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Pragmatism and Progress: An Overview of LDS Sister Missionary Service in the Twentieth Century

By: Andrea R-M - October 08, 2012

President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement in  General Conference on Saturday, October 6, 2012, that young women can now serve missions at age 19 is no less than revolutionary.  This move might seem like a pragmatic attempt to boost global missionary efforts.  However, a brief historical overview of the last century’s changes for sister missionaries provides some useful context for how remarkable this  policy really is.

Nineteenth-century Mormon missionary service was almost exclusively male, with only small opportunities for wives like Louisa Barnes Pratt and Lucy Woodruff Smith here and here, to serve as companions of sorts to their husbands.  Estimates place the numbers of female “missionaries” at fewer than 200 during the whole 19th century.[1]  A major shift occurred in 1898, when the Church called the first full-time proselyting single female missionaries, Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall. The Church needed public female representatives to counter persistent negative stereotypes about Mormon women, especially in the decade of the post-polygamy transition. Susa Young Gates recognized both the pragmatic and progressive virtues of missionary service for women: “[I]t was felt that much prejudice could be allayed, that many false charges against the women of the Church could thus be refuted, while the girls themselves would receive quite as much in the way of development and inspiration as they could impart though their intelligence and devotion.”[2]

By WW I, sister missionary numbers increased as males dropped off to military service, with sisters peaking in 1918 at 38% of the total missionary force.[3]  During these early years, age and length of service varied based upon individual circumstance, but the minimum age for sisters generally held at twenty-three.  During World War II, when missions closed and elders were called home, sister missionaries picked up some of the slack. The year 1945 was “the only year . . . in which sisters accounted for a majority of missionaries set apart.”[5]

The post-War idealization of women’s traditional roles reached deep into Mormon culture as well, with renewed emphasis on early marriage. Church mission policy reflected this return to domesticity.  In 1951, the minimum age for sisters was officially set at twenty-three, to the specific end of encouraging earlier marriages.  President David O. McKay expressed the prevailing sentiment about sister missionary service in general:

“It is surprising how eagerly the young women and some married women seek calls to go on missions.  We commend them for it, but the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ rests upon the priesthood of the church.  It is quite possible now, in view of the present emergency, that we shall have to return to the standard age for young women, which is twenty-three.”[6]

The policy change had the desired effect:   Jessie Embry has calculated that while there was a small increase during the Korean War, “yet the raw number of sister missionaries actually fell over the same period.”[7]  Another swing occurred in 1964, when the Church dropped the official age for sister missionaries back to 21, a change that proved useful when some wards were limited to only one elder per year during the Vietnam War. Overall, female numbers increased again, but by the 1970s, a culture somewhat unfriendly to sister missionaries had emerged, along with anti-sister stereotypes like the “ugly Old Maid,” and the “unmarriageable woman,” especially as conservative gender expectations pushed back against the feminism and social changes of the Counterculture. The very popular Mormon musical, Saturday’s Warrior (1973), reinforced the notion that missions were exclusively male spaces, with women filling their proper supportive roles as dutiful girlfriends, patiently waiting for their missionaries.  (“Will I Wait For You?” and “He’s Just a Friend/Dear John”)  A directive in a 1969 Improvement Era suggested, “One of the reasons why so few women are missionaries might be that their first calling is to stay home and write to them.”[8] Young sisters certainly felt this ambiguity.  One sister confessed privately, “It is such a privilege to take part in this work.  Deep down I am a fighter and a warrior.  I want to be in the midst of the battle for my God even though I am a woman and my primary concern is the home.  To be here on the front lines of the battle is a great gift to me.”  And this:  “Is there any reason why a sister missionary can’t be just as effective as a Heber C. Kimball or a Wilford Woodruff? I may not have the Priesthood, but my call is just as real as theirs.”[9]

Still, at times the climate remained unwelcoming.  One sister remembered, “In every area that we went into, one of our jobs would be to convert the elders to the fact that lady missionaries had a place in the mission field.”[10]   And an elder admitted that “When I entered the mission field, I subscribed to the widely held notion that sister missionaries were a flaky lot who had been unable to find husbands and who could make little contribution to ‘real’ missionary work.”[11]  In 1971, the Church shortened the mission length for sisters to 18 months, and since then Church leaders have maintained a traditional line on sister missionary service, at once complimenting and recognizing those who serve, while also reminding women of their first priority toward marriage and family.  The two-year age difference between elders and sisters has reinforced these expectations, keeping sisters at or below 15% to 20% of overall missionary numbers.

