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Mormon Sister Missionaries: Progress with an Asterisk

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.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice, Leaders & Institutions
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: flunking sainthood, jana riess, jeffery r. holland missionary announcement, lds general conference october 2012, lds missionary age lowered for men and women, lds missionary service change 2012, lds women, mormon missionaries, mormon sister missionaries


  1. Jana, thanks for bringing up the discrepancy in length of missions. Joanna Brooks has a great Facebook thread going, but, there, that point has been largely ignored.

  2. During the press conference following this morning’s session, Elder Holland explained that there are moral safety reasons for the age discrepancies. This is mainly due to American culture where it is much less likely for men to pursue older women rather than women of the same age or younger.

  3. I don’t know what I could add besides “couldn’t have said it better myself.”

    well done, i agree 100% with everything you said.

    as usual. wink

  4. Women will gain a lot, but I’m not so sure about leadership skills. No matter what it’s the (still younger) men who will be doing all the leading.

  5. But, Eric. Men and women will now overlap quite a bit in age, especially with the 2-year/18 month difference.

  6. I agree, Jana, it is bittersweet

  7. Equality dreams aside, this truly is monumental progress in some ways.  I think of the power a mission gave to me as a woman.  I no longer salivated over every returned missionary when I returned.  My education experience after my mission was much more informed and genuine as I had learned so much about who I was.  I grew to feel capable in a tough world, and spiritually confident.  I see alot of sisters who wont comment in church because they feel inferior to returned missionaries. This may help create a new generation of really powerful sisters who feel capable living up to thier potential and look out when they come!

  8. I get it, but it’s still progress with an asterisk or otherwise so let us rejoice.  And maybe we could step back and wonder if it is possible that there are some things that we may not understand, even though it seems to us that it would be best if this or that were the way that we perceive it ought to be.  Let us be wise enough to acknowledge that we may be right…or not…and embrace every step in the right direction.

  9. In the press conference following conference this point was brought up. Elder Holland said the Church was taking it one step at a time, more or less, and by no way ruled it out. For a decade some young men have been serving missions at age 18 in preparation for this change. Who’s to say some young women won’t be serving 2 year missions in preparation for this adjustment? It’s on the Lord’s time and there is nothing wrong with that.

  10. I always thought men have to go longer because they are such numbskulls that it takes them two years to learn what the sisters learn in 18 months.

    Honestly I have never for one second viewed it as some sort of slight against women. Especially since everyone knows sisters are way better missionaries.

  11. There is of course another discrepancy that you are failing to address.  Women can serve multiple full time missions as singles whereas men are limited to one. I would support making it equal across the board - same age, same length of service and same opportunity to serve multiple times.

  12. This comment might not go over very well with many women, but it is what it is…. As a returned sister missionary, I have often thought it might be because young women (on average) have a much harder time bearing the physical demands of a full-time mission. I served in Japan, where we biked everywhere (lots of hills) and put in long, intense, demanding hours. Many of the sisters I saw were physically depleted at the ends of their missions.

  13. Rebecca K., I saw the same thing you did by the end of my mission.  But I also saw that many of the boys were also physically depleted.  That is what it is as well.  Your comment really perpetuates some damaging stereotypes.

  14. My thought is that it’s a test: they believe that a gender gap in average age helps reduce some issues (mainly, I think, romantic feelings between missionaries), but are willing to halve that gap to test how true the hypothesis actually is. If problems do not increase proportionally, I bet they’ll equalize the ages.

  15. When I read your title, I thought you were talking about progress with the asterisk that is applied to gay people (in the church who are going through some kind of discipline for homosexual related behavior where, once the asterisk is there, is NEVER removed- and, the asterisk signifies to the Bishop or local leader that the person with the asterisk by his/her name may NEVER work with youth under the age of 18). I was a little disappointed as I read further that this was not the asterisk to which you were referring. smile

    Yes, I agree. It is exciting that women may now serve at the age of 19.

    As a woman who served a mission when she was 21, I never felt bad about the age difference. I knew that missionary service was more of a mandate for the Elders than for me. To be truthful, I was glad for the extra two years before I served. And, I believe the extra years helped with a maturity level for me.

