First and foremost, let me say that I am absolutely thrilled with today’s announcement lowering the age for prospective missionaries, for many of the reasons that have (and will be) written here and elsewhere: the transforming popular image of sister missionaries, the increase in scriptural knowledge and service opportunities amongst female members, the growing possibilities for female leadership, the adjusted goals of the young women’s program, the larger amount of young adults being tethered to the gospel (and humanity), and many other examples of the slow, uneven steps toward gender equality. All of these are important results that I fervently celebrate; I suppose that such things, if proved true, will make today a significant milestone in our ever-growing progression as God’s Kingdom.
But I’m interested in another impact this policy change could have on our culture: the possibility of re-conceptualizing our highly gendered image of missionary work.
Missionary service, while for quite some time open to both genders, has always been closely tethered to the male priesthood. Even in the press conference today adding details to the policy change, Elder Holland emphasized that missionary work continues to be an obligation and duty for priesthood holder as opposed to a personal choice for female members. This rhetoric and focus dates back to the highly-gendered missionary image of the 18th and 19th century itinerant preacher: the tough, thick-skinned, hyper-masculine missionary traveling from town to town without purse or scrip spreading the manly message of Christ. (See chapter 4 here and chapter 3 here, for starters.) Though missionary work was soon opened to females–but never to the scale of some other movements (see here)–the male image reigned supreme within the LDS tradition. When one thinks of “God’s Army,” still a common descriptor of Mormon missionary work, one is either consciously or sub-consciously flexing muscular Christianity’s gendered potential. Missionary hallmarks like an emphasis on brute force and sheer will, a faith in administrative culture and progressive organization (in the classic use of the term), and a vision of diligent (if unfruitful) practices like tracting as the highest virtue, to use only a few examples, are male-centered concepts that dominate the way we frame missionary labor.
I won’t go too much into this gendered critique of Mormon missionary culture. There are certainly elements, of course, that are traditionally delineated as masculine–like diligence, hard work, etc.–that are just as rightfully associated with sister missionaries. But I think it’s rather clear that, in many cases, the LDS mission labor force has been crafted as a very male space, and women’s success within that space has depended on their willingness to appropriate male-centered norms while at the same time suppressing their own gendered inclinations. I am personally aware of several mission presidents who grew sick of sister missionaries because they maintained too many characteristics of young adult females and not enough like the broad-shouldered, Utah-bred elders. This dynamic is further perpetuated with things like the caricature of “Visitors’ Center Sister Missionaries,” an image that grants enough space to act female but still remains separate from the very male mission field. These types of demarkations are almost always in existence within a culture that maintains a minority representation both in numbers and power structure, which is definitely the case with female missionaries.
But with today’s announcement, which I truly believe will cause a spike in sister missionaries, I wonder if the gender dynamics of Mormonism’s missionary image will change. The very fact that women will make up a larger percentage of mission labor will force LDS culture to reconceptualize things that have long been taken for granted. There is historical precedent for such transitions within broader culture. In mid-19th century America, the increase of female participation in religious practice led to what many scholars have termed the feminization of Christianity, mostly meaning a sentimental Jesus that comforted the sinful, an emphasis on emotion as the center of religious life, and the introduction civil reform into the immediate ante- and post-bellum period (see here and here). More recently, and perhaps more significantly, has been the transition numerous churches have made in the last century due to female ordination, a transformation that has fundamentally altered how many understand Christian ministry (see here).
I am honestly curious to see what direction the image of Mormon missionary work may go. It seems it would fall in line with other recent developments like the pluralist (and modern) ideals of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign or even the (exceedingly wise) goodwill decision to slowly eliminate tracting and other cold-turkey, old-fashioned missionary techniques. Will more sister missionaries mean a restructuring of mission organizational apparatuses? Will it result in a new overall framework for missionary training? Will it shift how Mormon culture perceives the mission experience as preparatory to leadership potential? Will it alter the general spirit of camaraderie of fellow missionaries, where most districts are currently made up of a brotherhood of elders and a few outlier sisters? I have no idea, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the following decades.
Of course, tracing these types of transitions within the mission field may very well offer foresight into tensions of later gender incorporation, whether in hierarchical structure or female ordination, but that is for the future to reveal.