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The Communion of Women

Review by: Pamela Welch, University of Otago

Elizabeth E. Prevost, The Communion of Women: Missions and Gender in Colonial Africa and the British Metropole, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

This is a meticulously researched, closely written and intriguing book. Its contents are somewhat belied by the title: “Towards a Communion of Women” would have been more accurate, as what is described here, in minute detail, is a process rather than something unequivocally achieved, for this is a story of negotiation, adjustment, revaluation, transition and dialogue. The text abounds in these words, as also in such qualifications as ‘fragile’, ‘partial’, ‘uneven’, ‘shifting’, ‘precarious’. This makes for demanding but also rewarding reading, particularly as the author interrogates not only her source material but also the old certainties, not only of mission, imperial and ecclesiastical studies but even, occasionally, those of gender history itself.

The first section is devoted to a study of Anglican female missionaries in two very different parts of Africa: Madagascar, which was High Church (SPG) territory, under local and then colonial (French) rule, between 1867 and 1923; and Uganda, an Evangelical (CMS) area, from the beginnings of a British Protectorate in 1895 to 1930. The freedom and responsibility enjoyed by these women (the lack or lightness of male supervision) allowed them to carve out ‘gendered’ or independent spaces for their work. Prevost makes telling use of their letters and reports ‘home’ (to the missionary bodies) to describe this process and to demonstrate not only how they attempted to shape the people and societies they found according to their theologies and preconceptions but also how they were at the same time shaped by Africa, and particularly by the women with whom they worked so closely. She identifies as particularly significant the moments when some of these British women, in both Madagascar and Uganda, realised and rejoiced at the experience of a ‘fellowship of womanhood’ or ‘oneness’ with African women, as they knelt with them at the communion rail (p. 1).

In the second part, Prevost suggests that these experiences, of independent female religious authority and of a shared womanhood which transcended all barriers of race or background, were then translated back into the lives and experiences of women in Britain, giving fuel to such movements as the League of the Church Militant (LCM, a suffragist group). She suggests, further, that the experiences had a wider effect in that they gave rise to a ‘feminized Christianity’ which frequently, though not consistently, she identifies with ‘mission Christianity’ itself (p. 201, 227ff.). This, in turn, is said to have produced one of the most powerful post-World War One critiques of empire and colonialism. Categories begin to be over-blurred at this point however, and the implications are queried by some of Prevost’s own evidence: though feminist missionary discourse was indeed influential in such debates, women were not the only ones out there, either at home or abroad. The ‘feminist’ thinkers of Chapter 5, for instance (‘Rethinking Christianity and Colonialism in the Wake of Total War’), include Edward Lyttleton (p. 204-5), Leo Amery, Shoran S. Singha (p. 207-8) and A.F. Winnington-Ingram (p. 209-10) as well as Maude Royden and Ruth Rouse. This attempt to trace a ‘discursive’ connection between mission and metropole (p. 249), and particularly between the hitherto-hidden history of early female missionaries and their articulate metropolitan successors, is the least successful part of the book, possibly because the sources are slippery and unable to support an argument on this very large scale convincingly. A host of interesting questions are raised, however, which need to be pursued further.

Much clearer is the close reading of Chapter 6, ‘Feminizing Church and State: Mission Christianity and Gender Politics, 1910-1928’ and the connection made there between the experience of (later and vocal) female missionaries (notably Helen Hanson, a doctor who served in India) and the struggle first for the vote and then for women’s ordination in the metropole. Possibly the most interesting, and unlikely, part played in this entire feminist drama, however, is that of the Mother’s Union. The MU, unexamined, would appear to be a candidate for control by ‘patriarchy’. It was founded in Britain by a bishop’s wife, approved of by male hierarchies, dedicated to women in the home. ‘Female spirituality’ was its concern but this was seen as vital, as ‘the foundation of family, church, and national life’ (p. 261). It followed that social and political change were dependent upon ‘a global community of women … bonded through motherhood and prayer’. In Britain, then Madagascar and Uganda and throughout the Anglican world, this organization for women, run by women, flourished in the ‘gendered spaces’ of ecclesiastical and indigenous social structures alike, transforming the lives and work of both missionaries and non-western women. ‘Sisterhood’ or the ‘communion of women’ became ‘global’ (p. 260). The MU flourishes still and the fact that the first men were this year admitted to membership (in the Diocese of Trinidad and Tobago) makes one wonder if, pushed a little harder, Prevost’s theories about the feminization of ‘mission Christianity’ might be substantiated, at least to some degree.

This book is beautifully produced and the copy-editing refreshingly good. It has, however, suffered from the ‘hands-off’ approach of modern publishing. The eagle-eyed, old-fashioned publisher’s reader/editor would have noticed that we meet the LCM first on page 200 but only really learn about it on page 226, for instance. Some of the excellent material in the Introduction could have been used, with benefit, in the chapters, especially to make bridges between them. And if we are given the Ugandan equivalents of prime minister (katikiro) (p. 84) or king (Omukama, in Toro) (p. 93), why are we not given the pre-colonial Malagasy equivalents for provincial or lieutenant governor (p. 46)? Places mentioned in the text ought also to appear on maps (the district of Koki is mentioned on page 84, but is not on the map facing).

It is to be hoped that this book will inspire field work, for in Uganda and Madagascar the memory of the missionaries who worked there is likely to have been preserved and not lost, as in Britain. It is also to be hoped that it will be seen as contributing to a new and more highly nuanced feminist historiography: the sheer honesty with which Prevost treats her material opens the way to such a development.

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