    Happy night! Duck

  16. @ Lala: you mentioned leadership skills will still primarily go to the Elders. I was fortunate to have served an LDS mission when I was 21. My mission president was a General Authority, from Germany. He was a progressive leader- I was called, as a woman, as a district leader the last third of my mission. So, even though that was a billion or more years ago, leadership opportunities were afforded to me, for which I am forever grateful.

  17. Yay for earlier service time!  If you know anyone interested in serving now, send her to my online store for sister missionary clothing-

  18. I accidentally stumbled upon this post and upon reading it I thought to myself, “well even this most welcome news gets criticized.”. Having served as a sister missionary in my early twenties, some thirty years ago, I was happy and excited to hear this announcement in conference this morning and I have no doubt that more missionaries flooding the earth will benefit all mankind.  Why can’t some of you see that it really isn’t prudent to send out both sisters and elders at the same age?  I don’t believe for one second that the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve do not highly value the service of sisters in the mission field.  If you asked the mission presidents, I’m sure you would find that sisters work just as hard, maybe harder, and have more success than the elders.  While on my mission, I was in two different districts os sisters only.  And yes, one of us was the district leader, not an elder.  My mission president, time and time again, praised the sisters for being great missionaries.  While I was serving, all the missionaries loved each other and I never felt any anger or hurt that I didn’t get to serve earlier or for a longer time.  The mission is not about trying to get equal time and authority with men. We are not in a competition.  The mission IS about service, strengthening our testimonies, and bringing the gospel to others.  I will forever be thankful for the opportunity to serve the Lord as a sister missionary.

  19. Wow. Its sad anyone might be offended by this somehow. i see it as exiting news on every front. Since when is a little variation in a process all bad? I have never heard this sisters are less valued spin before and I couldn’t disagree more. It’s the opposite of true if anything. I see it as more of a mix of two likely “facts”. Young men needing to be kept focused at that younger age by being kept busy. If possible, from right out of high school.
    I currently work with young men in a ym/scouting role. When a boy turns 16 his life has become very full of distractions. Between school work, girls, driving, sports/after school activities, the Xbox or playstation, internet, jobs, and not to mention family activity…you’ve got a lot of opportunity for anyone to get distracted. Picture a dog living in a squirrel farm and you pretty much have a picture my young mens’ lives and schedules. I have wondered how many young men victim to life’s distractions for that year order between high school and the age of 19. Allowing a boy that can be ready at 18 to serve a little earlier may keep more on the straight and narrow long enough that they can still worthy to serve. Service that will temper and strengthen them into the type of men the world will be better for having.

    Young women at the same age are also busy but seem more focused on the important and are generally on task. You could look at the staggered start of the ym v yw as a higher level of trust and faith in the yw. I can only guess but the fallout in interest and worthiness of yw at 19 is probably much lower than that of ym. Add the fact that many LDS youth serve in the military. Today’s military service in even the national guard or reserve will most likely include deployment. Active deployment will delay or may even eliminate the allowances that are made for an enlisted member to go Inactive for church service in the middle of an enlistment. It used to be that the 1-2 years a boy has between HS and the mission could be partly filled with basic military training and inactive duty wile attending a semester or two of school but I active duty hasn’t remained inactive for a while now. Yet another distraction from missionary service and one that ill bet disproportionately effects young men.

    I read one comment on how sister are better missionaries. I’d generally agree and wouldn’t doubt that a good sister can get more done in 18 months then most elders do in 24. This isn’t a fair comparison because I believe the sisters simply start out as better people and historically, 2 years older.  How much of the maturity and strength of our current sisters will now be invalid?

    This move also closes the age gap of returning missionaries. The men will be 20-21 and the women will be 21-22 compared to the women being 24-25 before. Both age groups are now potentially at near identical stages of life with education and career. Now if a young family is formed of two of these now experienced and confident returned missionaries then at least the new mother and father is likely to have completed a phase of school and the father has nothing but taking care of his family to worry about.

