Woman's Missionary Movement

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Time Period
1861  - 1930
Description
In the mid-19th century, some American women grew increasingly unsatisfied with the limited roles granted them in church, home and missions. In 1861, Sarah Doremus founded the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, an interdenominational mission board to send single women overseas. In the years following the Civil War, women of many Protestant denominations -- including Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian -- organized their own mission boards. These women believed that female missionaries had a unique role in "woman’s work for woman:" reaching secluded "heathen" women whom Western men were forbidden to visit.

By the turn of the 20th century, at least 40 women’s missionary societies were in existence, involving two million female mission workers and thousands of American women in leadership roles that had been nonexistent decades earlier.

The movement decline in the 1920s and 1930s, but paved the way for even more significant advances in female church leadership later in the century.
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Social Movements and Religion
Women and Religion
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Social Movements and Religion in American History
Women and Religion in American History
Narrative
The woman’s missionary movement involved more than two million Protestant American women in supporting and participating in international missions during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. This movement provided many American women with their first experiences in leadership, fund-raising, publishing and cross-cultural ministry. It also added thousands of single female missionaries to the global American mission force.

Development

In the mid-19th some American women grew increasingly unsatisfied with the limited roles granted them in church and home. Paid employment for women was unusual and denominational missions agencies routinely denied female candidates unless they were going overseas to maintain a home for their missionary husbands. In 1861, Sarah Doremus founded the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, an interdenominational mission board to send single women overseas. In the years following the Civil War, women of many Protestant denominations -- from Congregationalist to Methodist to Presbyterian -- organized their own mission boards. These women believed that female missionaries had a unique role in "woman’s work for woman:” reaching secluded “heathen” women whom Western men were forbidden to visit.

Leadership Roles for Women

By the turn of the 20th century, at least 40 women’s missionary societies were in existence, involving thousands of American women in leadership roles that had been nonexistent a few decades earlier. Women served as officers in their local societies, led monthly missions meetings and raised awareness of the needs of women and children overseas. National leaders of women’s missions organizations gained business and ministry skills as they appointed and sent female missionaries, published dozens of magazines such as Woman’s Missionary Advocate, and accounted for millions of dollars in donations. Women such as Helen Barrett Montgomery and Lucy Waterbury Peabody gained national recognition for their leadership of the woman’s missionary movement. They and others published best-selling books for study by missionary societies and held interdenominational conferences in support of women in missions, such as the 1910 Woman’s Missionary Jubilee.

In addition, female missionaries overseas assumed roles not always open to women in the United States, such as leading schools, serving as doctors and nurses and conducting evangelistic work. Women soon outnumbered men in the American mission force. For the first time, a significant number of women across and beyond the United States conducted independent ministry efforts that gradually expanded the role of women in American Christianity. As churches and society changed in the 1920s and 1930s, the woman’s missionary movement declined, but the new roles it had provided for American women prepared the way for even more significant advances later in the century.

Photographs

Woman's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society Jubilee, 1910- Hathi Trust- from Missions, vol 12 (1921)

Sarah Doremus portrait- Hathi Trust- from Western Women in Eastern Lands by Helen Barrett Montgomery

Hellen Barrett Montgomery portrait- Hathi Trust- from The Bible and Missions by Helen Barrett Montgomery

Woman's Work for Woman, first issue- Internet Archive

Woman's Home Missionary Society, 39th annual meeting- Hathi Trust- from Woman's Home Missions, vol 37 (1912)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Melody Maxwell

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