they darn well better call me on a mission
guest post by Sophia Mason
Almost a year and a half ago I sat on my couch as I realized the LDS president lowered the minimum age for Mormon missionaries. As he lowered the age for young men in the slow, affected manner that has become tradition, my pulse quickened and my face flushed. I repeated in my head, “just don’t leave us behind, just don’t leave us behind…” When he said that young women, too, could serve at an earlier age, I relaxed.
But I didn’t smile. He rolled down the age for men to eighteen, but to nineteen for women. My religion had stepped toward greater equality for the sexes, but I steamed that the leaders of my church felt that I, an eighteen year-old girl, couldn’t possibly be as “prepared to serve” as my eighteen-year-old, male counterparts. In addition, this change shifted the rude expectation for men to interrupt their college years to serve missions, onto women.
I have always intended to serve a mission. After the age change, I vacillated for a few months and decided to stick to my original plan to face the brainwashing and saleswomaning of mission service after I had finished my degree. Expanding leadership roles for women in my church, and the discovery of communities of like-minded Mormon women (such as the Young Mormon Feminist Blog) have helped satisfy my craving for upheaval. But my own mission is the ultimate challenge.
The church regulates every facet of the missionary’s life in order to control the message—so that every person who encounters an LDS missionary encounters the same image, hears the same message, and will see the institution as unified and harmonious. To me these restrictions are the breeding ground for innovation.
Artists often set strict parameters for themselves to foster their greatest creativity. You maximize the impact of one creative choice when you eliminate all the other options. The mission for LDS Mormons is the pinnacle of parametered devotion, lifestyle, and marketing. But the highly regulated mission program leaves me my own testimony—a singularly creative choice—and encourages me to share it.
I believe there is almost nothing harmonious about this faith. Sure, there are some basic doctrines most active Latter-day Saints assent to, but when I hear what Latter-day Saints believe when they drop the codified church language, I find that we assent to concepts in very different ways. And I intend to share that conviction.
I find the Book of Mormon troubling. But it does claim that I can personally ask God if it is not true and expect an answer. I find frustrating a gospel that rides shotgun with a church bent on upholding racism and sexism, but I relish a gospel that once didn’t and can change. I hate that this church alienates so many of its own members for their sincere beliefs, but I celebrate the faith that raised me to thrive, if only to show persecution who’s boss.
Somehow, such things are enough to make me want to volunteer to pay my own way to be sent somewhere I can’t choose and to live with someone I won’t choose to live with so that maybe someday every LDS member’s testimony will contribute to the “image” of LDS-ness. So that I can rest eternally knowing I actually lived what I believe, instead of what the image advertises as my belief.
Or, I could leave the marketing to eighteen-year-old boys. Certainly they are far better equipped to advertise my testimony than I.
Sophia is an art and history major at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
24 Responses to “they darn well better call me on a mission”
I highly doubt that the leaders of the church “felt” that women “couldn’t possibly be as ‘prepared to serve’ as my eighteen-year-old male.” Elder Holland was asked about the age difference at the press conference afterwards. His response was that time and experience have shown that having at least a small age difference works better, specifically with having slightly older women in the field.
Feminism has important points to make and there are serious gender inequality issues. However, not every instance of gender inequality is motivated by prejudice. When supporters of feminism quickly jump to such assumptions and assertions the credibility of the movement is diminished. I think that before we assume that someone is being irrationally sexist that we should first assume they have a rational reason for whatever action or remark they’ve made. Always assuming the worse of others is a hard way to live. Plus, aren’t we taught to always assume the best?
How does time and experience show that having an age difference works better, if we’ve never experienced what having no age difference is like? Can you point to a time in which the church experimented with having the same age requirement, then measured the outcome and found that it somehow reduced the productivity of missionaries?
JL, please read the following. I am not Sophia and did not write this piece, but this may help you understand why I personally do see the current missionary restrictions on women to be rooted in sexism.
“Now I wish to say something to bishops and stake presidents concerning missionary service. It is a sensitive matter. There seems to be growing in the Church an idea that all young women as well as all young men should go on missions. We need some young women. They perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.
