Young Mormon Women 'Thrilled' By New Mission Age

The Mormon church recently lowered the age at which members can start serving their missions. The minimum age for women used to be age 21, now it's 19. That may not sound like a big difference, but the change has been hailed as a 'giant leap' by Mormon bloggers. Host Michel Martin looks at what the decision will mean for young women with Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl, and Emily Jensen of Deseret News.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we dig into our digital mailbox to hear from you about stories that caught your attention this week. That's BackTalk and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But, first, we turn to Faith Matters. That is the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And, today, we want to talk about a decision by the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church, about one of the features of the church that is probably most recognizable to outsiders. That is missionary service.

You've probably seen Mormon missionaries in your travels at some point, clean-cut young people, mostly, though not always, men wearing dark suits, white shirts and name tags, going door-to-door spreading the word of the faith and doing good works.

Earlier this month, the church leaders announced that they are lowering the minimum age for full-time missionary work from 19 to 18 for men, but most importantly, from 21 to 19 for women.

Now, two years may not sound like a big difference, but some church members are calling this a sea change for Mormon women. Here to tell us more about that, Joanna Brooks. She's the author of "The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith" and the popular "Ask Mormon Girl" blog. Also with us is Emily Jensen. She is a journalist with the Deseret News and she compiles the Bloggernacle. That is an aggregator of Mormon blogs.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

JOANNA BROOKS: Thanks for having us.

EMILY JENSEN: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Joanna, for those outside the church, can you just briefly describe the importance of the missionary experience in the life of the church and in the life of a faithful Mormon?

BROOKS: Well, it's important to know that Mormonism isn't just something we practice on Sundays. It's a way of life. And for, you know, generations now, young Mormon boys have grown up anticipating serving a two-year mission for the church at age 19 as a rite of passage into their adulthood.

But young Mormon girls have been told, maybe you'll get married first. Wait 'til you're 21 and see and maybe you'll serve. So the change, the lowering the age to 19 dramatically reorganizes life expectations for young girls in a way that suggests, hey, we want you to get out there, too.

MARTIN: Emily, do you want to add something to that? And, also, I'm curious about what you're hearing about the reaction throughout the world of LDS believers. Is this a huge deal?

JENSEN: I would agree with Joanna that it is a pretty big deal. I kind of distilled a bunch of the reactions that I heard throughout the Bloggernacle into some one-word descriptors. I heard thrilled. I heard happy, crying, joy, gratitude. There was some disappointment, and that we can talk about the reasons why, as well - some regret. Overall, I think, excitement and wonderment would probably be the biggest descriptors that I saw.

MARTIN: And, Joanna, in your blog, you wrote that this can completely change the, quote, "storyline of young Mormon women's lives." Could you talk more about that because I think a lot of people listening to this might be wondering, what's the big deal? From - two years...

BROOKS: Ah, two years.

MARTIN: From 21 to 19, how can that be such a big deal?

BROOKS: Exactly. Well, you know, within the Mormon faith, gender plays a powerful theological role and, traditionally, for women, motherhood and marriage have been stressed as the spiritual priority above all others. So dropping that missionary age really levels the playing field. It says, we don't want you women to hang around and wait for someone to ask you to marry them. We want you to get out there and have those transformative experiences like the young men. Learn a language, maybe, you know, see the world, be a public advocate for your faith, undertake some intense religious study.

So, you know, that's what drove such a joyous reaction among young Mormon women.

MARTIN: So the church has never officially said this, but has the implication been that missionary service or full-time missionary service is really for women who can't get married or aren't going to get married? It's basically saying that, if you're not going to fulfill the dominant cultural expectation, then that's - you're the only one who's really expected to do this?

BROOKS: Yes. That has been - go ahead, Emily.

