Pragmatism and Progress: An Overview of LDS Sister Missionary Service in the Twentieth Century
By Andrea Radke-Moss
This post originally appeared on the blog, The Juvenile Instructor, on October 8, 2012. With Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss’ and The Juvenile Instructor’s permission, we are re-posting it here. To visit The Juvenile Instructor, and read Andrea’s original post, please click on this link.
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. 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.”
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. 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.’” 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.
 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).
 Gates, quoted in Jessie L. Embry, “Oral History and Mormon Women Missionaries: The Stories Sound the Same,” Frontiers 19, no. 3 (1998): 172.
 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.
 Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women,’” p. 131.
 Payne, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women,’” p. 131.
 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.
 Jessie L. Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries: An Oral History Response, 1910-1970,” Journal of Mormon History 23 (Spring 1997): 115-16.
 Patty Jackson, “Do You Qualify for the Heavy-Wait Award?”Improvement Era (May 1969): 56.
 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.
 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.
 Quoted in Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 131.
 Radke and Cropper-Rampton, “‘On the Outside Looking In,” p. 144.
 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.