By Julia Shu
On a windy May day at Barnard College, Emily Conlogue, 19, went to meet with her academic advisor about her upcoming leave of absence from school. She planned to take off 18 months next school year, to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church.
“What I have to do is withdraw from my program, and then apply for readmission when I get back,” said Conlogue. “Because it’s a voluntary service opportunity, the school has been really supportive and they don’t think I’ll have a problem with that.”
Two years ago, Conlogue’s missionary service would have been impossible at 19. One of the most recognizable aspects of Mormonism, missionary work is an expected rite of passage for young men, and only an option for young women. But in October 2012, church president Thomas Monson announced a change in policy. Men can now go at 18 instead of 19, and women at 19 instead of 21. It is a seemingly innocuous difference that has set off ripples of transformation within the church, raising the visibility of young women and changing the expectations around missions.
“I’m really happy that as a 19 year old, I have this opportunity,” said Conlogue, “It’s much easier for me to take two years off now, before I’ve gotten really far into a program.”
She believes that, had the age not been changed, she might not have even thought about going on a mission.
“The timing just works out better this way,” she said.
A year after the announcement, the number of women missionaries had increased from 8,100 to 19,500, a whopping 142 percent.
Missionaries first go to training centers, then are distributed to one of the 405 mission around the world. Their work involves a mix of community service and teaching about Mormon scripture.
Erin Brown, 28, was thrilled to hear about the change in policy. Currently a graduate student at NYU, she served a mission in Russia six years ago. The commitment lasts 18 months for young women, with a regimented schedule that involves working continously with a partner, and often approaching people about the faith only to be turned away. Brown remembers locals yelling “cult!” at her in the street and setting dogs on her.
“What this does is it gives young women that core spiritual experience that they really need to step up and become leaders within the church,” said Brown. “There are so many young women who have such strong testimonials of the gospel and who are so bright, who I think often times don’t get the opportunity to serve because by the time they were old enough to do so, they were already on a certain track.”
Brown noted improved leadership skills will be useful for young women in administrative roles, like being president of the Relief Society, the church’s all-female branch for spiritual support and charitable work.
“I think what it will do too is give women a better understanding of their own personal testimony, and their own personal relationship with their Savior and with their Heavenly Father, and those kinds of things are really important for personal growth,” she said.
Besides personal growth, Brown also said young women are more effective at proselytizing than men.
“It’s a lot more normalized for young women to be talking about faith,” Brown said.
Danny Arnett, 30, agreed with her. He serves as a member of the Stake Council for New York. For Mormons, a stake is similar to a Catholic diocese, a regional level of authority containing many churches, called wards.
“I know for myself, if a man is knocking on my door, I’m thinking, “Hmm, who is it?” said Arnett. “But if you see two sisters, two young women, you are generally disarmed and inviting.”
Arnett doesn’t believe that any social beliefs influenced the new age minimums, rather that the new policy is a product of divine inspiration. For Mormons, the president of the church is a living prophet, a representative of God on Earth.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s a change in attitude towards gender,” said Arnett, “It was just a matter of the Prophet, President Thomas Monson and the 12 Apostles. The presidency made it a matter of prayer.”
Others greeted the announcement as a long-awaited change.
“My thing was, “It’s about time,” said Marcia Nelson, 51. “I’m glad, I’m happy they made the change.”
Nelson, who serves as president for primary level religious education for the New York Stake. Nelson has daughter, Kate, 18, who will be considering a mission next year.
The Mormon church has made other recent changes that might signal a quiet shifting of traditional gender roles. Last spring for the first time, a woman offered the benediction at General Conference, a church-wide gathering held twice a year.
But for many members, being a Mormon woman still signals certain ideals.
“We women, we’re the main nurturers with the family, we spend the most time with the children,” said Lisa Kell, 23, of Roosevelt Island, “The father mostly is the provider and the patriarch.”
Kell is preparing to leave for her missionary training next month, after which she will be stationed at a Spanish-speaking mission in Santa Rosa, Calif. She hopes to start a family, and said she will not work full-time while raising children.
“For me, it would be hard to focus on two things at once, and I want to be fully the mother that my mom was,” said Kell, “I want to be there every step of the way.”
This more traditional outlook doesn’t mean Kell is less educated or ambitious; she earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University last year and is an avid runner. Her decision to go on a mission was a personal matter, not an abstract symbol of cultural revolution.
“It took me a long time to receive my revelation from God that it was for me,” said Kell, “I prayed and fasted about it for a long time, but it wasn’t until I put in my papers that I found out it was the right thing.”
Kell was encouraged to go a mission by her mother, who married young and did not have the opportunity to go herself.
But whether or not an increase in young women will change missionary service or the Mormon church, other changes are inevitably working their way forwards.
“Depending on what mission I go to, some missionaries are actually on Facebook now,” said Conlongue. “Sometimes they’ll actually teach lessons on Facebook chat.”
Conlogue thinks these changes will help missionaries reach people who are truly interested in the Mormon faith.
“Really the goal of missionary work isn’t to force people to join the church, it’s to find people who are ready to join or interested in the church, so I think having more of an online presence helps that happen.”
She also sees these developments as cost effective.
“You don’t have to worry about getting to someone’s house or meeting them or being late,” said Conlogue, “You just have to get online.”
Conlogue herself is a convert to the church, having been baptized only a year ago after being referred to missionaries by a friend. In August, she will accept a call from the church and leave for her own mission.