The Woman’s Missionary Movement of the late nineteenth century was the largest grass-roots movement of American Protestant women of its day. The Civil War had mobilized all American women into benevolent activity on behalf of soldiers and created energy that extended beyond the war. The death of the largest number of men in American history created an entire generation of single women. Male-run denominational agencies continued to drag their feet on the appointment of single women to the mission filed, even as competent men drew on their social capital to organize women’s societies that provided opportunities for unmarried sisters, daughters and classmates. Missionary wives in the field saw the need to increase the female work force and so threw their support behind the idea of single women missionaries. The result of women working together was a revolution in American missionary personnel and philosophy. By 1890, the infusion of single women meant that women constituted sixty percent of the American mission force. The unity among married and single women, prominent and ordinary women, missionary and home side women, and women of different Protestant traditions resulted in the origin of the Woman’s Missionary Movement. Through its fund-raising, its sending of single women as missionaries, and its distinctive ideology “Woman’s Work for Woman,” it had a major impact on American mission theory and practice. With this introduction of the emergence of Woman’s Missionary Movement, in this paper, an attempt is made to highlight how American women stitched together a missiology of local auxiliaries, sacrificial pennies and ecumenical flexibility and brought about great changes in the American mission.
2. A Woman’s Missiology: “Woman’s Work for Woman”
As women’s groups founded their own journals to disseminate missionary intelligence to their constituencies, a common missiology emerged known as “Woman’s Work for Woman.” The basic goal of “Woman’s Work for Woman” remained the same as in the mission theory of early nineteenth century wives- to evangelize women and so to bring them to salvation. It was launched in the optimistic climate of the post-Civil war period. Protestant women looked around at the technological and educational advances of the post-war period and saw the coming of God’s Kingdom as a real possibility, if only women could be mobilized. Mary Lyon was considered as a missiological pioneer of the late nineteenth century whose influence had a deep impact on the Women’s boards connected with the American Board. The proponents of “Woman’s Work for Woman” assumed that non-Christian religions led to the degradation of women, while Christianity provided not only salvation but “civilization,” the nineteenth century term for social liberation, though in western dress. They emphasized education as a woman’s form of evangelism, given that in most cases churches barred women from being preachers themselves. “Woman’s Work for Woman” was based on a maternalistic, albeit idealistic, belief that non-Christian religions trapped and degraded women, yet all women in the world were sisters and should support each other. It aimed to put into place instruments of education, medical work, and evangelization that would “raise” women to the status they presumably held in Christian countries. Belief in the worldwide unity of the female gender outweighed class, national, or racial categories for proponents of “Woman’s Work for Woman.”
The most obvious difference between “Woman’s Work for Woman” and the antebellum woman’s mission movement was that whereas the earlier movements made a married mission force the norm, the later movement consisted primarily of married women supporting single women in mission work. The late-nineteenth century woman’s mission movement legitimated the ministry abroad of single women, whose own high educational attainments attracted them to educational work as a key to social advancement for women everywhere. “Woman’s Work for Woman” bore am ambiguous relationship to the realities of cultural imperialism. What appeared as a “holistic mission” from the missionary perspective was often perceived by the missionized as cultural imperialism designed to tear down their own customs and societies. The emphasis on social change toward western norms, couched in the language of helping to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, made “Woman’s Work for Woman” a partner with the myths of western superiority so prominent during the late nineteenth century. At the same time, its focus on global sisterhood and the essential unity of humankind was a valuable corrective to patriarchal notions that valued men over women and boys over girls in many parts of the world. The social service institutions fostered by “Woman’s’ Work for Woman” are remembered in retrospect, even in non-Christian countries, as one of the most positive legacies of the Protestant missionary movement.
3. The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society:
The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society began at the request of missionary wives in India with the help of Mrs. Clementina Butler. The ideology of “Woman’s Work for Woman” arose from analysis of the Indian context, where segregation of the sexes was the norm for both Muslim and Hindu upper classes, and where social practices of child marriage, perpetual widowhood and religious sanctions against female education created a need for a special woman’s mission of evangelism and social uplift. The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society not only paid for and appointed its own missionaries, but it sent the first female physicians and it opened the first women’s hospitals in India, China and Korea. Missionaries from the society opened the first college for women in Asia (at present Ewha Women’s university in Korea). The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, the most powerful women’s mission organization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrates some of the key missiological issues for “Woman’s Work for Woman.”
Missionaries with the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society undertook mission work in three major areas: education, medicine and evangelism.
