Missionary Service and Mormon Femininities

I was surprised and really happy to hear about the big missionary shake-up today. I learned about it first on Facebook, since I wasn’t able to watch Saturday morning’s session, and it was fun to monitor reactions there and around the bloggernacle throughout the day. I pretty much concur with most of the assessments reported in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s great piece in the Tribune: Joanna Brooks and Neylan McBaine both had important comments about the implications of the change for increased gender equality in church governance.

I would add one more thought on potential structural implications: a drastically increased cohort of sister missionaries will throw gendered power relations in the mission field into starker relief, with a much larger proportion of the total missionary force ineligible for mission leadership — and without recourse to a complementary-compensatory motherhood discourse (or an alternative female power structure in the RS) that we often use to soften the disparity in regular church life. It may be that the stark gender inequities in mission experience will spur experiments in building parallel female leadership lines outside of RS (and also, presumably, still outside of the priesthood ladder) that may one day bear fruit in regular ecclesiastical governance.

Lots of the early reporting focused on church governance and structure, but this evening I’m seeing more comment on potential implication for LDS culture. Ben Park just put up a provocative piece about the gendered iconography of the Mormon missionary. I’ve been thinking about how Mormon femininities might be reshaped in the wake of greatly increased missionary service among young women. On the one hand, I’m optimistic that it might mitigate what I see as the most troubling aspects of Mormon femininity cultures: sweetness emphasized over competence, innocence over experience, spiritual emotion over spiritual knowledge, youth over maturity. Mission service will give young LDS women the opportunity to grow up spiritually, to see themselves as competent, experienced, spiritually knowledgeable and spiritually mature.  This will allow former sister missionaries to participate more effectively at the few sites of joint church governance which we already enjoy, yes, but more importantly it will change the general culture of Mormon femininity, which will in turn influence even the young women who elect not to serve missions.  (And since we’re making changes: can we pleeeeease put women missionaries in professional businessware, ie pantsuits? We can keep the look very gendered with scarves, etc, if we must, but can make their presentation so much more competent and put-together than it currently is.)

But there’s another side to consider. I was struck this afternoon at how many adult women said that they would have served a mission if they had had the opportunity to do so at 19 years old. No doubt that is the case, but for me the opposite is true: if many or most LDS girls at BYU were leaving on missions at 19, I probably wouldn’t have gone. That’s because for me the choice to serve a mission was not entirely about an excess of evangelical zeal and a burning desire to spread the gospel.  It was also about my identity as a certain kind of Mormon woman, a “neat girl” rather than a “sweet girl.”

By the time I was 21, in 1996, the image of sister missionaries as unwanted spinsters was long gone, at least from my head and the heads of my friends. Instead, we saw ourselves as more serious, more ambitious, and more substantive than the sweet girls at BYU. To serve a mission was a way to assert a different kind of feminine identity: still firmly within the Mormon fold, but set apart by our direction and aspiration. If a mission had been an expected, totally mainstream next step in the LDS woman’s life map, I might not have gone, because at that stage I needed to differentiate myself from the mold. If all the sweet girls were doing it, neat girls like me would have to find another niche. (Obviously there was a  huge dose of pompous self-congratulation in the identity I constructed for myself, and please know that I am now well aware that lots of serious, ambitious, and substantive LDS women did not serve missions for a variety of reason.)

Perhaps the proportion of young LDS women wanting to serve missions will never rise to fully “mainstream” levels, and the mission will continue to serve as a waystation in alternative Mormon femininity. But if it does, it will be interesting to see how the neat girls begin to differentiate themselves. Choosing to attend college outside of Utah? Emphasis on graduate studies? Perhaps an alternative service experience like Peace Corps? I hope we’ll find a way to keep them in the fold, however it shakes out.

29 comments for “Missionary Service and Mormon Femininities

  1. I’ve got a high school freshman daughter. She’s a straight A student and considers herself the only one who is actually paying attention in early morning seminary. I think she is more likely to go on a mission now. She is very college focused and will continue to be even if other types of girls go to college too. It won’t change her desire to go to college. So if she chooses to go on a mission, I think she’d be going expecting to be a very excellent hardworking missionary, rather than a slacker….just like she sees Mormon kids getting Cs while she gets As.

  2. I went on a mission because I really did want to serve and share the gospel. It had nothing to do with how I wanted to be perceived. It was a goal I set for myself while I was in my youth…and made choices that sent me along that path as I matured. I absolutely would have adored being able to go 2 years earlier!

