Latter-day Saint leaders are finally cutting the faith’s female missionaries some slack.
Make that slacks.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that it has loosened the dress code and is now allowing “sister” missionaries in all 407 of its missions around the world to ditch their dresses and wear pants — at “their own discretion” — when they proselytize.
The change, motivated mostly by safety concerns and approved by the Utah-based faith’s governing First Presidency, was met by a chorus of amens from Latter-day Saint women across the globe.
“I say HALLELUJAH and ABOUT TIME,” Kayla Bach, who returned last year from a mission in Santiago, Chile, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Facebook. “Pants are the WAY TO GO for female missionaries."
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, head of the church’s Missionary Executive Council, noted that missionary dress and grooming guidelines have changed throughout Latter-day Saint history.
“As we adapt these standards," he said in a news release Thursday, "we always carefully consider the dignity of the missionary calling to represent Jesus Christ, the safety, security, and health of our beloved missionaries, and the cultural sensitivities of the places where they serve.”
The new dress rules minimize the risk that women will contract vector-borne diseases from mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, according to Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president and a member of the Missionary Executive Council.
“Sister missionaries are amazing people,” Cordon said in the release. “We want to make sure that they’re protected.”
The changes also will make it easier for missionaries to ride bicycles and fend off the cold.
“I was a missionary in Norway, and it could have been very useful to wear pants,” Jane Haugsoen told The Tribune on Facebook, “certainly much easier than five pairs of stockings to stay warm.”
Female missionaries can wear dress slacks year-round at their own discretion but still must don dresses and skirts when attending Latter-day Saint temples and Sunday services, along with mission leadership and zone conferences and baptismal services.
Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, said the changes are significant because they reflect an increased sensitivity to the lived experiences of women within the church rather than “exclusively from the vantage point of the male experience.”
“It puts the woman’s comfort and practicality ahead of this perceived traditional look, which I think is a very positive development,” she said. “I also think it has larger implications for the church to show that we can be accommodating to various cultures’ sense of modesty and propriety.”
The church first allowed sister missionaries to wear pants in June 2016 — but only during the rainy seasons in areas affected by mosquito-borne viral diseases like Zika, dengue fever and Chikungunya. That area included 230 missions, or about half the church’s missions.
About a year later, the church — which is likely Utah’s largest employer — eased its employee dress code to include dress pants for women, as well as traditional skirts and dresses.
McBaine hopes the latest shift is part of a trajectory that ultimately affects what’s considered appropriate when entering the temple.
“With temple-going being encouraged," she said, “and needing to become a part of the everyday experience for people, especially for women who are running their kids around or coming from work or school, I hope that this actually helps us understand that a woman needn’t necessarily go out of her way to dress up to make the temple part of her normal life.”
Latter-day Saint missionaries, numbering nearly 66,000 around the world, are volunteers who serve at their own expense. Young men, starting at age 18, serve for two years, while women 19 and older go for 18 months.
When Marie Cornwall, a former Brigham Young University sociologist and an expert on women’s studies, served a mission in 1975, she said it would have been “pretty strange” if a female missionary had shown up at someone’s door wearing slacks. But the change now signifies the church is “keeping up with the times.”
“It’s important to the brand," she said. "Given the conservative teachings about family and all of that, I think there’s an important message the church has to send about the freedom that women have to make their own choices in as many areas as possible of what they wear. Whether it’s pants or skirts is one of those that seems most obvious.”
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack and editor David Noyce contributed to this story.