SALT LAKE CITY – When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently reduced the age requirement for missionaries by one year for men, to 18, and by two years for women, to 19, the number of women applying to serve jumped fivefold.

At the same time, the church reaffirmed that women would serve just 18 months, compared with two years for men. That rule, combined with the one-year difference in age requirements, touched off a new round of questions from Mormon feminists about how much progress women in the church are actually making.

“I didn’t get it – why the difference in age and length of service?” said Eileen Mendez, a senior at the University of Utah majoring in Arabic. “Why couldn’t things be equal?”

For years, Mormon advocates for women’s rights have asked that same question about equality. Though the Mormon liturgy praises women as life-givers, men dominate the management of the church. Women cannot be ordained to a lay priesthood available to men and boys 12 or older. That gives men a spiritual and practical power that women do not share, critics say.

The church says that women’s roles aren’t lesser, just different. Church leaders point to the Relief Society as an example. It is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, and it is entirely led and run by Mormon women.

On her blog Flunking Sainthood, Mormon author Jana Riess called the new missionary age requirement an example of “progress with an asterisk.”

“It’s just not equality, and after a few glorious moments of believing it would be, that stings,” she said.

The Internet age has given such sentiments a far-reaching platform. One social blog, Feminist Mormon Housewives, started in 2004 by an Idaho woman who said she was discouraged from mentioning her feminist politics in her church social circle, now has 1,000 members.

A separate online petition signed by hundreds of Mormon women nationwide calls for the church to fill positions without regard to gender and allow women to preside over church meetings without a man present. “It’s time to talk about this stuff – it has been for decades,” said Pam Harrison, a Utah social worker who signed the petition.

But although it is growing, the feminist movement is far from the mainstream of the faith.

In a landmark study in January, the Pew Research Center reported that 58 percent of American Mormons say that the more satisfying kind of marriage is one in which the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the house and children. About 38 percent prefer a marriage in which the husband and wife have jobs and both take care of the house and children. Mormon men and women express similar views on this question, and there is no difference in views across age groups. Among the general public, including many other major religious groups, the balance of opinion on this question is reversed.

Rebecca Lane, editor of the Universe student newspaper at Brigham Young University, says: “I’m a woman in power – I’m the editor of my student newspaper. I just disagree about this whole idea of church sexism. Women are admired in our faith.”

“Men and women are complete equals in the sight of God and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” church spokesman Michael Purdy said in an email. “Any belief outside of this truth is not supported in the doctrines and teachings of the church.”

Mormon scholars say the church will not be rushed into altering its doctrines. “The church responds with incremental change that satisfies the gradualists but never satisfies the revolutionaries,” said Terryl Givens, a Mormon professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “The church is never going to (ascribe) to a particular vision of feminism that aspires to eradicate all differences between men and women.”

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(1) comment

LDSPatriot

I would really like people to know the truth behind this article. The fact is, this is sensationalism, and there's just not any truth to those cries of inequality that for some reason seem to persist. I think it has to be connected with a lack of understanding of the doctrines and practices of the Church. Allow me, as a Latter-day Saint, to give some perspective. First, it needs to be understood that the priesthood is associated with the kind of power that people are used to finding within churches. No doctrine has ever been changed in the Church, first of all, so there is no incentive for power there. The doctrines have been clarified and expanded by modern revelation, but never contradicted. There is also no paid clergy. All members serving in your local congregations, including those of the priesthood, are volunteers, called by revelation, which call they can accept or reject. The priesthood is for men, as it is men whom the Lord has called to fill this need, and whom he wishes to teach to serve with it. The Church has always taught that women are to be co-equal partners with men. Remember, as Madeleine L'Engle said in "A Wrinkle In Time," "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!' We believe that gender is a part of our eternal identity, and because of that, we do not seek for the genders to be treated the same, but to nurture the differences which make us the best possible versions of ourselves -to do what we do best. I also wish that Mr. Givens had given a clearer account of the Church in his comments. The change that he must be speaking of is change only in practice, as in simple matters of policy. I wish to add that if "feminism" is defined as "support of values of womanhood and the proper treatment of women," the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most excellent feminist organization in the world. I have been a member all my life, and there is nothing I have ever seen, or will see, bring more joy and fulfillment to women than the doctrines of the Church.

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