    What shocked me, when I went on my mission was (what I found to be) a pervasive perception that women went on missions…because they were somehow unable to “catch a maayan.”

    This was the era of the Conference talk about how women are not required to serve and should marry if they are able. I had Elders that kindly lectured me about how I should have gotten married, rather than serve a mission. *blank stare*

    This probably would have deeply offended me…if it didn’t make me laugh, from the sheer absurdity of it. If only the young Elders knew, when they hinted toward that idea…that they automatically went in the my “Not The Type of Guy to Date” cabinet drawer…filed under Dumbass.

    Though outwardly, I kindly thanked them for receiving my personal revelation for me.

    I was never a “sweet” girl…or even a “neat” girl. I was feisty, obnoxious, and driven. At the time, I wished for a little more sweetness…but, it was on my mission, that I found myself ready and able to embrace myself, and the unique contribution I could make to further the work of the Lord.

    I hope to give my daughter the same sense of self. Whether she chooses to serve a mission, or serve in other ways, will be up to her. Regardless, I know she will make a decision based on what is right for her, and her mission in this life.

  3. As I recall, a few years back when the length of missions was dropped to 18 months for the men — at the option of the missionary — the leadership was very surprised at how many young men opted for the shorter stay. So surprised, in fact, they discontinued the option within about a year. So I expect there will be some surprises going forward with this new policy. What we or what LDS leaders expect to happen may not be how it actually works out.

  4. “Sweet” vs. “Neat” oversimplifies the broad spectrum of LDS women, and while I understand the concept (please tell me that this is tongue-in- cheek,) I’ve known too many admirable women who were either, or both!

  5. I think I understand what is meant by a “sweet” girl, but I’m not sure I understand the “neat” girl. Could you elaborate on what that means to you? Do you view most mormon girls as belonging to one of these two categories or are these but two of lots of categories?

  6. Thanks for the comments, all! Yeah, Julianne, any heuristic is going to be reductive, and certainly “neat” and “sweet” could never capture the complexity of any particular individual. But they’re (among the) categories from which young LDS women construct their identities during adolescence and young adulthood, given the opportunities available to them. I think it’s interesting to consider the variety of identities available to women who want to remain within the fold, and “neat” and “sweet” seemed to capture something about that.

    jks, your daughter sounds awesome. No doubt plenty of ambitious, driven LDS girls will continue to serve missions — I hope they do! But in eight or ten years when my daughter will be old enough, it will be interesting to see whether the gendered meaning of missionary service for girls has shifted.

  7. anonlds, good questions. Any given LDS girl is going to draw from a bunch of different categories from inside and outside the church as she figures out who she is. Obviously I’m being a bit facetious, and no girl is entirely “neat” or “sweet.” But I’d say that there is a vein of LDS femininity available (the neat category) that includes a degree of ambition, a critical sensibility, a bit of outsiderness, and an emphasis on achievement — yet still firmly within the fold — and missionary service has been an important element of that.

  8. Roselynde, I’m not trying to be snarky by asking the following questions. I really do want to understand your point better:

    Are you simply saying that some young women who served missions under the old rules won’t serve missions under the new rules – and you hope we as a church will find a different way to reach them?

    Might the chance to “delay” serving a mission until they are older than the new minimum act as the counter-cultural yet faithful alternative option?

    Iow, whereas simply serving met your “feminist” needs, might serving at the previous age or even later and ignoring “new expectations” to serve at 19 function as that same manifestation of independence for young women now?

    Honestly, when all is said and done, I tend to believe those who want to serve will serve – and that there will be options for those who are like you were, no matter what the minimum age is. I might be wrong completely about that, but can you envision alternatives that still result in serving a mission for someone like you were?

  9. See, the thing is Ray…she’s saying that she never wanted to be perceived as a “sweet” girl. Somehow the idea of being “sweet” was negative. She basically just wanted to buck against what she perceived (what no italics button?) as “the norm” or maybe the expectations of her in Mormon culture.

    Which I can understand…there was a time when I said my favorite color was blue…because I didn’t want to be like all the other girls, who liked pink. I was 9.
    By publishing something like this…is actually just smacks of a continual need to define herself to others.

    I think my favorite line was…”and please know that I am well aware that lots of serious, ambitious, and substantive LDS women did not serve missions for a variety of reason.”