In recent years, attitudes about sister missionaries have certainly shifted, with more young women serving because of a “first choice,” rather than as a “fall-back” plan.  And in an interesting role reversal from an earlier time, many young men have actually “waited for” their sister missionaries prior to marriage. Indeed, being a returned sister missionary is something of a badge of honor.  And yet, problems have persisted on rare occasions, including the stereotyping of sister missionaries as somehow unmarriageable. In very recent years, one friend of mine approached her bishop about a mission and he responded, “Why would a pretty girl like you want to serve a mission?”

Seen in the context of shifting historical policies regarding sister missionary service, this most recent age change sends a remarkably affirming message for young LDS women.   The sheer numbers will hopefully dilute or minimize some of the double standards and extreme labels assigned to women, including the “binary extremes’  . . . [of] either ‘good sisters’ or ‘problem sisters.’”[13]  Further, a lower age for women effectively divorces (ahem, sorry) missionary service from historical anxieties over the marriageability of young women.  Even though women are still not “required” to serve, still the message is clear:  Sisters are not an addendum or after thought; they are essential to the program, even irreplaceable.  There’s also an implied message that “We trust you sisters to work alongside elders of your same age without worrying about whether you will be distractions or temptations to them.” This move goes a long way toward demystifying and de-objectifying young women, by increasing opportunities for healthy male-female interaction in a (hopefully) non- or less-sexualized environment.

The age change puts missionary service for young women squarely along their road maps of major life milestones, even privileging “Mission” as a desirable step toward life preparation.  Young women will have more opportunities for lessons about companionship, effective communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, public speaking, more intense gospel study, doctrinal preparation, church governance, and leadership.  As with previous historical episodes, even if there is a pragmatic motive behind the Church’s policy change, in this case, the pragmatism comes with a great leap forward.  The implications are endless, and I eagerly await their full exploration.



[1] Calvin S. Kunz, “A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898,” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976).

[2] Gates, quoted in Jessie L. Embry, “Oral History and Mormon Women Missionaries: The Stories Sound the Same,” Frontiers 19, no. 3 (1998): 172.

[3] Tally S. Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women’: Twentieth-Century Trends in Female Missionary Service,” in New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, edited by Carol Cornwall Madsen and Cherry B. Silver  (Provo:  Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History, 2004), p. 128.

[4] Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women,’” p. 131.

[5] Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women,’” p. 131.

[6] McKay, quoted in Payne, p. 131; See also Vella Neil Evans, “Woman’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse: A Rhetorical Analysis,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985), pp. 153-54.

[7] Jessie L. Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries: An Oral History Response, 1910-1970,” Journal of Mormon History 23 (Spring 1997): 115-16.

[8] Patty Jackson, “Do You Qualify for the Heavy-Wait Award?” Improvement Era (May 1969): 56.

[9] Mary Virginia Clark Fisher, Journal 1975-77, February 20 and 12, 1976, MS 16429 (microfilm), Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.  Quoted in Andrea G. Radke and Rebecca Cropper-Rampton, “ ‘On the Outside Looking In’: A Gendered Look at Sister Missionary Experiences,” in New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, edited by Carol Cornwall Madsen and Cherry B. Silver (Provo:  Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History, 2004), p. 150.

[10] Elaine C. Carter, Oral history, interview by Rebecca Vorimo, June 30, 1994, p. 16, LDS Missionary Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

[11] Quoted in Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 131.

[12] Radke and Cropper-Rampton, “‘On the Outside Looking In,” p. 144.

