What’s in a name? A historical note on the title of the Mission President’s Wife

Last year, Cassler and McBaine published results of their survey on “the Naming of Women’s Positions and Organizations in the LDS Church.” Around 400 survey respondents who self-identified as LDS women answered questions about whether or not they would change the names of various women’s roles and groups, including the Young Women’s groups (Beehives, Mia Maids, and Laurels), the term “auxiliaries” (used for Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary), bishops’ wives, and mission presidents’ wives. It’s an interesting survey, with lots of expressed desire for change. (And yes, I’m aware that the people who participate in an online poll are likely not representative of the Church as a whole. Still interesting, I’d propose.)

The title on which there was most consensus for change was “Mission President’s Wife,” with 96 percent preferring a change in name. As the authors put it, “The urgency for this to be changed seems to stem from the understanding that the wife is as actively engaged with mission life, if in different ways, as her husband, and is equally required to sacrifice, endure physically and emotionally challenging situations, and become intertwined in the missionaries’ lives as her partner. Furthermore, she is called and set apart, just as her husband is.” I agree in principle and in practice. The wife of my mission president gave me counsel that shaped the course of my post-mission life.

So I was interested to see — in a footnote of Jennifer Reeder’s essential book At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women — that mission presidents’ wives used to have a distinct title:
“During this period [1933], women married to mission presidents served as ‘Relief Society mission presidents.’ In this capacity, they organized Relief Society conferences and visited individual units of the Relief Society, oversaw record keeping, coordinated Relief Society activity with missionary work, communicated and established Relief Society policy, and reported to church headquarters. The practice of appointing Relief Society mission presidents began by 1916 and lasted until 1964, when the title of the position changed to ‘Relief Society mission supervisor.’ Relief Society mission supervisors were appointed until at least 1973.”
So there is a historical precedent for a title other than “wife” in this case. Cassler and McBain’s respondents had other suggestions. You can read them here.

Bonus thoughts:

[1] The McBaine who wrote the article is the same McBaine who wrote the excellent Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. Here’s my review.
[2] If you don’t have At the Pulpit, I strongly recommend it! It’s a perfect blend of scholarship and spirituality. I’ll write more once I’ve finished it.
[3] The title of this blog post overlaps with Cassier and McBaine’s article. But it’s a really common idiom because — you know — William Shakespeare.
[4] The plus of “The Mission President’s Wife” as a title is that it could be a spin-off to Mette Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife mystery series.

26 comments for “What’s in a name? A historical note on the title of the Mission President’s Wife

  1. To be precise, I don’t know if “always” can be justified. The Sunday School and YMMIA / YLMIA / YWMIA / Retrenchment Association date to the 19th century, and I can’t say for sure how far back the “auxiliary” terminology goes. But the five current auxiliary organizations have been so designated for many decades, at least.

  2. In the church online directory of leaders, some missions’ leadership includes a “Mission President Companion”–based on the name and apparent sex of the companion, it seems in each case to be the wife of the president. The first one I saw was part of the 2017 class of mission presidents. which made me wonder whether the title was being introduced for mission presidents new this year. But then I found some 2017 missions with no companions listed, and at least one president from the 2015 class whose wife was listed as his companion.

    So, I don’t know what to make of the apparent randomness.

  3. Many, perhaps most, but certainly not all mission presidents’ wives in the first half of the 20th century served as directors of women’s activities. If their names would mean anything to readers (they wouldn’t), I could list women who did not so serve, either because they were officially excused from those duties due to health, family responsibilities, or disinclination, or who just never assumed those duties at all because no one asked them to.

    And yeah, Sunday School and the organization for young men have ALWAYS been auxiliaries, distinct from priesthood quorums even when membership overlaps. Different functions, different purposes, different leadership from the ward level on up to general church level.

  4. So just what should we call her? Our 19th century term Presidentess and Prophetess would be great to reinstate, though I don’t know that those would work here. Mission Mom is what we all called Sister Packer—our Mission President’s wife. “Companion” is horrible. It strikes me as retaining all the ill connotations and not many of the positive connotations of that ill-translated word “helpmeet.” Plus there are the conspicuous sexual connotations. We use Temple Matron for the similarly paired/sacrificing/working/set apart Temple President’s Wife. Maybe we could go with Mission Matron. I rather like Mission Matriarch (and perhaps we could simply refer to ‘Her Excellency…’ rather than ‘Sister…’). Julie’s written before about the difficulty in our even conceptualizing or having good titles for women is one of the marks of deep cultural disparity in the church.

  5. Left Field & Anon: True point. But the survey was about women’s organizations, so I suspect the authors were aiming at concision.

  6. I rather like Mission Matriarch or Matron. I would be concerned about President[ess] for two very different mission president’s wives. The first was kind, quiet, retiring and did not need to be burdened with any implication of more duties than she naturally assumed. The second was vicious, critical, back-biting and overly taken with her own power and glory reflected from that of her husband. She did not need additional encouragement by being addressed as President. Mission Relief Society President would not have worked for either. Since neither knew or learned the language they could not have served effectively with the local members. Matriarch and Matron are sufficiently vague to facilitate the delegation of duties as appropriate, though I know of one Temple Matron, at least, who had to be significantly reined in about her autocratic wielding of “authority” by which she had offended too many temple workers.