    Those that look for insult will always be able to find it but that doesn’t make it legitimate. I see the new options as an empowerment of our young women to remain in the more mature, capable, and understanding position when it comes to missionary service. I am excited for my daughters. They will be able to start school, serve a mission for 18 months and be all
    but finished with their associates degree when the young men they went to school with will be just starting a sophomore year. (Of course waiting till 21 they could have had a bachelors before a mission)

    If we are to cry about equity then let’s not forget that sisters can start a mission much later/older than the young men are allowed. In some cases I understand that they may serve even more then one mission. Now I don’t think the men should serve more then one mission and a man at 25+ should get his crap together and be working on school, career, business, and/or a family so if he didn’t serve a mission yet then there will be other ways to serve. We don’t need full time life slackers to have an excuse of becoming mormon monks.

    Oh and PS. Why do we sometimes ignore the fact that Men and Women are different? That’s good isn’t it

  20. Eric said: “During the press conference following this morning’s session, Elder Holland explained that there are moral safety reasons for the age discrepancies. This is mainly due to American culture where it is much less likely for men to pursue older women rather than women of the same age or younger.”

    Elder Holland explained no such thing. What he said is that having at least some age difference between men and women, particularly when women are the older ones, works better. He may well have meant what you said (in fact, he probably did), but it is not okay to say that he “explained” something, and then present your own inferences in your own words as if they were some sort of accurate summary or paraphrase of what he said. Your words are not even close to what was actually said in the press conference.

    (pet peeve)

  21. Progress or lack thereof is in the eye of the beholder.  There’s no asterisk here for me.  Just excitement for those young people I know for whom this will be a blessing and the people they will come to know and love as missionaries.  Signed, a now-grandmother who served a mission, married a returned missionary and parented 3 children who served missions, 2 sons and a daughter.

  22. Sorry you took offense, Shona. But yeah, my explanation is my own inference as to why I think the age discrepancy was maintained. However, the first part about what Elder Holland said was true, and who has any hard data to dispute that fact?

  23. I am glad that you can finally say that the Lord has finally taken a steep forward. How nice of you to validate Him in that way.

  24. Young women can serve multiple missions—my husband knows someone who served three.  Senior sisters can serve missions if they’re single (I love the senior sister missionaries!).  Young men may only serve one mission.  Senior men can only serve with their spouse (there are no senior brother missionaries).  I found the complaints in the article skewed.  I believe this new change was inspired—and that it will greatly contribute to the happiness of Heavenly Father’s children.

  25. Thanks for the insightful article, Jana. I felt the exact same ambivalence that you expressed.

    With regards this thread, I’m a little perturbed by the patronizing tone some commenters have taken towards females. Saying that women work harder or make better missionaries does not justify the 18-mo vs 24-mo discrepancy in missionary service. Similarly, arguing that men “are less focused” or need more “straightening out” than women after high school doesn’t justify the discrepancy. These kinds of comments are inaccurate and destructive.

    I think that as a Church we need to recognize that men and women are equally vulnerable to fault or sin. When I was at BYU, I heard over the pulpit all the time that the women in our ward were “angels” and the men were “undeserving” of our sweet spirits. How is that supposed to make me feel? Rather than empower me, those kinds of comments devalue the contributions women can make.

    We need to get real and start embracing LDS sister missionaries, not patronizing them.

  26. I find the logical leap from the age difference to diminishing women’s service as highly questionable. What grounds are you using to say that this difference sends any such message? There are dozens of possible and considerate reasons for this. Furthermore, having served a mission, I emphatically support the age-difference. While this may change in the future, I found it personally helpful; it provided a buffer in the dynamic between leadership-holding elders and non-leadership holding sisters. Having the advantage of age, experience, and a bit of maturity from the first two, I found myself in a more comfortable position in regards to the elders; my age and experience balanced out their official leadership position.  If sisters were the same age, or younger, than the elders, I think this dynamic would become more imbalanced, to the sisters’ detriment.  Sometimes, women’s issues and “equality” are more nuanced than the external details.  And most fundamentally, this is not primarily a “women’s”  issue; it is to make the service of sharing and spreading the gospel more effective. Using a “women’s” lens on every issue can be distortive.

