understanding of our unique missions in life, this balance is not only possible, it is demanded by a doctrine that celebrates individual worth. But this balance is not widely practiced: as I've grown older, I've seen many Mormon women feel ostracized and sometimes leave our church altogether because they're not sure how their choices fit into “the mold”. These experiences have prompted me to share some of the role models from my own life and search out others who have made thoughtful, considered choices about who they want to be.
I recently founded The Mormon Women Project to shed light on the immense strength and variety of the 7 million Mormon women throughout the world. The project, housed at www.mormonwomen.com, is a digital library of interviews with Latter-day Saint women. My hope is that by profiling women who have made proactive choices in their lives, while still remaining committed to their faith, the Project will broaden the definition of what it means to be a Mormon woman today. Faustina Otoo, a convert to the Church in Accra, Ghana, is just as “Mormon” as a young full-time mother in Utah. So too is Myrna Castellar, a recovering heroin addict in New York. Karen Bybee is no less a mother to her three sons because she has managed a successful international sports management career planning World Cup and Olympic events. With single women making up the largest single demographic of church membership, single student Jenny Reeder should be lauded for her pursuit of a doctorate, not left out because she hasn't yet married.
My goal with this project is not to get Big Love stripped from the airwaves, nor is it a gimmick to show potential converts how cool we can be. It is simply an effort to explode the internal stereotypes and judgments that hinder Mormon women from maximizing our own potential. When that potential is realized, we won't need a TV show or media campaign to discredit the harsh caricatures of us so prevalent in the popular consciousness. The confidence, good works and productivity of our women will be effective enough.
What labels define you?
Do you know any Mormon women?
Are you a Mormon woman?
Does Neylan's essay and/or project resonate with you? Why? Why not?