Where have all the women gone?" This question began to be whispered by the 1960s and later reached a crescendo that still echoes in our day. Women are still around, of course; they are all over this round earth, but what about their present role in world mission?
For more than a century the role of women has sparked passionate debate in the church, the consequences of which are important to Christian mission. As in all sensitive matters, personal implications have not proven helpful. In a spirit of mutual understanding we must search for solutions.
Let us begin with a brief historical sketch of missions. With this knowledge we can profit from the lessons of the past for the sake of the mission we love.
The golden century
A journey back to the nineteenth century reveals that women's involvement in foreign missions was intertwined with the great American Protestant missionary movement of that era. It coincided with the awakening of free moral agency, women's rights, suffrage, and abolition. Women became involved in the humanitarian side of mission work, specifically health issues and social problems. Working in these areas, they often proved more valuable than men. As Joanna P. Moore stated: "We are the highway and hedge workers, who are also able to expound the Scriptures. We can help a tired mother, cut out a garment for her child, and meanwhile teach them the gospel. We not only pray for the sick but we also cook for them. . . . We are equally at home in parlor or kitchen. Our shoes are iron and brass, there is no road too hard for us to travel."1 This is a representative job description for the missionary woman of days gone by.
At first, appointing women to the mission field didn't seem feasible, proper, or biblical. Only in the 1860s, with the rise of women's foreign missionary societies, did their dream of service become reality.
The nineteenth century, that golden century of world mission, is also called the women's century, since "for many years women constituted the majority of foreign missions." 2 We find women such as Mary Slessor working at Calabar, one of the most treacherous spots in the African continent, for which "no return tickets were issued." An old African chief who witnessed her work remarked: "I tell you them women be best men for mission." 3
By the late nineteenth century women's overseas missionary service became so significant that a Methodist bishop concluded that "when a field was found too difficult for a man, a woman should be sent." 4 In 1875 a male official of the Southern Baptist foreign mission wrote: "I estimate a single woman in China is worth two married men." 5
Why women succeeded
There were several reasons for the success of women missionaries:
1. Their human warmth. A woman's warmheartedness compensates for the machine coldness of emerging industrialization in areas of mission.
2. Their power of endurance. Women often cope more easily than men with pain and physical discomfort. They have the capacity of endurance, adaptability, and even wholesome stubbornness.
3. Their ability to address other women's needs. Women know how to deliver other women from moral slavery and stifling cultural and religious taboos. They can open unsuspected doors, destroy barriers, and prepare the road for male missionary action. In India, for example, the work among the Zenana women, secluded Hindu and Muslim women, could never have been accomplished by men.
Many obstacles to Christian penetration among Muslims could be partially overcome by women. I believe missionary bodies ought to lay far more emphasis on work for Muslim women through other women.
Unfortunately, the golden years of women in mission were doomed. As we survey the present situation, well may we ask, "Where have all the women gone?" They have taken a back seat in mission, and this may be one of the main reasons for the general decline in mission work and influence. Missionary wives face a lack of recognition and role definition. Even voluntary work is often considered meddling. This has helped create a certain apathy almost impossible to overcome. As national women are now trying to fill the roles previously occupied by expatriate women, the need for such role models is even more pressing than in the past. Catholics have recently come to terms with the importance of these role models, and so have missionaries of other denominations. What about Seventh-day Adventists?
The Seventh-day Adventist missions
There is an endless list of courageous Adventist women who have in vested their lives as missionaries. Their contribution has been priceless in the past. What about the present?
To begin with, it is rather striking that no statistics whatsoever exist about Adventist women in mission. This alone speaks volumes for their lack of status and role definition.
According to information that can be gleaned, the three main opportunities for women missionaries are nursing, teaching, and secretarial work. Nevertheless, few women actually receive calls in these areas. They are usually engaged on location, mostly in a national budget or on a volunteer basis.
One administrator's wife observed, "Missionary wives have served only as their husbands' helpers without portfolio, low profile, an unpaid, unrecognized co-laborer, largely unhonored and unsung, but still expected to accomplish the impossible." Often they have borne as heavy a load as a paid worker.
One General Conference official remarked, "These women may not be getting the calls, but they certainly are very well prepared and qualified on their own for service." Of the 25 family units sent overseas in the summer of 1988, 17 featured wives with a college degree.
Only two world divisions seem to have some women in administrative positions. One mission president's wife wrote: "Sadly, the many talents of women in mission have very seldom been fully utilized in my division."
In recent times there seems indeed to be a tendency to have some women missionaries appointed in their own right, especially as nurses, secretaries, and teachers. Their numbers, however, are still quite low. Of course, many wives are quite content with their role as husband's helper, happy to work wherever needed. But when these women feel that they can have no outlet for talents and involvement in mission—yet have all the disadvantages of climate, isolation from family and friends, prevalence of disease and low-grade educational facilities for their children—it is small wonder that they become frustrated. Having gotten a negative view of mission, they are tempted to quit.
Women in the past were a stabilizing element in mission. Many seem nowadays to have become a hindrance, if we consider that most cases of failure in mission are credited to the wife's lack of adaptability. If, however, they had a defined role in mission life, they would certainly go back to the same spirit their predecessors showed. Lack of budget often hinders this process of role definition, but even so, there is much more women can do with their talents.
One missionary wife expressed her heart's desire: "I have a dream that one day soon, men and women will stand as equal partners, each using their God-given talents to advance the work of mission." 6
Trends for the future
Women the world over are asking what it means to be a servant of Christ in rapidly changing social contexts. After searching for personal freedom and satisfaction in the 1960s and 1970s, many women now realize that the goals they attained have exacted too high a price. Tired of being treated as sex objects and work machines, exhausted by their self-imposed superwomen myth, many are looking for fulfillment in higher social and religious commitment. Many women who have been caught between old myths and new images are discovering their purpose in life. This may lead to a new interest in missions.
European women, for example, are getting involved in such issues as quest for peace and curbing the acceleration of the nuclear arms race. North American women are concerned about issues of social justice—breaking down barriers of race and class. Latin Americans are yearning for solutions against oppression by militarism. Asians are preoccupied by the imbalance that exists be tween the extremely poor and the few who have wealth. African women are debating problems related to polygamy, the ethics of celibacy, family autonomy, etc. Women missionaries are becoming involved with inculturation—an encounter between the Word of God and cultural/historical realities.
One male Adventist leader from overseas affirmed in a letter: "We still have a long way to go concerning the role and status of women in mission. It is difficult to change attitudes and time-honored practices. Women are still far from winning recognition as equal partners in mission, but changes are slowly but steadily taking place. There is hope for the future."
Through these gates of hope we shall step into the future with confidence, knowing that together men and women, toiling side by side with God's help, will take the gospel into all the world. Then the work will be finished and the Saviour will come.
1 Joanna P. Moore, In Christ's Stead
(Chicago: Women's Baptist Home Mission Society,
1902), p. 140.
2 Elisabeth Elliot, The Place of Women in
World Mission (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity
Press, 1974), pp. 124, 125.
3 Katherine Moore, She for God: Aspects of
Women and Christianity (London: Allison and
Busby, 1978), p. 167.
4 Frederick B. Hoyt, The Historian (1992),
Vol. XLIV, p. 314.
5 Catherine Allen, The New Lottie Moon Story
(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), p. 142.
6 May Porter (letter, June 1988).