The First Presidency formally called the first two single sister missionaries, Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall, in 1898. Their call was in response to requests from the European and Californian mission presidencies to send female missionaries. President McMurrin wrote from England that there had been “instances in which our sisters gained attention in England, where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing.”
His letter likely referred in part to Elizabeth McCune, who had moved temporarily from Utah to Europe with her husband for business purposes, but who assisted her missionary son in England. When anti-Mormon literature began being distributed which painted Utah women as slaves, Elizabeth was invited to speak publicly about her experience as a Mormon woman. She later recorded her words, “Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies; but they give them every opportunity to attend meetings and lectures and to take up everything which will educate and develop them. Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.” McCune spoke at several meetings after this one, with very positive reception, before she and her husband moved on to Italy.
Inez accepted the call and reported to England with Lucy Brimhall. Her journal describes her first street meeting, where the missionaries would preach from a street corner. “On a busy corner we formed a circle, sang a hymn, one offered prayer then we sang again. A large crowd stopped to listen. The special meetings to be held next day were announced and I recalled a sickly feeling when Bro. McMurrin announced that ‘real live Mormon women’ would speak next day.”
Inez lacked confidence in public speaking, and likely felt humbled or worried by the responsibility to represent all Mormon women. Elizabeth McCune had felt similar reservations before her. When she was first asked to speak she thought to herself ‘O, if we only had one of our good woman speakers from Utah to take advantage of this grand opportunity what good it might do!’” Both Elizabeth and Inez found their voices and achieved success, reaching audiences the Elders could not, and negating anti-Mormon claims of female oppression by their very presence: intelligent, fashionably-dressed, independent, and educated. The tradition of formally-called female missionaries continues and has expanded to this day, thanks to the clear success of the early sisters.
What if a modern Mormon woman stood on that street corner, as it was announced that she, “a real live Mormon woman” would address the crowd? What does a real live Mormon woman look like today? Certainly in Inez’s day, there existed already great diversity among Mormon women: there were Mormon women from dozens of countries, rich and poor, single and married, converts and lifelong members, in Utah and abroad. Today that diversity has only increased.
How do “real live Mormon women” preach the Gospel today, and represent our people? We be real. I tried once forcing myself into a particular type of “member missionary” box to bring people into the church. It came from a genuine desire to bless their lives and serve God. But it served no one! It wasn’t real. When I instead learned to let the Gospel manifest itself through my life—my work, my children, my garden, my travels, my service, my friendship, my hobbies, my smile—“doors” began opening to me without my ever knocking. And other doors remain closed: they were never mine to walk through. Some other “real live Mormon woman” – she’s going to let the Gospel of Christ weave itself into her “real” life and thrive in her own way, and they’ll open to her.
Elizabeth McCune wrote that her experiences left her with an “ardent desire to speak for herself.” She meant that she no longer wanted to leave all the speaking to other people. She wanted to represent. But I draw from her words a new missionary mantra: speak for yourself. Be real, as you share what the Gospel or the Church have meant to you and how they fit into your life and family. I guarantee they don’t look the same way in my life as in yours. But it’s real stories and it’s real lives that turn hearts to Christ.
References and Further Reading:
Lelegren, Kelly, “Real, Live Mormon Women”: Understanding the Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries” (2009). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations, Utah State University. 415.
Women With A Mission, Church History Website
McBride, Matthew, “I Could Have Gone Into Every House.” LDS Church History website. July 10, 2012.
“The evolution of LDS ‘lady missionaries’ and a gender-integrated missionary force,” Deseret News. April 26, 2016.
Related Mormon Women Interviews
Dressed Like A Queen, Rosie Card
“Heavenly Father called you, and your style and your quirks and your personality, and we should maintain that.”
Other Related Women’s Voices
“Stand Tall and Stand Together,” Sheri Dew
“Every time we strengthen our own testimony or help someone else strengthen theirs, we build the kingdom of God. Every time we mentor a newly baptized sister or befriend a wandering soul without judging her or invite a nonmember family to home evening or give a Book of Mormon to a colleague or lead a family to the temple or stand up for modesty and motherhood or invite the missionaries into our homes or help someone discover the power of the word, we build the kingdom of God.”