Gender, Mission and Workby Karina Hestad Skeie

Scandinavian Journal of History

About

Year
2015
DOI
10.1080/03468755.2015.1042034
Subject
History

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Text

Karina Hestad Skeie

GENDER, MISSION AND WORK

The complex relationship between formal rights and missionary agency in the Norwegian Lutheran

China Mission Association

This article explores the complex relationship between formal gender rights and agency in the gender-conservative Norwegian mission organization, the Norwegian Lutheran China

Mission Association (NLCM). The NLCM, currently named the Norwegian Lutheran

Mission (Norsk Luthersk Misjonssamband, NLM), is known for promoting women’s subordination under men. In the NLM, women were not granted the right to vote at the

General Assembly (GA) until 1997. Even today, only men may have a seat on the NLM’s committee for principal theological deliberations and decisions, because supreme spiritual leadership is reserved exclusively for men. NLM is currently the largest mission organization in the Nordic countries. The NLCM has been understood as an exception among

Protestant missions that promoted women’s visibility, formal organizational rights and public role at the turn of the 20th century. Based on original archival research on the

NLCM’s first decades in China, this paper analyses to what extent the NLCM was exceptional in its gender ideology and practice compared to other major Norwegian mission societies and Norwegian state Christianity at the turn of the 20th century.

Keywords Christian missions, gender, formal rights, agency, Norwegian mission,

China

Introduction

Before the impact of women’s studies and gender studies, mission studies focused almost exclusively on men. Therefore Bowie, Kirkwood and Ardener, in their influential anthology, Women and Missions: Past and Present, proposed that women had been systematically written out of historical and anthropological mission records. A considerable amount of gender-sensitive mission research has since ‘reclaimed women’s presence’ and ‘made women visible’1, firmly inscribing (white) women’s presence and decisive contributions in Christian missions.2 This also includes studies on

Nordic missions, which have had a prominent focus on women.3

Scandinavian Journal of History, 2015

Vol. 40, No. 3, 332–356, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03468755.2015.1042034 © 2015 the Historical Associations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Gender and mission now constitutes a rich and nuanced research field. Its themes and theoretical approaches are much too numerous to cover in a short introduction such as this. However, some main tendencies in the last couple of decades can be briefly mentioned. The roles and influences of indigenous Christians of both sexes have increasingly been drawn into the studies on missions and Christianity in recognition of indigenous missionaries’ decisive role in the local expansion and appropriation of

Christianity.4 Some scholars explore the interconnections between missionary notions of gender and understandings among those that the missionaries sought to convert.5

Intersectional research analyses gender in relation to categories such as race, class, ethnicity, and so on.6 Other studies have examined how the interplay between religious institutions, faith, personality and specific historical circumstances shape missionary work and identity in complex ways.7 In the Nordic context, three recent studies have again focused on men, however, from a perspective of the social and historical construction of missionary masculinities.8 There is a particularly large scholarship on mission and empire. Most recent in the mission and gender research field is the attention to generation and missionary families, a research perspective which seeks to combine institutional and biographical aspects of lived missionary lives and ‘research models sensitive to emotion, intimacy and personality’.9 In this article, I will initially return to a women’s history perspective before trying to employ a broader gender perspective on a particular case study.

In the wake of the Norwegian centennial celebration of the introduction of the general vote for both men and women (in 2013), it is relevant to underline again how women’s eligibility and right to vote was a major theme in many Western societies and in Christian organizations towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. As such, it has also been a major issue in some of the research on mission and gender.10 Indeed, women were granted eligibility and the right to vote in most major Norwegian Christian voluntary organizations in the period 1892–1905, with the

Norwegian Sunday School Association (Norsk Søndagsskoleforbund) the first in 1889.11 By the time the Norwegian state granted Norwegian women the right to vote on equal terms to men in 1913, women had already had the right to vote and to serve as deputies and board members for a decade or more in a majority of the Christian organizations, mission societies included.12

The social significance and impact of this is still not duly recognized in secular

Nordic historiography.13 Commenting on the research front in gender and mission more than a decade ago, Inger Marie Okkenhaug held forward how 19th- and early 20th-century Christian Protestant mission may be termed a feminist project in practice, transforming women’s roles in religious organizations and society.14 It is an important point, also beyond the Protestant mission example, that theologically gender conservative religious milieus can promote change and transformations of tradition – to the extent of being justifiably termed ‘feminist’. This shows how religion can be a powerful driver for social change in unpredictable ways.15

The Norwegian Lutheran China Mission Association (NLCM), currently named the Norwegian Lutheran Mission Association (NLM),16 has been understood as an exception among Norwegian Protestant missions.17 Primarily based on the fact that women were not granted the right to vote at the General Assembly (GA) until 1997, women’s position in the NLM has been characterized as ‘always disputed and subordinate’.18 Still today, only men may have a seat on the society’s committee for