Elder Dude

Elder DudeThis 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?

April Young-Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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26 Responses

  1. Christian J says:

    The opportunity to lead men and women as a missionary was a humbling and growing experience for me. I do think that women should have the chance of that same opportunity – for humility and growth. I don’t see a clear path forward, however, without female ordination. And we heard again, during the priesthood session what a profound gift it is to hold the priesthood, so I see no reason to turn away women who hunger and thirst for every good gift of God.

    I had my own moments of being a dipshit to sister missionaries (even if behind closed doors). And I agree that not having to ever be led by one, contributed to my arrogance.

  2. Tessa says:

    Thanks for the great post, April.

    Going off of Christian’s comment, the only places I see in our structure (without women’s ordination) where women could preside over men is in Primary if more male teaches were called, in Sunday School if women could be called to the Presidency, and in the mission field if Sisters could be given leadership positions over mixed-gender groups of missionaries.

    I think having women leading men would go a long ways to curbing the I-am-always-right tendencies of some men. I really liked this paragraph from your post in particular:

    “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:”

  3. CG says:

    I served about 9 years ago, but as I read your post all those old frustrations flooded my mind. I had a few Elder Dudes I had to answer to– nightly, even, as we had to call in our numbers to the district leader. Here are some examples of the chauvinism I faced:

    1) My companion and I woke up to a flat tire on our car. She panicked, I changed the tire. At the mission office where we waited for the fleet vehicles to be rearranged, Elder Dude #1 remarked, ever so condescendingly, “You changed the tire yourself? Wow. I guess sisters are able to do more than bake cookies.”

    2) Remarking that I really wanted to serve in a certain area of the mission because I had heard it was beautiful, and they spoke English (my assigned language was a challenge), Elder Dude #2 was quick to set me straight with, “Well, even if you were transferred there it wouldn’t do a whole lot of good since sisters can’t teach single men and it’s a college town. Men are the most important converts, so you should just plan on sticking around here.”

    3) My first area was considered a somewhat dangerous part of town, so they “flushed” it. It had always been an area with sisters, but once the transfer was finished we sisters were shipped out and elders took our place. I overheard Elder Dude #3 comment to his companion, “Seriously, they really shouldn’t have sisters outside of the temple visitor centers. We’re always having to clean up their messes.”

    4) Calling in our numbers each night was anxiety-provoking for me. I hated reducing my efforts to spread the Word to only numbers, and I hated having to “report” to an elder who was 3 years younger than me. Well, the language was also especially challenging for me, and on a day when the mission president deemed a “language only” day (we couldn’t speak English, only our assigned language) it was my turn to call in the numbers… Elder Dude #4 chastised me for throwing in one English word into the conversation. It was a word that didn’t translate directly from English and we didn’t have a lot of time so I couldn’t go look up an alternative, but he required me to say it in the assigned language. I told him there wasn’t a direct translation and I didn’t know an alternative, but he insisted as my District Leader that I be obedient and find a way to say it. When I told him we were running out of time, he said, “I’ll wait”. I refused, and let the conversation go silent for a few moments. He finally told me that I needed to be more obedient, and if the language was that much of a problem for me then I needed to study harder.

    The process of going on a mission was full of chauvinism and Brother Dudes trying to keep “pretty, unmarried sisters” out of the mission field. I long for the day when existing in this church isn’t a power struggle, and my agency isn’t moderated by males in charge.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. Shelley says:

    Rarely are there instances in which one gender so consistently and almost universally outperforms the other in a task. Mission work is one of those instances. Women consistently teach and baptize more people than men do. All of the Elder Dudes would do well to remember that.

    • Christian J says:

      Is that helpful Shelley? I actually don’t even doubt your claim – sisters in my mission would regularly be seen as more willing to sacrifice and work harder. But, I also saw that from elders who were recent converts and elders who were older or from countries with little church membership. The fact that the average 19 year old elder from the Western US was basically expected to go (or suffer shame or worse) is a big reason so many of them stunk it up in the mish.

      Either way, I’m thinking that holding up women in the church as naturally more spiritually advanced is not a solution, but part of the problem.

      • marthamylove says:

        Well then, let’s ignore the obvious fact and commit to puffing up the ego of a priesthood holder. ‘Cause any mission hardship an elder encounters doesn’t count if it’s experienced by a woman.

