It’s not easy being a full-time female missionary for the Mormon Church by Rachel Hunt

Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father had a dream. In this dream, he knew that I would be a great missionary. And because of this knowledge, (and because he a. didn’t see me in the dream and was b. Mormon*) he thought I would be a boy.

To my mom’s credit, she reminded my dad, “Girls can be great missionaries too,” and to my dad’s credit, he was not disappointed when I did indeed turn out to be a girl. He also never let go of his impression that I would be a great missionary. Perhaps because of this story, perhaps because of hearing his (and my brothers’) mission stories, I grew up sincerely wanting to serve a mission.

It wasn’t until high school that someone first told me that I shouldn’t go on a mission because I was a girl. The words were spoken by my female leader, with the explanation that men were to go on missions and women were to get married. My best friend and I were upset, because we were adamant that we were going, but we brushed it aside, letting it add flame to our desire. 

When I became old enough that the choice to serve was no longer a dream but a reality, I understood that it fully rested with me. Because all young men were asked to go, all young men could rely on the call of duty, and know for a certainty that they were doing the right thing in terms of their religion. I had no such surety. What I had instead was a desire, and a feeling that it was the right thing for me.

Church teachings towards women were ambiguous, with official statements usually saying something like, “While all young men are commanded to serve a full-time mission, the most important mission for young women is marriage. Still, we know that some young women will wish to serve a mission. They may do so as long as they do not have immediate marriage prospects. Current women serving do a wonderful job, and are often more effective than the men. Such service will make women better wives, mothers, and leaders.”

Confusing, right? Men are told that they need to go, unequivocally. Women are told that they don’t need to go, and shouldn’t go, but that if they choose to they do great work and it makes them better at the one thing (mothering) that they are told is their mission to do.

At the time I was free of all “immediate marriage prospects,” and was soon called (or assigned) to Northern California to be a full-time missionary for approximately 18 months of service. When I arrived new questions arose from my gender. The most important (and personally pressing) of these questions was: Did I have the same authority to preach as the (much more numerous) young men? They held positions of leadership, and (for the most part) I did not. They had the Priesthood (which we believe is the power to act in the name of God), and I did not. 

The answer came to me, simply, from the mouth of a woman. She was not then, but is now the General President of the worldwide women’s organization of the church. Her words: “Every elder and sister who receives a mission call is set apart to do the Lord’s work, and each is given authority to preach the gospel of Christ.” At the time, it was enough.

Just this week (approximately 6 years after my mission service), I read an article examining the official LDS policies toward prospective female missionaries, over time. They have not changed very much since the 1890’s, and continue their mixed refrain that—in the words of the authors—women are “not invited, but welcome.” I am inclined to ask if women can truly feel welcome in a nearly all men’s club where they were not initially invited. The feminist in me is inclined to answer, “No.” The Mormon: “Maybe. It depends on the particular mission.”

Regardless, I have a dream, that if my husband ever has a vision of a future baby being a great missionary, he will not need to be reminded that girls can also be great in that capacity, and that the baby (if so choosing, and whatever its sex) will one day be both welcome and invited.

*For those who don’t know: Mormons believe in missionary work. And most of their full-time missionaries are (young) men.

Rachel Hunt is a Ph.D. student in philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University. Her true academic love is Soren Kierkegaard, though she shares affection for feminist theology (particularly Mormon feminist theology). She also has a bachelors in philosophy and a masters in library science (from Brigham Young University and Simmons College respectively). She is the author of the blog March in the Chair.

Categories: Gendering Mormonism Course Dialogue

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7 replies

  1. How interesting to hear your perspective Rachel! I’ve had female Mormon missionaries come to my door here in Australia and I feel like this fills in a bit of the back story.


  2. Rachel,
    Thank you for your blog post. I thought this was a powerful testament to women’s capabilities and feminism in praxis within Mormonism. I’m thankful that you shared your experiences both in class and on FAR. I think you really get at what many of our course readings have mentioned as well, that the teachings around women are ambiguous. It is very clear that men hold the priesthood and are expected to go on missions while women do not have priesthood authority nor do they have the same clarity or opportunities regarding missions. I’m glad you were able to acheive your calling despite what others thought. All women should feel welcomed and invited to be missionaries. Again, thanks for your insight on this issue.


  3. Thank you Rachel for sharing your experience because it gave me a better understanding of the gender relation that occurs in the missionary work.
    What bothers me the most is the fact that society (even though we want to believe it has) haven’t changed perception of women. Its the same as it was 50 years ago and yes, the same as it was 100 years ago if not further back in the history. As Anne McGrew Bennet wrote in her article ‘Overcoming the biblical and traditional subordination of women, “we have been more included when it comes to education, job opportunities or in other areas, but even if we are included, we have been automatically relegated to an inferior status.” She believes (and I would agree) that the churches and seminaries are still largely blind to the way that woman is though of as ‘not-quite-human’ and blind to the depth of their patriarchal structure and sexist theology. I want to believe (as you do in your post) that one day, woman can be seen as fully human, that we don’t have to apologize for being female, that we can teach our daughters that they don’t need to be afraid of sexism in their workplace or in school, that young girl should always believe in themselves because they can be as good, if not better, as boys in whatever they set out to do. This I want to believe in, but the one question I ask myself constantly, is how do we reach this equal world where ones gender is not assigned to inferiority or ‘not-quite-human state’; where the next generation of woman can fully express their individuality and never have to be discriminate for the simple fact of being the ‘wrong’ gender.
    Thanks again for you post..


  4. When my brother was a Mormon missionary he told me he could not have dinner with me without bringing his partner with him, because the Mormon authorities wanted them always together so that no one could convince one of them of an idea not accepted by the Mormons. Subsequently, I saw a documentary which asserted that Mormons are supposed to unquestioningly accept church doctrine and authority. In other words there is not the “wiggle room” allowed for example by the RC doctrine of conscience and a tradition of weighing church pronoucements against your own conscience. I wonder if your experience as a missionary included this notion of not questioning authority and not engaging in dialogue with others without having a second person there to ensure that you would not think for yourself against the church. If the notion of not questioning authority my brother also spoke to me about still holds, to me it is at least as great a problem as not inviting women to be missionaries or other more obvious examples of patriarchal thinking.


    • Carol, it Is still the case that Mormon missionaries are required to be with their partner, but, I have never heard your brother’s explanation for it, either before, on, or after my mission. The simplest reason for the pairing is scriptural. The uniquely LDS Doctrine and Covenants contains verses about missionaries going two by two. It is also tied to the injunction in 2 Corinthians 13:1, that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” I suspect it is also to maintain sexual purity, more so than doctrinal purity. (If you’re always with someone else, whence the temptation to be unchaste?) But I admit that my interpretation may be because I am personally skeptical that the other person can unequivocally keep the other from believing something unsanctioned by the Church.

      There are some who unquestionably accept doctrine and authority, but most Latter-day Saints I know are strongly against blind obedience.

      There are two quotes I like on the matter. The first is from Joseph Smith: ‎”We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them — even if they knew it was wrong. But such obedience as this is worse than folly to us. It is slavery in the extreme. The man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise this idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.” — Joseph Smith, Jr. Millenial Star, Archive Volume 14, Number 38, Pages 593-595

      The second comes from a church publication in 1945. The first part is not so flattering, but the second part is the then prophet’s repudiation of it: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy.” President George Albert Smith, upon reading this publication, was angered and repudiated the statement with the following: “Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church.”

      My husband and I believe many different things doctrinally, but we are both Mormons.


  5. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
    “11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
    12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
    13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
    14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
    15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”



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