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© Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines 31, no. 1, 2001 “A Hewer of Wood and Drover of Water”: Expectations of Protestant Missionary Women on the Western Frontiers of Canada and the United States, 1830–1900 C.L. Higham Between 1820 and 1900, women represented approximately thirty per cent of the missionaries sent to western Canada, the majority married to other missionaries. During the same period, women comprised sixty per cent of the Protestant missionaries sent to Indian missions in the western United States.1 Over half of the women in US mission work were single and unrelated to other members of the mission.2 To the male-dominated Protestant missionary societies, women represented the embodiment of Christian womanhood: pious protectors of home, hearth, and the private sphere. But missionary women viewed their role differently . Better educated than the average woman in Canada or the United States, and often more educated than their male counterparts, females joined the missionary movement because missionary societies portrayed their work as a liberating and more public extension of Christian womanhood (Wills 253–55).3 Therefore, missionary women hoped to use their education to advance Christianity and to extend the role of the Christian woman. Once they arrived on the frontier , though, they found that mission work offered simply the same traditional roles of wife, helpmate, mother, and nurse but in a different locale. By examining Protestant missionary societies’ expectations for women and missionary women’s own expectations of mission work, this paper studies how missionary women struggled with these expectations when they conflicted with actual experience on the frontier. It compares female and male missionaries’ descriptions of native women to examine the conflicts in missionary women’s lives. Female missionaries brought a distinctly different understanding of women’s roles and Christianity to their encounters with native women than did male missionaries . Protestant missionary women’s accounts of their lives on the frontier expressed contradictory ideas about native women.4 While praising native Canadian Review of American Studies 31 (2001) 448 women for their independence and ability to survive in adverse conditions , female missionaries also dismissed their native counterparts as dirty, incompetent creatures. These inconsistencies illustrate the clash between the expectations of missionary women and societies and actual experiences on the frontier more than they depict the actual lives of native women.5 Canadian and US missionary societies allowed female missionaries to participate only as models of Christian womanhood and domesticity. In The Name of War, historian Jill Lepore discusses the complexities of Englishmen describing torture: “But for an English soldier to confess his fascination , to admit his pleasure, is to become indistinguishable from the Indian beside him” (12). The same maxim holds true of white missionary women in the nineteenth century. To confess their fascination or admiration of native women made them, to the missionary societies and their male colleagues, indistinguishable from the Indian women beside them. Therefore, to clearly establish the differences between native women and themselves, female missionaries criticized native women in the areas that female missionaries supposedly exemplified: domesticity and Christian womanhood. Though female missionaries’ views of native women appear ambivalent and contradictory, the nuances demonstrate the complexities of their expectations, including those placed on them, versus their own experience. While male missionaries simply dismissed native women as “beasts of burden” or as reflections of native men’s failings, female missionaries struggled to express their frustrations with their own roles on the frontier through their views of native women. Male and female missionaries’ views of native women differed in several significant ways. Male missionaries often evaluated native women by how native men treated them.6 Female missionaries did not simply observe gender relations and women’s roles, they endured them. They experienced first-hand two things that male missionaries did not. They actually lived within the re-creation and constraints of Christian womanhood on the frontier. And they encountered native men’s apparent lack of respect for women’s authority. These two factors shaped the ways in which female missionaries expressed their views of native women. This paper does not examine the differences between groups of native women in the nineteenth century nor does it examine their...


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