In 1879, Katherine Bushnell, a young, recently qualified doctor from America’s Midwest, arrived in the Chinese city of Kiukiang to serve as a Methodist missionary. She was driven by a deep commitment to Christianity and a desire to spread the Gospel. Three years later, she returned to the US, ill and exhausted from working all hours in a chronically under-staffed mission clinic, wondering what to do next.
Although she saw her missionary work in China as a failure, it was the turning point of Bushnell’s life. Working in another culture enabled her to see her own society more clearly, in particular the churches’ part in the subjugation of women, and it led her to question her faith in the emancipatory capacity of Western Christianity. A Chinese translation of the Bible was the catalyst for change. She had enough facility in the language to notice that in the translation of Philippians iv, 2-3, the female labourers in the gospel – Euodia and Syntyche – had been turned into men. And so it occurred to her that perhaps the English translations of the Bible had similar biases.
So began the work for which Bushnell is best known: her book, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy, first published in 1916, and her energetic work as a Christian feminist in the intertwined temperance and “social purity” movements.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s study is both a fascinating biography of this largely forgotten woman and an excellent social history of late 19th- and early 20th-century American Christian feminism. Bushnell grew up in predominantly Methodist Evanston, Illinois, a crucible for connections between Protestant Christianity and the women’s movement, and the home of Frances Willard, a feminist campaigner who would become Bushnell’s mentor.
Bushnell’s conclusions about the patriarchal nature of the Bible came not only through an intensive study of the text in Greek and Hebrew, but also through her activism as a social purity reformer, uncovering society’s sexual double standards. While prostitutes were condemned as “fallen women”, the men who employed their services were seen as upstanding citizens. Bushnell was intrepid in rooting out and exposing how women were trafficked and abused, from the lumber camps of Wisconsin to the military brothels of colonial India, and pointing out that the male abusers of these women were Christians.
The late 19th century was the era of new Bible translations, and Bushnell believed it was male bias that had distorted all previous translations. The Fall was not Eve’s fault, she contended, but Adam’s. The sin for women was in following men rather than God, for men had usurped God’s authority. In Bushnell’s scholarship, the Bible was a liberating text for women.
God’s Word received praise, even from some conservatives, when it was published in 1916. But as Du Mez observes, American Protestantism was changing rapidly by the 1920s and 1930s, and Bushnell’s work fell out of favour, although she remained a devoted activist up until her death in 1946, 10 days before her 91st birthday.
Du Mez concludes by suggesting that, for the feminist Christian context that she herself works in, Bushnell’s work provides an alternative to both “secular feminism” and “family values” evangelicalism, and she shows its resonances with current Christian campaigns against human trafficking, for example. Whether her subject’s 19th-century Christian feminism translates to our own context in that way or not, Du Mez has produced a fine book that attests to Bushnell’s significance for the history of late Victorian Protestant activism and scholarship.
Jane Shaw is professor of religious studies and dean for religious life, Stanford University. She is author, most recently, of Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers (2011).
A New Gospel for Women: Katherine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism
By Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £19.99
Published 21 May 2015