by Lisa Joy Pruitt
Pruitt skillfully proposes a different explanation of what influenced the rise of involvement of American women in the mission movement in the nineteenth century.
Mercer University Press, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207, 2005, 247 pages, $25.00.
—Reviewed by Sheryl Takagi Silzer, intercultural consultant, Wycliffe Bible Translators International, Americas Area.
Pruitt skillfully proposes a different explanation of what influenced the rise of involvement of American women in the mission movement in the nineteenth century. She shows how images of the “degraded Oriental woman” were used in nineteenth century American evangelical literature to influence evangelical Protestant culture. She suggests that this mission literature had a greater influence on the involvement of women in missions than political, economic and cultural imperialism.
Images of Orientals as “irrational, backward-looking, childish and feminine” were contrasted with westerners as “rational, progressive, adult and masculine” in this literature. Oriental men were portrayed as effeminate, and Oriental women were portrayed as oppressed, adverse to housework (lazy and dirty) and obsessed with clothes and jewelry. Oriental children were portrayed as undisciplined, overindulged, exploited and neglected. Other customs, such as foot binding, and the fact that women were not allowed to eat with men, were also cited to motivate Western women to join the mission movement—women for women’s work.
Pruitt’s excellent research and writing skills reveal how these images were first used to elicit financial support for missions. Memoirs of the women who died sanctified women’s afflictions and reinforced the need for funds and women in mission. Pruitt then traces how the married woman’s domestic role was upheld as a model for Orientals. Married women expanded their ministry through house schools to educate Oriental children as a means to reach their mothers. These schools paved the way for single women to join in mission work as teachers and later as medical personnel. Lastly Pruitt shows how efforts to reach the “degraded Oriental women” led to the formation of the first women’s missionary society and mission boards. Pruitt concludes that similar images are used today regarding women in Muslim societies to promote women’s involvement in missions.
Women heading for mission work today will be inspired by those who have gone before them. They will be challenged to consider how mission literature influenced their own decision for mission work. Missiologists will be challenged to consider the role of evangelical culture and how this impacts mission strategies.
As a present day “Oriental woman” (Japanese American) with thirty-eight years in mission work, I was reminded how stereotypes create biases toward others. May mission recruiters and trainers not use images of “degraded women,” but adequately train new recruits to understand we are all made in God’s image but shaped differently by our cultures.
Check these titles:
Kent, Eliza F. 2004. Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India. New York: Oxford University Press.
Singh, Maina. 1999. Gender, Religion, and the “Heathen Lands”: American Missionary Women in South Asia, 1860s-1940s. New York: Garland Publishing.
Willard, Frances E. and Mary A. Livermore, eds. 2004. Great American Women of the 19th Century: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.
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