I was surprised and really happy to hear about the big missionary shake-up today. I learned about it first on Facebook, since I wasn’t able to watch Saturday morning’s session, and it was fun to monitor reactions there and around the bloggernacle throughout the day. I pretty much concur with most of the assessments reported in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s great piece in the Tribune: Joanna Brooks and Neylan McBaine both had important comments about the implications of the change for increased gender equality in church governance.
I would add one more thought on potential structural implications: a drastically increased cohort of sister missionaries will throw gendered power relations in the mission field into starker relief, with a much larger proportion of the total missionary force ineligible for mission leadership — and without recourse to a complementary-compensatory motherhood discourse (or an alternative female power structure in the RS) that we often use to soften the disparity in regular church life. It may be that the stark gender inequities in mission experience will spur experiments in building parallel female leadership lines outside of RS (and also, presumably, still outside of the priesthood ladder) that may one day bear fruit in regular ecclesiastical governance.
Lots of the early reporting focused on church governance and structure, but this evening I’m seeing more comment on potential implication for LDS culture. Ben Park just put up a provocative piece about the gendered iconography of the Mormon missionary. I’ve been thinking about how Mormon femininities might be reshaped in the wake of greatly increased missionary service among young women. On the one hand, I’m optimistic that it might mitigate what I see as the most troubling aspects of Mormon femininity cultures: sweetness emphasized over competence, innocence over experience, spiritual emotion over spiritual knowledge, youth over maturity. Mission service will give young LDS women the opportunity to grow up spiritually, to see themselves as competent, experienced, spiritually knowledgeable and spiritually mature. This will allow former sister missionaries to participate more effectively at the few sites of joint church governance which we already enjoy, yes, but more importantly it will change the general culture of Mormon femininity, which will in turn influence even the young women who elect not to serve missions. (And since we’re making changes: can we pleeeeease put women missionaries in professional businessware, ie pantsuits? We can keep the look very gendered with scarves, etc, if we must, but can make their presentation so much more competent and put-together than it currently is.)
But there’s another side to consider. I was struck this afternoon at how many adult women said that they would have served a mission if they had had the opportunity to do so at 19 years old. No doubt that is the case, but for me the opposite is true: if many or most LDS girls at BYU were leaving on missions at 19, I probably wouldn’t have gone. That’s because for me the choice to serve a mission was not entirely about an excess of evangelical zeal and a burning desire to spread the gospel. It was also about my identity as a certain kind of Mormon woman, a “neat girl” rather than a “sweet girl.”
By the time I was 21, in 1996, the image of sister missionaries as unwanted spinsters was long gone, at least from my head and the heads of my friends. Instead, we saw ourselves as more serious, more ambitious, and more substantive than the sweet girls at BYU. To serve a mission was a way to assert a different kind of feminine identity: still firmly within the Mormon fold, but set apart by our direction and aspiration. If a mission had been an expected, totally mainstream next step in the LDS woman’s life map, I might not have gone, because at that stage I needed to differentiate myself from the mold. If all the sweet girls were doing it, neat girls like me would have to find another niche. (Obviously there was a huge dose of pompous self-congratulation in the identity I constructed for myself, and please know that I am now well aware that lots of serious, ambitious, and substantive LDS women did not serve missions for a variety of reason.)
Perhaps the proportion of young LDS women wanting to serve missions will never rise to fully “mainstream” levels, and the mission will continue to serve as a waystation in alternative Mormon femininity. But if it does, it will be interesting to see how the neat girls begin to differentiate themselves. Choosing to attend college outside of Utah? Emphasis on graduate studies? Perhaps an alternative service experience like Peace Corps? I hope we’ll find a way to keep them in the fold, however it shakes out.