[13] Mary Ann Shumway McFarland and Tania Rands Lyon, “ ‘Spiritual Enough to be Translated, But Too Heavy to Get Off the Ground’: Stereotypes and the Sister Missionary,” paper presented at the New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, Provo, Utah, March 20, 2004; copy in possession of the author.  Used with permission.



32 Comments

  1. Lovely to get a historical take on this, thanks for putting this together!

    Your point near the end:

    an implied message that “We trust you sisters to work alongside elders of your same age without worrying about whether you will be distractions or temptations to them.” This move goes a long way toward demystifying and de-objectifying young women, by increasing opportunities for healthy male-female interaction in a (hopefully) non- or less-sexualized environment.

    Very important, because there’s been such an uptick in modesty Phariseeism in the pews & interwebs lately & it’s refreshing to see the church’s official line go in this affirmative direction. I have to hope that once we have some time and experience seeing how this policy plays out on missions, that men and women serving together in the mission environment can only continue to make mixed-gender ward/stake councils and perhaps even mixed-gender presidencies both more effective and more ordinary – all to the good.

    And that 2004 Mormon women in the 20th century conference was such a good one – we should all do that again sometime…

    Comment by Tona H — October 8, 2012 @ 6:24 am

  2. I second Tona’s call for a conference on Mormon women in the twentieth century. I generally agree that women and men should be serving at the same ages, but I wonder about the lowering of the age requirement. As a non-Mormon who occasionally encounters proselytizing Mormon missionaries, I’ve always wanted to tell the young men (for some reason, I’ve never encountered sister missionaries) to come back and talk to me when they have life experience. It’s so odd to talk to the equivalent of a college freshman or sophomore about God. I’m a full decade older than the men being called on missions, have taught elementary school, done five years of graduate work, visited multiple foreign countries, etc. For many young Mormons, this is the first time they’ve lived away from their parents. I wish that instead of lowering the age for women, they would have raised the age for men and perhaps decoupled it from marriageability altogether by encouraging married couples to serve. I would be much more likely to listen to a 45 year old woman who showed up at my door, than an 18 or 19 year old kid.

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 8, 2012 @ 7:31 am

  3. This is great, Andrea. Thanks for the much-needed historical perspective.

    Comment by Christopher — October 8, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  4. Absolutely phenomenal. A much-needed perspective, Andrea.

    Comment by Ben P — October 8, 2012 @ 7:58 am

  5. Thanks for the great write-up, Andrea. I was unaware of Embry’s article; I’ll have to check that out.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 8, 2012 @ 8:26 am

  6. Great job, Andrea. I think a lot of younger LDS don’t have any idea how far the Church has come…and how far we can go.

    “One miracle at a time.” JRH

    Comment by J Stuart — October 8, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  7. Excellent summary, thanks!

    Comment by WVS — October 8, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  8. You might also find Kelly Lelegren’s 2009 master’s thesis “‘Real, Live Mormon Women': Understanding The Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries” of interest on this topic:

    http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1406&context=etd

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 8, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  9. Also, tremendous post Andrea! Thank you!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 8, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  10. Lelgren’s thesis has chapters on Inez Knight, Stella Sudweeks, and LaRetta Gibbons. :D

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 8, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  11. Excellent piece! And what Tona said.

    Comment by MMiles — October 8, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  12. Tona– Were you at the 2004 LDS Women in the Twentieth Century conference? Oh, dear, did we meet then and I’ve forgotten?

    Amanda– I hear what you are saying. In fact, I was an older sister missionary– 24 when I went and I turned 25 in the field. I think that definitely added to my effectiveness as a missionary, in that I was educated, with an M.A. already, and I knew how to work and communicate. But I honestly don’t think that we’ll be seeing the Church raise the age again for anyone– the expectations for early marriage are simply far too important. I’m even more curious how this will affect college graduation rates for LDS young women– not negatively I hope.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — October 8, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  13. Fantastic A.

