Women Missionaries, Global Entrepreneurs

Jennifer A. Herdt

Mission societies sent women missionaries around the globe. They also funded indigenous women evangelists, working in partnership with local populations, with the goal of helping them become self- sustaining. They set up educational institutions at all levels, especially for girls, founded hospitals, and worked to abolish foot binding, female infanticide, and sex trafficking. They addressed the welfare of women in ways that improved nutrition, health, and education for all. Beyond this, they provided a spiritual framework for their work, articulating theo- logically their reasons for being there in ways that did not reduce local peoples to passive recipients, exploitable labor, or mere consumers.

Unfortunately, as these missionary institutions were turned over to national churches, women’s ministries often lost their autonomy or collapsed due to lack of support from male leaders. And as a broader range of economic opportunities opened up for women, fewer committed themselves to work in worldwide mission.

A New World Mission

Ironically, though, a great deal of that missionary legacy of women’s leadership anticipates the best of what is going on today on the global scene. Some of the most important global development work in recent decades has moved in directions embodied by these nineteenth-century women’s missionary societies – notably, the pragmatism of collaborative, sustainable models of local development, led by women and emphasizing the needs of women.

In generations past, these initiatives were marginalized and underappreciated. And there were of course colonialist and neocolonialist aspects of the mission movement that we must identify and confess. Yet we should recall the missionary women’s spirit and wisdom as women increasingly take a leadership role today in global development efforts.

But there are other insights to recover. The enthusiasm for new market-based approaches to combatting global poverty often suffers from its own poverty – the inadequacy of utilitarian assumptions about human nature that are now so culturally ubiquitous. If we listen, we can discern a thirst for a more adequate, realistic anthropology – a theological anthropology – and promote that perspective as a new sort of mission to the world.

An International Twist

My own connection to the world of global development is a personal one. In 1973, when I was five years old, my family and I arrived in the Philippines. We spent the next ten years there, amid the international community of scientists of the International Rice Research Institute. It was in the heady days of the Green Revolution, which tripled rice yields glob- ally in a decade, enabling Asia to feed its burgeoning population. In 1973, there was only one female senior scientist on the Institute staff. The wives of the internationally recruited staff played mahjong and bridge, went to Bible studies and parties, nurtured the next generation, and supervised the household servants. The few professionals among them – a doctor, a nurse – chafed at the bit, but held visas that did not permit them to work. My experience was, I think, a lot like growing up in the U.S. in the 1950s, only with an international twist. 

Much has changed in international agricultural research since then. Researchers continue their pursuit of higher yields to feed growing populations, but it is paired now with an ever-increasing emphasis on sustainability. The scientific community’s enthusiasm for biotechnology is now paired with a commitment not just to educating scientists from the Two-Thirds World but to partnership with local farmers. In Africa, this often means collaborating with women, who are responsible for much of the farming.2 There is also a growing component of women scientists; at the International Rice Research Institute, where I spent my childhood, 40 percent of the senior staff are now women.3

A Shift Toward Women

These shifts – the new strategies of partnership, the rise of female leadership – echo some of the most positive themes pioneered by the earlier women’s missionary societies. They are hardly limited to the sphere of international agricultural research. They are also reflected in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. The Gender Equity and Maternal Health MDGs target women in particular, and the Universal Education MDG would close a gap that is far greater for women than for men. It has been shown that aid that is focused on women has a greater impact on the common good.4 Improving women’s income translates into better nutrition for whole families; the same is not true of improving the income of men. Educating women results in lower birth rates and rates of disease. Furthermore, microloans to women have higher rates of success, and the microcredit movement has thus been largely directed toward women.5

Initiatives today abound that involve women in the search for solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. One example is Oxfam’s Sisters on the Planet, which focuses both on raising awareness concerning how poor women are disproportionately affected by climate change and on coordinating the collaborative responses of women.6

Half the Sky

Another feature of new approaches to combatting global poverty is the set of experiments by social entrepreneurs, practitioners who integrate market structures into solutions for nurturing material wealth and human flourishing. Here, too, women are playing a leadership role. In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn document the transformative involvement of women leaders in this entrepreneurial surge.7 The authors believe problems of poverty and political extremism are best addressed by solutions that realize women’s power as economic catalysts.

“The tide in history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full- fledged human beings,” they write. “The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction.”

