Yesharah

August 8, 2008 | 15 comments
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Did you know that BYU had a combined-gender missionary club in the early 1920’s named the Y.D.D.? It took me a month to discover the secret of the initials: “Young Doctors of Divinity.” What do you make of that? I was intrigued. Originally, the Y.D.D. welcomed male and female returned missionaries and had a number of both, a rather stunning achievement since the first single sister missionaries did not leave until 1898. While numbers increased gradually after that, there were still only 151 sisters set apart in 1925 (out of 1,131 total missionaries—13%). That there were enough young, single returned missionaries congregating at BYU who thought it was a good idea to have a mission club seems pretty interesting.

But then came the problems. The club was wooed by the Friars, a University of Utah ALL-MALE Christian club with chapters at a few Utah colleges. Though the women missionaries and a few cross-over men objected and initially defeated the motion to join the Friars, the male missionaries re-grouped and kicked the women out of the Y.D.D.

Well, what can one do? The women formed their own group, invited the two locally famous women who served in 1898 to join them, and decided to never call their association a “club.” For the first year or two, they were the “Y Missionary Women,” switching to “Yesharah” (a Hebrew word, feminine form, which I’ve been told means “straight, right, upright, just righteous, good or pleasing”). They met once a month to discuss missionary work and learn about the cultures and peoples of both U.S. and foreign missions. The spread to college/university cities such as Provo, Salt Lake, and Logan, as well as small Utah towns such as Smithfield, Spanish Fork, Payson, Ogden, and Pleasant Grove, Utah, and even a few places in Idaho and Arizona.

Most chapters lost contact with each other and most faded from view during the 1960s and 1970s, but I found a functioning chapter in Orem, Utah, and another in Logan, Utah. Has anyone heard of other functioning Yesharah chapters?

Also, would this type of society be of interest to returned sister missionaries? Both Logan and Orem function almost exclusively with older women who served missions with their husbands. These women speculate that “young sisters” are “too busy with children” to want to participate in such a group. What do you think? And, of course, what is up with having a combined gender club in the early 1920s and then moving toward segregation? Did this move toward segregation happen in other racial and cultural arenas?

I speculate that the original women were especially bonded because (1) they all served missions when that was a unique thing to do and (2) they were all kicked out of the Y.D.D. together. I’m not sure how current sister missionaries feel about their missions. Are the missions a big enough deal that one would want to form a club around it? Or is that part of a past era?

By the way, the BYU Friars apparently died out in 1975. Not that I feel competitive or anything.

15 Responses to Yesharah

  1. Tatiana on August 8, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    =)

  2. Tatiana on August 8, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    (/crasher of many a boys-only club)

  3. J. Stapley on August 8, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    I had forgotten that it was you who wrote that article in the JMH last winter. I found it really well done.

  4. Kylie Turley on August 8, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks.

  5. Ardis Parshall on August 8, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I remember the article, too, and understood how exciting it must have been to go through the scrapbooks and other records, and to interview the survivors you found. In fact, it’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw you were guesting here.

    I haven’t happened to run across any mention of it in the materials I use, but I remember the article well enough that I’m sure if I ever did see the name I would zero right in on it, and let you know of anything I saw.

    Most returned sister missionaries I know, including me, seem to think of missions as something we did “then”; anything we might do now in the way of gospel study or missionary work is part of our lives “now,” not a continuation of our missions the way your Yesharah women thought of it. Don’t think it could be replicated now. /sigh/

  6. matt w. on August 8, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I think RMs clique much more around language spoken or where they served, rather than gender, or even missionary work, for that matter. Hence mission reunions etc.

  7. Kylie Turley on August 9, 2008 at 12:08 am

    That’s exactly what I was wondering about, matt w. What solidified relationships? Ardis, was there an element of competition on your mission between the genders?

