by Joyce Bowers
The most recent major movement for women’s rights, often referred to as “women’s lib,” began in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. As a controversial issue in public debate, the movement gathered momentum during the 1960s and was at its peak in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The most recent major movement for women’s rights, often referred to as "women’s lib," began in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. As a controversial issue in public debate, the movement gathered momentum during the 1960s and was at its peak in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This phase is remembered for angry rhetoric, refusal to wear bras, and other features that were distasteful to conservative Christians. In a parallel fashion, the biblical feminist movement had its birth in 1974 with the publication of Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be. This book raised controversy among evangelical Christians as Friedan’s book had in society at large.
As the ’70s progressed, women’s lib lost some of its extremely radical nature. In part, leaders of the movement increasingly used socially accepted means of pursuing their goals; and in part, issues of equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, etc., were more widely recognized as legitimate issues. Women not only returned to wearing bras, but the "dress for success" business suit became a dominant image of the modern career woman.
Also during the 1970s there was a tremendous amount of energy spent in Christian circles examining the role of women in the church, in the home, and in society, especially in light of Scripture. The evangelical feminist movement, while perhaps rather small, became organized and visible; the Evangelical Women’s Caucus was one expression of this movement. At the time, innumerable books, seminars, and magazine articles promoted a hierarchical view of women as being properly under male authority both in the home and in the church. One of the most widespread and visible examples of this sort of teaching was Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts.
Open debate regarding women’s issues in U.S. Christendom may have peaked around the late 1970s, although it certainly has not disappeared. In a number of denominations, ordination of women is increasingly acceptable and no longer a matter of dispute. There has been a virtual explosion of highly respectable feminist research in history, anthropology, theology and biblical studies. But in the opinion of some, the yeasty ferment of the 1970s has been replaced by a polarization and hardening of views, so that evangelistic feminist perspectives are farther and farther removed from recently restated and reinforced hierarchical or authoritarian viewpoints, with less and less true debate between camps, and more mud-slinging from afar on both sides.
(One author who has refused to choose sides is Kari Torjesen Malcolm. I strongly recommend her Women at the Crossroads: A Path Beyond Feminism and Traditionalism (1982, Inter-Varsity Press). She gives a cross-cultural perspective. See review in this issue.)
FEMINISM AND WORLD MISSION: IS THERE A CONNECTION?
What does all of this have to do with world mission? Those who feel called to overseas work in the spread of the gospel usually see their call as coming directly from God, and their response and commitment as a matter of personal obedience to that call. They rarely see themselves in the context of the kingdom of God as a whole, let alone in the context of what is happening in society. Foreign missions as a grand scheme does not like to see itself as deeply affected by what happens in secular society; it sees itself as actor or initiator rather than reactor or follower. Yet we serve a God who has always acted in history and has used unbelievers to effect change within his household. One cannot understand the dynamics of the early history of the modern missionary movement, for example, without considering what was happening in the Western world of the 18th and 19th centuries-politically, socially, and technologically.
Similarly, a close look at the history of women’s involvement in foreign mission reveals changing patterns within sending agencies that are results of or reactions against changes in Western society. R. Pierce Beaver’s classic study, American Protestant Women in World Mission (1980, Eerdman’s) details the rise of women’s missionary societies in the late 1800s as "the first feminist movement in North America." At that time, American women had few outlets for their evangelical zeal in the church at home, but were able to pour their time, money, and prayers into sending and supporting women overseas.
Since around 1910 and 1920, women’s overall influence and involvement in world mission has declined drastically, for many reasons outside the scope of this article. For several decades now, women have largely been taken for granted or ignored. The beginning recognition that there are significant contemporary women’s issues in world mission organization has been one of the more recent spinoffs of a movement (modern feminism) which was for a long time unknown or repudiated in mission circles. In the last few years there has been a growing realization that there are legitimate, pressing issues which demand attention and action.
Women overseas have always been more "liberated" than their Stateside sisters, in the sense that they have taken roles as missionaries that they would not have considered, or which were denied them, in their home country. A woman who could not even take up the offering in her home congregation, and for whom ordination was unthinkable, might evangelize, plant churches, and train men to lead them in desperately needy areas of the Third World. However, women doing magnificent jobs in remote villages have rarely been rewarded by adequate recognition, except by the now-defunct women’s missionary societies. Examples abound of married women who have served faithfully and effectively for 25 years but whose folders in the home office file are empty except for candidate information. One ripple effect of the feminist movement is for women to realize and make known their basic human need for well deserved respect, recognition, and affirmation in their work.