      • Amelia says:

        marthamylove, I think that’s a pretty unfair characterization of what Christian is trying to say. Christian is making two very important points:

        1. Many, many male missionaries are there not out of personal conviction and commitment to serving, but out of fulfilling an obligation imposed on them. The refusal to fulfill the obligation brings high costs, so high that many young men serve missions without understanding what it really takes to be a good missionary. This is as likely an explanation (and probably a more likely explanation) for performance discrepancies between elders and sisters as anything to do with gender.

        2. It’s really not helpful, and actually quite harmful, to suppose an inherent spirituality on the part of women. I don’t personally think that Shelley was trying to make that claim; I think she was trying to observe what seems a reality to her. But that doesn’t change the fact that offering a gender-essentialist explanation for the reality is not very helpful.

        I don’t think anyone here is interested in justifying or contributing to the puffed up egos of some priesthood holders. Or in denying the reality of women’s experiences while serving missions.

      • marthamylove says:

        The obvious fact I’m referring to is that sister missionaries have more converts and their converts are retained at a higher rate. I thought that was pretty well established.

        I don’t think spirituality is gender-based either and didn’t think I said that but something may have read that way. I dunno.

        As for the rest, we simply disagree. Respectfully, I hope.

      • Amelia says:

        Thanks for clarifying, Marthamylove. That fact was not obvious to me–this is the first I’m aware of having heard that sister missionaries have more converts and that those converts are retained at higher rates. I’d be interested to read more about that. I still think that there are probably some interesting factors at play here along the lines of the social vs. individual reasons missionaries serve, as well as age/maturity (though I’m wondering how that one will change based on new missionary ages).

        And of course there’s plenty of room for respectful disagreement.

      • livinginzion says:

        Huh. I didn’t see anywhere in Shelley’s comment where she said something about women being more spiritual than men.
        All I read is a fact: Women consistently teach and baptize more people than men do. It is also a fact that women tend to mature faster than men, thereby making them more successful in communications that require tact and wisdom.
        When I read your comment, I read all kinds of sarcasm into it. Your first sentence was the tip off: Is that helpful Shelley?
        Since when is anyone’s comments judged by their helpfulness?
        I think you are still a tad on the sexist dude side of life.

  5. Risa says:

    I used to think I missed out by getting married young and not going on a mission. Years later I’ve heard the stories of missions from my friends who served as sisters and not elders and I think Heavenly Father knew what he was doing in not calling me a on mission. My testimony would not have survived the rampant sexism.

  6. Em says:

    Yup. I date the beginnings of my feminism to my mission. For one thing, it made me brave to speak truth even when ridiculed or rejected. But it also made it painfully obvious that being a woman made me a second class citizen. Like you I made some great friendships and served with great elders, but the sexist power structure was all the more obvious because it was clear the only distinguishing leadership feature was being male. I was older, had graduated from college, had served in the field for longer, but was always disqualified for leadership. I’m glad there have been some changes.

    One other area where women lead men is Family History — a woman can be a Center director with men called as representatives from wards who serve under her direction.

  7. Reading this made me feel sad that sister missionaries would have to deal with any sort of challenges like those mentioned. One of my grandsons recently returned from serving and he has shared stories of male missionaries who should not have been serving. Some of the problems start at home; young men are not necessarily guided and nurtured to respect other human beings. Parents need to do better. I love the sister missionaries; they brought my 3 daughters and me into the Church but I have left for numerous reasons.

  8. Ellie says:

    get over it already. So much dribble. As I woman I find this story so offensive. Just give it to him and then tell the mission president or someone back home who can deal with it. How passive aggressive to write about it after to make the church look bad. What a waist of two minutes reading this dribble

    • Amelia says:

      Ellie, you are veering very close to violating our comment policy. At the Exponent, all voices are welcome. We ask participants to hear and engage with others stories, rather than to respond by dismissing and judging them. If you would like to continue participating you’ll need to do so by offering something other than condemnation.

      And by all means, if you find the blog a waste of your time, feel free not to return.

  9. Margaret says:

    I served 40 years ago and I loved almost every part of my mission. The only negative thought that came back to me as I read this was that I had a district leader who used to tell everyone that when he died and went before St. Peter and St. Peter assigned him to hell, he would say he had already been there because he had served a mission with sister missionaries. And I never had the nerve to say anything to him about it.

  10. Liz says:

    Ugh. I’m so grossed out by this, April. I can’t imagine dealing with such a jerk. And I love how you point out that he was a jerk already, but that there were systems in place to enable his behavior. I’ve been having this kind of talk with a lot of people recently – the church doesn’t always produce abusive patriarchal jerks, but it certainly gives them room and reason to foster and grow.

