Beginning to see already
Serving a mission is perhaps the most conservative thing I have ever done, and it pushed me over the edge to be a feminist. I served my mission in 2005-2006, when women had to be 21 years old, had to wear nylons, had to dress formally and conservatively, there were no sister training leaders and there were very few sister missionaries. I had many reasons for wanting to serve a mission. I had planned on it for years and saved money to buy my clothes and outfit myself. I felt that it was one of the only church-sanctioned ways to put off marriage and children, which didn’t feel like something I wanted then. I had this feeling of “anything you can do I can do better” about young men and I resented the assumption that I wouldn’t do something they were expected to do. I had a deep testimony and prayed and studied and felt that God wanted me to serve a mission.
However, perhaps the most salient reason for serving in terms of this post was my sense in the singles ward of being a second class citizen. I looked around at all the men in their early twenties who had returned from missions and saw that they were seen as figures of respect and authority. They were very familiar with scriptures and doctrine and were invited to teach and speak, and the class listened with interest and respect to their comments. I wanted that! I didn’t like feeling inferior and I thought that serving a mission would even the playing field and give me the skills I needed.
I entered the MTC the day before I turned 21, the earliest possible instant. I had graduated from University, but the young men in my district were all fresh out of high school. One of them was called as our district leader. During one of our lessons our teacher (a woman) shared a story of an investigator from her mission and invited us to suggest how we would approach the investigator’s concern. The district leader said “maybe she just needs to hear it from a man.” I wanted so very, very, badly to hit him I had to excuse myself to cry tears of rage so I could restrain myself.
In the field I wanted to be the best missionary I could. Our mission required us to “pass off” (memorize) 100 scriptures, read the Book of Mormon and teach all the Preach My Gospel Lessons to a district leader. I did it in my first transfer. I took all of my mission president’s counsel as direct commandment and was sure that every infraction was the reason that nobody was that interested in listening. Exact obedience brings blessings. So maybe nobody listened because I wore my CTR ring on the wrong finger (a mistake I corrected as soon as I knew the Mission President’s wife’s preference in this matter). Or maybe it was because I didn’t realize the mission was supposed to read the Doctrine and Covenants by Joseph Smith’s birthday, so I frantically read it in 12 days to make the deadline. Maybe it was that time I waited in at lunch time an extra five minutes so the mail could be delivered. It had to be something, because blessings come from obedience.
As I served I started to notice a few gender-related patterns. At any given time we had about 12-18 sister missionaries, or 6-9 companionships. This meant that often my companion were the only sisters in our zone and we would see other sister missionaries only at transfers or sometimes at zone conference. At large mission meetings (transfers, zone meeting, zone conference) the sisters were supposed to sit in the front row, together, so that we’d never be sitting by elders. This meant of course that we were physically isolated from the rest of the group. At lunch the rule of “ladies first” prevailed, which meant in practice that we’d fill our plates and sit at a table, and then no elders would choose to sit by us. The elders were also careful to never touch us and so it felt a bit like a parting of the Red Sea scenario walking through a crowd. Move aside! Leper coming through!
I don’t mean to say that I had no friendships with Elders, I did. When we were in isolated rural areas we often became good friends with the only other missionaries around. Spanish-speaking missionaries were often friendlier with the sisters because they too were a small subgroup of the whole, never serving with the bulk of the Elders. I still stay in touch with a few of the Elders from my mission who helped keep me sane.
When I went home from my mission I don’t think I would have called myself a feminist. But the experience had made clear to me that the secret element that held me apart from my male contemporaries was not missionary service. As a missionary I was older than my male contemporaries, better educated, more experienced and as my mission went on, more experienced as a missionary. But I was never going to be a district leader, or a zone leader, or an AP. I would always report to someone whose primary qualification was gender, I would be subject to the goals he set, teach the lessons in meetings he asked me to teach and at the end of the day report my whereabouts and success to him. No amount of zeal or obedience would ever change the structural imbalance.
I know that some things have changed in missions. I have no regrets about serving and believe that I came home with priceless gifts – a love of the Savior, a love for total strangers, a familiarity with the Gospel and the scriptures, confidence in speaking and teaching and so much more. But I do think that the experience first opened my eyes to the reality of gender dynamics within the church, and once I started seeing I couldn’t unsee the world in which I lived.
What were your first steps down the path to feminism?