    Oh…good, she concedes that there ARE substantive women out there who didn’t serve missions…yet, she apparently considers her self VASTLY more substantive than most by virtue of that service?

    *rolls eyes*

    I am aware that my pissy nature, big mouth, and inability to keep it shut, causes problems and hurts feelings. I’m sorry…but, this article rubbed me the wrong way…as did the “Sweet and Neat” article. Uggh. I can’t imagine the energy that it would take to fill the need to constantly define myself by external measures. I gotta not read crap like this. It just sets my teeth on edge.

  10. Dave, I hope you don’t mind if I provide some details in regards to the brief period of time in church history in which missions for young men were reduced from 24 months to 18 months.

    In the Spring of 1982 missions for men were reduced from 24 months to 18 months. This was done in the hope that more young men would opt to serve missions (especially those from foreign countries). Missionaries who had been out for more than a year could serve the full 24 months or opt for the 18. Those who had served less than a year could only serve 18 months.

    My received my mission call in Oct. 1982 qnd entered the MTC in January of 1983. My call (like those of all men at that time) was for 18-months. There was no option to serve 24 months. In fact the last of the 24 month missionaries left the same weekend I arrived in Ecuador. At the time we all thought of 18 months as the new norm.

    In the Fall of 1984 (about 3 months after I returned home) missionary service for young men was re-extended to 24 months. A cohort of the 18 month missionaries was allowed to extend their missions to the new 24 months or remain on the 18 month schedule.

    My understanding is that a bounce in missionary numbers was NOT seen with the reduced 18 month missionaries. Furthermore, at 18 months many young men were beginning to enter their most effective phase as missionaries and right as this occurred they were being released.

    I love the new changes for missionary service age but I wouldn’t be surprised if fine adjustments are made over the next 12-18 months as the logistics of the change shake themselves out.

    For the record, at the time of my release I had no regrets about being an 18-month missionary as I figured everyone in the future would be too. Once I got home and was in college at BYU I do remember feeling a bit of envy towards those Elders from my mission who were just a few months behind me but who were able to extend their missions to 24 months.

    (sorry for the threadjack!)

  11. An additional consequence of having many more sister missionaries in the field may an increased role for mission presidents’ wives. Without overstepping priesthood responsibilities, these women may find greater opportunities for both administrative and pastoral service.

  12. Ray, I think you are right, especially in the short term, that those women who want to serve will do so, regardless of the cultural meaning of that service. But over time, missionary service for women may come to take on different connotations, and that may change the categories and markers of Mormon femininity. That’s all I’m saying. :)

    Abbie, you knew me when I was an teenager, so you already know that I was pretentious and pompous. Nothing has changed, except that now I like to *acknowledge my pretentiousness and pompousness* in an ironic and self-effacing way, which of course is even more pretentious and pompous. :) I’m sorry the piece rubbed you the wrong way, but I appreciate your criticism and contributions here.

  13. I think the unforeseen consequences of this shift will be fascinating! For example, I have long heard sister missionaries complain about the elders as extremely immature and inexperienced. I wonder if pushing their ages closer together will make for better gender relations during the mission? And will elder/sister romantic relationships be more likely? Curious.

    I also think the number of women serving will increase: is the new addition at the MTC a sly preparation for this influx? The need for facilities for women will be a logistical adjustment itself.

    And PS: in 1996 my Dad (inactive, at best) told me that none of his daughters would serve a mission because only lesbians went on missions. Ha! Two of them went anyway. Nevertheless. I have to believe that this point of view is still lurking in private Mormon homes.

  14. I really appreciate your point about a greater portion of missionaries unable to participate in mission leadership–an expansion of the various experiments would be exciting. I am not sure, however, about a real change in the role of an MPs wife–that seems VERY hit and miss according to the couples involved.

    Perhaps I am unduely cynical, but when I have heard women proclaim that they WOULD have served at 19, I roll my eyes a bit. It’s an all too easy thing to say way after the fact and when no one is actually going to take you up on it. Doubtless, there are some women for whom that is true, but anyone who REALLY wanted to serve could have done so at 21 fairly easily.

    That said, I view these new age guidelines as a great new offering of CHOICE. 18 works for you? Great, go. 19 a better time? That works. 20 is when the inspiration hit you? Perfect. 21+ and you are reeady to serve? Godspeed. I really hope our culture will adapt to a variety of paths to service and not count someone out if they don’t serve at the earliest time possible.