    Essential context to all the speculating in the air.

    Comment by JanieceJ — October 8, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  14. Very informative. It’s great to see some historical background on this issue. Thank you for putting this up, Andrea.

    Comment by ZD Eve — October 8, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  15. I’m not sure if it’s only the “early marriage” designs that will keep the age range lower– I took it as more helpful regarding educational goals. It is much easier to leave at 18 or 19, after some general ed’s, if anything, than to leave at the tail end of your undergraduate career, or when your career should hopefully be taking off. Though it may make some sisters breath a smidge easier about serving a mission knowing they will come back at 20 or 21, and not 24+ (unless you’re like me and are continually mistaken for a teenager..).

    Comment by Rachael — October 8, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

  16. Fabulous. Thank you, Andrea.

    Comment by Cristine — October 8, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

  17. I just found among my mother’s papers a birthday card that she received on November 5, 1946, her 22nd birthday, from her fellow missionaries in the Canadian Mission. A newspaper clipping–without any indication of it’s origin, tells of her being feted on her birthday, and that she “recently began [her] mission.”

    So, she began her mission while still just 21. I had long assumed that she had served for 18 months, but now I’m not sure. You’ve piqued my curiosity–I’ll have to find out.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 8, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  18. The missionary index can quickly answer that, Mark — remind me of her name, and I’ll look her up. (Same offer for others, but please allow me time to do lookups in spare moments throughout the week.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  19. […] you know, there is lots of commentary floating around the internet on this topic, but here is a link to a short blog post that briefly outlines the history of sister missionaries in the Church–by Dr. Andrea […]

    Pingback by The History of Sister Missionaries | U.S. Women's History at BYU — October 8, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

  20. Great post, Andrea! This is so helpful for my own work. I wonder how this will shape ideas of adulthood for Mormon women in the years to come. Very curious to see how this pans out.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 8, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  21. Really excellent, thanks, Andrea!

    Comment by Rosalynde — October 8, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

  22. Perhaps I’m too young to have encountered firsthand many negative stereotypes of sister missionaries, or am simply fortunate enough to have lived and served in areas where sisters were appreciated for all their marvelous talents. I do, however, recall seeing a Divine Comedy show at BYU ten years ago, shortly after completing my mission, and one of the skits was a parody of the Lord of the Rings (“Lord of the Engagement Ring”). Much was funny about the skit, but one running theme I never understood was the portrayal of the Nazgul/ringwraith parallels as returned sister missionaries, who coveted the one true ring above all else. I found it offensive and not in line with my experiences with sister missionaries at all.

    Thanks for the background, Andrea–I hope I will continue to be impressed by the sister missionaries I encounter. Recently met a couple at the Beehive House, and while I seemed to stump them about every other question (how were they supposed to know how many copies of the BoM were printed in the Deseret Alphabet?), they were sincere, helpful, and full of grace and maturity despite their age.

    Comment by Nate R. — October 8, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

  23. Thanks, Andrea. This is really great.

    You might be interested in a recent series on early women missionaries posted a few weeks ago at the Church History Department website: http://history.lds.org/series/lds-sister-missionaries/?lang=eng#/date/10/1

    Comment by Matt — October 9, 2012 @ 6:57 am

  24. This post got a shout-out on Jana Riess’s Religion News Service blog, here: http://www.religionnews.com/blogs/jana-riess/update-on-lds-sister-missionary-announcement

    Comment by Tona H — October 9, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  25. Thanks for a timely,documented article.
    I am pretty confident my mother, Effie Z. Friddle, was the first woman called from Texas as a missionary. She was eighteen and served in the old Central States Mission with Samuel O. Bennion. Mom eventually married an Elder from the mission.
    Relative to the article, the Elders and Sisters in the Washington, DC Visitor Center all shouted…especially the Sister…at the announcement.
    Relative to your view of equally aged, and in the future, older Elders with younger Sisters not being a distraction, I suspect you are blissfully naive. The mission presidents will need to keep an eye out.

