From “Mannish Woman” to Missionary

From “Mannish Woman” to Missionary October 14, 2015

Sarah Goodrich, a missionary to China, begged her family and friends back at home in the United States not to picture her as “a mannish woman.” That she had to issue such a plea reflected a common American judgment of female missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century. The single woman missionary, writes historian Jane Hunter, was characterized “by her lack of feminine qualities.” Going to China without a husband threatened to “unsex” her.

In fact, Christian churches sometimes funneled seemingly unmarriageable women to the mission field. Jane Addams, later of Hull House fame, described herself as having “a serious, not to say priggish” personality. She felt “concerted pressure” to consider becoming a missionary as she studied at Rockford Seminary west of Chicago.

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Elizabeth Brewster, a Methodist missionary to China, circa 1915 — Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, a seminary professor suggested that Mabel Daniels become a missionary. Why? Because she was “one of the most unstylish young women I ever knew in the matter of dress.” This made her the “best fitted young person” he had ever met for missionary work.

Consider these other examples from Hunter’s terrific book The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (1984):

  • “I must say [female missionaries] are a queer looking lot, take them altogether. One Miss, a doctor, well along in years, 35 or 40 . . . had a big piece of bread, chewing on one end, the other stuck out to the corner of her mouth in the outside of her teeth and the end just wiggled. I could think of nothing but a worm that was protesting in its death throes as his head was being chewed off farther back in her mouth.”
  • Alongside a photograph of herself from Foochow, China, a letter from Elsie Clark read, “Do look at it carefully and tell me what you think of our community. Do we look like freaks, sticks or scarecrows? I believe not. But tell me true.”

By contrast, stereotypically feminine women, like Agnes Meebold, had “a dainty, slender figure, rosy cheeks, wavy black hair and a gracious smile.” Her friends and family mourned when she became a missionary. How exactly would she ever find a man? Contra the instructions of the Apostle Paul, the life of the single person dedicated to church work paled in comparison to the ideal of marriage. Consider the main comedic characters of missionary theatricals of the time: “Chinamen,” “niggers,” and “old maids” who wore black bonnets and oven mitts.

For women interested in professional advancement, uninterested in marriage to a man, bored by life in rural Indiana, or genuinely compelled to the spread the gospel, this negative image did not impede their missionary call. And there were many of them. In 1919, for example, there were six times the number of unmarried women than married women. Even greater numbers wanted to go but didn’t, worried that their service might mark them as an unmarriageable eccentric spinsters once they returned home.

This was an era—like nearly all eras—when men were conspicuously absent from the mission field. And so the cultural demands of true femininity reduced the missionary enterprise even further.

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