In The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China, Jane Hunter argues that women missionaries in turn-of-the-century China were able to use missionary work to greatly expand women’s sphere even as they supported submissive roles for women and lived relatively circumscribed lives at the mission. Hunter accesses this paradoxical construction of American womanhood in China primarily via the letters and private papers of some 40 female missionaries from different denominations who worked in China from 1900 to 1922, when some 60% of Protestant missionaries in China were women. She also includes information from interviews and the archives of two mission boards. Because their status as outsiders in Chinese culture throws the missionaries’ gender norms in high relief, the book highlights the feminization of Protestantism and the ways in which American womanhood intersected with work, religion, and cross-cultural exchanges.
Hunter is careful to stress that female missionaries in China had a wide variety of experiences and interpretation of gender constructs. Often, the lives of female missionaries were spatially and culturally circumscribed: married female missionaries rarely left the domestic sphere of their home and children, and single women only occasionally made contact with potential “clients” for conversion. Few female missionaries taught in languages other than English or attempted to learn Chinese, many refused to use Chinese artifacts, and many suspected Chinese servants of “contaminating” the minds of their children even as those same servants liberated them to do their missionary work. Some found the insular, largely female world of the mission comforting, a welcome alternative to spinsterhood in America or a place to develop intimate same-sex relationships. For most, the female missionaries thought the Chinese were a barbarous people badly in need of conversion, and many tried to recreate Victorian America in China. And from what little we see of the Chinese, this last part – the American culture the missionaries embodied and recreated – was by far the most interesting.
While Hunter’s emphasis on letters home sometimes leads her to emphasize personal feelings over structural explanations, and more information on Chinese perceptions of the missionaries would definitely strengthen her analysis, her in-depth analysis of missionary communities in China provides a fascinating look into turn-of-the-century Protestant reform culture. Less radical and more circumscribed than their peers in settlement houses in America, American women missionaries in China still banded together as middle-class women who wanted to reform the masses to protect themselves. Like other books on reform during this time period, Gospel of Gentility suggests that the reformers themselves had more at stake than their potential reformees.