Missions Signal a Growing Role for Mormon Women

New York Times/March 1, 2014

By Jodi Kantor and Laurie Goodstein

Daejeon, South Korea — 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 organizational and persuasive skills to succeed professionally. She rattled off all the things she wants 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 hopes 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 from 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drops in enrollment, and the standard image of a Mormon missionary, a gangly young man in a dark suit, was suddenly out of date.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 reveal 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 sees “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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Many Mormon women embrace their traditional roles and flinch at the word “feminism”; a small movement to encourage women to wear pants instead of skirts to Sunday services was met with an angry backlash. Even younger Mormon men are often uncomfortable with the ambitions of their female peers, some women report, creating a chasm of expectations between the sexes.

But if the church, which keenly polishes its image, does not update its ideas about gender, it may be seen as out of step with contemporary life, an untenable home for women who are leaders in their workplaces and breadwinners in their households.

“The great unfinished business in the church is gender equality,” said Joanna Brooks, an English professor at San Diego State University who often writes about her experiences as a Mormon woman. “An increasing number of young Mormon women are growing up in a world where they not only can work, but have to work, and they are operating 12 hours a day in contexts where gender is irrelevant, but in a church structure where all financial and theological decisions are made by men. This will just stop making sense.”

The Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, where Ms. Farr trained and missionaries-to-be are sequestered for crash courses in any one of 55 languages, is a study in transition, filled with “sister missionaries” palpably thrilled with an experience that few of their mothers or grandmothers had. Classrooms are being converted to women’s dormitories; the cafeteria mounts four sittings for each meal; and the electronic notice board in the cafeteria, reminding departing missionaries to dry-clean their suits before they depart, feels like a throwback.

“We are hastening the work,” said Nancy Pratt, a 19-year-old who wants to make ceramics and work as a massage therapist, just before she departed for South Korea. “We are a movement. We get to be part of this great push.”

Strangers and Closed Doors
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The modest apartment that Nicolle Ensign and Victoria Julayne Scott share in Mokpo, South Korea, is filled with reminders and encouragement. A laminated sign taped to their night stand lists the steps to conversion; another shows the names of prospects who have fallen out of touch; and a third lists goals such as “don’t complain about the elders,” the male missionaries who can seem like irritating little brothers. (Men can sign up at 18.)

The apartment contains almost nothing extraneous to the mission, not even a single secular book. The women share one bowl and do not use their first names, even with each other. In the United States, Ms. Ensign, 23, and Ms. Scott, 20, dress more or less like other women their age, but here their wardrobes are regulated down to the bra color, white or cream only. (After going back home, male missionaries often joke about their eyes popping when they run into their former female counterparts wearing clingier tops and shorter skirts.)

Nothing is supposed to distract Ms. Ensign, a gymnast who loves Harry Potter, and Ms. Scott, an education student who enjoys sports and plays the viola, from their improbable task: with only a few weeks of language training, to persuade strangers in a remote city to make a foreign faith their own.

Every morning, leaving their home in a giant apartment block, they have a fairly clear idea of what will happen. “A lot of Koreans won’t even answer the door,” Ms. Ensign said. “In my whole mission” — a year and counting — “I’ve been let in twice.” People they approach on the street often walk away after a sentence. Another female missionary was recently spat on, and obtaining just one phone number can be a triumph.

But from the moment the young women set out one morning in December, bowing their heads with a prayer for the day’s success, it was clear that their task was made a bit easier because they were female.

In the region that Ms. Ensign and Ms. Scott cover, the sister missionaries are outperforming male ones in recruitment, according to Yong-In S. Shin, the mission president for the Daejeon region. Korean women usually do not want male strangers, some barely past adolescence, visiting when they are alone, but two cheerful young American women are another story.
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The two roommates dropped by the apartment of a teacher and mother of two, a church member who was helping them recruit. Greeting her like an old friend, they sat down with her to sing hymns in Korean. A few weeks earlier, the teacher introduced the two Americans to her students, who said they wanted to spend more time with the young women because they were so beautiful. Ms. Scott has long red hair that strangers sometimes ask to touch, and Ms. Ensign often charms Koreans who are surprised that a pink-cheeked young woman from Utah can speak their language so well. After the two left, they met a man outside a supermarket who seemed unusually engaged with them — so interested, in fact, that they decided to hand him off to their male counterparts.

The women had stopped nearly everyone they passed on the street, and as the sun went down they boarded a bus for what turned into a kind of one-act play. They paid their fares and wordlessly separated, each slipping into seats next to Korean women sitting alone thumbing electronic devices. Like parents with bags of raisins and rattles, the two missionaries keep their satchels full of items to engage potential converts, like stickers and Tic Tac mints.

Ms. Scott, who had been in the country for only six weeks, introduced herself to her seatmate, but quickly exhausted her knowledge of conversational Korean. The woman appeared indifferent. Ms. Scott gave up and stared straight ahead, dejection registering on her face. She could overhear Ms. Ensign moving in on her target, comparing American and Korean Christmas traditions, making references to Korean pop music, pulling out pictures of her family at home, all in long, confident streams. Soon the young woman was covering her mouth in laughter and Ms. Ensign had her phone number.