I confess that I have two granddaughters on missions. They are bright and beautiful young women. They are working hard and accomplishing much good. Speaking with their bishops and their parents, they made their own decisions to go. They did not tell me until they turned their papers in. I had nothing to do with their decision to go.
Now, having made that confession, I wish to say that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve are united in saying to our young sisters that they are not under obligation to go on missions. I hope I can say what I have to say in a way that will not be offensive to anyone. Young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men. Some of them will very much wish to go. If so, they should counsel with their bishop as well as their parents. If the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do.
I say what has been said before, that missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. As such, our young men must carry the major burden. This is their responsibility and their obligation.
We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small. Again to the sisters I say that you will be as highly respected, you will be considered as being as much in the line of duty, your efforts will be as acceptable to the Lord and to the Church whether you go on a mission or do not go on a mission.
We constantly receive letters from young women asking why the age for sister missionaries is not the same as it is for elders. We simply give them the reasons. We know that they are disappointed. We know that many have set their hearts on missions. We know that many of them wish this experience before they marry and go forward with their adult lives. I certainly do not wish to say or imply that their services are not wanted. I simply say that a mission is not necessary as a part of their lives.
Now, that may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it. The bishops and stake presidents of the Church have now heard it. And they must be the ones who make the judgment in this matter.
That is enough on that subject.”
-President Gordon B. Hinckley, at the priesthood session
That statement has effected hundreds of thousands of not only sisters who were discouraged from going, but hundreds of thousands of young men and mission presidents and bishops who heard the prophet say that he doesn’t encourage women to serve missions and is disappointed that so many try to.
I don’t doubt that his reasons are rational, but they are indeed sexist.
Hannah, what do you mean that his reasons are “sexist”? That they result in different expectations for men and women? Or as the OP said, they feel that women just aren’t as prepared as men?
That explains the age difference a lot more clearly. Thanks for finding this, Hannah.
I don’t think you should serve a mission. I hope you do not serve a mission. The church has guidelines and strict instructions for missionaries and what they teach for a reason. Missionaries are the face of the church and are supposed to teach what the church wants them to. Not what the missionary wants to. As a representative of the church, you have to put aside your personal bias and respect the church as more important than your ideas and such for your 18 months or two years. THAT is what you are volunteering to do. Otherwise you are being a false messenger. Both you and the church would be better if you didn’t serve if you intend to willfully disobey and go against the church teachings during a mission.
Your language about missions shows the contempt you have for those who go to serve. I’m confused as to why you’d want to join in on such a negative thing. The disrespect you show towards faithful members here is shocking.
It sounds like you question far more about the church than you believe in it. Why would you politicize for something you don’t necessarily believe in, unless you are trying to pull it down or hurt it from the inside?
Katherine, I hope you do not serve a mission. Your language about another person’s faith shows the contempt you have for individual sons and daughters of God. Your commitment to the church institution that prevents you from appreciating a genuine, honest testimony is surely the greater threat to a living gospel.
This angry “woman” is no believer.
Uh, why is woman in quotations marks?
I believe the quotes are to indicate that he suspects that the writer of the piece is, in fact, a man.
I hope you go. Missions and the message are as diverse as the missionaries. There is no “one” message – just one set of teachings catered to the audience. China is as different as Chile, and Chile is as different from Chicago. Don’t listen to the “haters” telling you you shouldn’t serve. You should serve; the Church needs more representatives with your faith.
You should absolutely serve a mission. Anyone who is worthy, willing to obey missionary standards, and follow the Spirit should serve.
Whenever you are ready.
Let me add that having worked with many recent converts (and as a convert myself), I believe that people learning about faith are better served by an understanding that faith is complicated, personal, wavering and testable — as opposed to uniform and magic. The second kind of faith is tenuous and easily shattered.
That was Elder Holland’s response in a busy press conference. Can you point to a time when one of the general authorities said they “felt” 18 year old women aren’t as mature or prepared as 18 year old men? Can you point to a study that looks at the general authorities positive and negative statements directed towards each gender and determines if they really feel eighteen year old boys are more mature and prepared than 18 year old women?
