At the Saturday morning session of the LDS Church’s semi-annual General Conference, Mormon leaders announced that the minimum age for missionary service is now lowered from 19 to 18 for young men and from 21 to 19 for young women, a change that is expected to significantly increase rates of missionary service among young LDS women.
This simple policy change has subtle but far-reaching and potentially pivotal implications for gender relations in the world of Mormonism. It is the most significant LDS Church policy shift on gender in decades, exceeding in its potential impact changes to gendered language in LDS temple ceremonies two decades ago. And it was met with what may have been the greatest burst of acclamation and excitement since the 1978 announcement opening the priesthood to men of African descent.
Minutes after the change was announced over the LDS Conference Center pulpit on Saturday morning, Mormon social networks thundered with status updates and tweets from 18- and 19-year-old women declaring their intent to serve. Some reported immediately calling their local bishops to set the missionary application process in motion. Brigham Young University’s newspaper The Daily Universe reported shouts of excitement and tears of joy among the 18- and 19-year-old men and women students watching General Conference in university dormitories.
Missionary service is a rite of passage into adulthood in Mormon culture. Before Saturday’s policy change, while Mormon men were expected to serve missions at 19, young Mormon women were told that they could serve at 21—if they did not marry first. The old policy communicated different expectations for young Mormon men and women, underscoring that marriage was to be the defining spiritual priority for women coming of age in Mormon culture. While their male peers enjoyed community support and recognition, entered intensive preparatory religious study, and assumed a role as public representatives of the faith on a global stage, Mormon women waited. At age 21, when they finally became eligible for service, many women found themselves married, or deeply absorbed in the wait for a proper Mormon spouse, or in the final months of their college education and beginning their careers.
Lowering the age for women to 19 substantially levels expectations and equalizes life narratives for young men and young women, communicating to young Mormons that studying the faith and preparing for church leadership is a priority regardless of gender. It sets young men and women on parallel life paths: missionary service, education, marriage, and family, in that order. And it takes steps towards neutralizing an uneven age dynamic that made 19-year-old Mormon women and 22- and 23-year-old Mormon men peers in the LDS dating pool, an unevenness that may have shaped LDS marriage dynamics as well.
Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women’s Project, said, “This is about creating a future culture of equal scripture scholarship, increased opportunities for cooperative leadership in platonic settings, and reducing the stigma of unmarried women on the BYU campus. I have three daughters. I no longer wonder if a mission will be a serious consideration for them. It’s a joyous day in my home.”
“I’m delighted with the potential that this has created for Young Women to be thinking about another option to bridge the gap between adolescence and womanhood,” wrote Mormon blogger Gina Colvin. “It signals an interest in the young women of the Church, who up until now have been largely neglected in comparison to the boys. It doesn’t ask them to lag behind the boys by two years, it doesn’t tell them that they are less useful, and it pays attention to them as more than simply brides and breeders, and only missionaries by default.”
Some reacted to the change by noting that women in missionary service would still not be allowed to baptize converts, a responsibility reserved to the male lay-priesthood. And some voiced disappointment that the policy change did not go further by eradicating gender differences in the terms of missionary services as well, as did writer Jana Riess who celebrated the policy change but expressed limited disappointment that the new policy preserves a 24-month commitment for young men and an 18-month commitment for women missionaries.
The missionary age change comes at a moment when the LDS Church is also preparing to roll out new curriculum that equalizes the emphasis on marriage and family in lessons taught to young men and young women.
And it comes at a time when Mormon women are talking more openly about incremental, pragmatic ways to increase egalitarianism within the Church without doctrinal change. Signatures have been collecting in support of a list of such changes published by Mormon women last month.