DAEJEON, South Korea — Ashley Farr, once Miss North Salt Lake Teen USA, is the first in her family’s long line of Mormon women to become a missionary, and in December she embarked on her new life in this part of Asia.
She packed her bag according to the church’s precise instructions: skirts that cover the knee, only one pair of pants, earrings that dangle no longer than one inch and subtle but flattering makeup, modeled in photos on the church’s website.
Sister Farr, as she now is called, had left behind the student-entrepreneurship competitions she was helping to run in Utah and paused her relationship with her boyfriend, far away in the Philippines, as they served his-and-her missions.
Farr, a finance student at Brigham Young University in Utah, believed proselytizing would please God and give her the organizational and persuasive skills to succeed professionally. She rattled off all the things she wants to become: intern at Goldman Sachs. Wife of a mission president. Chief executive of a fashion or technology company.
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“A mother and a businesswoman,” she said in an interview on her first day, neatly summarizing the two worlds, Mormon and secular, in which she hopes to thrive.
Farr, 21, is part of the biggest gender change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in memory. After the church lowered its age requirement for female missionaries in October 2012 to 19 from 21, so many women have signed up — 23,000, nearly triple from the total before the change — that many Utah colleges suffered sharp drops in enrollment, and the standard image of a Mormon missionary, a gangly young man in a dark suit, was suddenly out of date.
In coming years, these women are expected to fundamentally alter this most American of churches, whose ruling patriarchs not long ago excommunicated feminist scholars and warned women not to hold jobs while raising children.
Church leaders have been forced to reassess their views because Mormon women are increasingly supporting households, marrying later and less frequently and having fewer children. And for the first time, waves of women like Farr are taking part in the church’s crucial coming-of-age ritual, returning home from their missions with unprecedented scriptural fluency, new confidence and new ideas about themselves.
Already the church has made small adjustments, inviting women to weigh in on local councils and introducing the first leadership roles for female missionaries. When a band of Mormon feminists staged a demonstration last year in Salt Lake City calling for women to be ordained as priests, their demands were felt in church headquarters — in part because the church’s own surveys also reveal streaks of female dissatisfaction.
The church will benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete,” as Sister Linda Burton, president of the Relief Society, the church’s auxiliary for adult women, put it. Maxine Hanks, one of the excommunicated feminist scholars, recently rejoined the church because she sees “so much progress” for women, she said in an interview.
Yet the church’s attempt to rethink the place of women promises to be one of the most sensitive gender experiments of coming years, with Mormon authorities running simultaneous risks of going too far and not far enough.
To revise female roles in the church threatens what many see as the faith’s foundations, which dictate that men are ordained as priests at the tender age of 18, taking the title “elder,” while women, who can never progress beyond “sister,” are considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers.
Many Mormon women embrace their traditional roles and flinch at the word “feminism”; in December 2012, a small movement to encourage women to wear pants instead of skirts to Sunday services was met with an angry backlash. Even younger Mormon men are often uncomfortable with the ambitions of their female peers, some women report, creating a chasm of expectations between the sexes.
But if the church does not update its ideas about gender, it may be seen as out of step with contemporary life, an untenable home for women who are leaders in their workplaces and breadwinners in their households.
“The great unfinished business in the church is gender equality,” said Joanna Brooks, an English professor at San Diego State University who often writes about her experiences as a Mormon woman. “An increasing number of young Mormon women are growing up in a world where they not only can work, but have to work, and they are operating 12 hours a day in contexts where gender is irrelevant, but in a church structure where all financial and theological decisions are made by men. This will just stop making sense.”
The Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, where Farr trained and missionaries-to-be are sequestered for crash courses in any one of 55 languages, is a study in transition, filled with “sister” missionaries palpably thrilled with an experience that few of their mothers or grandmothers had.
Classrooms are being converted to women’s dormitories; the cafeteria mounts four sittings for each meal; and the electronic-notice board in the cafeteria, reminding departing missionaries to dry-clean their suits before they depart, feels like a throwback.
“We are hastening the work,” said Nancy Pratt, 19, who wants to make ceramics and work as a massage therapist, just before she departed for South Korea. “We are a movement. We get to be part of this great push.”
More and more, the church is being forced to consider the demands of women who question the guidance of their male religious leaders. The women say they love their church, but share their frustrations on blogs such as Feminist Mormon Housewives.
The church has recently taken steps that may seem small to outsiders, but telegraphed change to members: inviting a woman to say a prayer at the church’s general conference, revising the Sunday school curriculum so that females and males learn the same lessons, and instructing bishops and regional “stake” presidents to consult with the leaders of the parallel women’s organizations in their deliberations.
However, the church will go only so far: Ordaining women as priests is out of the question because it is a matter of doctrine, leaders in Salt Lake City said in an interview.
“Culturally there’s an understanding that women’s roles are going to be more and more important, but doctrine is not going to be changing,” said Michael Otterson, who directs the church’s public-affairs efforts worldwide. The new wave of returning female missionaries, he added, would amount to an “injection of really theologically well-trained women” and enrich the church “if they can make the transition back.”