Though Ms. Scott was crestfallen, generations of male Mormon missionaries have said that kind of experience — falling flat and soldiering on anyway — helps them succeed professionally later in life. Missions are so frustrating, say many Mormons who have done them, that their real purpose is to convert the missionaries themselves, to build faith, focus and grit. In addition to making her a better mother, more knowledgeable in Scripture and patient at serving others, missionary experience will “help me support my family; it’s going to help me find a job,” Ms. Ensign said.

Before a missionary leadership meeting in Seoul in December, Sister Sharon Christensen, a 59-year-old mother of five with long strings of pearls and short blond hair, prepared lunch for the group, and then delivered an encouraging lecture to her charges. With the surge in female missionaries, the wives of mission presidents, like Mrs. Christensen, tend to have greater roles.

“I really wanted to serve a mission,” she said in an interview a few days later, but like most women of her generation, she stayed home instead. She was echoing what the female missionaries said about their mothers. They had wanted the adventure of serving, but church authorities encouraged them to stay home and build families instead. (A refrain back then was that women chose missions because their marriage prospects were poor.) Now mothers are living out their dreams through their daughters.

“Maybe in the past, homemakers didn’t get that chance” to do missions, said Mrs. Christensen, her eyes welling.

“It used to be that mission was the rite of passage for men, and marriage was the rite of passage for women,” said Ms. Hanks, the feminist scholar who returned to the church. Now, she said, “the church has officially established the mission as an equal rite of passage for women.”

A picture in the lobby of the Seoul mission depicts a male missionary preparing to go out tracting, or canvassing for converts, as a knight in shining armor. On a recent trip home, Mrs. Christensen bought a matching image of a sword-wielding sister missionary, so the women would be able to see an inspirational portrait, too.

But when asked how they felt about women joining the priesthood, which would allow them to assume religious decision-making authority, Ms. Ensign and Ms. Scott shook their heads and let out nervous giggles. “I already have way too much responsibility,” Ms. Ensign said.

In interviews attended by a church spokeswoman, dozens of their peers said the same: They welcomed more opportunities, but the priesthood went too far, a job God assigned to men. A few weeks later, the church gave Ms. Ensign more duties anyway, promoting her to a “sister training leader,” its first-ever leadership position for female missionaries. On top of her own work, she called her eight charges several times a week, set goals for them, ironed out conflicts between companions glued to each other for weeks on end, and celebrated their week-to-week successes.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve had so much purpose in helping people,” she said, sounding delighted with her new tasks.

About the same time, Ms. Scott attended the baptism of her first convert. Just before the ceremony, she took the young woman to the restroom, dressed her in all-white clothing, then handed her over to a local male church member, who performed the ritual. “I got to stand right next to the font,” she said, uncomplaining.

But some former female missionaries said their 18 months of proselytizing planted new questions about inequality.

“We couldn’t even baptize the people we taught,” said Melissa Ovard, who served a mission in South Korea in 1997. Back then, she was filled with the certainty of the young and pious, she said, but years later, she stopped attending church because it did not square with her life as a single, professional woman.

Before Ms. Ensign and Ms. Scott head back to the United States, each will have a private meeting with Mr. Shin, the mission president, who gives the same instructions to every missionary. Their next job in the church, he will tell them, is to find a faithful Mormon spouse, “so that they can be sealed for a time and eternity as a husband and a wife,” as he put it, and “experience the joy of having their own family in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Scramble to Find a Match

The block of ice cream was melting fast. Jessica Sagers, who returned from her mission last year fluent in Korean, worked quickly with her date, using a knife and a melon baller to sculpture the slab of vanilla into something that resembled a skull. In a room carpeted with plastic tarps at Brigham Young University, male-female pairs chiseled away, then scooped their artwork into bowls to make sundaes topped with candy.

Goofy icebreakers are customary even for cosmopolitan Mormons like Ms. Sagers, 23, who was then applying to a bioscience doctoral program at Harvard. It was a Saturday “date night” in her singles ward, the church’s answer to bars and nightclubs. At the age of 18, Mormons typically join a ward, or singles congregation, where those of marrying age gather for worship and social events. Without alcohol or coffee to lubricate the socializing (both are prohibited by the church’s Word of Wisdom), there are bowling outings, pie-eating contests, ballroom dancing lessons and, in traditional Mormon fashion, lots and lots of sweets.

The scramble to find a match is intense because marriage is the church’s most important sacrament and families remain together forever. Mormons believe that only married couples who have been ritually bound together for eternity can reach the highest tier of heaven. (Singles who are worthy may marry in the afterlife, according to the church’s prophets.)

The emphasis on marriage starts young. Some Mormon women say that when they were 16, adult leaders guided them through activities like writing letters to their fantasy future husbands, choosing colors for their wedding receptions, cutting out pictures of bridal gowns and choosing the temple where they would like to be “sealed” to their spouses.

Like many young, single Mormon women, Ms. Sagers is looking for a man who would be supportive of a working wife. Her mission in South Korea had a tremendous impact on her trajectory, recalibrating her career goals. She became enthralled by the Korean language, and changed her major from molecular biology to linguistics, all while teaching Korean part time at the Missionary Training Center.

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