The Number of Sister Missionaries

By January 15, 2009

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, jolly new semester, usw. to all. I?m still working on (read: doing stuff higher on my priority list at the expense of) the last installments of the ?Reading Like a Conspiracy Theorist? series. In that direction, however, I give you a ?cage match?: I put two articles in a steel cage with suitable quantities of folding chairs and then observed the results. The articles are:

? Tania Rands Lyon and Mary Ann Shumway McFarland, ??Not Invited, But Welcome?: The History and Impact of Church Policy on Sister Missionaries,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 71-101.
? Laura Vance, ?Evolution of Ideals for Women in Mormon Periodicals, 1897-1999,? Sociology of Religion 63, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 91-112.

Examining the twain together highlights how emphatically consistent Mormon policy on sister missionary participation has been in the twentieth century in the face of significant changes in how Mormons have constructed female missionary service.

Between the missionizing mandate to the church at large and the wives of missionaries and mission presidents, women participated in almost all facets of Mormon missionary work in the nineteenth century. The first formally designated female missionaries were called in 1898 at the request of mission presidents who, seemingly, wanted to combat negative stereotypes. [1] Sending capable Mormon women out as missionaries helped refute negative press portrayals, which otherwise held sway since almost all Mormon women lived in the Mormon Culture Region. Sister missionaries proselyted throughout the twentieth century.

Laura Vance analyzed rhetoric in the Church?s print organs over the twentieth century and determined that published Mormon prescriptions about women tracked the Church?s level of assimilation into or retrenchment against American popular culture. Broadly speaking, the arc she identifies runs from Mormon women contesting non-Mormon social norms by being public (1900-1920s) to conforming to norms by being private (1920s-1950s) to again contesting norms but by being private (1960s-1990s). In the early twentieth century Mormon periodicals espoused public roles for Mormon women in politics, professions, proselyting, and so on, which contested the then regnant cult of True Womanhood. Though prioritizing domestic duties, Mormon texts, which matched and even cited the feminist literature of the day, lauded female missionaries. As Mormons focused more on assimilation in the 1920s through 1940s, however, their prescriptive literature fell more in line with popular ideals about domesticity and ran against the increasing female participation in the paid workforce. In the 1970s the magazines surveyed presented an almost exclusively domestic ideal but that stridency soon gave way to a more mixed message, advocating a primary role for women in the home but allowing for other roles. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, domestic roles were usually portrayed in contrast with or in opposition to paid, extra-domestic work; female missionary service was not lauded as earlier in the century, but it was not the main threat so long as its motives and practice did not interfere with marriage. Just as in the early twentieth century, Mormon prescriptive literature went against the (perceived popular portrayal of) non-Mormon norms of later marriage and female careerism.

In contrast to the variance in rhetoric Vance notes, Lyon and McFarland observe that Latter-day Saint institutional policies and authoritative pronouncements about sister missionaries have been strikingly consistent throughout the twentieth century. Three elements ground the statements: (1) formal missionary service is a priesthood (thus, male) responsibility, (2) women make a valuable, even essential, contribution to formal missionary efforts, and (3) the proportion of females in the missionary force should remain small. The most striking examples of the policy?s consistency come from wartimes when conscription severely curtailed the number of available males but Church leaders did not increase the proportion of sister missionaries. During World War II the church twice sent a written message to all local leaders reiterating the policy and explicitly affirming that it was to be enforced despite the shortage of males. [2] However, as far as Lyon and McFarland were able to determine, at no point in the twentieth century were the number of sister missionaries directly limited. That is, there have been no quotas; the number of women seeking mission service seems to have been acceptable to the church hierarchy and is presumably maintained by public statements about mission policy, teachings about gender, and age requirements.

So, what does putting these two articles together give us? Lyon and McFarland show how consistent policy on sister missionary numbers has been despite various other changes. Vance makes the consistency more emphatic by demonstrating how some components of Mormon prescriptive literature for women were also changing. If there?s a big idea lurking in there, I don?t see it yet; I just thought the juxtaposition was interesting. Maybe it could be something about how gender roles are very important to Mormon leaders, more important, even, than increasing the number of baptisms?


