Upsetting Gender Roles in Turn-of-the-Century China

Moving to China often upset the sharply separated gender spheres of Victorian America. Given the strangeness of the Chinese context, the husbands of female missionaries often became more domestic. As historian Jane Hunter notes her book The Gospel of Gentility, “Both husband and wife relied on homelife as a refuge in a strange land.”

This was especially true when children arrived. According to Hunter, “husbands were the linchpins of the domestic work unit.” Diary entries and letters of women frequently mention husbands’ facility with newborns, cooking, and other household activities. One recently arrived male missionary, noted an amused observer, “mixes the milk and gets diapers and watches (or did) during the bath.”

But as the parenthetical “or did” suggests, the domesticity often didn’t last. Or if it did, it meant the loss of the woman’s sphere. Over time, family arrangements formalized into male authority in the domestic realm. Some called it domestic chivalry. Others called it an extension of male control.

For example, many husbands severely limited physical activity of their wives. One mandated a two-hour nap every afternoon. Another disallowed a 12-mile hike. “Surely no one could be much lazier,” complained Jessie Ankeny. The husband of Jeanie McClure carried her up and down the stairs for a full month after childbirth. In each of these cases, wives objected to the restrictions as overprotective. But they nonetheless acquiesced, according to Smith, because of their “biological responsibility to present and future children.”

Having children in China was not the only thing to upset gender roles. So did learning the language. At first both men and women had equal opportunity for language study. The going was arduous; the tonal nature and strangeness of the characters took a lot of work. Problems arose, however, when it became clear that many women were much better than men at language work. Recent scholarship, notes Smith, suggests that those with “empathetic personalities” find language work easier than those “with strong needs for mastery.”

File:Martha Foster Crawford.jpg
Martha Crawford, missionary to China from Alabama — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the case, the differences in skill caused considerable marital distress. Martha Crawford’s diary offers a clue about the shame of her husband’s language struggles: “The contrast would be observed always unfavorably to him. I would be bitter that he [be] in any respect inferior to his wife. It would be a continual trial. This was unexpected to me. I had prayed long and earnestly that God would make me willing to see my husband daily outstripping me. . . . But O I was not prepared for this.” Similarly, Pearl S. Buck’s father found his wife’s superior skills “a little trying . . . reared as he had been in the doctrine of male superiority.”

Missionary Jeanie McClure sought to diffuse (or perhaps heighten?) the tension with a comedic skit. “One scene was supposed to be between a Language School wife and husband. He says he got 77 and she says she got another 100. Then he says not to rub it in and that if she spent as much time over him as she does over characters he wouldn’t be wearing such holey socks. She’s getting nervous and will probably get sick and exchange is only $1.62. Then she says he thinks more of the money than of her and begins to cry—then he comforts her, of course. She forgives him and then reminds him that they still have a half hour before supper in which to practice characters. It was very funny and came so perilously near the truth in some instances that we students could well appreciate it.”

Jeanie McClure in fact passed her exam of language proficiency before her husband Bob McClure. This meant that she could vote in mission meetings before he. Jeanie turned down her right, saying “I don’t intend to avail myself of the privilege until Bob gets it too.” Such was the complex dance of gender roles for missionaries in turn-of-the-century China.

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