The connection between missionary work and first wave Christian feminism was strong. By the turn of the 20th century, the female missionary movement was one of the leading religious movements of the day, and larger than any other mass women’s movement in the previous century. The last decade of the 19th century showed a particular dramatic increase in the number of single female missionaries: in the Church Missionary Society alone, from 15 single women in 1883 to 134 in 1893 to over 300 by 1901. Many then directed the self-same energies and skills to the ‘saving’ of women at home…
Dr Helen Hanson (b.1874) was a striking example of missionaries who became leading feminists. She played a lively part in the women’s suffrage struggle, including as a member of the Women’s Freedom League and tax resister, and as an Executive member of the (Anglican) Church League of Women’s Suffrage. Whilst males in the medical profession remained typically resistant to the women’s movement (with the exception of Church suffragists such as Sir Victor Horsley), Helen Hanson was also but one example of a number of prominent Christian feminist doctors (notably including Jane Walker and Letitia Fairfield, also Church League Executive members).
Edith Picton-Turbervill (1872-1960) came from a privileged background, but was a strong social reformer and one of the first Labour MPs, besides being the first woman to preach at a statutory service in the Church of England and a leading advocate of women’s ordination. Her public career began in the slums of Shoreditch and as a YWCA missionary. Such social and philanthropic work then led her to the women’s and labour movements, as she quickly identified that:
fundamental changes in law were necessary to obtain better conditions of life for the people.
(Life is Good, autobiography, p.152)
She was elected in 1929 as MP of Wrekin (now Telford) and, among other achievements, successfully introduced legislation to prevent the passing of the death sentence on expectant mothers. After electoral defeat in 1931, she then traveled widely, including to Turkey in 1935 and Copenhagen in 1939, as head of the British delegation to the International Congress of Women Citizens. Perhaps her most influential international work however was in helping to secure the acceptance in 1939 by both Hong Kong and Malaysia of the ending of the mui tsai system, whereby young girls were transferred from their natural parents to another household in return for money, to become domestic servants. In the Second World War, she then worked for the Ministry of Information, before becoming President of the National Council of Women Citizens in 1944.
Christ and Woman’s Power
Edith Picton Turbervill’s church involvement certainly blazed a trail. In the first world war, women began to be licensed to speak, usually to women only, as part of initiatives such as the National Mission of Repentance and Hope. Edith was a leading figure and then went on to be the first woman officially to preach a service at a statutory service in the Church of England, at North Somercotes in Lincolnshire. She was also one of several women who preached at St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, at the invitation of the rector, G.W. Hudson Shaw. Although an Anglican, she was also frequently asked to preach in the local chapels of the Wrekin.
Throughout her life she campaigned for women’s equality within the Church, at every level. A landmark work, with a foreword from Lady Frances Balfour, in 1919 she published Christ and Woman’s Power, which laid out a case for female priests, partly based on the pioneering work of women in missionary and other areas of public life. This was followed by several other publications, including: The Coming Order in the Church of Christ; (with B.H. Streeter), Woman and the Church; Musings of a Lay-woman on the life of the Churches; and Christ and International Life.
Source of healing and good news for all whole world,
we give you thanks for Helen Hanson and Edith Picton-Turbervill,
and for all female missionaries who have shared your love with others.
Strengthen, we pray, all women who today work in mission fields
and bring new life and hope to the poor.
In the healing power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.