This afternoon at the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was announced that in an effort to expand the Mormon missionary force, the age limits for service have been lowered around the world.
I got the news via Twitter. Right now I'm in D.C. for the annual Religion Newswriters Association meeting, so I was trying to follow three things simultaneously: the journalism conference, the Twitter hashtag for the journalism conference, and the #ldsconf hashtag to keep me up to date with events in Salt Lake City.
The first thing I saw on Twitter after I logged on was the news that LDS sister missionaries would henceforth get to serve at age 19. Finally! The discrepancy of having young men be able to serve at 19 (for two years) and young women having to wait until age 21 (for just 18 months) has always been a bizarre marker of inequality.
I started to cry tears of joy. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with a fellow speaker at the LDS Women's History conference about precisely this issue, and we both agreed we didn't understand why young women's missionary service seemed to be devalued in comparison with young men's.
And then I saw, also on Twitter, that the age limit for men had been lowered too, and that they can now serve at age 18.
Don't get me wrong; today's news is a step forward for the LDS Church, a step forward for its missionary efforts, and a step forward for women. But in the case of women, it's just a baby step. It feels as though the Church almost bent over backwards to reify systemic sexism by reaffirming an age difference and maintaining the silly standard of having young women serve for only a year and a half. I worry that the message in the past to young women has been, "We'd really rather you get married by age 21, but if you're still unmarried, a mission is a valuable way to spend your time." Now it seems that the Church has jettisoned the early-marriage hopes (and good riddance) but simultaneously informed sister missionaries that they're not quite as important as elders.
We were told today that it's a vital time for the Lord's work and we need all hands on deck. Why are some hands valued more?
My friend Patton Dodd, who had been sitting next to me through this whole process of elation followed by disappointment, called today's announcement "Progress with an Asterisk." And so it is. It's progress that thousands more Mormon women will likely serve missions as a result of today's change. Those women will probably serve more people, learn more leadership skills and foreign languages, teach more classes, and be more knowledgable about their faith than women who do not serve missions. And I'm excited for some YW I know personally who are in their late teens and suddenly have a wonderful new opportunity placed before them.
It's progress for women. It's just not equality, and after a few glorious moments of believing it would be, that stings.
The photos of sister missionaries and of LDS prophet and president Thomas S. Monson are from the Newsroom resources of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.