Women and the Way: The Contradictory Universalism of Protestant Women’s Foreign Missionary Societies in the Early 20th Century

Women and the Way: The Contradictory Universalism of Protestant Women’s Foreign Missionary Societies in the Early 20th Century

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Marion Wolfe

Marion Wolfe is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College, where she teaches courses in writing, rhetoric, and literature as well as training new Writing Center peer consultants. Dr. Wolfe completed her graduate work at The Ohio State University under Nan Johnson, with a dissertation project titled Constructing Modern Missionary Feminism: American Protestant Women’s Foreign Missionary Societies and the Rhetorical Positioning of Christian Women, 1901-1938. Her research focuses on the tensions and contradictions in Christian women’s rhetorical positioning of themselves and others. She has also presented and written on the rhetoric of motherhood, writing centers, administrating first-year writing programs, and teaching writing in SLAC settings.

Abstract: From 1901-1938, the United Study series of textbooks educated American women, members of Protestant women’s foreign missionary societies, about the world and their place in it. This series provides an early example of white, Western women attempting to create an egalitarian, international feminist movement. The texts in the United Study series gradually shift, from arguing that Western women need to help debased “heathen” women around the world to criticizing their own racism/ethnocentrism and arguing for partnership and equality. At the same time, through the process of ideological trafficking, the more problematic ideas of earlier eras of missionary work continue to resonate in later texts and form the underlying assumptions of missionary rhetoric. The series’ attempt at transnational feminism through Christian universalism is best exemplified in the final United Study text, the 1938 Women and the Way, which includes essays written by Christian women from around the world. The contradictions and tensions in this text, and the ways that the included essays interarticulate a variety of ideas, perspectives, and arguments, demonstrate the difficulties of speaking across difference and predict some of the problems of transnational feminism today.

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The United Study Series: An Early Attempt at Transnational Feminism

In 1900, a group of Protestant women met at the Ecumenical Conference in New York City to discuss the future of women’s foreign missionary societies and to standardize their educational work across Protestant denominations. This meeting led to the formation of the Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions (CCUSFM). The denominational missionary societies that these women led were organized beginning in the 1860s to send single American women abroad to proselytize, teach, and provide medical care to women and children. In addition to their work abroad, women’s missionary societies organized local and regional groups for American Protestant women (predominantly white women) to meet, raise money, and educate themselves about missions and the countries to which missionaries were being sent. During this period, Protestant women’s foreign missionary societies were among the largest women’s organizations in the United States and their publications some of the most widely circulated. By their peak in 1910, they were publishing dozens of periodicals and raising millions of dollars in donations.1 Dana Robert, in the 2002 essay “The Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home,” argues that “The woman’s missionary movement, in dialogue with women missionaries around the world, was the chief means by which ordinary American church women gained information on non-Western religions, cultures, and women’s issues around the world in the early twentieth century” (77). Yet in spite of the size of their audience and potential impact on the attitudes and identities of early twentieth-century American women, missionary society publications have not yet been examined as part of the history of American women’s rhetorical practices. This article addresses that lack by analyzing the CCUSFM’s “United Study” series of textbooks, published annually from 1901-1938 as an educational project by, for, and about women.2 The United Study series exemplifies the contradictions and tensions of women’s missionary rhetoric of the time, in particular the shift missionary societies attempted to make from an exigence based on pity to one based on equality.

The founding and continued existence of women’s missionary societies was based on a paradox. The missionaries they sponsored were educated, single, professional women at a time when opportunities for such women were limited. In their work preaching, teaching, administrating, and providing medical care (as well as collecting money and leading local and national missionary societies), Western Christian women took on roles traditionally considered part of the male public sphere. In this way, women’s missionary societies implicitly challenged the patriarchal structure of Christianity. At the same time, these career paths were only available to women because of the strict division of men’s and women’s spheres, both in the United States and in the countries where missionaries served.3 The rhetorical trope of “woman’s work for woman” (suggesting that only women could effectively serve other women) was both justification and exigence for the professionalization of women missionaries. Therefore, women’s foreign missionary societies both advocated for equality between men and women and relied on religious and secular distinctions between men and women for their continued existence.

A similar paradox can be seen in missionary societies’ rhetorical positioning of white, American, Christian women in relation to the “heathen” women they were meant to serve. The stated purpose of women’s missions was to create equality between these two groups by bringing “heathen” women up to the privileged level of Christian women, yet the exigence for missions depended upon a continuation of the division between Western and non-Western women. As the United Study series moved into the post-WWI era, the Central Committee and its commissioned authors began to recognize and critique their own earlier, problematic rhetoric and to strive for partnership and egalitarianism in a way that we might now describe as feminist. Some later texts in the series, notably Japanese Women Speak (1934) and Women and the Way (1938), were authored by non-Western Christian women, suggesting a gradual shift from a white American women’s perspective on the world to, ostensibly, at least, a global Christian perspective. At the same time, United Study authors struggled to reconcile their desire for Christian universalism with the realities of a diverse world. Although concepts such as globalism and transnational feminism did not arise until the second half of the twentieth century, the publications of women’s foreign missionary studies demonstrate that some American women were actively grappling with similar ideas much earlier.

The United Study series, and the missionary movement of which it was a part, relied on the idea that privileged Western women could help their oppressed sisters around the world by modernizing, Westernizing, and Christianizing their lives and their countries. Lisa Joy Pruitt, in her 2005 A Looking-Glass for Ladies: American Protestant Women and the Orient in the Nineteenth Century, argues that “evangelical Orientalism” was the primary motivating force for women’s foreign missionary societies: “Evangelicals especially emphasized the character and status of women in ‘Oriental’ societies, believing them fair indicators of the condition of those societies as a whole” (6). Pruitt points out that this phenomenon continues in the twenty-first century: “Images of the oppressed women of the East continue to resonate in American culture, both secular and religious” (189). Pruitt does not elaborate on how these images continue to resonate, but one example comes from Wendy Hesford’s 2011 Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. In her Introduction, Hesford describes how an image of an Afghan girl in a headscarf, used by Amnesty International for their human rights work, actually reinforces Western imperialism:

the incorporation of the Afghan girl into the discourse of human rights is based on the simultaneous recognition of her universality (as a human being) and her difference (as a female child and a refugee). But the incorporative process can also reiterate social hierarchies, wherein the spectator is configured as the holder of rights and as their distributor to those who are unable to claim them independently.

