Monday, February 11, 2013

Feminism and Missionary Service

Sorry I've been so absent lately. My muse has left me, and I've been really busy with health challenges, a career change, and the bar exam (again). If I get a few moments, I'll update on those fronts.

Today at Zelophehad's Daughters, Galdralag has a post about feminism and serving a mission. A friend sent in a list of questions directed at women who have served missions. I answered the questions in the comments there but thought that it would be useful to reprint my responses here as well. So, below are eleven questions I was asked about serving a mission. Feel free to add your responses in the comments, but please also consider posting them at ZD so that the wider Bloggernacle can benefit from your wisdom.
  1. Did you know you were feminist/ have feminist beliefs before the mission?
I had feminist beliefs (belief in the equality of the sexes, a desire to have a career, a refusal to accept special treatment as a result of femaleness), but I explicitly did not identify as a feminist. I had never personally experienced sex discrimination, so I thought that feminists were whiners with a victim complex who didn’t work hard enough. While I was on my mission, I saw sexism rear its ugly head. I also met my first Mormon feminist, and I realized that I was one, too.
  1. Were you aware of the apparent disjoint between those views and the teachings of the church? If so, how did that impact your decision to go on a mission?
I was aware that my desire to have a career was at odds with the culture of the church, though I maintained that it wasn’t against the gospel. I was also aware that men were expected to make the sacrifice to serve a mission, but women were not. I felt that was unfair to the men to be expected to do something that I wasn’t, so part of my decision to serve was so that I wouldn’t be benefiting from my femaleness. (Incidentally, that was also how I felt about the military draft. If a draft had been instituted at a time when man who was similarly situated to me would have been drafted, I would have volunteered to serve because I don’t think similarly situated men and women should be treated differently.)

I received my temple endowment when I was 19, but not in connection with an impending marriage. So, I was aware of the disparity in men’s and women’s temple covenants. It bothered me, but since I wasn’t married, I decided it didn’t apply to me, and I shelved it to deal with it later.
  1. Once on your mission, as you’re mostly teaching the basics, do those somewhat “controversial” beliefs even make much of a difference? How much do they matter?
My more controversial beliefs didn’t really matter much to the investigators, but occasionally ruffled some feathers with missionaries and members.

My first mission companion was somewhat misogynistic (and it still baffles me that a woman can be a misogynist, but she was), and she thought I was a heretic for having gone to college and for believing in the equality of the sexes. She spent the six weeks we served together trying to break me down and convert me to her viewpoint. She even went so far as to exaggerate my views to the mission president (saying that I didn’t think anyone should be a stay at home parent, etc., which I never said). I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. (It was much later that I realized that she was being abusive; what I’ve written here is a really abbreviated version of the story.)

In my last area, there was a woman (the previously mentioned feminist) who wore pants to church. The Relief Society president confided in me that she really wanted to call that woman to be a teacher in RS, but that she wasn’t going to do it because she thought it would set a bad example for the sisters because she wore pants. I defended the pants-wearing woman, and that ruffled some feathers in the ward.
  1. Were you preoccupied with the idea of where you’d be called?
I wouldn’t say I was preoccupied, but I did experience some concern. I wanted to serve in the United States, and a lot of my friends were upset by this desire. They said I was being selfish for not wanting to share my talents with a foreign country. I responded that people in the US need to hear the gospel, too, and that I was grateful for two missionaries who served in California and brought me the gospel. (Even now, I often feel like a second-class RM because I served stateside instead of in a foreign country.)
I was afraid of getting called to Temple Square because I heard that all of the “attractive” sisters get called there, and I was a model in high school. I really really didn’t want to go to Temple Square because I wanted to go on a “real” mission. (I know the sisters there do great work, but my 21-year-old self didn’t want to be a glorified tour guide.)
  1. A close friend said that he thought I’d be a great missionary, but that I’d be really bothered by things like not being able to baptize the people I’d be teaching. I’m fairly openly in favor of wanting the priesthood. Were you ever hurt or troubled by not having priesthood authority on the mission? If so, in what ways, and how did you deal with that emotionally and spiritually?
At first, I wasn’t too bothered by it. But there was a time when one of my investigators was quite sick. The doctor said that she was terminally ill and had only six months to live. She was going in for some experimental surgery, and she wanted a blessing. We called up the elders to come over and bless her. It was one of the most moving spiritual experiences of my life, and it stabbed me in the heart to know that this was a kind of service that I wasn’t able to render. That was the moment that I allowed myself to first admit that I wanted to hold the priesthood. (I had wanted it for a while, but I convinced myself that I didn’t, because I was taught that I wasn’t supposed to want it.) I struggled with that desire because years of acculturation taught me that the desire was unrighteous. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Spirit witnessed to me that it is a righteous desire.
  1. What were the best/worst parts of mission? Do you have any regrets or things you wish you’d done/done better?
The best part of my mission was that it showed me that I’m capable of doing hard things. The worst part was the six weeks of hell with my first companion. My biggest regret was that I allowed myself to be convinced that my unique talents weren’t acceptable to God, and that I needed to be someone else in order to be a good missionary. If I could do it all over again, I would have been myself.
  1. What were your reasons for wanting to go?
I wanted to go for a few reasons. The first is that I felt equality demanded it. The second is that I love the gospel and wanted to share it with others. The third is that I had heard and seen stories of a missionary’s family being blessed by the missionary’s service, and my family needed the blessings.
  1. Were there reasons your fellow sister missionaries went that might not have been the best?
Most of the sisters I knew in my mission went for the right reasons – a desire to serve and share the gospel, or a prompting from God. I wasn’t aware of any serving by default. Though, my first companion was a piece of work. She said that she didn’t want to serve a mission and thought that women shouldn’t serve. But she was on a mission because she felt that God told her to go. (I never did figure out how she dealt with the logical inconsistency in her statements that women shouldn’t serve missions but God told her to serve one.)
  1. Did encountering unsympathetic authorities, elders, or sisters in the mission have much impact on you? Did you have any companions that were unsympathetic? How was that?
The elders were great, and my mission president was mostly great, too. Most of my companions were good, and I’m still friends with a few of them. However, I did have an emotionally and spiritually abusive trainer, and the six weeks I spent with her were miserable. It took me years to recover from the effects of that abuse; my self-confidence was shot.
  1. How did the mission impact you personally? In what ways have those experiences helped you become your best self?
My mission brought me closer to God. Because I served in rural, isolated areas, God was the only person I could rely on. This has helped me become self-sufficient and has helped me overcome huge challenges that have happened to me since I returned. Unfortunately, it has also made it harder for me to rely on and accept help from others. I’m working on that.
  1. What was it like coming back?
I was physically and emotionally spent by the end of my mission, so in one sense, it was a relief. I started law school three weeks after coming home, which I think was too soon. I hadn’t had a chance to fully decompress and return to myself yet. As a result, my first semester of law school was harder than it should have been. I struggled with depression and I felt lost. (I recovered from the depression in a few months; fortunately for me, it was situational and not chemical.)

 My dating life suffered as well. Before my mission, I had a robust social life. I had three serious relationships (not at the same time, obviously). I’ve been home for eight years, and in that time, I haven’t had a serious relationship, and I only go on dates a few times per year. I’ve found that being a returned missionary is a turn-off to LDS men.

1 comment:

Jon 'Cra-Z' Mahoney said...

Your last comment is interesting. I'm an RM guy and I would really prefer to marry an RM sister. I know many guys who feel the same way. Soon RM sisters will almost be the norm with the new mission ages.