On missionaries for women’s rights

Robert Woodberry describes some of the unpopular causes Christian missionaries fought for.



Robert Woodberry describes some of the unpopular causes Christian missionaries fought for.


Missionaries had huge influence on the life of women. They were the first people to systematically try to educate women. So in most societies you had a small number of women who could read, but they mostly tended to be very elite families. But there’s no systematic attempt to educate women and it was often thought to be bad, and there was a lot of resistance initially to educating women – all around the world, in China, in Japan, in Korea, in India, in the Muslim world and the Middle East, Ottoman Empire, and in Africa. But missionaries consistently educated women quite early on.

Missionaries also got involved in a lot of political reform movements. Now most movements, they didn’t want to lose converts over. The movements that they were willing to lose converts over were almost all issues related to women’s rights. So they were crucial in fighting foot-binding in China. They were crucial in fighting slavery, prostitution that involved … people didn’t have a right to leave. They were crucial in fighting in India what was called sati where, at least in some parts of India, and also Bali, when an elite man died, his wife was supposed to burn herself alive on his funeral pyre. Which missionaries thought was a bad thing and fought.

They were the first people to make movements against female genital mutilation. They were involved in fighting for raising the age of consummation of marriage – so, for example, in India they made a movement to try and raise the age for consummation of marriage to age 12. It was so unpopular that it was never enforced, and it became a crucial issue in terms of the rise of Indian nationalism actually, and many of the key Indian leaders that we know of were involved in fighting that law. But missionaries responded to a bunch of women who died when their marriages were consummated when they were too young.

So there were lots of movements that they got involved in in terms of women’s rights, not many of which were popular at the time and many of which they lost converts over – but now most people, even in those societies, would support.