Unfortunately I don’t have studies the Church has done on missionary age differences nor do I think you have studies of the general authorities feelings about the maturity of 18 year old women. Without definitive evidence we are left with only assumptions. We can either assume Church leaders have a rational reason for what they did or we can assume that they looked at their granddaughters and thought, “You know…I just really feel your brothers are more mature than you.” Which do you think is more plausible?
A couple things. First, JL, for future reference,next time hit “reply” to my comment, so that this conversation will appear together rather than scattered across the comments.
Second, I never said “eighteen year old boys are more mature and prepared than 18 year old women” — the OP did. I am not defending the OP so your line of argumentation makes little sense here.
Back to my original question. If you “don’t have studies the Church has done on missionary age differences”, do you then assume such studies actually exist somewhere? Does having the women on average a little older than the men work “better” than something else that’s actually been tried? Or do you think that by “time and experience”, Elder Holland basically meant something along the lines of “it’s worked this way for a long time and it’s worked well, so why modify it?”
Sorry, I thought this discussion was on what the OP posted not whether studies have been done on productivity and missionary ages. If you really want to know what Elder Holland “meant,” you should ask Elder Holland. Or if you really want to know the basis of the missionary department’s decisions, write them a letter. I’m puzzled as to why you think I would know the detailed reasons for the Church’s decision. I just assume that they have good and rational reasons for what they do.
Thanks for the response, JL. I am going to interpret your telling me to “ask Elder Holland” or “write them a letter” as somewhat glib and not intended to be taken as serious advice. It requires some expectations — that I’d actually get a response, that it would be completely fact-based and candid, and that it would be complete and correct — that I’m somewhat doubtful of. Someone else can prove me wrong on this point.
In response to your puzzlement, no, I don’t believe you or I “would know the detailed reasons for the Church’s decision”. But keep that in mind and recall that you gave us Elder Holland’s explanation — “time and experience have shown that having at least a small age difference works better, specifically with having slightly older women in the field”, as a counterpoint to the OP. Hannah Wheelwright has given yet another reasonable explanation by President Hinckley for the policy.
In light of the uncertainty that even you yourself lately expressed as to the “real” reasons behind the policy, combined with your offering of Elder Holland’s explanation, I think it’s reasonable to ask how you interpret the statement you gave. I can certainly agree with you that the Brethren are being rational, but by now you’ve seen at least two differing and somewhat contradictory rationales the Brethren have used for the policy. My question to you is not whether you believe the Brethren are being rational, but rather how you interpret their rationale.
A statement like Elder Holland’s leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and so to use his statement to persuade someone that the Brethren are or are not being sexist in their policy, requires us not only to hear what they say about it, but to seek to interpret their statements. I would suggest that if you interpret Elder Holland’s remarks as meaning that studies on age differences versus effectiveness of some sort have been conducted, then clearly it implies that the policy is not rooted in sexism. But on the other hand, if you interpret Elder Holland as side-stepping the issue with a vague reference to “time and experience” or as implying long-standing tradition as the rationale for the policy, then there is room to believe it is rooted in some form of sexism.
This is why getting a clearer picture of how you interpret Elder Holland’s remark is pertinent to the conversation, if you want to reason about whether or not the Brethren are maintaining a sexist policy in this instance.
Thank you for clarifying your question. So as I understand it, you want to know whether I interpret Elder Holland’s statement being rooted in sexism or reason?
I would refer you back to my first post. I brought up Elder Holland’s statement in support of a simple rule of thumb: when you can interpret an action or statement as being motivated by either sexism or reason, you should assume the best in others. Following that rule, I interpret Elder Holland’s statement in the best light and believe he means to say that their decision was based in reason instead of sexism. Innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent.
How do you interpret Elder Holland’s statement? And are all forms of sexism bad? If “sexism” means there are different expectations for men and women, it is very different from there is a belief that men are superior to women as the OP alluded to.
JL, I believe we’re still not exactly understanding each other. I don’t think Elder Holland’s comment has to be rooted in EITHER sexism or reason. That’s a false dichotomy. If you read my earlier comment, replace “rational” with “reasonable” and “rationale” with “reason”. It should be clear that I’m agreeing with you that administrative decisions in the church tend to be rooted in reason.
