not in Primary anymore

thoughts on 19-year-old sister missionaries

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By Eris

The most exciting moment of my albeit short career as a Mormon occurred yesterday. Which I say sans exaggeration. At the infamously boring ordeal that is General Conference, at that.

I went to the 10 o’clock session of General Conference on Saturday, because my sister married into a family with connections, which means free Conference tickets for me whether I want them or not. I didn’t, but I went anyway because of sisterhood solidarity. And also because rumor had it on MO 2.0, one of the many prog Mo Facebook pages I’ve found myself on, that Thomas S. Monson had some thrilling news up his sleeve that would “change the life of every man, woman, and child.” Part of me dismissed the rumor as a deliberate attempt to angle in more listeners, but another part of my was morbidly curious enough to want to be there when/if he announced a reinstitution of polygamy.

Monson started his opening remarks rambly enough, but eventually zeroed in on missionary work. He talked about how in some cultures, male missionaries leave at 18. Then he announced that the possibility of leaving at 18 would be now be open all prospective male missionaries, to which the conference room murmured and the tuxedoed fellows sitting in front of my elbowed each other and grinned. But Monson hadn’t finished wowing the crowd. Not only would males be able to serve at 18 now, he said, the minimum age at which females could serve would now be lowered from 21 to 19. My older sister, a returned missionary and soft-spoken feminist, started crying when she heard this.

It’s close to impossible to be melodramatic about this moment – it deserved the collective gasps, the murmur that erupted into a (reverent) roar, my sister’s tears.

Amidst the subdued cacophony I heard a dude say, “This means that, like, there will be no sophomores at BYU.”

Maybe. But this means a lot more than fewer sophomores at BYU. It means that we can stop perpetuating the idea that women don’t go on missions at 19 because they should be focusing on marriage at that age. It means that missions no longer can be seen exclusively as contingency plans. It means that we trust women and men to work in the same vicinity without compromising their avowed celibacy.

On a more pragmatic note, I’m guessing that it also means more missionaries. I know dozens of young women that were hell-bent on going on missions – annoying so; we’re talking “Future Missionary” regalia – who didn’t, because come 21 and they were already married or disaffected. I’m in the latter camp. At 19, though, frustration hadn’t quite clouded all my idealism. I still thought I could change the church. I would’ve gone on a mission. In terms of my faith, I don’t know what would’ve happened next.

Honestly, though, I was close to crying as well. Allowing women to go on missions at 19 has been a Mormon feminist talking point for decades (and it’s one of the suggestions on the newish All Are Alike unto God), so the announcement seemed to give off a sense of closure for the collective Mo fem consciousness – and also for my individual self. When I was younger, I expended an exorbitant amount of angst over this issue. Knowing that I’d gotten what I wanted, after I actually wanted it, precipitated the most bizarre jumble of reactions. Relief. Excitement. Nostalgia. Even disorientation.

Although it’s easy to be cynical about this change – that it’s just a savvy move to get more missionaries because more missionaries = more converts (?), that it’s weird that boys can still serve a year earlier than girls – at the moment, I don’t mind feeling optimistic about it. It’s a gain, of sorts. It’s progress. It reminds us of the (potential) transience of policy. And my own reaction reminded me that I still care about the future of Mormonism much, much more than I thought.

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5 Responses to “thoughts on 19-year-old sister missionaries”

  1. Talia

    I wasn’t watching when the announcement came, but within minutes my phone was flooded with excited texts from friends, sisters, nieces and other family members. I was in the middle of a family outing and while happy, I was preoccupied with herding the children in a pumpkin patch. When we got home I immediately turned on the DVR and fast forwarded to Monson’s talk. And yes, I did break down in tears. I cried bc my daughter will have this chance. I cried bc this albeit small gesture still gives me hope. I cried bc I would not have hesitated 10 years ago to turn in my papers and serve. That will always be a sad moment in my life, when I decided not to go bc frankly, I was trying to finish school and had met that certain person. The entire trajectory if my life would be different, true, but that’s just the hindsight talking.

    I really am 100% excited about these changes. Sure, I think it’s a bit strange that the age still isn’t the same, but I’m not worried, frustrated, or angry. Like I said, I’m most focusing on how many women’s lives will change (for the better I hope).

    Reply
    • eris91

      Lovely comment. Things could always be better for Mormon feminists – that goes without saying – but I’m glad you bring up the many positive results that this change could potentially give rise to, comparatively small as it is.

      Reply
  2. wilklogan

    I know some have speculated that the year difference still emphasizes that for men, missionary service is a priesthood duty, while it’s optional for women. But I do believe in Elder Holland’s explanation at Saturday’s press conference: that an age difference has shown to be helpful and effective, and in that sense, when the young women are older (imagine how it would be if it were the other way around)! There is still, in my opinion, an 18 month to two-year maturity gap with the new policy, as opposed to around three years (or more?) before.

    Reply

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