Salt Lake City - When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently reduced the age requirement for missionaries by one year for men, to 18, and by two years for women, to 19, the number of women applying to serve jumped five-fold.
At the same time, the church reaffirmed that women would serve just 18 months, compared with two years for men. That rule, combined with the one-year difference in age requirements, touched off a new round of questions from Mormon feminists about how much progress women in the church are actually making.
"I didn't get it — why the difference in age and length of service?" said Eileen Mendez, a senior at the University of Utah majoring in Arabic. "Why couldn't things be equal?"
For years, Mormon advocates for women's rights have asked that same question about equality. Though the Mormon liturgy praises women as life-givers, men dominate the management of the church. Women cannot be ordained to a lay priesthood available to men and boys 12 or older. That gives men a spiritual and practical power that women do not share, critics say.
The church says that women's roles aren't lesser, just different. Church leaders point to the Relief Society as an example. It is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, and it is entirely led and run by Mormon women.
On her blog Flunking Sainthood, Mormon author Jana Riess called the new missionary age requirement an example of "progress with an asterisk."
"It's just not equality, and after a few glorious moments of believing it would be, that stings," she said.
The Internet age has given such sentiments a far-reaching platform. One social blog, Feminist Mormon Housewives, started in 2004 by an Idaho woman who said she was discouraged from mentioning her feminist politics in her church social circle, now has 1,000 members.
A separate online petition signed by hundreds of Mormon women nationwide calls for the church to fill positions without regard to gender and allow women to preside over church meetings without a man present. "It's time to talk about this stuff — it has been for decades," said Pam Harrison, a Utah social worker who signed the petition.
But although it is growing, the feminist movement is far from the mainstream of the faith.
In a landmark study in January, the Pew Research Center reported that 58% of American Mormons say that the more satisfying kind of marriage is one in which the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the house and children. About 38% prefer a marriage in which both the husband and wife have jobs and both take care of the house and children. Among the general public, including many other major religious groups, the balance of opinion on this question is reversed. Mormon men and women express similar views on this question, and there is no difference in views across age groups.
Rebecca Lane, editor of the Universe student newspaper at Brigham Young University, says: "I'm a woman in power — I'm the editor of my student newspaper. I just disagree about this whole idea of church sexism. Women are admired in our faith."
"Men and women are complete equals in the sight of God and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," church spokesman Michael Purdy said in an email. "Any belief outside of this truth is not supported in the doctrines and teachings of the church."
Mormon scholars say the church will not be rushed into altering its doctrines. "The church responds with incremental change that satisfies the gradualists but never satisfies the revolutionaries," said Terryl Givens, a Mormon professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "The church is never going to [ascribe] to a particular vision of feminism that aspires to eradicate all differences between men and women."
After the missionary announcement, church leader Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was asked why officials didn't allow women to serve for two years like men. "One miracle at a time," he said.
Over the years, Mormon feminists have butted heads with church leadership. Decades ago, Sonia Johnson, a Virginia church organist, was excommunicated for speaking out against the faith's opposition to the national Equal Rights Amendment. In the 1990s, Mormon feminists were among half a dozen scholars purged by the church for their criticism. The group, some of them men, became known as the September Six.
Karen Crist, 55, a Utah psychotherapist, was also threatened with excommunication for starting a Mormon women's forum in 1990 that drew hundreds to monthly meetings.
Some church critics on the Internet have taken an increasingly harsher tone, often referring to the Relief Society as separate and unequal. In a recent blog, Riess wrote: "No man gets the right to reassure me that I'm his equal when every single outward sign of how the church is run tells a different story."
Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, is a self-described feminist who as a 9-year-old quoted Gloria Steinem in a church speech, announcing that "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." Years later, she is more circumspect. "You have to pick whether you want to work inside or outside the church," she said. "Many of the frustrated have voted with their feet."
That's what Crist did. Although she is now a non-practicing Mormon, she says she wants her 24-year-old daughter to make her own decision. "I think she's too much of her own person to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak," she said. "I think she'll be one of those who gets it."