So I’m going to reword my question again, and hopefully make it clearer. Whenever we use “reason”, we have to begin with certain assumptions. I’d venture to say it’s impossible to be clear of biases and assumptions no matter what form of reasoning we employ (even in mathematics, we rely on unproven axioms; David Hume’s discussions on induction are relevant here). So even when we say a person is using reason, it is perfectly valid to question the assumptions their reason is based on.
So for Elder Holland, what do you believe his reason is based on? When he says, “time and experience have shown…”, what does he mean? Does he mean there are tables of numbers he can refer to that demonstrate a strong correlation between convert rates and age differences among missionaries? Is it a measurable thing he’s referring to? Or is a “gut” feeling type thing, one of those, “everybody knows…” statements that one might feel doesn’t need to be defended or supported by additional evidence?
As for your question to me, I believe Elder Holland’s remark may have been a sort of sleight of hand. (At least in the way you quoted it, since I have not analyzed the original). It makes it appear as if there are clear reasons for keeping the age difference, but none of those reasons are given or really even hinted at. It’s a way to answer the question without providing any details, and moving on to the next subject. What does “time and experience” really mean? What data does it refer to? That’s the magic — there’s not necessarily any data.
Now to forestall a premature response. What I’m NOT saying is that such prestidigitation implies any kind of -ism. What this kind of redirection usually means to me is that the clearer answer that could have been given was for some reason either not adequate or not prudent to give. While this could mean that the “reason” for the policy is some kind of overt sexism (which, as you’ve noted, we haven’t quite defined yet), I believe real “reasons” for policies are probably more quaint — it could be that nobody thought about the reason for an age difference but considered, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, in keeping an age difference. Relying on the assumed wisdom and authority of past decisions when our understanding of the logic behind those decisions has faded isn’t uncommon. It may be rooted in some desire to make it clear that we still expect all young men who are worthy to serve missions, but we don’t expect the same of all young women (you’ll notice I’m not calling this sexist, either — we still have yet to define sexism, and I’m more inclined to determine the range of possible interpretations we can agree on first, and only later reflect on what pejorative labels we give them! =D). I could go on, but I think this is enough to indicate my flow of thought.
In summary, partly because I view Elder Holland’s remark as a kind of misdirection, I don’t believe it has much power to help us decide whether the policy of keeping an age difference is sexist. So I thought that, although interesting, it was somewhat fruitless in helping one determine that the policy is not sexist. Which is why I’m asking you how you interpret the remark. How does the remark help you determine that the Brethren aren’t being sexist? To me it says nothing one way or the other. I don’t feel like you have sufficiently highlighted the logical steps your mind takes in going from, “Elder Holland said, ‘time and experience…'”, to, “therefore, the policy is not sexist”. So far, it’s been a non sequitur for me.
So as I understand you now. You think the policy is rooted in reason and not sexism but question whether that reasoning is valid (which depends upon the assumptions being valid). Correct? You say their reasoning could either be based on either a “gut” feeling or numbers and tables. But of course those aren’t the only two options, right? Maybe they asked the experts (Mission Presidents and MTC staff) their opinions based upon their observations and experience. Maybe they shot memos back and forth. Maybe they got in a room and made a pro/con list. Maybe they all knelt down in prayer and asked God and this is what he told them to do. If it wasn’t a measurable method is it de facto invalid? If its not numbers and tables can it not be trusted?
As to your question. I would once again ask you to read my very first post. The OP asserted the policy was based upon sexism/prejudice (men are better than women). I used Elder Holland’s statement as evidence that it was not based upon sexism/prejudice (men are better than women) but reason (time and experience).
Now of course, if sexism is given a broader meaning (unequal in effect or different expectations) then Elder Holland’s statement could be reasonably interpreted as “sexist”. However, if you read my very first post. It is quite clear that I use it to rebut the assertions that the policy is “sexist” in the narrower term of men are better than women. I think an interpretation that what Elder Holland meant by “time and experience” is that “we think men are better than women” is unreasonable and a stretch. I hope that answers your question.
That was perfect. Thank you for your clarity, and I absolutely agree with you that we can broaden our assumptions about what the “time and experience” phrase could have meant. You’ve provided a good explanation for what you intended to convey with that particular quote.