(Hesford 4)

Hesford draws attention to a paradox in human rights rhetoric: the desire to share one’s rights depends on first reinforcing a hierarchy in which the viewer is superior to the object of advocacy. I argue that women’s foreign missionary societies similarly attempted to create feelings of universality among women but often did so by constructing a disempowered “other” whom American women were required by their privilege to help. While this strategy continued into the twentieth century, some missionary society leaders, including many United Study authors, became more self-reflexive and critical of such divisive rhetorical approaches. Pruitt, writing primarily about the late nineteenth century, does not fully address how women’s foreign missionary societies shifted their rhetorical strategies in the twentieth century. I argue that the United Study series provides an example of Christian women of the early twentieth century attempting what we might today call a transnational feminist critique as they move from portraying non-Western “heathen” women as the debased other to describing Christian women from all countries as equals. Whether the United Study series succeeded in making a shift from ethnocentrism to equality is debatable, but later United Study texts demonstrate the authors’ struggle to reconcile their religious idealism with the negative effects of Westernization, industrialization, and imperialism.

Photo of the “A Mohammedan Woman—Unveiled!” pictured in the 1918 United Study text Western Workers of the Orient
Figure 1. “A Mohammedan Woman—Unveiled!” pictured in the 1918 United Study text Western Workers of the Orient (Burton 120). Hesford argues that even today, “Westerners typically view [the headscarf or veil] as emblems of the oppression of women and girls under Islam” (4). In both cases, the removal of the veil is seen as a sign of gender equality/feminist liberation.

Although it was not theorized until many years later, the concept of transnationalism provides a way to understand the contradictions of the United Study series. As Rebecca Dingo defines it in her 2012 Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing, “The term transnational…generally refers to how globalization has influenced the movement of people and the production of texts, culture, and knowledge across borders so that the strict distinctions among nations and national practices can become blurred” (8). Although transnationalism began during the post-WWII era of globalization, the United Study series reveals an earlier, and perhaps unexpected, group of women actively grappling with the tensions and problems of an international movement made up of complex networks of diverse women. Dingo describes transnational feminists as attempting similar moves: “For transnational feminists, then, networking is a useful metaphor because it draws attention to the links between women’s diverse experiences, aspirations, and identities” (11). Dingo analyzes discourses and texts that circulate transnationally and that therefore do not always adhere to traditional definitions of rhetoric, particularly its focus on a singular audience, purpose, and context. The United Study series, by comparison, had a fairly limited audience (American Christian women) and purpose (raising money for missionary societies). However, I argue that during the course of the series’ publication, the Central Committee and their commissioned authors attempted to widen this scope and to more explicitly and purposefully work within the complicated networks of women, politics, religion, culture, and history created by Western missionaries’ work around the world. At the same time, like many of the neoliberal policies and documents studied by Dingo and Hesford, missionary rhetoric maintained its claims about the superiority of Western culture and the need for Western women to raise up their less privileged “sisters.”

The transnational feminist concepts of ideological trafficking and interarticulation help to explain both why missionary societies found it so difficult to escape their problematic past and why scholars of transnational feminism today might find the historical context of women’s foreign missionary societies enlightening. Dingo defines ideological traffic by explaining:

Ideological traffic draws attention to history—of rhetorical actors, of rhetorics that have long circulated, and of the occasions when these actors and rhetorics emerge…Following ideological traffic and networking taken-for-granted and historical arguments within a single occasion lays bare the rhetorics that have become naturalized and a common part of our political imaginary.


Through this process of following ideological traffic, we can see how missionary societies’ Orientalism and privileging of Christian religions continue to characterize many international women’s movements today. Both Hesford and Dingo acknowledge that studying historical precedents can help scholars to better understand globalization (Hesford “Global Turns” 795) and to contextualize historical recovery within what Dingo calls “vectors of power” (145-6). Dingo’s definition of interarticulation draws attention to these vectors of power as it describes the ways that arguments move within and between complex networks:

arguments become interarticulated with a network of relationships that impact a rhetoric’s transnational circulation by tracing how rhetorics and power move…Interarticulation also addresses the wide-range effects of globalization and highlights the complexities of global realities as well as the diverse material effects of globalization on women—including positive effects.


The concept of interarticulation helps us to move beyond the binaries that often define rhetorical analysis. In the case of the United Study series, these texts resist binaries such as secular vs. religious, feminist vs. anti-feminist, modern vs. traditional, and conservative vs. progressive. I argue that the tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes found in these texts are not indications of faults in their rhetorical thinking but instead point to the complexity of the concepts, ideologies, and problems that these women were actively grappling with. The terminology of transnational feminism, including ideological trafficking and interarticulation, helps us to better understand the complex and often paradoxical rhetoric of the United Study texts.

The United Study series provides an early example of Western women attempting to create an international feminist movement through their own version of Christian universalism. In the next section, I describe how the original seven texts in the United Study series, following the Orientalism and imperialism of nineteenth-century missionary societies, rely on pity as their primary exigence as they divide downtrodden “heathen” women from the series’ privileged, Western, Christian readers. This original series established assumptions that continued to inform the remaining texts through the process of ideological trafficking, even as the series shifted toward a rhetoric of partnership and equality. In three texts published from 1918-1933, Burton, Singmaster, and Woodsmall explicitly question the problematic rhetoric of division in earlier texts while still maintaining the assumption that women will always benefit from the spread of Christianity as connected with Western civilization. These ideas are interarticulated throughout the texts in such a way that they are impossible to separate.

