This post is dedicated to a memorable missionary district leader. To protect the guilty, I will refer to him by the alias “Dude” instead of by his real name. (In my mission, all the elders called each other Dude, anyway.)
My Mormon mission was my first, close-up experience with patriarchy. Sure, as a Mormon, men had presided over me at church my whole life, but I hadn’t noticed that too much because those men merited my respect for reasons other than their gender—they were much older than me and therefore more mature and experienced.
My mission was different. When I served, only male missionaries were given any position of leadership. Missionaries were divided into tiny districts of only four to six missionaries. This meant that a district often consisted of only one female companionship and one male companionship. The two female missionaries were disqualified from leadership due to their gender and so one of the two male missionaries was automatically exalted to a position of authority over the women. Because the minimum age was younger for male missionaries than for women, this “Elder” was usually younger than the women he was assigned to lead.
I got along well with almost all of the elders in my mission. I worked under the direction of at least twenty different male missionary leaders, if not more, and found the vast majority of them to be respectful and decent young men. Today I would like to talk about the exception.
Elder Dude and I served together in a tiny branch where missionary participation was necessary for weekly meetings to function. Elder Dude was both the missionary district leader and the branch president. I served as branch music leader.
Here are some examples of some of Elder Dude’s offenses:
- Elder Dude proposed that the sister missionaries make him dinner every Sunday, because he was so busy on Sundays with his important leadership positions while the sisters had “nothing better to do.” We sisters impolitely refused. Since we happened to be full-time missionaries, we spent all day Sunday, just like every other day, traveling across the village doing missionary work. A Sunday spent doing “more important” work while sitting stationary inside a church building would have seemed like a day of rest, indeed.
- Elder Dude micromanaged my work as branch music leader, continuously vetoing my hymn selections. I found that he had a single-digit list of hymns he considered to be appropriate for sacrament meeting; the members didn’t sing any of the other hymns well enough for him to suffer listening to them. I tried to explain my desire to introduce the branch to a wider variety of songs than the three they knew best in an attempt to make sacrament meeting more interesting, give the members opportunities to learn other hymns, and expose the branch to the gospel messages in the less familiar hymns. I didn’t get very far in my explanation before he cut me off and reminded me who was in charge.
- Elder Dude’s crowning offense took place when he called the baptism of one of our beloved investigators a “waste” because she was “just a woman” and her husband, who could have been “useful to the Church,” had chosen not to be baptized with her. This particular investigator was a spiritual giant. She devoured the scriptures, participated in church meetings, and invited friends to hear missionary discussions. Yet, Elder Dude could not see any value to adding a woman to the fold.
The Church could not have been the only factor that made Elder Dude the male chauvinist he was. After all, most of the other male missionaries I encountered did not behave like Elder Dude and they represented the same church. However, the Church certainly did its part to help Elder Dude’s male chauvinist attitudes to thrive:
- Elder Dude assumed his work was more valuable than that performed by the sisters and evidence backed him up on that; he had important titles that the women lacked, like “Elder,” “District Leader” and “Branch President.” Elder Dude performed necessary functions that women did not; women were not allowed to perform ordinances, interview members and potential converts, or lead congregations or groups of missionaries.
- The Church gave Elder Dude authority to dictate over women as he pleased. He was never placed in a position in which he was obligated to submit to the preferences and ideas of a female over his own.
- Elder Dude’s assessment of our female convert’s potential, while cruel, also possessed some truth. She would not be allowed to make herself useful by performing ordinances within her branch and would be banned from serving in most church leadership callings because of her gender. Although our convert’s husband was illiterate and less spiritually inclined than his wife, he would have been a more likely candidate for church leadership simply because of the type of genitals he had. And anyhow, Elder Dude was just doing his part to prod the missionaries within his watchcare toward accomplishing mission goals. The mission president had set a goal to baptize a certain number of male converts; there was no goal to convert women because the mission president agreed that women would not be useful to local congregations, although he expressed the sentiment more tactfully than Elder Dude did.
Today, some improvements have been made to the mission structure. Male and female missionaries are closer in age, although men are still allowed to serve at a younger age than women. A new mid-level management opportunity has been created for sister missionaries; these female leaders supervise other women, but never men. All male mission leadership positions exceed female positions in rank and male missionaries continue to supervise both men and women, including the female leaders. Will such changes be enough to reign in the male chauvinist tendencies of today’s Elder Dudes?