This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you think more women are going on Mormon missions than ever before, you're right.

But if you think those 20,000 or so "sister" missionaries — serving in Alabama or Argentina, Kentucky or Korea, Pennsylvania or Portugal — make up the largest-ever percentage of full-time female LDS proselytizers, guess again.

During World War II, women accounted for an estimated 40 percent of the Mormon missionary army, according to historian Jessie Embry. That share tops the nearly 30 percent in the current global force of 75,000.

Still, the surge in female missionaries — and males, for that matter — since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the minimum age to 19 for women and 18 for men has been unprecedented.

The age shift came more than a century after the first sister missionaries received church-recognized calls to serve.

Leaders also have modified dress standards and begun appointing "sister training leaders" to oversee groups of female missionaries and take part in leadership councils in the faith's 400-plus missions around the world — meaningful moves in a religion with a male-only priesthood.

In the beginning • Though women have always assisted with proselytizing, the LDS Church website says, the first official full-time, single sister missionaries were called in 1898.

"Sister missionaries have always been the exception ... the kind of accessory," said Andrea Radke-Moss, a history professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. "The fact that sister missionaries are essentially called to a form of priesthood office, that's kind of important to note. We sometimes talk about things that, culturally, women can't do in the church, even though they're not priesthood duties, like being a Sunday school president ... and here you have something that actually is a priesthood calling, and yet you have women doing it since 1898."

The church's first official sister missionaries — Inez Knight, 21, and Jennie Brimhall, 22 ­­— were assigned to Great Britain, according to the LDS Church website, after the mission president wrote the governing First Presidency requesting them to counter anti-Mormon stereotypes that depicted LDS women as poor, depraved slaves under the thumb of polygamy.

LDS leaders emphasized a woman's primary role should be as a wife and mother, according to Embry's 1997 Journal of Mormon History article, but mature, educated women, with no immediate marriage prospects, were welcomed as missionaries.

While leaders recognized that sister missionaries often could get into homes inaccessible to their male colleagues, called "elders," some women did not serve as proselytizers, Embry explained. Instead, some mission presidents used the women as stenographers and office helpers.

In September 1970, an article in an official church magazine quoted a mission president as saying that LDS authorities were "encouraging the calling of more lady missionaries."

The number of sister missionaries was about 5,000 in 1977, stated a 2009 article by Katie Clark Blakesley in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Four decades later, the LDS Church counts the 20,000 sister missionaries as the fastest-growing segment of its proselytizing ranks.

Adjustment bureau • Aside from Salt Lake City's Temple Square and other Mormon visitors' centers — staffed by sister missionaries and senior couples — female missionaries have not traditionally been given leadership roles, Radke-Moss said, so the new position of sister training leader is significant.

And while sister missionaries at one time were enlisted to combat stereotypes outside the faith, Embry said, they also had to convert some within their church.

Top LDS leaders, including then-President David O. McKay, had to be convinced of their effectiveness, noted Embry, editor of the Journal of Mormon History. "They were seen as a liability more than an asset."

Perhaps because of the drumbeat that a woman's place first should be in the home, Embry said in an interview, female missionaries sometimes were seen as old maids.

In 1977, Blakesley said, LDS leaders asked several wives of mission presidents to create a program to train sister missionaries to project a more professional image.

To that end, they launched a mandatory class ­— focusing on "wardrobe, grooming, poise, makeup and hair care" — at Provo's Missionary Training Center.

For decades, the grooming guidelines stayed the same, emphasizing "conservative, professional" styles. Sisters were required to wear skirts that "reach mid-calf or longer," and "avoid boot-style" footwear. Backpacks were a popular choice for carrying scriptures and other items.

But the LDS Church recently launched a website containing updated rules for missionary attire.

Skirts now merely must "cover the entire knee (front and back)" when standing or sitting. A section is specifically dedicated to showing permissible boot styles. Purses, totes and over-the-shoulder bags have replaced backpacks.

While the minimum age for sister missionaries may have fluctuated at the dawn of the 20th century, it settled on 23 by the 1930s, according to Embry. For part of 1950 and again for six months in 1953, the age for sister missionaries temporarily dropped to 21.

During the Korean War, LDS leaders clarified the minimum age for elders was 20, and, in 1960, when mission presidents pushed for additional help, the minimum male age fell to 19. The age for women remained at 23.

Four years later, the First Presidency lowered the age for sister missionaries to 21, but emphasized that "normal social opportunities" leading to marriage should not be "interrupted nor disturbed" and that women should put marriage over mission.

In recent decades, Embry and Radke-Moss pointed out, it has become more acceptable in Mormon culture for women to serve missions.

"There became almost a climate, the more women were going," Embry said, "and men and women hoped to marry returned missionaries because they shared that experience."

In 2012, after almost 50 years of the age-21 limit, President Thomas S. Monson announced women would be allowed to serve full-time missions at 19.

The length of service also varied through the years, Radke-Moss said, but, in 1971, LDS leaders set women's missions at 18 months.

That remains the standard today, while the men serve for two years.

Twitter: @mnoblenews