    I really wonder if the lowering of the mission age is going to ignite small feminist sparks in a LOT of young women in the next several years. I know several women who have recently come home immensely frustrated by how little they were able to actually lead/have authority in the field. I have great hope that this age change will be a catalyst for more gender parity in this church.

  11. winifred says:

    and people wonder why feminism is not taken seriously anymore.

    • Caroline says:

      Winifred, as our comment policy states, disagreement with the OP is fine, but we ask that you do so by speaking personally and sharing your own perspective. Comments like the one you you have left here are simply snide remarks that contribute nothing to the conversation. If you persist in leaving snide unproductive comments that don’t further the conversation or elucidate your own perspective, we will put you in permanent moderation.

  12. Inga says:

    Sisters in our mission were treated extremely well! We even had sister conferences with our beautiful Mission President’s wife and our leaders always treated us with respect. My trainer was a district leader.

    One time my DL well he was ET’d so the AP’s called me to be the substitute DL and quite frankly I wasn’t a fan of the role it cut into my sleep time after all the phone calls and reporting. I had Elders reporting to me of their stats and they didn’t mind at all.

    Our mission president would never allow his elders to treat his sisters like that I sure hope you reported him.

    My cousin was a sister AP. We both served in Australia. I’m sorry for your experiences. I hope to raise my sons not to be like Elder dude. I’m sure his kind exist, I would sure hope he discovers the atonement to help heal his ways and that we would partake of the atonement to be forgiving of him.

  13. Ziff says:

    Great post, April, about such disappointing experiences. I agree with Liz in liking how you point out that the Church structure clearly wasn’t making the guy a misogynist; it was merely nurturing the flame of misogyny that was already burning in him. It would be so nice if the Church didn’t even do that, though

  14. New Iconoclast says:

    I think that as time (lots and lots of time) passes and the balance of power, God willing, evens out, we’ll find that the abuse of power is a human thing, not a male thing. (IOW, the “almost all men” spoken of in D&C 121:39 is probably best translated “almost all humans.”) That is not to excuse either the misogyny of the Elder Dudes of the world or the complicity of Church structure and culture in facilitating them.

    It seems that sometimes, in exercising that unrighteous dominion (whether in church or elsewhere), people tend to choose something unrelated to the power issues as their whipping post. Sometimes the powerless do that as well, which is one reason why misogyny is also seen “upwards,” directed at powerful women in the workplace. It seems to be easier for we humans to generalize and criticize large swaths of humanity (“women,” “Muslims,” “Mormons,” “Packers Fans”) than to deal with individual people and difficult interpersonal communications.

    That sucks. The best I can do is try to catch myself when I do it, and to gently teach my children. I’m not often successful, but awareness is a start.

  15. Sheila says:

    I’m surprised at the comments about reporting the Elder. I’m genuinely curious what people think would happen? Likely nothing. The prevailing attitude about Sisters, as evidenced again in the comments, is that they’re a pain, annoying etc. I would hope her concerns would have been taken seriously, but in my own mission, reports of being made fun of and patronized by the Elders were responded to with “boys will be boys”.

  16. Naismith says:

    The third offense (devaluing women) is particularly repugnant to me because it is such a lie that women’s contributions are less important.

    The church was brought to Brazil by a mother married to a non-member; she had joined the church in Germany and after immigrating she contacted SLC about materials to organize a primary for her children, and they sent missionaries. The first full-time missionary called from Florida was the son of a faithful LDS woman married to a non-member, which was also the case for Elders Bednar and Scott.

    Ever since we moved away from Utah, we have lived in stakes with at least one branch that lacked local leadership. Then it became the privilege of men in the stake to serve in a unit where they didn’t happen to live. Sometimes their families came along. For two decades I watched as a branch with the largest Primary in the stake became a ward with one of the largest youth programs in the stake, all with carpet-bagger bishops. There is a myth that a unit cannot be created without enough penises in the boundaries, but I have not found that to be true. Perhaps the church understands that eventually those Primary kids will grow up and take over the various jobs.

    So yes, even women who feel inspired to contribute in ways that are “traditional” like raising a righteous posterity can make a huge difference to the church, in the long run.

    I don’t see how that devaluation of women’s contributions would be helped by having women ordained and serving in leadership. They might buy into the male-normative view and have less respect for women who prayerfully choose a “traditional” path. We could end up with a Sister Bitch instead of Elder Dude.

    Data on female physicians suggests that they tend to identify first as physicians, and are not as female-friendly as some hope. I certainly interact with non-LDS colleagues who have such attitudes in my employment outside of church, so I don’t hold up hope that women would automatically show more respect for women’s contributions.

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