3.1 Educational Mission: As the “female” mode of evangelism during the early nineteenth century, education of women and children was the first open door available to women missionaries under the new women’s mission board. Teaching in either schools, homes or orphanages was thus the most frequent role for single missionary women. Not only had the role of teacher functioned as the female parallel to the ordained ministry since the time of Ann Judson, but the ideology of “Woman’s Work for Woman” was based on the idea that education was the key for the liberation of women around the world. Missionary women founded a full range of educational institutions in response to their faith in education as a means of both evangelism and social uplift. As missionary training schools, Bible Schools and nurses’ training schools became a part of the American educational scene in the late nineteenth century. The issue of Christian colleges for women first arose in India initiated by Isabella Thoburn. By the 1890s, the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society was pushing its girls’ boarding schools to a collegiate level in India, China and Korea. For Thoburn and the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, the education of women for leadership was a missiological goal in itself.
3.1 Medical Mission: By 1909, the woman’s missionary movement had sent out 147 physicians and 91 trained nurses, representing ten percent of woman’s mission force, and was supporting 82 dispensaries and 80 hospitals around the world. The effect of women’s medical missions was far greater than its members suggest, both because their existence opened the way for the gospel in many otherwise hostile places, and because missionary doctors made the training of indigenous medical women a top priority and so revolutionized the medical treatment of women in India and China.
3.2 Evangelistic Mission: Although all missionary women considered their work evangelistic, public support for women evangelists lagged behind that for women teaches and doctors. The first evangelists sent by the WFMS to India was euphemistically called “zenana workers,” missionaries who entered women’s quarters to teach reading and sewing, but also to engage women in spiritual conversation. The idea of Zenana worker could be justified on the basis of “Woman’s Work for Woman,” that only woman could reach secluded women with the gospel. The first woman employed by the WFMS with the full-time designation of ‘evangelist” was Phoebe Rowe, who joined Isabella Thoburn’s work in Lucknow in 1877. The zenana movement, pioneered by British women but quickly adopted by the Americans, was an effort to reach higher-caste women who were confined to their homes which was not in the case of the lower caste. The movement absorbed the WFMS which raised money and founded a zenana issue of Heathen Woman’s Friend so that newly literate women would have Christian reading matter. Mrs. Harriet Warren was its first editor and is considered as a major leader of “Woman’s Work for Woman.” In the meantime, the deaconess movement finally fully legitimated the role of woman evangelist within Methodist missions and in 1888, Bishop Thoburn made Phoebe Rowe India’s first deaconess. In the area of evangelism, one sees the fullest and earliest practice of partnership between indigenous and western women. By 1909, the woman’s missionary movement had employed 441 missionaries as “evangelists and zenana workers,” but it had hired 6,154 “Bible women and native workers.”
The late nineteenth century woman’s missionary movement conflated culture with religion, attributing the strengths of western culture to its Christianity, and the weaknesses of non-western culture to other religions. By analyzing non-Christian religions in terms of gender oppression and concluding that only women could reach other women with the gospel, it gave convincing rationale for women’s wide spread participation in the mission of the church. It hoped that the conversion of women to Christianity would trigger social changes that would attract more women to Christianity, thus putting into motion a continuous cycle that in the divine plan would lead to a better world through the conversion of whole nations. Its belief in the inseparability of body and soul, of social context and personal religion, and of evangelistic, educational and medical work was a central contribution to the mission theory of the period.
The history of Missionary movements clearly highlights changes in the women missionaries through the period. It also clearly reveals that the pioneer women missionaries (1836-1870) were products of a male dominated culture and therefore, they did not envisage a society free of male domination in the mission fields. Hence, their work received less publicity and recognition. Moreover, the wives were not considered as missionaries but they were only referred to as spouses. They were as ‘invisible’ workers, though quite indispensable. Due to the prevailing control of male domination, both in the mission filed and society, the missionaries could not voice their feelings strongly. But in many ways, we can perceive their feelings though their activities. Though women were accorded only limited recognition and were still under the control of their male colleagues, they began to make contributory participation in society and also began to make their mark on the mission field. The missiological rationale of “Woman’s Work for Woman” and its emphasis on the unique place of women in the missionary enterprise clearly explains how women not only played the role of helpers but also of leaders, of primary workers and not of secondary. The movement was both a liberation and step forward through which women also played a prominent role in paving the way for an ecumenical mission breaking down the barriers amongst denominations, regions and nations.
Robert, Dana L. American Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and practice. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998.
 One of the earliest missionary wives.
 Isabella Thoburn and Clara Swain exemplified the first two forms of mission work supported by the Woman’s missionary movement-that of education and medicine. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and practice, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998), 167.