As a somewhat skeptical person, I’m not inclined to accept reasons that don’t have some kind of demonstrable basis, and I don’t tend to accept anecdotes or the like as a particularly useful form of evidence. Running with one of your suggestions, among the “cons” I could see listed for eliminating the age difference would be reasons like those given by President Hinckley. The only experience-based “con” that comes to mind would be something relating to Elders and Sisters of similar age getting into trouble when they belong to the same district or zone. Silly as it sounds, I think it’s a reasonable concern. I personally know several examples of Elders and Sisters, where especially when the Elder was little older than the Sister, they hooked up fairly quickly post-mission. If something like this was seen as a concern, I would hope they found some way to quantify it (hard as that would be to do..). Regardless, I think this scenario counts as a plausible speculation that could leave reasonable doubt about there being either outright or implicit sexism in such a policy.
It wouldn’t justify to me what I still would then see as hand-waving on the part of Elder Holland, rather than a clear and straightforward bullet-list of reasons, or something similar. But then again, if you got something out of it, it’s clear that his approach worked for some people. I think that wraps this subject up. Thanks again, and apologies for the long-delayed response.
For me the age change was very exciting…but it still does not make sense to me at all why there is still an age difference, or a mission length difference (why only 18 months???). Yes, there are many “theories” but I do not think there has been any official statements saying why. There are no statements stating it has to do with maturity or with Sister/Elder interaction, so, in reality, it is a really odd mystery. Just Elder Holland said the age difference works better…but I have no idea why. I did come across a quote by President David O McKay stating that the age (at that time for sisters it was 23 and 20 for brothers) had something to do with declaring the gospel being a priesthood responsibility, but it’s unclear why making women wait until they are older has anything to do with that. If the age was 80, I would have waited until then. Waiting until I was 21 was not as convenient for me as 19 would have been, but I did it because I knew that missionary service was important. Is this sexism…some would say, but for me it just is a lot of things that don’t make sense. Still, I did not stop some weird rules from going to serve because I thought sharing the gospel was important and I loved and had a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the LDS church. I do not have a testimony of the age difference, but that is ok.
But for you, if you want to serve a mission, DO IT! And go when you are ready. Sisters are allowed to go at any age as many times as they want. I also wish they would allow men that opportunity (why can’t they leave after 25?) Don’t let anyone tell you that you do not portray the right image, and, if you let that get in your way, you’d only promote the LDSness image you talk about. It is important, however to feel that your testimony is in a place that you can declare the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith as a prophet, baptism as a necessary covenant, Thomas S. Monson as a prophet, and the importance of Law of Chastity, Word of Wisdom, and Tithing as they are taught in Preach My Gospel, but you do not have to agree or understand everything. Many subjects we were actually told not to talk about since they weren’t the type of commandments or doctrine that would prevent someone from progressing in the gospel (like tattoos or piercings). So, it’s up to you to analyse where you feel you stand and if you feel that your faith is at a point where you can be a representative for the church (not the culture “church” or an Ensign cover type sister…just someone who can declare the truthfulness of the Gospel as it is in scripture and taught by modern day prophets, not PR representatives or what the mainstream believes is doctrine but is not actually doctrine)
The mission was beautiful, but totally frustrating too at times. It also was one of the few times in my life as a member of the Church that I felt I was treated with total equality because, as a missionary, investigators don’t care about your gender. They aren’t clouded by the an upbringing teaching that women are secondary when it comes to church leadership, as some members I know are. They see you as a representative of Jesus Christ and are more able to feel power that you carry. It helped me gain my own testimony that I am a daughter of God. In wards I was in, there were only one set of missionaries. So, it didn’t matter if I was a male or female, we were still the “missionaries”–the go-to people. Many sisters also often went to us when they felt uncomfortable talking to their male leaders. It was a very special experience.
I really love the discussion that has followed this piece. It has brought many things to my attention and I can see that people are listening to each other and trying to express their thoughts clearly for others. That’s why I like this blog; the comment section is usually actually productive rather than devolving into a name-calling circle of Dante’s Hell.