    Comment by Victor Watson — October 9, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  26. My students at BYU were (almost) universally thrilled with the announcement–and the implications are not lost on them. This really does have the potential to be revolutionary; like many other revolutions, it will probably occur gradually and organically over a generation. My young women students were especially enthused about the opportunity to go to the temple sooner and independently. And the young men seemed equally excited–both for the younger age for themselves and for the implications for young women.

    Thanks for this one, Andrea! Good work.

    Comment by LisaT — October 9, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  27. If it’s helpful, Effie, mentioned above in Vic’s comment, was born in May 1913. She was in the mission field by June 13, 1931, making her 18. We think she she served about 15 months. Her mission journal is a hoot. The rules are way different now :)

    Comment by Rachel — October 9, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  28. Great article and take on the exciting news, Professor Radke-Moss! My mission to Brazil seven years ago was such a great life-changing experience, but I think even serving in the more modern sister-missionary era I sometimes faced the stereotypes of returned sister missionaries at BYU-I. This is exciting and welcome news that I agree will hopefully bring some welcome changes to how young women value themselves and are viewed in the church!

    Comment by Rachel M. — October 11, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  29. –‘“binary extremes’ . . . [of] either ‘good sisters’ or ‘problem sisters.’”- Haha, I loved that you touched on that still pervasive stereotype of the “binary extremes.” Before my mission I had a conversation with a male friend who was an RM. He said that he felt the sisters in his mission were either the best or the worst missionaries. It wasn’t until I had experienced my own mission that I realized that just like the elders, there were exceptional sister missionaries, problem sisters, and a large majority of sisters that fell somewhere in the middle. It is only that the best sisters and the worst sisters are those that get noticed and who also fit neatly into traditional male concepts of women. Great article providing context to highlight the sheer magnitude of this historic change in the church. The word that kept coming to my mind as I thought of the implications of this announcement was “Equality.” My hope is that there will be greater equality of experience and respect among men and women of the church as a result of this change. Although I respect that for many women their calling may not be to go on a mission, but are wonderful, intelligent leaders in the church and in the home without it.

    Comment by Rebekah N. — October 11, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  30. Reading this makes me more proud than ever that both of my grandmothers served missions in the early part of the 20th century.

    Comment by Julie — October 12, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

  31. Thanks for this post Andrea. I plan on circulating it through some of the leadership in my ward who work with youth. This change should be significant for ward leadership, especially for Bishops. Leaders should put less weight on the “marriage-first” paradigm and begin focusing more on preparing young women to prepare to become missionaries, effective gospel teachers, and prepared for the temple. Similar to some of the comments you reference in the post, my wife, Camille, also received less-than-enthusiastic council from her Bishop about serving a mission. Hopefully, this policy will influence these Bishops’ views on women missionary service.

    The “revolutionary” nature of these shifts can already be seen in the changes to the curriculum for YW (and for all youth)–its really simultaneous to the mission age policy. The horridly outdated YW manuals (the manual that dedicates an entire lesson to the topic of writing letters to missionaries) are gone (in January), replaced with online lesson modules that must be coordinated with AP quorums, and Sunday School classes. Certainly, we are seeing a shift from culturally anachronistic gendered emphases to more doctrinally-based, and gender-neutral principles and doctrines. (For some interesting thoughts on the significance of a curriculum only available online see http://www.withoutend.org/youth-curriculum-digital-facilitation-revelation/)

    Significant for both women and men is that now the burden of preparing missionaries falls on the home wards whereas before, we relied on singles wards or university wards. Also signifiant is the implication that we will have earlier temple worshipers. Already our Stake President has raised the issue of how to prepare younger young men to enter the temple–If they are eligible to leave right after graduation, some young men will need to go at 17 years old, when they are in those giddy last days of High School.

    Revolutionary…I agree.

    Comment by Shawn — October 28, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  32. […] Radke-Moss, “Pragmatism and Progress: An Overview of LDS Sister Missionary Service in the Twentieth Century,” Juvenile Instructor (October […]

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