The final text in the United Series, the 1938 Women and the Way, was the culmination of the CCUSFM’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at Christian feminist universalism. While the text aims to put women of Western and non-Western countries on the same footing, and explicitly calls into question previous divisions between them, it also brings to light contradictions and disagreements that became impossible for women’s missionary societies to adequately address. In its format and approach, Women and the Way exemplifies missionary societies’ egalitarian ideal, but in its content, it calls into question the possibility of true cooperation between Christians of various nationalities, backgrounds, and points of view. Ultimately, I argue that Women and the Way demonstrates the difficulties white, Western women often face when they attempt to use their gender to speak across difference, the same difficulties that transnational feminist theorists and activists face today.

From Pity to Partnership: Rhetorical Shifts in the United Study Series

Photo of "A Village Priestess and Harlot in South India" from the 1915 United Study text The King's Highway.
Figure 2. “A Village Priestess and Harlot in South India” from the 1915 United Study text The King’s Highway. Images like this attempted to show the immorality and misogyny of non-Christian religions (Montgomery 48).

In the first decade of the twentieth century, from 1901-1911, the United Study texts were characterized by pity, paternalism/maternalism, and what Pruitt describes as “evangelical Orientalism.” These texts position their readers as the saviors who would bring non-Western women out of poverty, misogyny, and heathenism and into the wealth, human rights, and knowledge of the truth that they would gain from Western Christianity. In other words, the original series’ primary rhetorical strategy is to first separate its audience (American Christian women) from the subjects of the texts (“heathen” women) in order to inspire pity, then explain how privileged Christian women can raise other women to their level through missionary work. The original United Study series, as planned by the CCUSFM in 1900, was made up of seven texts, five of which focus on a region of the world and negatively contrast its customs, cultures, and religious practices with those of Western countries in order to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity.4 In critiquing non-Christian religions, the United Study series specifically attempts to appeal to American women’s sense of sisterhood; one of the main criticisms levied against other religions and cultures is that they are inherently misogynistic. For example, in the 1904 Dux Christus: An Outline Study of Japan, Rev. William Elliot Griffis explains that under the feudal system in Japan, “The woman’s life consisted of ‘the three obediences’ to father, husband, and to her son when he became head of the family. Suffice it to say that pretty much all the horrible and unspeakable vices were common in old Japan…In some districts girl babies were for the most part promptly disposed of” (134). Griffis, along with other United Study authors of this period, portrays Christianity as the feminist religion that would remove oppression and give women the rights and equality that they deserve. Griffis concludes his text:

Only in the Christ lands has woman any hope of entering into her full inheritance, as help meet for man, as fellow-sharer of the image of God, as co-worker with Christ. Until the love of God reigns by faith in the hearts of the whole Japanese nation, we need not expect Japanese womanhood to reach the exalted position of honor and usefulness which woman occupies in our own land.


According to Griffis, Christianity is both the cause of Western women’s privilege and the tool that will allow them to raise other women to their level. These early texts set up a binary between non-Christian women as victims of an oppressive system and Western Christian women as inherently privileged, thereby creating an exigence for members of women’s foreign missionary societies to share their privilege through evangelism.

Throughout the almost 40 years of the United Study series, the texts gradually shifted in their rhetorical positioning of non-Western women in relation to Western women. This shift can be seen most clearly in texts from the post-WWI period, such as Women Workers of the Orient by Margaret E. Burton (1918), A Cloud of Witnesses by Elsie Singmaster (1930) and Eastern Women: Today and Tomorrow by Ruth Frances Woodsmall (1933). These books attempt to move away from earlier pathetic appeals and toward a rhetoric of partnership and cooperation. Burton, Singmaster, and Woodsmall, among others, recommend that Western women view non-Western women as their equals and collaborators, rather than as objects of pity and compassion. These texts reflect a larger shift in women’s missionary work as missionaries began to turn over power to local Christian churches and leaders, a process they referred to as devolution. Yet, the United Study texts do not argue for an end to missionary work. Instead, they continue to advocate for readers to support foreign missions, which will teach, train, and support local women leaders. In other words, they argue simultaneously for complete equality and for a continuation of the historical hierarchy. This seeming contradiction can be at least partially explained by Dingo’s concept of ideological trafficking. The arguments/assumptions that American missionary women are inherently superior and that Christianity will save all women are rhetorical tropes in missionary rhetoric that “are glossed over or taken for granted because they have circulated without question for decades and thus have become ingrained and common sense” (Dingo 70). It is sometimes unclear if the United Study authors are even aware of their use of these unstated assumptions as they make explicit arguments for equality. For example, in the 1918 Women Workers of the Orient, Burton makes an argument for women of all countries to lead themselves, but she insists that this will not diminish the role of Westerners:

Neither we, nor our missionaries, nor any other Western women, can take the place of Oriental women in this task of leadership. But we can do an even greater thing. We can help to raise up the leaders…Not the men of the Orient, not the women of the Occident, can guide the hosts of groping women of the East today. Only educated Christian women from among themselves can lead aright at this time. But we can give such leaders to the Orient.


Burton’s assumption is that “Oriental” women will only be fit to lead themselves if they are first “raised up” by Western, Christian women. This paradox between stated equality and an implied but unacknowledged hierarchy (carried over, through ideological trafficking, from an earlier era) is characteristic of the United Study texts of this period.

In arguing for increased equality among women, the United Study authors of the post-WWI period make more explicit critiques of Western colonialism and imperialism than earlier United Study authors, demonstrating that they are beginning to take more of what we might call a transnational feminist position. Singmaster’s 1930 A Cloud of Witnesses is the first United Study text to focus on non-Western women who are already Christians, implicitly questioning the binary created in earlier texts between Western, Christian women and non-Western, “heathen” women. Singmaster also questions the connection between Christianity and Western imperialism when she quotes Chinese Christian Dr. Ida Kahn:

One day some Nationalist officers appeared and demanded a chance to address our student nurses. I had them gathered immediately and soon one of the officers was attacking us, calling us the “running-dogs of the foreigners,” and saying that “Christianity is the running-dog of imperialism.” I tried to refute some of his argument. I said that Christ was opposed to imperialism. I said He was born of poor parents, He lived among the poor, He worked for the poor, and finally He died for the poor as well as for the rich.

