Beginning to see already

Stand ye in Holly Place and be not moved.

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?

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13 Responses

  1. maria says:

    It’s a thing that the CTR ring is on the wrong finger? What the heck!

    • Em says:

      It’s not a thing. My mission president’s wife expressed a preference, and one of her roles was establishing the clothing rules specific to our mission for sisters. Because I was so compulsive about obedience I perceived my failure to follow this (even though I didn’t know about her preference and when I did I immediately changed) as the reason why nobody wanted to hear what we were saying.

  2. Ziff says:

    Wow, Em, I love this post so much! I think your next-to-last paragraph really summarizes things so well. It never mattered, and it was never going to matter, how much knowledge, experience, or skill you had. You were always going to be second-class because you were a woman. What a punch in the gut!

  3. Mary says:

    I can very much relate to this. I have felt a similar way but in wards where I want to be seen as a person with talents, interests, and skills and not just an extension of my husband and a future mother. Motherhood and personhood should never be mutually exclusive, yet they are treated that way in our church. Rather than value women with all experiences for what they bring to the table, we are pushed aside into our own group.

    I too wanted respect and wanted to be seen as a peer. Instead of a mission, I got a master’s degree and have been working in the tech industry on voice assistants. The usual scenario is where a man will meet my husband and me. He’ll ask my husband what he does. My husband talks about his own job and then brings up my work as well. At this point, the man will look over at me like he is seeing me for the first time and make a comment about how interesting or cool that is. Sometimes the man will ask me more questions, and it turns into a good interaction. But what is so sad is that I didn’t register on his radar the first time, where he likely assumed I was a stay-at-home mom or had moved for my husband’s work or school, etc.

    Of course not all men I have interacted with have done this. But enough have that it is a pattern my husband and I have noticed. And what’s so ironic is that while many women are nervous about becoming mothers, I have an added weight of being terrified about what my church interactions will look like once I am. Whether I decide to continue working outside the home or not, I should be seen the first time. I am a person, not a calling or role focused on procreation and nurturing. Why is it we can give so much lip service to motherhood and not actually respect and listen to women who perform it?

    You framed it perfectly when you said that women would always been seen as other in this way because women are primarily seen as not men, of course. Sadly being male is the primary qualification for priesthood ordination and by extension wisdom, leadership, and decision-making.

    • Em says:

      That is so frustrating, and it’s also so sad and disgusting that we assume if someone IS a stay at home mom or moved for husband’s school then they must not have anything interesting to say or be doing anything worthwhile in the community that might be of conversational interest. I’ve run into similar things, both when I was in grad school while my husband was working, and now as part of a marriage with two working people in separate careers.

  4. Violadiva says:

    I moved to Los Angeles and kept up on Utah news by reading the trib. I came across an article about the feminist backlash to Julie Beck’s talk, “mothers who know”
    And I thought,
    “Wait, there’s people who didn’t like her talk? Why not?” At the time I thought it was no big deal.

    And so I read. And read and read and read. The whole FMH archive start to finish. The whole Exponent archive start to finish.

    And I became to understand.

    I’ll always be grateful to the women of fMh and Ex2 who left their breadcrumbs of thought for me to follow.

    I guess that’s why we still need Mormon feminism to have a big voice and a long reach. It’s always been there, and there are people who don’t yet know they’re looking for it.

    I fangirl crush over every time I meet one of the founding mothers of either space, and of the many women who have gone before the blogs and Fb groups. What a gift they have given us by leaving their writings!

  5. I loved missionary work, and I served in a mission with a higher proportion of sisters and native Spanish speakers than yours, so some things were different about my experience, but one thing that was the same was that no matter how nice the elders were who were put in leadership positions over me, the fact that these younger boys were promoted over all the women, just because we were women, was demoralizing.

  6. ESO says:

    I definitely had a similar realization on my mission and, of course, ever since. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished the women of the church would just call in sick so the men who think they are in charge would realize it is the women who make wards work.

    • Anna says:

      I had to laugh at your suggestion that all the women call in sick, because I have had dreams of the exact same thing. Instead of wear pants to church day, we organize, “let the men do it” day and we all just stay home, but send our kids to an unstaffed primary. I am sure some women would not get the memo, or just refuse to “boycott” and so the RS would have a few women, but no leaders. The men, of course, would not have believed that the majority of women would go along with such a hair brained idea, so would have made no plans to cover all the women’s callings. And since some boys mother always makes sure the assigned boy has sacrament bread, there would be no sacrament bread. There is the bishopric on the stand each with three toddlers in tow, because their wife claimed a migraine, and they just assumed there would be plenty of other women that would take their children. I think the men would suspect that something terribly contagious was going around and they probably shouldn’t hold church to spread it to all the men also. So, rather than deal with church without their loyal support staff, they would just turn around and go home and not learn a blasted thing. But oh well, it would be more fun than wearing pants.

  7. amy says:

    On my first day of my mission my mission president (whom I adore) looked at us sisters and said, “I would love to call you as my AP or to be a leader, but that would be going against God’s plan.”

    At our 5-year-reunion, my mission president took my husband aside and said, “I want you to know that if your wife had been an elder, she would have been my AP.”

    Such weird vibes. I’m glad things have “changed” but I doubt there’s much change to it. This post is characterizing the obvious in such a meaningful way.

    • Em says:

      My mission president said the same thing to me. Thanks I guess? He did create a new program of having a “call center” which my companion and I staffed in the mission office, but that became problematic because we wanted to work it in the evenings when it was too dark to knock effectively but people were likely to be home to answer the phone. The the APs wanted to be in the office in the evenings because they too did not like knocking after dark. And the senior staff were home. And we’d probably seduce the Elders. So we needed to leave so they could do their important AP planning stuff.

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