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'Sister missionaries' causing a gender shift in Mormonism, BYU prof says

Published March 27, 2014 10:08 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lowering the age for LDS "sister missionaries" to 19 from 21 has created a major shift in "gender negotiations" on all levels in the Utah-based faith, Mormon historian Andrea G. Radke-Moss will argue in a speech Thursday.

For most of the church's history, Mormon missions were mostly "male spaces," full of "masculine structures, symbols and forms of corporatism, in which women entered as visitors or outsiders to those spaces," Radke-Moss says in a email previewing her remarks, but with the surge in female missionaries since the age was lowered in October 2012, that is likely to change.

The speech, " 'Send me more sisters!': A History of Female LDS Missionaries," will be presented at on the campus of Brigham Young University at 11 a.m. Thursday as part of the school's Women's History Month.

"I believe the church will have to adjust what we expect of our 12- to 18-year-old girls," says Radke-Moss, who teaches a BYU-Idaho. "Right now, the differences between Aaronic Priesthood duties and what we expect of Young Women is so radically far apart that one might expect the church to adjust some of the Sunday-to-Sunday responsibilities for YW, to give them better preparation, service and leadership skills."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seen dramatic growth in the number of missionaries since the age change — especially among young women — jumping from 58,500 before the announcement to more than 82,000 today.

The mission experiences of those women, Radke-Moss says, may remake gender relations and expectations, too.

"Returned sister missionaries will be coming home, having served as district leaders and maybe even zone leaders in all-sister districts and zones," she says. "They will also have served in mixed-gender mission councils."

Sister missionaries do not presently serve as district leaders or zone leaders, but rather as sister training leaders.

Still, Radke-Moss asks, how could experiences with shared governance translate into the church lives and service of Mormon men and women?

"As it stands now, the church maintains a consistent model of leadership in which females can only lead female-only groups or children, with final priesthood [male] decision-making, where only males can lead over other men, or groupings that include both men and women," she says. "Will the changes in missionary leadership translate to changes in the larger church? Will missions allow for the exploration of mixed-gender shared governance? Or will missions simply reinforce traditional gendered structures?"

Radke-Moss believes "the changes in missionary age and demographic potentially has strong implications for the future of shared governance in the church."

Peggy Fletcher Stack