Photo of "Future Leaders of China Ginling's Courtyard."
Figure 3. “Future Leaders of China in Ginling’s Courtyard” (Burton 224). United Study text authors argue that the women of each country must lead themselves, rather than being led by either men or American women.

According to Dr. Kahn, Christ’s religion comes directly from the Bible and should not be conflated with Western imperialism. However, Dr. Kahn’s own past somewhat belies this explanation since she was adopted and raised by Western missionaries and schooled in the United States (110). She defends Christianity as separate from Western culture without fully acknowledging her own indebtedness to, and complicity with, the West. To address the tension between their stated goal of Christian universalism and the Westernization/cultural imperialism often brought by missionaries, most United Study text authors make the same move as Singmaster and Kahn: they describe Christianity as a universal religion with values that can be translated across cultures, while they argue that economic imperialism (particularly in connection to opium, alcohol, and the slave trade) represents a fault of Westerners that is not truly aligned with Christian doctrine. However, they still hold to the idea that Western Christians have much to teach people of other countries, as Dr. Ida Kahn was taught by her adopted parents and American teachers.

Unlike in the original decade of the series, when American Christian women were idealized, in the United Study texts of the post-WWI era, authors sometimes implicate their own readers by pointing to American Christians’ hypocrisy in advocating Christian values of equality and brotherhood/sisterhood while treating others as inferior. In the 1933 Eastern Women: Today and Tomorrow, Woodsmall criticizes not only her readers but also the pathos-based approach of earlier missionary rhetoric:

The prevailing Western concept of the Eastern woman is that of the great mass of under privileged women in Asia. There is, as a whole, little realization of the rapid forward movement of the educated minority of women in each country of the East. In order that mission effort for women be planned effectively for the future, a reorientation in the point of view of America toward the Orient is necessary…Hitherto the primary emphasis has been placed on the differences between the women of the East and West. The appeal has been made to bring to the depressed illiterate Oriental woman, laboring under social and religious handicaps, the freedom and privileges which women of a Christian civilization enjoy…Such an appeal savors of an attitude of superiority and leaves an impression on the Orient which it is difficult for missionaries to counteract.


Woodsmall is critical of supposed mission-supporters in the United States who demand that missionaries belittle women of other countries in order to gain their support. She implies that a better solution would be for Eastern and Western leaders to work together to make realistic assessments of what has been accomplished and what still remains to be done. Woodsmall shows a clear, reflective understanding of previous methods that have been used to create an exigence for missions, the strategy behind those methods, and the problematic nature of this approach. She calls on her readers to change their view of non-Western women in order to see them as partners rather than inferiors. At the same time, Woodsmall’s language avoids directly blaming her readers, using the passive voice to refer to general attitudes and suggest large-scale changes. Woodsmall is aware of the complexities and nuances of her rhetorical task; after all, missionary societies were financially reliant on the American women who had “an attitude of superiority” and “little realization of” the actual situation in other countries. In this passage, she employs the Christian rhetorical technique of calling these women to repentance while using indirect language to avoid fully questioning their superior status and the importance of their role in the missionary program. Woodsmall’s seeming struggle to make this argument reveals the complicated interarticulation of ideas in missionary society rhetoric, which had to reconcile the perspectives of missionaries, the non-Western women served by missionaries, and the women at home reading the text, each of whom had her own perspective and motivation for involvement in Christian missions. In attempting to create an equal relationship between non-Western and Western women, particularly when both are Christians, Woodsmall challenges the separation rhetoric of the earlier texts in the series while still maintaining the assumption that Western Christian women have something to share with others that is unique and superior to what these women already have.

Singmaster, Burton, and Woodsmall all demonstrate the interarticulation and ideological trafficking that were occurring in United Study texts of the early twentieth century. These authors criticize Western imperialism but also argue for Christian missions as an appropriate way for Westerners to intervene in the lives of others. They advocate for Western missionaries’ taking less of a role as Christian churches became more established in other countries, but they still emphasize the need for support, guidance, and financial assistance from Western women. These texts differ from the texts of the first decade of the United Study series in that they demonstrate a more complex interarticulation of ideas as they begin to integrate the perspectives of non-Western Christians and anti-imperialists. They describe the ways in which non-Western women are rising to the standard of Western women, and they reject some of the divisions that earlier texts established. However, in assuming that gender equality can only be achieved through the Christianization of the world, they continue to rely on the same binary between empowered, Christian women and degraded, non-Christian women even as they claim to reject this distinction. The ideological trafficking of such ideas from the earlier era of missions remains invisible (or at least unacknowledged) in most of the United Study texts. The final text of the series, Women and the Way, exemplifies these tensions and demonstrates the difficulties of creating a truly international/transnational feminist movement. 