[1] The 1890s saw a general increase in missionary efforts and an acceleration in the transition from married, established missionaries to unmarried, young missionaries. Part of the missionary increase came because Utah statehood and the announced end of polygamy freed up many resources. There were, of course, other factors. I write ?seemingly? about the motivations because documentation on the decision to formally call sister missionaries is relatively sparse.

[2] Lyon and McFarland extend their analysis to possible reasons and functions of the policy; their analysis is interesting but I’m skipping it for this post.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. During World War II the church twice sent a written message to all local leaders reiterating the policy and explicitly affirming that it was to be enforced despite the shortage of males. [2] However, as far as Lyon and McFarland were able to determine, at no point in the twentieth century were the number of sister missionaries directly limited.

    Hm. I think Tally S. Payne’s, “‘Our Wise and Prudent Women’: Twentieth-Century Trends in Female Missionary Service,” in Carol Cornwall Madsen and Cherry B. Silver, eds., New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, 2005), 125-140 is imperative context for this whole debate. Her quantitative analyses are tremendously helpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 15, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  2. Edje, as potential support for your first note, I just read a letter yesterday, Emmeline B. Wells to Mary E. Rollins Lightner, 9 April 1882 (Lightner collection, BYU Spec Coll, Mss 363, folder 2) where EBW is seeking support for the Woman’s Exponent: “In reference to the Exponent I would say it is a great benefit and help to our Elders who are out in the world, as the greatest accusation almost they can bring against our brethren is they degrade and oppress women.” It’s easy to believe that the church consciously progressed from displaying Mormon women’s printed achievements to displaying Mormon women in person to combat the stereotypes.

    Very nice post, as usual.

    /s/ Returned Sister Missionary

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 15, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

  3. Shame on all of you who did not give me New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century for Christmas.

    So, J.: for those of us who won’t see this book for at least a few days until ILL can track it down, how does Payne change our understanding?

    Thanks, Ardis and J. Stapley.

    Comment by Edje — January 15, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  4. There’s some good literature on Protestant female power and the evangelizing societies for context as well. Complex stories about abandonment of domestic responsibilities and the irony of women as the conservators of morality and women as incapable of preaching. If you want a fascinating view of it on the ground, I loved Nancy Towle’s experience with ministers on her semi-Baptist itinerancies. it’s an 1830s memoir–she visited Kirtland and got in a big fight with Phelps and others, sort of a shouting match. she’d been in some important sparring encounters with male orthodox ministers as well (presbygationalists mostly; sometimes the populist ministers as well though).

    Comment by smb — January 15, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

  5. I was hoping this post would provide some actual data on “the number of Sister Missionaries.”

    Do you have any information like that? What percentage of the missionary force is female, now or in the past? Also, what percentage is older couples. I have wondered that for a while.

    Comment by ed — January 16, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  6. This is really interesting stuff, Edje. I’d glanced at the Dialogue article before, but wasn’t aware of the piece by Vance.

    I’m thrilled that scholarship on Mormon women continues to move forward, and think Sam’s comment hints at a potentially fruitful field of analysis in a comparative study of Mormonism with female missionaries in other Christian traditions.

    Comment by Christopher — January 16, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  7. Also, if ILL fails you, I can probably scan the article Stapley cites and send you a PDF in the next week or so.

    Comment by Christopher — January 16, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  8. Edje, you’ve inspired me to dig an old post of mine out of the archives. I’ll put in up later today, I hope.

    Comment by matt b — January 16, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  9. Ed, the article I noted above has all that data, which is why it illuminates the conversation so well. For example, for one year during WWII, there were more sister missionaries than elders, though at their highest year, sisters account for 48% of the missionaries.

    As far as actually policy changes, going of the top of my head, I believe that McKay raised the eligibility, age of sisters, no? (I’ll be able to look it up later, hopefully)

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 16, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  10. Thanks to all for the comments.

    Comment by Edje — January 18, 2009 @ 11:40 pm


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