Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon women missionaries can now wear pants! But not to church.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced yesterday that women missionaries can wear pants for most of their service. They can teach in pants, ride their bicycles in pants (thank you, Jesus), and proselyte on street corners in pants, reversing decades of Mormon tradition.

But they can’t attend church or the temple in pants.

This is interesting, and reflects a bifurcation I have observed in Mormon culture in the United States.

Mormons today have grown fairly comfortable with the idea of women working. It has been many years since working mothers were last denounced from the pulpit; statistically, a majority of Mormon women work outside the home, at least part-time; and in 2017, female employees of Church headquarters in Salt Lake City were granted permission to wear pants to work.

So on the one hand, there has been a slow and steady acceptance not only of the reality of professional women, but of the shifting cultural dress standards in professional life in America more generally.

On the other hand, “Sunday dress” – what Mormon women wear to church services — has remained deeply traditional, and the updated missionary policy reflects that.

The Next Mormons (Oxford University Press, March 2019)

According to the Next Mormons Survey, four out of five Mormon women in America say they wear “formal” dress to church on Sundays, which the survey defined as “a dress or skirt.” (See here for more about the sample size and methodology of the Next Mormons Survey. You can download the wording of the survey here.)

An additional 17% say they wear slacks or nice pants to church, with just 3% reporting they dress casually, in jeans.

Generationally, younger Mormon women in the U.S. are a little more likely to say they regularly wear pants to church, but it’s still a minority. Three-quarters of Millennial Mormon women say they wear dresses or skirts to church.

The biggest factor was not actually age but geography: there appears to be a very strong cultural imperative in Utah for Mormon women not to wear pants to church.

93% of Utah Mormon women say they generally wear dresses or skirts to church, versus 72% in the rest of the United States. (Keep in mind that the margin of error is high when we subdivide the Mormon sample into just Utah women, but it is still interesting.)

 

Formal (“dress or skirt” Informal (“slacks or nice pants” Casual (“jeans”)
Utah 93% 5% 2%
Non-Utah 72% 24% 4%

Other differences were more minor, but in a nutshell, the women who were most likely to wear dresses or skirts to church were white, older, not college-educated, and living in Utah. Women who were younger, white, at least college-educated, and living outside of Utah were somewhat less likely to wear dresses or skirts, though they were still a minority.

The missionary dress policy fits right in, then, with where Mormon culture is in America at the moment. American Mormons are comfortable with the idea of professional women who adopt more casual dress standards while at work, but still uncomfortable with the notion of taking those less formal dress standards to the hallowed sanctuary of church.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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