Women and the Way: Attempting Christian Feminist Universalism 

As United Study authors moved toward acknowledging the problematic nature of Western women speaking for women in other countries, they began to integrate the voices of non-Western women into the study texts themselves. The final United Study text, the 1938 Women and the Way: Christ and the World’s Womanhood: A Symposium serves as the most telling example of the Central Committee’s desire to create partnership and equality between Christian women internationally. The text attempts to move beyond the earlier rhetoric of division by integrating the voices of women from Africa, China, Chosen (Korea), India, Japan, “the Near East,” the Philippine Islands, and South America alongside essays by women from Europe, Great Britain, and North America. Each chapter answers the question “What has Christianity meant to the women of my country?” As the conclusion to the United Study series,5 Women and the Way suggests that women’s foreign missionary societies have successfully moved from pity and condescension to universalism and equality. However, this text ultimately complicates, rather than resolves, the contradictions present in the United Study series since its beginning. The eleven essays that make up Women and the Way acknowledge non-Western women as equals, capable of speaking for themselves and leading Christian work in their own countries, but they still position Western women as essential to the foreign mission project and reinforce the idea that Christianity, brought by Western missionaries, has improved the lives and rights of women around the world. At the same time,this simplistic narrative of white (Christian) saviorhood is complicated by the Western authors, who draw attention to contradictions and problems in Western Christianity, including debates over the connection between Christianity and social movements as well as tensions between the values of diversity and unity. The interarticulation of the various women’s voices, perspectives, and arguments in Women and the Way demonstrates that many of the debates characterizing transnational feminism today have deep historical roots and no easy solutions.

The chapters of Women and the Way written by non-Western women for the most part reinforce the message from previous study texts that the spread of Christianity has benefited women around the world. This is unsurprising considering that many of these women were raised as Christians and educated in mission schools. For example, Mrs. Z. K. Matthews, the author of the chapter “In Africa,” is described in the “Biographical Notes” as having attended “the Lovedale and Emgwali mission schools of the United Free Church of Scotland” and having taught at the Inanda Girls’ Seminary (ix). In her chapter, Matthews describes why Christianity has been appealing to South African women:

Here was a religion observing no taboos, giving equal rights of worship and of general behavior to both men and women, not ready to overlook most wrongs committed by men and to punish most women as witches and sorcerers, but bringing all within the fold regardless of sex. It drew women to it by the score, and often a man found his wives all turned against him and his beliefs and become Christian.


Gnanambal Gnanadickam similarly asks in her chapter “In India,” “Is it not fair to acknowledge the debt that India’s womanhood owes to the light of Christian education? Is it not a fact that the provinces with a large proportion of Christians usually show a high percentage of women’s literacy and education?” (92). Gnanadickam was herself a recipient of this education at the Women’s Christian College in Madras and then in the United States at Radcliffe College and Harvard University (xii). Michi Kawai, author of the chapter “In Japan” and co-author of the 1934 United Study text Japanese Women Speak, was another mission school graduate who studied in the United States at Bryn Mawr College before founding her own Christian girls’ school in the suburbs of Tokyo. Like Gnanadickam, Kawai credits missionaries for girls’ education and women’s rights:

Whether pro- or anti-Christian, one must recognize the fact that the early missionaries blazed the trail for girls’ education of this land. Besides the ordinary intellectual cultivation given to these girls these schools taught them self-reliance and labor, the value of individual life regardless of sex and class, emancipation of womanhood from shackles which hampered freedom, the sacredness of marriage, and the purity of body and soul.


The idea that Christianity has brought rights, and in particular education, to non-Western women is reiterated in almost every chapter of the book.

In arguing that Christianity is inherently egalitarian and the only pro-woman religion, the essays by Matthews, Gnanadickam, Kawai, and others resemble United Study texts of the first decade such as Griffis’. However, instead of relying on negative portrayals of “heathen” women’s lives and pity/compassion as the primary exigence, the authors of Women and the Way describe positive changes that have already occurred as a result of Christian missions. This is the exact shift in missionary rhetoric that Woodsmall called for five years earlier. The fact that non-Western Christian women are writing these essays themselves, rather than being described by Western authors, implies that the benefits of Christianity can continue without Westerners’ direct guidance and that Christian values and social changes can be separated from Western civilization. In place of colonialism, Matthews argues for a new version of partnership with Westerners:

We in Africa still need the missionary and will need him for a long while yet. He will have to co-operate with us in all our activities, to work with the African, not so much for him as has been the case in the past, and to give to his black fellow-men what is the inheritance of all peoples the world over—confidence and pride in one’s own race and nation, in its great men and women and their achievements, in its history and traditions, customs, cultures and arts. The white man who comes to Africa with such aims is the only one who will be received with acclaim by the Bantu today.


The idea that the missionary must give local people pride in their own race, nation, history, and traditions differs greatly from the earliest United Study texts, which criticized and degraded native religions, customs, and cultures. In telling her white, American readers that this is what missionaries to Africa must do, Matthews challenges them to likewise rise to this standard of acceptance. At the same time, her statement that “We in Africa still need the missionary” echoes Burton, Woodsmall, and other earlier United Study authors, who simultaneously argued for devolution and the continued presence of American missionaries abroad. Matthews, Gnanadickam, and Kawai, far from questioning the intrusions of Westerners, welcome Christian evangelism even as they ask to be respected as equals.

In addition to giving voice to non-Western women, Women and the Way differs from earlier texts in the series in that it includes Western countries and Western women as subject matter, a rhetorical choice that reflects the increased emphasis on partnership and equality, rather than division. The two essays on European countries, “In Europe” by the Baroness W. E. van Boetzelaer van Asperen en Dubbeldam (which focuses primarily on Holland) and “In Great Britain” by Una M. Saunders, both begin by acknowledging that the task at hand is slightly different for Western women than for recent converts to Christianity. The Baroness writes, “Living in a country where the gospel was preached more than a thousand years ago, it is no easy task to realize what we owe to Christianity” (49). Saunders similarly says, “Long ago there came into Great Britain the liberating force of Christianity in various successive phases…Our women therefore have had many centuries in which gradually to gain the varied benefits of the Christian conception of womanhood” (67). Both authors argue that Christianity has given many blessings to women, but they are less specific than the non-Western authors who have themselves been the beneficiaries of Western education and other services provided by missionaries. Although the Baroness and Saunders agree on the overall importance of Christianity to women’s lives, they disagree on the relationship between Christianity and social change/progressive movements. The Baroness takes a much more conservative approach; in describing the woman’s movement, she writes, “In Holland the Christian women have certainly not been among its pioneers, though there may be some exceptions. For generations the idea has prevailed that the restrictions on women’s public activity were clearly expounded in the Bible” (52). The Baroness does not directly criticize the woman’s movement (perhaps assuming that her American audience supports it), but she downplays the importance of women’s political and social equality with men, writing:

Women have the franchise now. All schools and universities are open to girls as well as most professions. But I sometimes doubt whether their real influence is so much greater than before these so ardently desire privileges became theirs…it is not by doing the same work as men have done exclusively up till now (though a number of professions become more effective when some women are added to their workers), neither is it by imitating men’s habits or by wearing their clothes, that women will better attain to the status for which God created them.