In virtually all mission situations, a husband’s work assignment takes priority over his wife’s; and single women are sometimes at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of status, recognition, and having one’s unique needs and gifts taken seriously. Often, stated mission policy gives men and women equal status in that both are commissioned and sent as full missionaries, but in many subtle ways women are given the message that they are subordinate or even inferior members of the mission team-but that to complain about their "place" would be unspiritual.
ROLES OF MARRIED WOMEN MISSIONARIES
An umbrella issue that encompasses many specific concerns is that of role, particularly for married women missionaries. For single women and married men, the work assignment is the primary focus of attention throughout the missionary career. In contrast, the missionary wife’s role goes through drastic changes in focus as children are born, grow up, go to boarding school, and eventually leave the family. The role of the missionary wife needs frequent re-evaluation, redefinition and restructuring. Much better use could be made of the gifts of women if role considerations and career guidance were built into long-term planning for missionary wives. Wives need to be encouraged strongly to develop their abilities, as they often see themselves primarily as supporters and nurturers.
The following are excerpts from the final report of the Consulting Committee on the Married Woman Missionary of the Division for World Mission and Ecumenism, Lutheran Church in America. The report was completed in July, 1981, and reflected this writer’s study as well as many other contributions.
*Much of the material in this section was published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in January, 1984, under the title, "Roles of Married Women Missionaries: A Case Study", by the same author.-Ed.
God calls men and women to himself in Jesus Christ. The primary vocation of each of us is, then, to be Christian . . . We rejoice in the diverse ways in which Christians fulfill their individual callings, each contributing to the workings of the body of Christ, and therefore acknowledge no hierarchy of vocations or persons. We believe that wherever stereotypes and culturally defined roles deny or limit any individual’s possibilities for participation and personal growth, the working of the body of Christ is diminished and Christian freedom thwarted ….
A role is a cluster of behavior patterns that carries with it expectations on the part of the person filling the role, and also expectations on the part of others who are related to a person in the performance of the role. In the case of the missionary there are exceptions on the part of the family, the sending agency, supporting congregations, the missionary community, the national church, and the local culture. The missionary role is a representative role-the missionary represents the Christian faith, the sending church, and his or her home country to the people of the host country. Generally speaking, the more representative a role is, the more pressure there is to fulfill role expectations.
The role of the married woman missionary has usually been a derived role in that her role was largely defined by her husband’s assignment. Within this framework, several role patterns, or "wifestyles," have emerged, depending on individual situations and preferences. They may be categorized as follows:
1. Homemaker. She is primarily a full-time wife and mother. Her main focus is on the home and the support and nurture of her family. She is an enabler to her husband in his work. She may have very young children and/or may teach her own school-age children.
2. Background Supporter. She actively supports her husband and his work. She is moderately involved in outside activities, many of which relate to her husband’s assignment. Her main focus may be on ministry that can be carried out within the home, such as entertaining, listening/counseling, Bible classes, or language classes.
3. Teamworker. Her main focus is on a team ministry with her husband, and both work full-time. She feels free to choose a variety of activities, some of which relate directly to her husband’s work. She may have part-time paid employment, but it does not detract from her sense of teamwork with her husband.
In addition to these role patterns, another pattern has emerged in recent years:
4. Parallel Worker. She sees her missionary role as distinct from her husband’s role. She may work within the same organizational structure as her husband’s assignment, which may be in a church-related setting or a nonchurch-related setting.
In the last category, a sense of teamwork expresses itself in mutual support as persons, even though the work assignments may be functionally unrelated. Both husband and wife are involved in creating a nurturing home environment, and ideally both are enabled to find fulfillment in the stewardship of their abilities and gifts.
All four of the foregoing role patterns are valid for married women missionaries. However, not all options are viable in every location. Individual wives may not fit clearly into one category- or another, because of the diversity of situations.
The diversity of roles, individual differences, and conflicting expectations may pose a dilemma for the married woman missionary when: (a) there is a lack of role definition; (b) there is a lack of job description; (c) there is a lack of role recognition and acknowledgement; (d) there is a change from one role pattern to another without corresponding changes in the expectations of others.
The key issue in the above categorization is not what the wife does, but how she sees herself, and secondarily how she is seen by her husband. One very live issue is whether or not both marital partners agree on the wife’s role, or have (perhaps unrecognized) differences of perception or opinion.
The following diagrams may be used to illustrate the four "wifestyles" described above:
The circle in each case answers the question, Who is the missionary? For the homemaker, the husband is clearly the missionary and she is not (even though her mission board may say that she is). Experience has shown that women with this perspective have a much harder time enduring the vicissitudes of missionary life, as loyalty to one’s husband and his call can wear thin rather quickly. The background supporter also sees her husband as the primary missionary, but sees herself as a missionary assistant. Women in categories 1 and 2 usually have heavy family responsibilities.