  27. Perhaps part of the problem is the way you got the news. On Saturday morning, the first thing announced by President Monson was that the limited program where 18year old male missionaries have been called in order to fit with national differences in compulsory military service and education has worked well. That gave the Brethren the confidence that they could apply age 18 to all young as an option, not a mandate. THEN he announced that the age for sister missionaries was being reduced two years, from 21 to 19, though still as purely a personal choice rather than a duty.  The change to 18 is an option for men, the change to 19 is an option for women. There will be lots of young men going on missions at 19 because they will be earning money to support themselves on their missions. And not every young woman will go at 19. But there will be thousands of men and women who are 19 when they leave on their missions.  Does that make you feel better?

  28. Jana.  As most observant members of the Church, I was surprised and thrilled to hear President Monson’s announcement on Saturday morning.  However, I have a slightly different perspective than your post.  I don’t consider the announcement as “progress” (with or without an asterisk), I look at it as “change” with meaning.  You seem to take the position that because young women mission length is still 18 months that it is a slight against them - that somehow young women are “less-than” because of the prescribed length of mission service.  I don’t presume to understand all the Lord’s purposes vis a vis age of service for young men and women or prescribed length of service.  However, if I subscribe (which I do) to the belief that President Monson and the other living Apostles speak the mind and will of the Lord concerning this and other subjects, then I receive the announcement with joy and thanksgiving.

  29. Progress? Progress toward what… giving women the Priesthood? Come on. This has nothing to do with progress. It is simply a inspired move to get more missionaries in the field, while still maintaining the DIVINE difference and roles of men and women.

    But, we are all glad to have you blog this. It’s good to see that you are able to see the Lords “progress” in His own work.

  30. I am shocked that this blog has to criticize.  This is a great moment for women.  You are just like the spoiled kid who always wants more and is never satisfied.  Such is living life after the manner of misery, because misery loves company.  Blogging your disatisfaction only encourages others to feel the same, and is directly questioning those who made the bold move.  Take my advice, and enjoy and celebrate the progress.  Then listen to the press conference afterwards before continuing on your statements.

  31. Doug: I think I can imagine what your sentiments are, however, implying that someone should be grateful for what they get insinuates that they are not worthy of receiving more.  Your comment made it sound as though the women should feel “lucky” to have the chance and should take it under any circumstances they can get, even if that means that feel a little demeaned in doing so.  I’m going to make an extreme comparison and liken this to suggesting that someone who finally gets to enter a public movie theater should just be grateful they are allowed in and not mention the fact that they had to go through a different door for “colored” people.  I know that’s now what you’re implying, but it may be how other feel.  I also think it’s important to realize that member of the LDS church have their own experiences based off the mormon culture they were exposed to (which is a different culture depending on where and with whom you grow up).  So while you may not know any women who have felt marginalized by the LDS religion or mormon culture, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

    I agree with you, it’s important to stop and enjoy/celebrate the progress.  I for one feel that progress is progress even if it still isn’t “fair”.  I also applaud the way you encourage others to make sure they ‘go to the source’ and hear information as ‘first hand’ as possible.

  32. Speaking as a female RM from a very physically taxing mission, 18 months is probably about right for sister missionaries in my mission and probably some other missions as well. And it’s not because we weren’t “equal” to the men; it was because we had such big areas to cover (usually at least three areas covered by the elders) in a very humid and hot country. Oh, and we were on bikes riding through heavy traffic in a nation’s capitol. It’s very tiring. Rewarding, but tiring. I was the last missionary companion for two sister missionaries, and they were very, very tired by the end. Women aren’t unequal just because we serve 18 months instead of two years. We get a lot done in those 18 months, and it is somewhat disparaging to say that we are treated as inferiors by the church just because we don’t serve as long. It would have been great to have those extra 6 months; but there are many times when it just isn’t realistic because of how physical the mission can be.

  33. Senior/couples missionaries should be required to serve for 24 months. Allowing them to serve shorter terms smacks of inequality and indicates that their service is less valued by the Church. Or does it?