The Baroness’ main argument for Christianity is based on doctrine and religious faith, not on feminist values or the social gospel. She explains that “there is an evolution in human cultural and social life that is not the same thing as the revolution Christianity causes in the world and in the life of individuals” (62). The Baroness differentiates between a Christian revolution, which takes place individually and internally, and secular progress, which may or may not be in line with Christian values. In general, the Baroness takes a more conservative view than most United Study authors. She is less concerned with professional women from all countries working together to solve social problems and more concerned with the development of women’s internal, individual spirituality and their relationship with God. In this way, her argument departs from previous United Study texts, which conflate Christian evangelism and social progress.

Saunders’ argument is much more in line with other United Study texts, arguing that Christianity and social movements such as feminism are inseparable: “In Great Britain we can never be sufficiently thankful that a Christian Social Movement early developed, so that the advocacy of better conditions was not left in the hands of a purely political and non-religious party; also that women have taken their share with men both in the public and private work of social amelioration” (78). Like earlier United Study text authors, Saunders does not separate religious and secular causes. She writes:

Christianity is in its essence a ferment, something that turns the world upside down, and England itself needs that ferment…Girls and women are not following slavishly the old models of Christian practice…They have realized, as never before, the spiritual gifts that can be quickened as contact is made, not only with the older Christian churches of Europe or of America, but with those so-called “younger” ones of the East and Africa.


While the Baroness downplays the importance of secular women’s movements in favor of Christian evangelism, Saunders makes no distinction between the two. They agree that Christianity is good for women and that foreign missions are necessary, but they disagree about how Christianity should be enacted and the extent of its connection to political/social movements. This difference suggests a tension between conservative and progressive Christians around the world that was playing out in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the United States (which would eventually separate evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations).6 Furthermore, Saunders argues that Western Christians can actually improve their own Christianity by connecting with non-Westerners, a position that nearly reverses missionary societies’ original rhetorical positioning of the two groups.

Mrs. Frederic M. Paist’s chapter, “In North America,” reinforces the connection that Saunders makes between reform movements and Christianity. Paist explains, “It is impressive to note the extent to which the more conspicuous work of women—the so-called women’s movements—has come into being because of a sense of moral and religious responsibility. It would not seem too much to say that the pioneers in these movements [e.g. anti-slavery, temperance] were motivated by religion” (161). Paist argues that social movements must continue to be informed by Christian principles, and she laments that the women of her time are falling away from Christian standards such as temperance and “sex morality” (166). She believes that instead of this false, lawless freedom, “Women need the freedom with which Christ makes us free” (166). Paist’s concerns reveal the tenuous connection between reform movements and Christian morality that was beginning to break down as American women achieved more freedom in the public sphere. She also brings up the difficulty of contemporary social problems, especially surrounding race:

Some of our present problems are so difficult that we are tempted to give up before we begin. It was comparatively easy to see the justice of abolishing slavery, but today we must find a Christian way for the Negro and the white races to live together…A new experience of Christian living has come to those women who, as educated Christian women, both Negro and white, have sat down together to try to find this way.


Like Saunders, Paist believes that Christianity has the power to bring together women of different races, but she also sees how difficult this unity can be on a practical level. She emphasizes the importance of diversity to Christianity by making specific connections to the history of the United States. She describes the founding of the United States “by those who sought ‘freedom to worship God’” but emphasizes that “these Pilgrims were only a part of our national ancestry. There were others who also came to our shores with deep religious conviction,” including several waves of immigrants (154). She adds:

Nor was the continent of North America uninhabited before its discovery by Europe, and the American Indian still appears as a part of our population. The Negroes of Africa were our unwilling immigrants, serving as slaves until our Civil War of 1861-1865 suddenly gave them their freedom…Thus from the earliest days diversity of population has been a fundamental factor in determining the character of American religious life.


Paist’s emphasis on diversity as a defining characteristic of American religion gives a very different sense of Christianity in the West than the chapters on Europe and Great Britain. The Baroness and Saunders relegated the beginnings of Christianity in their countries to a history so far removed that it was not worth discussing. Paist, on the other hand, emphasizes waves of new perspectives that came to the United States with each group of immigrants, some very recent. Like Saunders, she believes that Western Christian women can benefit from the new perspectives brought to them by people of other races and ethnicities. At the same time, she recognizes that American Christians are not living up to their own stated values when it comes to respecting those of different races. In these ways, Paist’s chapter implies that Christian missions are struggling to enact the changes they have been recommending for years; though United Study texts as early as Burton’s 1918 Women Workers of the Orient argued for equality between women of different races, Paist points out that this equality has not yet been achieved two decades later.

Women and the Way ends with an Epilogue by Muriel Lester titled “Women, God, and the World.”7 In summing up the major points from the chapters of this textbook, Lester also constructs the final conclusions of the United Study series. Lester begins her Epilogue by arguing that Christian women from around the world are coming together and uniting for a single cause, in spite of the barriers that previously divided them: “They have relegated skin, color, and racial differences to the psychological rubbish heap of the irrelevant. Nothing can keep them apart much longer” (191). Lester assumes that women of all cultures and races can unite through their shared Christian belief; she concludes, “They may give foolish orders to silence us, those strong national leaders of short range ideas and defective memories. But what chance have they of wearing down our resistance? We are the proper guardians of the race! We women know the source of eternal strength. We are on God’s side. His will be done!” (198). Even in this, the final text of the United Study series, Lester (along with the other authors in the volume) continues to assume a positive trajectory for women’s missions in the future. She believes that if women unify and assert themselves as equal to men and to each other, they can overpower even “strong national leaders.”

