Ironies of Emancipation: Changing Configurations of ‘Women's Work’ in the ‘Mission of Sisterhood’ to Indian Women

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Abstract

On her arrival in Travancore in 1819 Mrs Mault, as wife of the new missionary, immediately set about establishing a school for convert girls and a ‘lace industry’ to employ convert women. Her actions reflect that pattern of activism and organization historians of gender and imperialism have identified as the ‘mission of domesticity’ conducted by European and North American Christian missionary women to their non-Christian ‘sisters’ in the colonial empires being established by their respective nation-states throughout the nineteenth century. Mrs Mault was herself among the first generation of missionary women to pioneer this specifically female branch of colonizing endeavour, designed to ‘emancipate’ Indian women in terms of the norms of metropolitan ideologies of femininity and womanhood. Drawing on a case study of the London Missionary Society’s activities in South Travancore, South India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I argue that this ‘mission of domesticity’ was not a straightforward transfer of conventions of marriage and motherhood to the colonial context. On the contrary, the project was from the start caught in a complex and contradictory web of agency and discourse which ‘remade’ not only convert women but missionary women as well. Central to this process of refiguring femininity on the imperial fulcrum were changes to the meanings of ‘work’ in relation to both ‘home’ and womanhood, articulated through a religious idiom and framework of action. The consequences of these processes, the article argues, were somewhat contrary. On the one hand, the Indian Christian woman is reconstructed as a wife, mother and worker, while on the other, the missionary women are bifurcated: the missionary wife increasingly viewed as an amateur appendage to her husband, firmly secured in the domestic sphere, while the single woman attains a new status as a professional worker.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)108-126
Number of pages19
JournalFeminist Review
Volume65
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2000

Keywords

  • Colonialism
  • Home
  • India
  • Missionaries
  • Women
  • Work

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