    Pantsuits? I don’t see it happening. At least not until we see them on the ladies on the stand at GC.

  15. Just an aside no one seems to have commented on (but perhaps I missed it): Most guys who leave at 18 will leave at more like 18 and half, since they will turn 18 before graduating. So they return home at 20.5 – while females who leave right at 19 will return home at 20.5 – so, this also makes it so many guy and gal RMs will be at about the same ages, rather than having the 1.5 to to 2 year age gap we used to have.

    I wonder if this will mean more engagements on missions – I know elders and sisters are to “lock” their hearts, but since nearly all the APs in my mission went home engaged to sister missionaries, well some people didn’t lock it all that much.

  16. Sister missionaries in my mission (and this was nearly 30 years ago… ouch!) DID serve in leadership roles in the mission. They organized and participated in a conference for sister missionaries (both stake and full-time) and there was a companionship of sisters equivalent to the male assistants to the President. They advised the President on transfers, split with the other sisters and met with Stake Presidencies and Stake Mission Leaders on a regular basis.

    So my thought on power structures in the church and for missions is this… I believe that the role of sisters HAS already evolved and will continue to evolve. Sisters have roles on committees at the upper levels of church government. If some haven’t realized it, then they need to open their eyes. And with the increase of sisters in mission opportunities, I hope that the next generation of young men becomes more aware of the incredible contributions of women in the Church.

  17. Great insights, Rosalynde! I to am excited about the greater potential for women, and am intrigued by your thoughts about women wanting to “differentiate themselves.” I never thought about it, but I think that was what I was doing as well to some extent. I really struggled with what seemed like a “male-dominated corporate culture” as a missionary. I felt that I was treated with great equality and respect, and I loved working with the elders, but being a minority gender meant that the tenor of things was often foreign and frustrating to me. Hopefully, some of the “hard-hitting work yourself into a grave” mentality that seemed to prevail, will be a bit softened into a more mature, loving, and Christ-like spirituality all across the board

  18. Oh, yeah, and I’m glad to see sisters moving away from the “floral jumpers” I sported in the field. Although the counsel we were given to dress like news anchorwomen would have been a bit unrealistic for France, as it would have suggested mini-skirts and high heels.

  19. I am delighted by the announcement and the likely increase in sister missionaries. And for the young men, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, so I’m happy for them too.

    I’ve been trying to decide if I would have gone earlier had it been an option at the time, and though right after my freshman year would have actually been incredibly convenient, I’m not sure I would have gone on a mission then. I went a bit later anyway, turning 23 in my first area. I never really planned on going on a mission – I didn’t really have a desire, nor could I afford it (every cent I earned went to pay for college). I only went because the Lord thwapped me on the head and told me to go. (There was a series of events that made it an option, plus completely unmistakable personal revelation that make it clear.) So I went! Maybe the thwapping would have come earlier. Who knows.

    I hope this change makes the incredible missionary experience available to more people.

  20. Abbie you’re comment was hillarious and on the mark. I have two sons and four daughters and a returned missionary wife. I am so thrilled when my daughters have yw leaders who are return missionaries. they have wonderful teachers who did not go on a mission as well but I like the opportunity they have to hear about sisters missionary experiences. i know the growth, maturity and lessens that i gained from a mission and i hope all of my daughters serve. this new policy makes it so much easier for yw serving missions, getting educated and married.

  21. Regarding Sister Zones: my mission president started one in 1976, and it lasted a few months, until the church authority over our mission put an end to it. Not becoming of Sisters. So it seems there’s been a mixed history.

  22. Definition of “neat girl”: And LDS female, that no one wants to be around, because she refuses to be sweet, and instead wants to control the impression other people have of her instead of influencing that through her behavior, manner, appearance, or countenance.

    Just a thought…

  23. Of course Rosalynde’s correct that there are complicated issues of social regard bound up in missionary service, for women as for men. But if those aren’t transcended, the mission’s a failure, whatever the external successes, a mere line on a resume–in the missionary’s own head, especially the farther she gets from it.

    I left on my mission after I finished college, turning 22 in the MTC. My senior year of college found me neither sweet nor neat and quite estranged from the church. In one of the most singular and most powerful spiritual experiences of my life, I came to know that God was calling me to serve a mission. After a long struggle against that call, I submitted my papers and went.