Compared to earlier texts in the United Study series, Women and the Way demonstrates how women’s foreign missionary societies attempted to position all women as equals. The CCUSFM, along with other missionary organizations and leaders, shifted from criticizing differences to embracing diversity while also assuming that unity could only be achieved through worldwide Christian conversion. The title of the text suggests both of these ideas: the diversity of “women” and the singular “way” that will unite them and improve their lives. In the opening “A Foreword and Dedication,” Gertrude Schultz (Chairman of the Central Committee) asks, “Is there a way which will lead to the world of tomorrow, made safe and joyous for the world’s children, where all peoples may learn to live together in peace, mutual understanding, and respect?” (v). She clearly means for readers to infer that this “Way” is Christianity.8 The essays from non-Western women in this volume seem to support the assertion that Christian women are uniting to change the world. However, the authors of these essays are women who had been assimilated into Christian schools and Western communities; their ability to speak for the majority of women in their countries is doubtful. In addition, the essays by Western women suggest that even between Christian women, unity was not truly occurring in the way that the Central Committee and United Study text authors had hoped, as can be seen in the conservatism of the Baroness and the racial divisions described by Paist. In fact, at this time, many Protestant denominations’ women’s mission boards, which had been operating independently since their founding in the 1860s, had already been consolidated into general missionary boards run primarily by men, and the era of women’s missionary societies was over.9 The idealistic Christian universalism that the CCUSFM and women’s missionary societies hoped for, their compromise between unity and diversity based on a feminist version of Christianity, would not occur.

The Contradictions of a Limited Universalism

Throughout the United Study series, the CCUSFM and its commissioned authors maintain a tone of hopeful optimism for a better, more Christian future. From the first text in 1901 through the last text in 1938, they continue to view Christianity as the feminist religion that will empower women and save the world. But even as this ideal holds steady, their construction of the relationship between Western and non-Western women shifts gradually over these four decades. It moves from condescension and paternalism to a desire for equal partnership and a more nuanced critique of elements of Western culture that are not in line with Christian values. The United Study series’ best attempt at Christian feminist universalism is exemplified in the 1938 Women and the Way, which allows non-Western women to speak for themselves. However, what these women actually say does not challenge previous arguments about the superiority of Christianity and the need for Western missionaries to lead and guide non-Western women, potentially undermining their universalist message. In addition, the disagreements between the Western women in this volume call into question some of the foundational arguments for women’s foreign missionary societies, in particular the assumed connection between progressive social movements and Christian evangelism. Throughout the series, United Study text authors call on their American readers to recognize their own privilege and to share it with others. Yet they struggle to find ways to make Western and non-Western women equal while still maintaining their argument for foreign missions and their assumption of the superiority of Christianity. Their struggles reveal the difficulties of an international/transnational feminist movement that is reliant on its cultural origins. Even as these white, Christian women recognize their previous racism, ethnocentrism, and complicity with imperialism, their continued reliance on a Western Christian religion and model for womanhood does not allow them to truly question the basis of their movement or to accept non-Western, non-Christian women as true equals.

Many of the ideas expressed in women’s missionary society rhetoric appear problematic from a twenty-first century feminist perspective, including their racist and ethnocentric history and the ways in which their ideas about women’s rights are interarticulated with Christian evangelical doctrine and literal colonialism/imperialism. For these reasons, it might be easy to dismiss texts such as the United Study series as antiquated and even anti-feminist. However, as Hesford’s analysis makes clear, many of the problematic ideas about race, gender, and religion that missionary societies expressed still exist, even in purportedly feminist texts. Dingo points out that similarly ethnocentric assumptions continue to inform public policy: “Women from the Global South are stereotypically characterized as those in need of emancipation by the First World from oppressive gender cultural norms. In contrast, U.S. women tend to be represented as free, autonomous, and liberated subjects unattached to patriarchal structures” (20). The attitudes toward non-Western women that were accepted and spread by women’s foreign missionary societies became part of Americans’ perceptions of the world through the process of ideological trafficking; many of these ideas continue to inform attempts at global feminism today. As scholars or as feminists, we may disagree with the motives, methods, or assumptions of women’s foreign missionary societies, but we should not dismiss their rhetorical strategies or the power that such rhetorical positioning had and continues to have today. We can learn from the ways in which these Christian women, writing a century ago, struggled to reconcile their desire to share their privilege (which they believed derived from their religion) with their belief in the importance of independence and equality. In some ways, their writing on the topics of gender and race is surprisingly progressive for their era and context, particularly in the collaboratively-written Women and the Way. Then again, perhaps we should not be surprised at the thoughtfulness, practicality, and perception of women who were actively involved in teaching, preaching, medical care, social work, writing, speaking, fundraising, organizing, and running large organizations, as well as training other women to do all of the above. The most surprising part is that the history of these societies, some of the largest and most prolific women’s organizations in the United States at the time, has largely been lost or ignored by historians, rhetoricians, and feminists. Ultimately, most Protestant women’s foreign missionary societies did not survive the many changes of the mid-twentieth century, including war, the Depression, secularism, the split between Protestant modernists and fundamentalists, and changing ideas about gender and women’s roles. However, elements of their rhetoric continue until today, and these familiar elements continue to hold power in discourses about who has the right to enforce morality and the extent to which privilege can be shared in relationships based on an imbalance of power.