  8. Lupita on August 9, 2008 at 2:13 am

    “I’m not sure how current sister missionaries feel about their missions. Are the missions a big enough deal that one would want to form a club around it?”
    How current are we talking? It was a big deal to me. I’ve found that maintaining relationships with former missionaries from my mission has been pretty difficult. After almost fifteen (!) years, I only touch base with one former companion, which in some respects makes me sad. I’ve lived far from Utah so mission reunions haven’t been much of a serious option for me and frankly, the two I attended were serious disappointments.
    As far as competition, I tried to stay out of all that.

  9. Lupita on August 9, 2008 at 2:17 am

    Fwiw, my father served his mission in the same country about forty years ago and he’s maintained much better/closer contact with former missionaries. Not that it’s an official club or anything…

  10. Craig H. on August 9, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Kylie, do you have more statistics on how many women were serving at a given time? The ones you cite from 1925 reveal that 13% of missionaries were women. Isn’t that figure still about the same today? If so, then it’s hard to say that it was a unique thing to do in 1925. It was only about as common as today, although yes, since the total was smaller, maybe they did feel a great sense of bonding. I wonder whether that proportion has pretty much held steady over the years. I tend to think as well that as Matt W. said maybe the place one served is a stronger bonding factor than gender, though that’s only us males talking.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that in my mission there was a separate zone for sisters, with sister zone leaders. This was in the mid 70s. I love telling that to sister missionaries now, it seems so subversive and radical. It was my mission president’s idea, but the area authority put an end to it, for reasons unclear. We all thought it was kind of cool, even before our consciousness was raised.

  11. Kylie Turley on August 9, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    More statistics coming up:

    1900 796 total 17 female
    1905 716 total 16 female
    1910 933 total 44 female
    1915 621 total 90 female
    1920 889 total 148 female
    1925 1131 total 151 female
    etc.–seems to hover in between 15-20% of the total then WW II:
    1943 261 total 126 female
    1945 400 total 212 female

    Then 1950s and 1960s
    1955 2414 total 301 female
    1960 4706 total 464 female
    1965 7139 total 670 female

    Numbers go back up between 15-20% female in 1980s and seemingly through present, though more recent numbers are apparently hard to come by since the Church restricts access to live-person data.

    My numbers are coming from Tally S. Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women': Twentieth-Century Trends in Female Missionary Service,” New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History, Provo, Utah, 2005.

    So, yes, it seems that you are definitely right Craig about the percentage of the total. Percentage wise the women were not doing something that unique. But I think straight numbers-wise (and from what I gather from personal statements), they felt pretty unique, like they were fulfilling a prophecy.

    I guess it’s a feeling from bygone era. Maybe it’s a club thing from a bygone era, too.

    So perhaps this is the question I should be asking: is anyone part of a club and what is it based on? BTW, is the 1900s rule still in effect? that men are in clubs/societies based on professional associations and women are in societies for social reasons? I’m in a fabulous classics book club, but that’s all, RS Enrich groups notwithstanding.

  12. ESO on August 9, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for checking the stats–as I read the OP, the same thing occurred to me (that the percentage was probably pretty true to today).

    Personally, I do feel an instant camaraderie with other sister RMs–I feel that our “status” says something positive about the way we were when we served. This may be because I am judgmental, but when I am in a new ward, I am most likely to want to socialize with someone else who served as a young missionary (no matter when) rather than some random lady that is about my age or has kids about my age. Of course, I also like to keep up with former companions, but they don’t live in my ward.

    I would not feel the same connection to an older woman who served with her husband–that is a different experience.

  13. Katherine Morris on August 11, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Wow, that’s really interesting. In my BYU student ward, there’s a very high percentage of returned sister missionaries, many of whom served in the same missions. They live together and tend to socialize together as well. I know of other sister missionaries who became roommates at BYU and dated each other’s brothers, cousins, and friends. So, I think there is a tendency for sister RMs to feel a connection and even to group together in a clublike situation.

  14. Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill on September 2, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Yisharah ישרה is Hebrew for “to be right,” “to straighten,” to make equal,” “to be faithful to duty.”

  15. Kate on September 2, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Kylie–I’m sure you are aware of the Sarah Jensen’s overview re: sister missionaries in Segullah. If not, it might be of interest. http://www.segullah.org/spring2006/sisterhistory.html