    It was hard. I hated the temple, and I wasn’t at all crazy about the MTC. In addition to the usual missionary trials, I struggled with a long stretch of depression. (Is any stretch of depression short?) I was mediocre by every measure, both those that don’t matter and those that do. I wore the deplored floral jumpers, along with all the rest of the sister missionaries, and watched them get mud-stained and fray. I agonized far too much over the weight I gained on the delicious food. I was not an easy companion. I wasn’t particularly attractive, and I got less so; I wasn’t brilliant or amazingly successful; I wasn’t anyone special, and no one was going to cater to my particular griefs when everyone had griefs of their own to bear. Maybe above all else, my mission was a profound revelation to me of my own pride and self-centeredness. It was a hard revelation, but a very useful one, one that constantly needs updating.

    But even apart from all that there remains for me one experience of God’s grace that I cannot even put into words but that was absolutely life-altering, a pure encounter with divine love for another human soul. Over the course of the nearly twenty years since my mission, all of the pettiness, the small things–the numbers and the competitiveness and the mission hierarchy and gossip–has long since faded into irrelevance. But those few, precious, indescribable moments of pure encounter with God will remain with me until I die.

    Undoubtedly we all sometimes choose good things for very mixed motives, especially when we’re 21 or 19. And social approval and social capital may be inescapable parts of those motives; on that I won’t dare speculate. But I’d hate to see something as sacred as the opportunity to know God and to know the souls of other human beings reduced to such terms.

  24. “Perhaps I am unduely cynical, but when I have heard women proclaim that they WOULD have served at 19, I roll my eyes a bit. It’s an all too easy thing to say way after the fact and when no one is actually going to take you up on it. Doubtless, there are some women for whom that is true, but anyone who REALLY wanted to serve could have done so at 21 fairly easily.”

    Have you forgotten how quickly life moves when you are 17-23 or so? In anyone’s life, this is a period of huge changes. Planning a mission one year off when you graduate from high school is much, much easier than planning for one 3 years off, when there is a much, much higher chance that you will have met someone and married or that you are far enough into a college program that an interruption between years 3 and 4 or between years 4 and career is not a wise decision.

    It’s not just cynical of you to say, it’s rather naive and ignorant of the way that the lives of Mormon women are shaped during those years. When you are told that marriage is a priority and never to turn down a date and that you have three years to decide IF a mission is right for you, it’s not easy to put everything aside for three years.

    And this isn’t just cynical, it’s judgmental in the worst way. There’s no way of knowing if I would have gone or not, but I certainly would have at least like the option at a time when I could make a decision sooner rather than later.

  25. Thank you Abbie, I loved you very first words and I agree with you almost completely. I went on a mission when I was 25. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had thought of going at nineteen. It was tough and wonderful at the same time. I was in an area with few baptisms and all the issues we had to deal with were more about how to reach those few who were ready.

  26. I know that I am becoming a broken record in the Bloggernaccle, but have you looked at the new curriculum, for YM and YW, and considered how that will impact the future missionaries, and those who don’t choose to serve a mission? This is such a fundamental shift in how we educate our 12-18 year olds, that I think a lot of the old ways of looking at youth and missionary preparation are going to be radically changed. The assumption that a mission is where you really learn the gospel and gain a deeper testimony may become a “quaint” notion of the last 20th and earliest 21st centuries.

    More of my thoughts are in today’s Mormon Moment Series post, ( http://poetrysansonions.blogspot.com/2012/10/mormon-moment-series-part-seven-come.html ) on the topic, but it really comes down to three major changes:

    **YM and YW will be using the SAME curriculum, and all of it is based on the core concepts of Preach My Gospel, so whatever their final decision is on serving a mission, all of the youth will be prepared with the knowledge and skills to go on a mission, if they choose.

    **YM and YW will have a much more equal experience as teenagers, taking out the discepencies in church education, and to some extent expectations, that have had young women focusing on marriage and family while young men focus on priesthood and missions.

    **All of the youth will be expected to be much more involved in the teaching and learning on their classes. There will be an increase in coordination between Sunday School, YM, YW and seminary teachers. As young people not only learn, but teach the gospel to each other, they will be much better prepared to teach the gospel in their homes, whether they go on a mission before having a family or not.

    I think it is an exciting thing that missions will be open up to more people, at younger ages, but I think it will be hard to truly compare our experiences, (as people raised under the old system) with those experiences of the Beehives and Deacons today. After 6 years in a program radically different in it tone, tenor and content, there will be an entirely new paradigm, and as a mother I am hoping that I can keep up!

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