Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider Women Missionaries


Religion and the imperative to spread one’s religious beliefs gave women the right to travel on their own volition. The Christian missionary women who traveled overseas interpreted foreign cultures for those back home, and had an impact on the peoples they set out to convert.

Example #1: The missionary work of Anglo-Saxon nuns give us very early accounts. In the 8th/9th centuries, the Anglo-Saxons were the leading educators in the Latin West. The church at Rome, which had become the acknowledged center of religious dogma, encouraged religious from England to go into regions now considered lax. The Frankish church, particularly that of the Germanic peoples who lived on the eastern edge of the Carolingian empire, was a principle target.

Archbishop Boniface became the driving force behind this reform movement, recruiting his educated fellow Anglo-Saxons to join the missionary movement "to teach the clerks and the children of the nobility the message of celestial sermons." Women as well as men joined him. Leoba, who left England to settle in Germany between 739 and 748, is one of the better known. Rudolf of Fulda, who recorded her missionary work, tells of life of service without regrets. Letters home from other female missionaries speak moving of feelings of isolation and homesickness in a foreign land, but apparently Leoba suffered none of these thoughts. In his “Life of Leoba,” Fulda states, “She was a woman of great virtue and was so strongly attached to the way of life she had vowed that she never gave thought to her native country or her relatives.” When Boniface was near death, Fulda tells us that he “summoned Leoba to him and...he gave her his cowl and begged and pleaded with her not to leave her adopted land, [but] exhorted her not to abandon the country of her adoption and not to grow weary of the life she had undertaken, but rather to extend the scope of the good work she had begun.”

Example #2: The views of people influenced by the actions of missionaries are harder to find. The Indian writer and educator Krupa Sattianadan, provides one of the earliest written encounters between a young Indian girl and English missionaries. In her autobiographical first novel, “Saguna,” Sattianadan relates her experience in 1878, at about age fourteen, at a mission school in Bombay. The patronizing attitudes of the two British women who take her in hand, the difficulties she has in adjusting to foreign expectations, and her final assertion of the superiority of her class and Indian culture provide lively reading. In one anecdote, she describes being chastised for receiving a friend of her family, called “the Bible woman,” in the drawing room, rather than the kitchen.

“‘In England we receive them in the kitchen. She is no better than a servant, I assure you.’ ‘In the kitchen?’ I said, in amazement and indignation. I was angry and thought of the many grievances that I had heard spoken of. I had also heard that we were the real aristocrats of our country, and that the English ladies who came to India only belonged the middle class, and I resolved to tell her that, so I boldly added: ‘What do you think of us? We are the real aristocrats of this place.’ Unfortunately I pronounced the big word wrongly, and she burst out laughing and repeated it again and again, as I had done. ‘I don’t care. Anyhow, you are middle-class people. She is a brahmin, and only takes money from the Mission because she is poor. She is no servant. In your country you are no brahmins. You are sudras.’ Tears fell from my eyes, and I felt as if I should choke..... ‘Natives’ I said to myself, ‘we are natives. Tomorrow she will say that my mother was a Bible woman too....’”


1) Rudolf, Monk of Fulda, The Life of Saint Leoba.

2) Susie Tharu & K Lalita, editors, Women Writing in India: Volume I, 600 B.C. to the Early 20th Century, 1991.


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