Representations of Self and Other in American Missionary Wives’ Life Writing
“They took her at first for a missionary with her drab clothes, gaunt figure and scraped-back hair.” (Middleton 152)
Many nineteenth-century Protestant missionary wives wrote journals and letters, narratives of female strength, ambition, and precursory feminism. The journals and letters selected for this study are those of Narcissa Whitman (left), Sarah Smith, and Mary Walker, who travelled with their husbands to Oregon in respectively 1836 and 1838 to work as missionaries among Native Americans. Whereas studies usually regard writing by missionary wives as mere historical sources, this research aims to regard these texts as forms of life writing dependent on narrative strategies. Since life writing relies on referring to the self and as missionary women’s portrayals of self have scarcely been analyzed in prior studies, self-representation is the main focus of the literary analysis.
This calls for an understanding of identity, which, as this study emphasizes, are always intersectional. Following particularly Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Every day Life, identity is understood as a performance or representation. Someone can emphasize aspects of identity, and alternate identities or roles according to the situation. Based on postcolonial theory, the importance of representations of the other to construct the self is additionally emphasized. The analysis therefore compares and contrasts representations of white and Native American femininity and domesticity, in light of travel, intercultural encounters, missions, and wife and motherhood.
Historians use the public-private divide to describe nineteenth-century white women’s experiences. This dichotomy, embedded in nineteenth-century discourses of domesticity and femininity that stereotyped white women as physically and emotionally weak, and assigned them to the private sphere, characterized white gendered roles, family structures, and culture. Missionary wives were the first missionary women to venture into the public and professional sphere through travel and mission work, which challenged ideological white femininity and domesticity, and advanced the professionalization of women’s work.
Using Mills’ Discourses of Differences, Whitman, Smith, and Walker’s self-representation as travellers are studied in light of said discourses. The identity of female traveller and the identity of ‘proper’ white lady are mutually exclusive, and the analysis shows the women continuously move between representing themselves in accordance to and incongruous with these discourses to negotiate their movement between public and private.
Missionary wives’ missionary task consisted primarily of propagating the gospel through their domestic and familial responsibilities, and demonstrating to indigenous women ‘true’ femininity, domesticity, and motherhood. Even though Protestant missions viewed both roles as ideally coincidental, the narratives suggest that in practice these callings are rather incompatible, leading to ambivalent self-representations and continuous movement between the public and private roles of missionary and domestic white mother. Missionary wives’ exemplifying task required them to simultaneously uphold and contest the white feminine and domestic ideal, as missions professionalized and pushed missionary wives’ ideologically private role into the public sphere. Also, the white ideal of motherhood discorded with missionary motherhood that viewed children as evangelizing and civilizing tools, which meant raising them in close contact with others, risking so called heathen influences.
Additionally, the missionary wives’ possible movement towards Native American culture, which referred to allowing intercultural encounters to destabilize ethnic gendered boundaries, is assessed to understand how Whitman, Walker, and Smith’s self-representations are shaped simultaneously by gender, ethnicity, race, and religion. Especially descriptions of the encounter with Native American men, a particularly anxiety ridden encounter that threatens gendered and ethnic boundaries, indicate the intersection of gender and ethnic differences. Representations of encounters with Native American women show how the missionary wives construct a superior identity as white, domestic women and mothers.
Another significant characterization of self-representation in the life writing studied here is what this study terms spiritualization, which functions as a strategic narrative and rhetorical tool. It provides a narrative space in which Whitman, Smith, and Walker are able to simultaneously maintain the desired identity of proper white woman, and recount their movement between the public and private sphere, which includes deviant choices, improper behavior, and unusual experiences. Using religious diction or biblical intertextuality to represent their unusual behavior and occupation, the missionary wives seem to change the overtone of their behavior and occupation. The latter seize to be solely in contradiction with nineteenth-century ideologies of femininity and domesticity, but instead gain a religious significance that signals their transcendence and elevation and are as such portrayed as uncorrupted and justified. Additionally, spiritualization offers the missionaries wives the opportunity to represent themselves as pious and saintly women, who passively surrender to God’s will. Finally, spiritualization causes the missionary wives’ mission to be portrayed as directed at indigenous religion and culture. The Christian/heathen binary is evoked to denote both a religious and cultural identity.
This study sets out to present the sources as narratives to introduce a new outlook on life writing by missionary wives. Additionally, this study draws attention to women whose experiences have long been silenced, and who by no means appear to match the prevailing stereotype of the female missionary martyr “with her drab clothes, gaunt figure and scraped-back hair” (Middleton 152). It shows that missionary wives rather made daring choices with great consequences based on idealism and religious fervor, and that their daily questions, struggles, and insecurities, even though we have come a long way, continue to resemble those of women today.