Jana Riess: ‘At Last She Said It’ podcast helps Latter-day Saint women find their voices

Duo dares to speak aloud what many women in the church are quietly thinking.

I breathe a sigh of relief when someone raises a tough issue in church or objects to a judgmental comment or superficial platitude — “Ah!” I say to myself, “someone has said out loud what I was only thinking.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is many things, but it’s not often a haven for honest conversations when your struggles are related to the church itself.

So it’s no wonder to me that “At Last She Said It,” a podcast that launched in spring 2020 and has now recorded more than 100 episodes, has gained such a loyal following. Candid and heartfelt, the podcast is led by two women who’ve been Latter-day Saints all their lives and feel deeply connected to the church. They also have no illusions about various problems with its culture and even its doctrine.

Recent episodes have tackled topics such as the damaging gender inequality that persists in temple sealings, and how (or whether) to raise LGBTQ kids in a church that can be a dangerous place for them. My personal favorite is “What Women Don’t Get in Our Church,” in which the hosts, Cynthia Winward and Susan Hinckley, go into detail about all the opportunities and information that women just don’t have access to in our church. It’s a depressingly long list, but an important one to spell out.

I had a wonderful time interviewing the podcasters over Zoom; this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Has creating this podcast made it easier for you to stay active in the church?

Winward • I’ve always been pretty vocal in my ward [congregation] but now that I have the podcast, I actually speak up less in my ward — not because I feel muzzled, but because I have this outlet. I’m able to sit in church more and be this anthropologist, observing the natives in their natural habitat. I can say, “Huh. I wonder what makes her have that point of view,” as opposed to “I need to raise my hand and counter that with the ‘real’ way of thinking.”

Hinckley • Absolutely, for me. I don’t describe myself as having had a faith crisis, but I do think of myself as having a silence crisis. I got to a place where I could no longer not say the things I needed to say. It coincided almost exactly with getting called to teach [women’s] Relief Society. I said yes to the calling, but my goal was to teach the lessons in a way that allowed me to say the things I really wanted to say. I had that calling for eight years, and it went extraordinarily well. It transformed many of the interactions that happened in that room, which started to tend more toward vulnerability. Toward the end, we started the podcast. I’m not sure I could have done the podcast without those years before it.

What has surprised you about the reaction to the podcast?

Hinckley • A number of things have surprised us. We didn’t really realize we would be tapping into the faith crisis community as much as we did. We didn’t realize so many women were experiencing a crisis. We didn’t realize women felt so disempowered. That’s been staggering and sad, how many women felt no power in their own spiritual lives.

Winward • We’ve explored here and there topics about Heavenly Mother or the feminine divine. Yet so many women feel “I need to go to my bishop and ask.” Or even ask their husbands. Prayer should be the one place where they feel empowered, where it’s just them and God. But even in silent personal prayer, women are deferring to men.

Hinckley • Women are very hesitant to change the way they think about things, or even experiment about what might fit them more authentically, without getting permission to do that. They are waiting for permission. Everything.

That’s sad, but it makes perfect sense because we’re operating in a context where women are supervised in every single way by men. You can’t practice the organ by yourself without a man in the building. You can’t go to Girls Camp without a man presiding, protecting. You never operate with complete autonomy. When you’ve grown up in that context, it’s hard not to think you have to get permission — even in your own home, or in your own head.

The other surprise I get is how many men listen to the podcast.

Winward • And they write us, too, bless their hearts. The men will report back to us and say, “I took that idea and gave a whole talk on it for the high council on Sunday.” That’s a great side effect. We are not speaking to men, but the reality is that men are the ones who can implement change.

Which episodes have struck a nerve?

Hinckley • Temple, for sure.

Winward • We’ve had three temple episodes [here, here and here]. We call it the Ultimate Big Deal. It is the be-end, our mecca, always the end point and the goal. And for many women, including Susan and I, that’s really complicated. Which is kind of heartbreaking, that the Ultimate Big Deal is the hardest thing for many women.

Hinckley • And it’s also the thing where there is absolutely no space for that to be a hard thing. The podcast is often the first time women heard someone else say, “The temple is not great for me, and here are some reasons why.”

Winward • Also, we’ve gotten good response to our episodes on living on the edge of the inside. For our discussion of why we stay, we called it “What’s in it for me?” That’s where Susan and I got down to the brass tacks of “This is what the church has meant in my life.”

Hinckley • “What’s in it for me” was about why we do it, and “Custom Fit Faith” was how we do it.

Speaking of how we stay, General Conference is around the corner. Do you have any advice for women who have a hard time with conference?

Winward • It’s rare that I watch it live. I will go out to lunch, go hiking, go shopping, then read the talks later. Doing that has changed my life. I don’t know why it took me more than 40 years! I realize it’s different for women with little children, where they feel they have to be in the room to set an example.

Hinckley • Cynthia and I have had very different experiences in the church. I’ve been a cranky and agitated member my whole life. I’m used to hearing things at church that make me say “Really?” and General Conference is more of that for me. When that happens, I just think, “Bad episode. Tune in next week.”

One thing I appreciate about our technology is that if a talk troubles me, I can go back and read it later. Then I think: “What about this can’t I live with, or what landed so badly?” Sometimes, my experience with the written version just isn’t as bad as what I heard. Also, I think staying off social media during conference weekend makes my experience better.

We’re experiencing a crisis of young people leaving the church, including women. What are your thoughts?

Winward • Susan and I have a disclaimer on the podcast: She and I have five daughters between us, and they are all out of the church. Look somewhere else if your goal is to get your daughters to stay. If your goal is to raise remarkable humans, we’ve done a great job with that. But they don’t give a hoot about hierarchy, and our whole church is based now in hierarchy.

I don’t know how our girls can experience whole equality in the real world, and then we expect them to shave off certain parts of themselves to fit in this church.

Hinckley • And why would we even ask that of them? Let’s spend less time worrying about how the church is not keeping its young women, and instead worry about how we can meet their needs. The church is really valuable in my life, so of course I want to share it with the next generation. But I struggled for almost 60 years to make it OK for myself.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)