    I find it interesting that 99.9999% of the women pushing for “the equalization of the 18 month/2 year tenure” have chosen NOT to serve missions.

    In general, sister missionaries are known for taking their missions more seriously and for working much more intensely than elders. Maybe this will change with lowering the minimum age from 21 to 19. However, speaking as a female returned missionary, all of the sister missionaries I know (extremely capable and committed women) were exhausted emotionally and physically after 18 months. It was the right time to come home.

  34. I just found this thread and it echoes my initial reaction also—progress with an asterisk indeed.  But even as this post argues for the removal of an inequality market w.r.t missionary service, I can’t help but wonder how many women in the church truly want ALL gender inequality removed from missionary service; how many want the asterisk kept firmly in place where it’s convenient.

    Keep in mind that the LDS culture (and our prophet) calls for EVERY WORTHY young man to serve a full-time mission.  It’s a responsibility; a cultural rite of passage.  Young men are culturally required to make the physical, career, and educational sacrifice of missionary service.  Young women, by contrast, have free choice in the matter; they entirely have the option—and this announcement doesn’t change that.  But a full removal of gender differences in missionary service suggests these expectations indeed be changed.  True, full gender equality suggests that EVERY WORTHY young woman be expected and prophetically called to serve as well.  But are women ready to cry tears of joy when they’re given less cultural choice in their young adult years?  If their marital, educational, and career options are culturally delayed just like men’s? 

    Or consider the young man who bucks the norm and doesn’t serve a mission.  He wears an asterisk of inequality of a different sort.  His standing in the church is (wrongly) questioned in LDS culture; his worth is, in a sense, conditional—at least for a few years and until he gets married and assimilates back into the norm.  Do young women want that cultural judgment as well?  Are young women who don’t serve missions ready for ignorant others to ask: “Hmmm… she didn’t serve a mission.  I wonder what’s wrong with her.  Does she not have a strong testimony?  The bar has been raised.  Was she too sexually immoral such that her stake president wouldn’t allow her to go?”  ...Because that’s what’s often (silently) asked of young men.  Entirely removing the gender asterisk from missionary service suggests young women (non)missionaries be evaluated just like young men.

    And if a young woman doesn’t serve a mission, will she be happy when she’s screened-out by men as potential dates because she didn’t serve that full-time mission? 

    These are some of the consequences of truly eliminating gender differences in missionary service.  It’s a whole cultural thing.  Eliminating sexism in missionary service is much, much deeper than simply changing the age and duration of each gender’s allowed service.  I have a sense that many who critique the recent age announcement as not going far enough towards equality, themselves don’t go far enough in recognizing what equality here actually implies.  I suspect that most want the more convenient or visibly pleasing aspects of missionary gender equality (age parity) but without all the responsibilities and requirements.

  35. Jana and others…I was so excited to hear the age for missionary service went down for both men and women.  While we are discussing our differences, agreements and disagreements to the announcement and men’s and women’s place in the church, please remember that God lives.  This is His church, and as we follow the counsel of His prophet, walking in full obedience, sometimes by faith, we will be on His side.  For that is what matters most.  Women are wonderful, and I know God loves them too.  There is no inequality in the Lord’s Kingdom.  We each have our roles, but that does not one sex subordinate to the other.  God lives!  Jesus is the Christ.  May we always remember that.

  36. Hello can I reference some of the material here in this entry if I reference you with a link back to your site?

  37. Liberal Cabrera: Sure, as long as you link back to us.

  38. What if the young men looked at everything with your attitude. Why do I have to serve at 18 and the girls get to wait till 19. Why do they always get sufficient time to prepare for what should be one of the most important events in their life? It’s just not fair!

    Are you going to gripe about the color of the gates to Heaven? Get over it or going on a mission for you is a waste of time.

  39. How do you sustain the General Authorities as prophets, seers, and revelators, and then question their decisions? As individuals, we are entitled to receive personal revelation through the Holy Ghost. The Prophet and General Authorities are entitled to receive revelation for the entire world.

    Wouldn’t your time be better spent praying for the Spirit to confirm the things they say to you instead of thinking you know better than them?

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