  7. Part 2 [The “post comment” button disappears if I try this as part of a single comment.]: Of course, none of this is to say there have not also been Mission Presidents who were vicious, critical, back-biting and overly taken with their own power and glory reflected from their title. And I know of another Temple Matron who had to be regularly smoothing over the damage caused by her husband’s autocratic wielding of authority, and another Temple President who could not be reined in at all. Maybe I’d be happier with revised titles for Mission Presidents and Temple Presidents as well as their wives. How about “Mission Servant” and “Temple Servant.” Mark 9:35 “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” :)

  8. Mark & James: Interesting thoughts. I don’t love “mission mom” because I think it connotes certain activities and not others (teaching recipes rather than teaching doctrine). Now, before anybody jumps on me about whether or not moms teach doctrine (they DO!), I think the connotation is because of phrases like “soccer moms” (who also perform fabulous service). But President (husband) and Mom (wife) seems a strange pairing to me. I like Mission Matron much more. Since it’s not a word in very common use in current English, it has the chance to take it’s own shape. (I like Mission Matriarch, but I have more trouble seeing that catching on.)

  9. David: Well, yes, it was about women’s organizations, but the pollsters’ question included this: “The Relief Society, Young Women’s, and Primary organizations have been called the “auxiliary” organizations of the Church. That term unfortunately connotes the idea that they are secondary to organizations of much greater importance. In the Great Plan of Happiness, however, we know that what women do is not auxiliary to what men do.”

    The clear and intended implication is that *only* the organizations led by women are termed auxiliaries. That’s a leading question.

  10. I think “advisor” would be the best title. You would refer to her as “Advisor Jones” or abstractly as “the Mission Advisor.” Not sure about how to find the best parallels in other languages, but I think “advisor” is the best English word.

  11. Yes, Julie! “Advisor” seems to describe a flexible and appropriate role without any overtones of genderism or authority. It is also much more respectful that the informal titles some of us had for my second mission president’s wife.

  12. Yes, advisor is a great idea. In Spanish, one would have to use “asesora” (I think) rather than the alternative “consejera” to distinguish from the counselors in the mission presidency.

  13. a tad ironic given the topic that you misspelled Neylan’s last name–please go through and correct the article and chart to be McBaine with an e. As you’ve demonstrated, naming matters :-)

  14. ACW: Just a tad! Thank you. Fixed. (Couldn’t fix the chart so deleted it; it’s in the article by Cassler and McBaine.)

  15. Why can’t the couple be addressed as Sister and Brother X, presidents of XYZ mission? We are supposed to address counselors in a stake presidency as ‘President’.

  16. Mission Matron is about all I can come up with… although I did think for a whimsical moment about reinstating noble titles for Church titles, I always did like “Dame” Judi Dench.

  17. When “Mom” is displayed disparaged for being essentially a home economics term (“about recipes”) rather than one of love and honor from someone who cares for you, it shows how far we’ve gone… I’m not saying see should be called Mom. But the knee jerk feeling is revealing.

    That being said, lest you get the wrong idea, I’m fully supportive of a mission presidency that delegates all normal operations of sister missionaries to a Sister Mission President in a similar manor as the relief society cooperates with the bishopric.

    They’d council together on changes so it’s not operating outside the purview of the presiding authority.

    But lest you think I care for feminist progress for the sake of equal power representation, I think for all its wonderful individual growth that’s occasionally occurring by involving more women in administration tasks, it’s coming at a cost to families and future generations.

    But the men are shirking their responsibilities in so many ways we need the women to help more it seems.

  18. My first mission Pres often introduce himslef with his wife saying “We are the President of the mission” or similar. Also, We almost always referred to the Pres’ wife as “Sister Pres” Once I absent mindedly (and to my horror) called her that to her face and she didn’t mind at all

  19. While respecting everyone’s opinions who commented before me, I have to say that I for one enjoyed calling my two mission president’s wives the Mission Mom, because that’s what the were to so many of us. They nurtured us physically (at arm’s length) and spiritually. The lectured us about washing our sheets and eating right while also helping to build our testimonies and our desires to serve the Lord. My two Mission Moms earned the title Mom, and I was glad to refer to them by that title. There were several of us who went through various stages of depression while I was serving, and after the mission president got done lecturing us on the topic as men did in those days (early 70’s), it was the Mission Mom’s heartfelt kindness and gentleness that actually made the difference. To me personally, it was a title of honor.

  20. Taking a cue from trek (never thought I’d say that), why not just “Mission Ma and Pa”? Or Madre y Padre? And focus on “presiding” as showing the elders and sisters you’re responsible for what a truly gospel-centered family looks like?

  21. I think the big problem is that socially how people view motherhood has changed. And frankly it’s become degraded as a valuable job. On the one hand the reasons for this were good – decades of people presuming women were only caregivers or homemakers. That presumption tended to lead to the unconscious reaction that motherhood was somehow not as valuable. Just consider how people instinctively react to “mission CEO” or “mission mom” and you can see the social value difference.

    Now we might understandably see this as something society has lost. Why can’t we not assume women are just mothers without also devaluing that as a job? Yet given all the people who already devalued the job (which really was the sexism behind the presumption) then it’s hardly surprising the reaction will buy into the same devaluing. While I think we should value motherhood much higher (fatherhood too) the reality is that society doesn’t. As such when you use terms like “mission mom” you just can’t isolate it from those wider social meanings. So we really should stop using it.

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