Willfully or not, Mormon authorities have unleashed a powerful new force upon the global faith: LDS women who increasingly will be seen as spiritual equals to men.
LDS leaders have made a marked change in how missionaries are deployed. They've lowered the age at which men and women can go on their missions, which could swell the number of men, and, perhaps more so, women, who step up to serve. During the LDS Church's conference last weekend, leaders announced that men can begin their missions after high school at age 18 instead of 19 and that women can go at 19, a full two years earlier than in the past.
For women, that may mean a college semester or two not three years before departing. More important, it will launch more of them into the same spheres young men enter, with all the attendant training, discipline and focus missions can bring. True, these women won't have the LDS priesthood. But they will gain the scriptural smarts, the foreign language skills and the confidence that comes from immersing themselves in their faith and other cultures.
In perhaps an unintended consequence, most women will return home with the knowledge they have the same credentials as men in a religion that has largely been a man's world since its inception.
It could also put more teenage LDS girls in the same mission trajectory as their male counterparts. At present, women are believed to make up about 20 percent of the proselytizing force; many expect their numbers to soar.
The change, Mormon blogger Gina Colvin writes, "signals an interest in the young women of the church, who up until now have been largely neglected in comparison to the boys. It doesn't ask them to lag behind the boys by two years; it doesn't tell them that they are less useful, and it pays attention to them as more than simply brides and breeders, and only missionaries by default."
In other words, more women will know and experience firsthand the fundamentals of missionary work and won't need to have men explain it all for them.
It may be that fewer LDS women will wait and pine for the missionaries they've fallen in love with, then marry right away once they come home. Of course, many will still do that, but 18 months far from home likely will give women a reason to consider more options.
It's probably not news that I'm not Mormon, but I have dear friends who are, and I grew up in the company of tough, intelligent LDS aunts and cousins. So it does my feminist heart good to know that their granddaughters will have more opportunities to serve the faith that they grew up loving.
In fact, parents of women who have served missions tell me that the self-effacing, shy girls they sent on their way returned with confidence, courage, even wisdom. Like the men, they've seen things many of us never will, and, like the men, they return as adults.
I know a young man who served his mission in Africa. He met people I never will, learned tribal dialects and proved himself to be a man of compassion and grace.
I'd like to see his younger sister do the same.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.