  1. The 1910 United Study textbook Western Women in Eastern Lands includes a table of women’s missionary societies that lists thirty-six denominational organizations, forty-five magazines published, 815,596 total contributing members, and $3,328,840 received in donations during 1909 (Montgomery).
  2. The women of the CCUSFM chose the topics for the United Study texts and commissioned the authors, almost three quarters of whom were women. At least 23 different women contributed to the 29 female-authored texts (more if we include editors, contributors, and collaborators). Seven of the texts were written by men, and three co-authored by men and women. These authors included current and former missionaries, daughters of missionaries who were raised abroad, domestic missionary society leaders, well-known scholars on various regions/countries, and Christian leaders from all parts of the world.
  3. The first issue of the Methodist women’s missionary periodical, Heathen Woman’s Friend, published in 1869, points out that in some countries, male missionaries had little to no access to native women because of strict division of the sexes. Single female missionaries were called on to meet this need: “The object of this Society is to meet, as far as possible, the great want experienced by our Eastern Missionaries, of Christian women to labor among the women of those heathen lands. Few of us have ever realized how complete is the darkness which envelopes them, and how insufficient have been the efforts hitherto made to admit the light of the Gospel to their benighted hearts and homes. Forbidden by the customs of their country to seek for themselves this light, or to receive instruction at the hands of our missionaries, they are accessible only to Christian teachers of their own sex…Dear Sisters! shall we not recognize, in this emergency, God’s voice as speaking to us—for who can so well do this work as we?” (“Appeal” 1).
  4. The seven texts making up the original series are: Via Christi: An Introduction to the Study of Missions by Louise Manning Hodgkins (1901), Lux Christi: An Outline Study of India by Caroline Atwater Mason (1902), Rex Christus: An Outline Study of China by Arthur H. Smith (1903), Dux Christus: An Outline Study of Japan by Rev. William Elliot Griffis (1904), Christus Liberator: An Outline Study of Africa by Ellen Parsons (1905), Christus Redemptor: An Outline Study of the Island World of the Pacific by Helen Barrett Montgomery (1906), and the summative Gloria Christi: An Outline Study of Missions and Social Progress by Anna Robertson Lindsay (1907).
  5. Although nowhere in Women and the Way is it mentioned that this will be the final text in the series, the CCUSFM had already merged with the male-led Missionary Education Movement and would not publish any further volumes.
  6. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy began in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, primarily as a response to Higher Criticism, which applied historical and critical approaches to the Bible. The controversy, and subsequent split between evangelical fundamentalists and “modernist” mainline Protestants, eventually spread to other denominations as they attempted to grapple with historical criticism of the Bible, modernist philosophies, and growing secularism. The Social Gospel movement, which argued for Christians’ involvement in social/political issues, was primarily aligned with modernist sects. Women’s foreign missionary societies often straddled the line of supporting social gospel-like political involvement while also holding to the importance of the Bible and traditional evangelism.
  7. Lester was a British Baptist activist and pacifist. The biographical note at the beginning of Women and the Way states that “Since 1930 she has travelled widely in America, the Far East and India on her mission of international understanding and goodwill” (xiv). Lester was not a missionary or a missionary society leader, so her inclusion in this volume speaks to the connections between various Christian women’s movements and the Central Committee’s desire to align mission work with the Social Gospel and progressive reform.
  8. More precisely, the metaphor of “The Way” would likely bring to readers’ minds Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
  9. Hardesty describes the consolidation of women’s boards into general denominational boards: A reorganization of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1919 diluted women’s power. In 1923, the male Board of Missions subsumed Presbyterian women’s missions. And the Congregational women’s boards were merged into the ABCFM in 1927. In 1932, the Federation of Woman’s Boards of Foreign Missions combined with the Foreign Missions Conference of North America (FMCNA), a goal the latter had been pursuing since 1910…American Baptist women and Methodist Episcopal women managed to maintain independent institutions much longer, but they had to struggle (“Scientific Study” 116-17).

Works Cited

Burton, Margaret E. Women Workers of the Orient. The Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1918.

Dingo, Rebecca. Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Gnanadickam, Gnanambal. “In India.” Kai-shek et al., pp. 85-101.

Griffis, William Elliot. Dux Christus: An Outline Study of Japan. The Macmillan Company, 1904.

Hardesty, Nancy A. “The Scientific Study of Missions: Textbooks of the Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions.” The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History, Editors Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, The University of Alabama Press, 2003, pp. 106-122.

Hesford, Wendy. “Global Turns and Cautions in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.PMLA, Vol. 121, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 787-801. JSTOR.

—. Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. Duke University Press, 2011.

Kai-Shek, Madame Chiang et al. Women and the Way: Christ and the World’s Womanhood: A Symposium. Friendship Press, 1938.

Kawai, Michi. “In Japan.” Kai-shek et al., pp. 103-17.

Kawai, Michi, and Ochimi Kubushiro. Japanese Women Speak: A Message from the Christian Women of Japan to the Christian Women of America. The Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1934.

Lester, Muriel. “Epilogue: Women, God, and the World.” Kai-shek et al., pp. 189-98.

Matthews, Z. K. “In Africa.” Kai-Shek et al., pp. 7-21.

Montgomery, Helen Barrett. The King’s Highway: A Study of Present Conditions on the Foreign Field. The Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1915.

—. Western Women in Eastern Lands: An Outline Study of Fifty Years of Woman’s Work in Foreign Missions. The Macmillan Company, 1910.

Paist, Mrs. Frederic M. “In North America.” Kai-shek et al, pp. 151-67.

Pruitt, Lisa Joy. A Looking-Glass for Ladies: American Protestant Women and the Orient in the Nineteenth Century. Mercer University Press, 2005.

Robert, Dana L. “The Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home.” Religion and American Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, 2002, pp. 59-89.

Saunders, Una M. “In Great Britain.” Kai-shek et al., pp. 65-83.

Schultz, Gertrude. “A Foreword and Dedication.” Kai-Shek et al., pp. v-vi.

Singmaster, Elsie. A Cloud of Witnesses. The Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1930.

Van Boetzelaer van Asperen en Dubbeldam, Baroness W. E. “In Europe.” Kai-shek et al., pp. 47-63.

Woodsmall, Ruth Frances. Eastern Women: Today and Tomorrow. The Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1933.

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