Equality Grows in Mormonism ; More Women Are Going on Missions, Signaling a Change in Gender Roles

By Jodi Kantor; Laurie Goodstein | International New York Times, March 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

Equality Grows in Mormonism ; More Women Are Going on Missions, Signaling a Change in Gender Roles


Jodi Kantor; Laurie Goodstein, International New York Times


More Mormon women are becoming missionaries, and they are expected to fundamentally alter the church in coming years.

Ashley Farr, once Miss North Salt Lake Teen USA, is the first in her family's long line of Mormon women to become a missionary, and in December she embarked on her new life in this gray corner of Asia. She packed her bag according to the church's precise instructions: skirts that cover the knee, only one pair of pants, earrings that dangle no longer than one inch, and subtle but flattering makeup, modeled in photos on the church's website.

Sister Farr, as she now is called, had left behind the student entrepreneurship competitions she was helping to run in Utah and paused her relationship with her boyfriend, far away in the Philippines, as they served his-and-her missions. Ms. Farr, a finance student at Brigham Young University in Utah, believed proselytizing would not only please God but also give her the organization and persuasion skills to succeed professionally. She rattled off all the things she wanted to become: Intern at Goldman Sachs. Wife of a mission president. Chief executive of a fashion or technology company.

"A mother and a businesswoman," she said in an interview on her first day, neatly summarizing the two worlds, Mormon and secular, in which she hoped to thrive.

Ms. Farr, 21, is part of the biggest gender change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in memory. After the church lowered its age requirement for female missionaries in October 2012 to 19 from 21, so many women have signed up -- 23,000, nearly triple the total before the change -- that many Utah colleges suffered sharp drops in enrollment, and the standard image of a Mormon missionary, a gangly young man in a dark suit, was suddenly out of date.

In the coming years, these women are expected to fundamentally alter this most American of churches, whose ruling patriarchs not long ago excommunicated feminist scholars and warned women not to hold jobs while raising children. Church leaders have been forced to reassess their views because Mormon women are increasingly supporting households, marrying later and less frequently, and having fewer children. And for the first time, waves of women like Ms. Farr are taking part in the church's crucial coming-of-age ritual, returning home from their missions with unprecedented scriptural fluency, new confidence and new ideas about themselves.

Already the church has made small adjustments, inviting women to weigh in on local councils and introducing the first leadership roles for female missionaries. When a band of Mormon feminists staged a demonstration last year in Salt Lake City calling for women to be ordained as priests, their demands were felt in church headquarters -- in part because the church's own surveys also revealed streaks of female dissatisfaction.

The church will benefit as "men's vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete," as Sister Linda K. Burton, president of the Relief Society, the church's auxiliary for adult women, put it. Maxine Hanks, one of the excommunicated feminist scholars, recently rejoined the church because she saw "so much progress" for women, she said in an interview.

Yet the church's attempt to rethink the place of women promises to be one of the most sensitive gender experiments of coming years, with Mormon authorities running simultaneous risks of going too far and not far enough. To revise female roles in the church threatens what many see as the very foundations of the faith, which dictate that men are ordained as priests at the tender age of 18, taking the title "Elder," while women, who can never progress beyond "Sister," are considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers. …

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