Back in the spring (such as it was), Rosemary Seton was kind enough to ask me to speak at the book launch for her much-awaited contribution to the history of missionary women Western Daughters in Eastern Lands: British Missionary Women in Asia published by ABC-CLIO back in January. It has taken me far too long, but below is the text to my speech. The book, meanwhile, is highly recommended!
If you had asked me before I started studying missionaries, about single female missionaries, I probably would have thought of Katherine Hepburn’s character in African Queen: staid, prissy and prim. When you start studying mission however, you soon get disabused of that notion. For me, that happened while doing the archival research for my MA dissertation on missionary women in Madagascar. In 1865, a certain Mrs Davidson was having some trouble with the local soldiers, who were trying to hustle her and her colleagues out of the capital of Tanarivo. One of the soldiers ‘raised his hand as if to strike her’, and she, being a plucky and determined missionary woman, ‘struck him or thrust at him with her umbrella’. Timid, prissy and prim? No indeed!
This book not only fills a glaring lacuna in the literature on the missionary movement, but is filled to the brim with engaging stories of exactly this kind – delivered in the warm, witty and highly informed manner that those of us who know Rosemary have come to expect. When Gladys Minns arrived in India in 1923, she was ‘startled when one of the inmates “ripped off her dress and vanished upstairs into the roof. She came down rejoicing at being soaked through. It was June 1st the day we always expected the monsoon”’ (p. 58). On Christmas Eve 1907 a missionary called Sarah M’Williams, or Sally, (a colleague of Dr. Isabel Mitchell) ‘did a [veritable] war dance round the dining-room table to think the parcels had come through after all’ (p. 70). More seriously, the mission field could in fact provide opportunities for women to be more free in their lives and lifestyles than in Victorian Britain, and the mission field is of course full of stories of all-female communities and friendships that consciously defied the gender-norms of British society. Isabel Mitchell frequently called her war-dancing friend Sally her husband, and designated their garden path ‘Lovers’ Walk’ (p. 67).
Of course, we shouldn’t go overboard here in imagining that female missionaries had complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. In fact, as Rosemary makes very clear in this book, they functioned within strongly patriarchal systems laid down at local and international level. Difference could be tolerated; deviance was ruthlessly stamped out. When a certain Mary Wallace, determined opener of schools for girls in Malacca and Singapore, was found one day ‘in a Chinese House, barefooted, her hair loose, and in native dress’ she was declared ‘deranged’ and was shipped off home for professional care. (p. 79) When Bertha Scoreseby took the even more drastic step of trying to marry a local Indian fakir, her mission colleagues kidnapped and drugged her, seeing her spirited (and I would have said perfectly reasonable) resistance to this course of action as further evidence of her lunacy (pp. 79-80).
Despite these difficulties, bolstered by an institutional system that tried to keep women out of the corridors of power in London, single women could find levels of fulfilment and independence in their mission careers that would have been unattainable at home. Many had long and distinguished careers as educators, medical professionals and evangelists – all scrupulously explored and analysed by Rosemary who here devotes a chapter to each. The one on evangelism is particularly interesting and new here, given the problems associated with female preaching in most of the mission societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Rosemary’s words ‘beneath the official affirmation of woman’s modest and self-effacing role – supporting, but not challenging, the primary role of the ordained male – lie definite traces of a subversive narrative’ (p. 180). Missionary women pioneered education and medical work, continually fought for their autonomy and respect, and left lasting legacies in many areas of the world – particularly in the field of female education.
Often this was achieved at great personal risk, from tropical (and not so tropical) diseases, local anti-Christian feeling and sometimes riots, and even wars and revolutions. While Mrs Davidson was able to save the day with propitious use of her umbrella, a bit of spirited jostling was the least that could be expected by the missionaries caught up in the Boxer Rebellion: their property destroyed, their Christians killed, and many of their lives lost. But our task here is not really to heroise these women. Heroisation is not a helpful objective, particularly given the political dimensions of missionary work overseas – especially in colonial contexts. And of course, their lives and work would have been largely impossible without the assistance of dedicated and oftentimes unacknowledged indigenous so-called ‘Bible Women’. But working against the grain of heroisation, I think what Rosemary is particularly good at is recognising that these women’s extraordinary lives were constituted through ordinary moments, strung together in long careers of duty and vocation. The everyday stuff of mission life is here fleshed out in beautiful detail – including daily routines, weekly rhythms and annual holidays. I think the section I enjoyed the most thoroughly was about the missionary vacation. The thought of these women in their corsets and crinolines climbing aboard donkeys, playing golf in the Indian hills or watching MGM’s David Copperfield in an open-top cinema on the Chinese coast, are all so delightfully absurd! For me it is these moments that are the fascinating stuff of history.
It has been an extreme anomaly that the work and lives of British missionary women have been so neglected (often, dare I say it, in favour of their American counterparts). Thanks to Rosemary this imbalance has now been rectified, and in the most engaging, knowledgeable and entertaining way that we would all expect! Many thanks Rosemary.
– Emily Manktelow