JENSEN: I was just going to say, a friend, another blogger who's a professor, actually, at the BYU Idaho traced the thought that women were supposed to be married, and sisters throughout history would feel that, if they went on a mission, they were stereotyped as not being desirable enough to get married and now the - she says sisters are not an addendum or an afterthought. They're now essential to the program, even irreplaceable. That's the message that's being sent.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the decision by leaders of the LDS church, the Mormon church, to allow women as young as 19 to become full-time missionaries. The age for men has also been lowered, but only a year, to 18. Our guests are Emily Jensen of the Deseret News and the author and blogger, Joanna Brooks.

Does anybody know - Emily, perhaps you know this - what motivated the decision? Anybody know how this came about?

JENSEN: If I were to guess, I would say that there has been a little bit of - well, if you're paying attention to the view of Mormon women within the church, there has been some discontent and I wonder if that somehow spurred the change, as well as the notion that we have young people who come across things within our church that are bothersome to them and they don't know how to deal with it, and we kind of have a lot of people leaving the church. And I wonder - not just I wonder, but a lot of bloggers wonder if the reason for the change kind of played into that.

MARTIN: Emily, also I wanted to ask you that you mentioned earlier that there was some disappointment that's been registered by bloggers as well.

JENSEN: Right.

MARTIN: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

JENSEN: The negative reactions that I've seen are would be disappointment and regret. Kind of going off the regret side first, a lot of women regret that they could not have this age change come sooner, so that they could have gone when they felt this need to go when they were younger, because I've actually been surprised how many women that I've seen say, you know, if only this had come at 19 I would have gone, because by the time I was 20 to 21, I was engaged or I was married. Or actually in my case, I was having a baby and remember thinking that that was my mission, that I would be a missionary by having a baby instead of actually going on a mission, which is kind of funny to think of now. The disappointment kind of goes along with that, but then it also goes across the spectrum to maybe some of the more liberal bloggers saying this age change is so important, but why did they not equalize the playing field?

The girls and the boys do not go for the same duration. Girls only go for 18 months and boys go for 24 months. And there's been discussions about the fact that a lot of girls feel like their missions are just starting at that 18-month point and wished that they could stay out a little bit longer.

This woman said, you know, I'm so glad I served a mission. She explains that it was one of the hardest most emotionally stretching experience of my life. Taught me how to be a better more loving human, how to truly pray, how to let go and give my heart to the Lord. It's a lot of Gospel study. It's a lot of service. It's a lot of pedantic walking around and knocking on doors. And I know a lot of the Third World countries, they do a lot of humanitarian work. I cover a lot of those blogs and it's very cool to see what kind of - like the water projects or the wheelchair projects that they do.

MARTIN: So Joanna, I'm going to give you the final word on this. Did you go on mission? Would you like to have if you didn't?

BROOKS: When the news broke on Saturday morning, I was actually at my daughter's soccer game following General Conference, which is the big meeting where a lot of Mormon business and important messages from leaders happen, following it on Twitter - yes, you could do that - and at first I was pleased, and then I started to cry out of joy and then I was so surprised, I started actually to sob, sitting on the sideline at my daughter's soccer game. And as I tried to explain it to my children, I connected with that 19-year-old girl I was and how intensely dedicated I was to the faith and how I would've served, I absolutely would've served. And my faith did get more complicated after that. My path didn't end up being marriage, it ended up being graduate study. And 19, the opportunity to serve at 19 as I reflected on it, yeah, it probably would've strengthened my connections to my faith in a really beautiful way.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for sharing that - even if it's a painful thought. But thank you for sharing that.

BROOKS: Oh no, the Martinelli bottles are popping. We're all too thrilled to be sad for long.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Joanna Brooks is the author of "The Book of Mormon Girl," a memoir of an American faith and the popular "Ask Mormon Girl" blog. She joined us from San Diego. Emily Jensen covers the Bloggernacle, an aggregator of Mormon blogs for the Deseret News and she joined us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BROOKS: It's a pleasure.

JENSEN: Thank you.

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