By Helen Brook, church mission adviser for Church Mission Society
From Mary Magdalene's first witness of Jesus at the tomb, to Lydia and Tabitha’s crucial work in establishing the early church, women have been and continue to be a driving force in the spread of Christianity.
International Women’s Day on 8 March is a celebration of how women have overcome political, economic and social barriers: gaining the right to vote, equal pay, attaining positions of influence within society. In this light, it is fitting that we also look back and celebrate some of the women who have pioneered and contributed to global mission in diverse and dynamic ways.
“Troublesome, restless, disobedient and stubborn”
Barbara MacHaffie, in her book Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, states that the stories we tell about Christian mission have been traditionally “his stories” rather than “her stories”.
The limitations placed on women throughout the centuries have resulted in their stories being hidden and their voices being silenced. In the fourth century St Augustine stated, “I fail to see what use women can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” Many women proved him wrong on this, yet in order to do so they had to fight through and work their way around numerous obstacles within society and the church.
Teresa De Avila (1515–1582), a Carmelite nun, lamented, “Isn’t it enough, Lord, that the world keeps us silenced and incapable of doing anything of value for You in public and we don’t dare speak of truths we bewail in secret?” (Susan E Smith, Women in Mission: From the New Testament to Today) Teresa did not see her sex as something to constrain her or other women; she campaigned for nuns to be educated to a high level, have access to the same religious books as men and have control of their convents. Her efforts branded her as a “troublesome, restless, disobedient and stubborn female”.
From early Christianity some women chose to remain single, despite the social and economic ramifications. Not having the commitments of family and society gave women more freedom to explore and pursue God’s calling. Two such women are Marie Guyart and Kateria Tekakwitha. Despite the ridicule of many priests and against the odds Marie Guyart (1599–1672), a nun of the Ursuline order, became a leading figure in the Catholic mission to Canada, working with the Jesuits to evangelise and teach Native American women and girls. Kateria Tekakwitha (1656–1680), daughter of a Mohawk chief, converted to Catholicism and wanted to set up her own religious order. She sadly died at the young age of 24, nevertheless she served as an inspiration for many in and outside Native American communities.
Beyond wives and mothers
With the intensification of European colonisation in Asia and Africa from the late 18th century and the birth of many Christian mission organisations such as Church Mission Society, there came greater opportunities for women to work cross-culturally.
Regrettably, for too many years, women were mainly seen by mission agencies, including CMS it must be said, as only wives and mothers rather than missionaries in their own right.
In many societies it was taboo for male missionaries to meet with local women; this gave women missionaries a unique opportunity to share their faith and connect with groups of women, in particular with regards to education and health care. It has been through women working with other women and like-minded men, that women’s status and respect was raised. Dr Clara Swain is a great example of this; she was the “first fully accredited woman physician ever sent out by any missionary society into any part of the non-Christian world” (citation via Wikipedia). She arrived in India in 1870 and not only worked tirelessly as a doctor but empowered local women through training and teaching medicine. She also founded the first women’s hospital in Asia.
Women and children were regarded as being at the margins of many societies, yet this work at the margins transformed not only many women’s lives, but also many communities. Women missionaries were involved in social movements such as the banning of foot binding and female genital mutilation (FGM). Hulda Stumpf, an American missionary working in Kenya, took a stand against FGM in the 1920s; such campaigning is carried on today by many women, including Ann-Marie Wilson and her organisation 28 Too Many.
Women missionaries were also involved in preaching and translation work, traditionally seen as roles for men. Ann Judson worked in India and Burma in the early 1800s and was the first Protestant to translate Scriptures into Thai. Dora Yu, a Chinese missionary in the late 1800s worked in both China and Korea. She had numerous roles as a doctor, translator and preacher. She founded an independent mission in China, became a prominent revivalist and ran a Bible school.
“Some of my best men are women”
Closer to home, women have been active in UK mission. Hannah More (1745–1833) was part of the campaign for the abolition of slavery along with William Wilberforce and other members of the Clapham Sect. She wrote about abolition and encouraged women to join the movement. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army famously stated “some of my best men are women”, a quote of its time but one that nevertheless recognised the importance of women. The ‘Hallelujah Lassies’ of the Salvation Army preached and sang Christian songs in public. They suffered abusive language and obscene gestures along with criticism from church dignitaries, yet were seen as effective in sharing their faith.
As we look back at these extraordinary women we acknowledge their bravery in following God’s call upon their lives, which involved challenging their own societies’ norms of what a woman should and could do. That bravery is still needed today: where women’s dignity is reduced through sexist comments in public and private, where women are seen as sexual objects to be trafficked, where a girl is thought of as less important to educate than a boy or given fewer opportunities in the work place… the list could go on. This is a role not just for women and girls but men and boys too, for the church must uphold and campaign for the dignity, respect and equality of all.