The teamworker and her husband are a single missionary unit-a true team, with what has been called s "two-person single career." The teamworker sees her, role as a missionary as fully equivalent to and inseparable from that of her husband. The parallel worker sees her missionary role separately, much like the role of the professional working woman-not primarily in relation to her husband’s work. In real life situations, few women fit exactly into any one category, and there are many combinations and variations.
In the past few decades the dominant patterns in evangelical missions have been #2 and #3. The typical wife would be a background supporter while children were small and then gradually move into a teamworker pattern as she gained experience and confidence and was? relieved of child care responsibilities. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of women, particularly those with specific professional training, who see their own ministries as separate from those of their husbands.
Another even more recent trend is the opposite of the above, and reflects the polarization of views regarding women mentioned earlier. That is, many mission personnel who are involved in the candidate process report a growing (and alarming) number of young couple want the wife to be a homemaker and nothing more This role pattern is seen by the young couples to be .an ideal and not only a response to necessity when children are very young. Such views can be so extreme as to approach "family idolatry."
Concerns about role, recognition, etc., do not occupy the missionary wife’s daily attention. Much more immediate and pressing problems demand her attention- coping with primitive living conditions, adapting to a different culture, child rearing, etc. Issues discussed here are often ignored because they are less obvious and relate to underlying assumptions and tensions. However, failure to recognize and deal with them often leads to low self image and long-term, low-grade depression which in turn contributes to health problems, marital and family stress, and a tragic misuse and waste of precious human resources.
WOMEN IN POSITIONS OF LEADERSHIP
One area in which little has been resolved is that of leadership by women within mission structures. Attitudes and expectations on all sides are greatly influenced by theology and by cultural traditions that have become so entwined with theology that it is difficult to tell which it is. Though they comprise as much as two-thirds of the missionary roster, women in evangelical missions generally do not expect or seek leadership positions within the mission. In contrast, many women exercise gifts of administration and leadership in running schools, clinics, and other projects as part of their mission assignments. The presence of numerous gifted, experienced women who are natural leaders combined with an almost complete lack of recognized, legitimized channels for female leadership results in manipulative and often disruptive methods of influencing decision making – which, in turn, reinforces male fears of female leadership. Some wives of men in administrative positions have de facto recognition and are channels of communication in both directions between male hierarchies and female constituents; while this can be a saving grace, it is surely not ideal. Single women are given little or no opportunity for leadership or sanctioned influence and may feel like second-class citizens.
While many issues relating to women in mission have come to be recognized and are being openly discussed and wrestled with, leadership issues are still in the earlier stages of consciousness-raising and token responses. Why are there fewer women in administrative positions in mission in the 1980s than there were in the 1920s? Women’s unique perspective on all mission issues (not just relational or home-and-family ones) is lost because neither women or men recognize the value of women’s potential contributions. The goal is not for women to take over doing what men have done, but for the entire mission enterprise to be enriched and refined by reflecting God’s full image in humanity, male and female.
RESPONSES OF SENDING AGENCIES
How are women’s issues being dealt with in mission agencies? Ideally, awareness of and attention to these issues should be a thread running through all of the personnel practices of the organization, from recruitment and candidate selection on through the missionary’s career, including consideration of post-field re-entry into U.S. society. Critically important are the attitudes, awareness, and sensitivity of the men in top administrative positions who are able to recognize and encourage the development of women’s gifts.
Sessions that focus on women’s roles and responsibilities may be a part of candidate orientation, for both men and women. Other important times for special attention are field council meetings, on-field supervisory visits by area secretaries, annual retreats, and mid-furlough debriefing sessions (not only for the just-got-off-the-plane sessions with physically and emotionally exhausted missionaries). At these times it is very helpful for all missionaries, but especially missionary wives, to set goals for themselves, both short-range and long-range, and to evaluate previously set goals to see where changes need to be made. If women are not encouraged to give their work adequate recognition and to strive for the best of which they are capable (not just the greatest quantity of work), much of their potential may be lost.
Specific nitty-gritty issues that need discussion vary widely from place to place and from time to time, and must be handled as they arise. Many agencies have had study commissions and/or surveys to determine what the pressure points were and to make recommendations. Even though, the perfect answer is rarely found, sensitivity, flexibility, and open discussion go a long way toward reducing tension, frustration, and guilt feelings that arise around issues of role, responsibility, recognition, and decision making. There is always a tension between being responsive to the needs of individuals and at the same time being responsible to the larger group and to its mandate.
The purpose of consideration, discussion, and action relating to male/female issues is not to keep women and their issues in the focus of attention-but rather to relieve the pressure points so that men and women may serve God and His kingdom in full partnership, with greater liberty, effectiveness and joy, to God’s greater glory.
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