Philanthropic capitalists, meanwhile, complement the efforts of social entrepreneurs by providing capital such as long-term loans at very low interest. One outstanding exemplar of the new philanthropy is Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm that invests in sustainable global enterprises to help the poor. Novogratz gave up a well-paying job on Wall Street in the 1980s to work for a nonprofit microfinance organization for women. Since then, she has worked to reinvent traditional charity in ways that foster local creativity and preserve the initiative of poor people.

Facing Good, Facing Evil

One of Novogratz’s first assignments was to evaluate the prospects for a microcredit program for women in pre-genocide Rwanda. She collaborated with a remarkable group of women there, including three women then serving on the country’s parliament: Prudence, Constance, and Agnes. Constance, who led the way in dramatically reducing the bride price in Rwanda, was later killed in what Novogratz believes was an intentional hit-and-run automobile “accident.” Prudence and Agnes lived through Rwanda’s genocidal bloodbath in 1994 and were afterwards accused of crimes of genocide, though the charges against Prudence were eventually dropped. Seeking to understand how Agnes could have gone from playing a leadership role in building a better future for women of all ethnic groups in Rwanda to urging the mass extermination of Tutsis, Novogratz met with her in prison. Afterwards, Novogratz mused: “Many individuals believe that if women ruled the world, we’d finally have a chance at peace. While that may be true, Agnes stood as a reminder that power corrupts on an equal-opportunity basis. Agnes loved the trappings of power, and when all was said and done, she’d traded integrity and what- ever good she’d built for glitter and gold.”8

This is an important lesson. Amid the newfound enthusiasm for prioritizing women in development efforts and in the search for creative solutions to global challenges, we must be careful not to lay the messianic mantle on women. Here the church can provide indispensable wisdom for naming original sin and rejecting utopianism without losing our commitment to social transformation.

If Novogratz struggled to come to terms with the banality of evil as confronted in the face of Agnes, she was equally stunned by the power of forgiveness she witnessed among survivors of the genocide. In a gathering of Hutu and Tutsi women, all of whose husbands were either dead or imprisoned, Novogratz asked how they could sit together and listen to one another’s stories. One woman responded: “We listen to one another and look into one another’s eyes and we see suffering. It is that suffering that binds us. It is that suffering that re- minds us that we are all human.”

An Ethical Language

We are not told whether this woman was Christian, though many of the women there witnessed to how their Christian faith sustained them through the genocide. But in any case, all who grasp that hu- man beings are made in the image of God have a language for articulating the ethical demands that the sufferings of others make on us. Those who worship God incarnate in solidarity with suffering humanity have additional reason to feel the urgency of this mandate.

The church has something important to say in these economic, political arenas. It offers an anthropology, a framework for regarding the mysteries of human conduct, that could be useful to global development efforts in the face of both the worst and the best impulses of human behavior. Market structures can be part of our toolkit for addressing global poverty, political radicalism, and instability, helping to enhance human dignity and ensure that people establish for themselves a reliable flow of goods that is not dependent on the whim of donors. But if we treat people merely as consumers and rational profit-maximizers, we truncate their humanity and blind ourselves to their capacity for inhumanity.

Novogratz might sound “realistic” about human nature when she asserts: “Beauty, vanity, status, comfort: These are the levers that are pulled the world over as we make our decisions.”10 But rational choice theory is unrealistic: it fails to grasp human beings’ capacity for extraordinary compassion and sacrifice – together with their capacity to demonize others and violently deny their dignity.

Women involved in global development efforts today have a rich variety of self-understandings, but Christians might fruitfully see them as spiritual descendents of the women involved in those nineteenth-century mission societies. Today some are agricultural scientists. Some are social entrepreneurs. Some are women taking out microloans to start a bakery or laundry. Some are women educating their neighbors about how to use bed nets to prevent malaria. Many are women of faith.

As the demographic center of gravity of world Christianity shifts southward, our understanding of mission is changing. The global challenges we face require our good will and commitment, together with scientific and technical expertise of all sorts – and the best theological insights we can bring to bear. Thankfully, these many endeavors are increasingly in the hands of women as well as men. We should not idealize the impact of women on global efforts. But neither can we regard the involvement of women as anything short of indispensable. 


Jennifer Herdt joined the YDS faculty as professor of Christian Ethics in 2010 after eleven years at Notre Dame. Her books include Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (University of Chicago, 2008). Her research interests include virtue ethics, religion’s role in public life, and political theology.


1  For an overview, see Dana L. Robert, Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity (Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church, 2010), pp. 39-60.

2  Cheryl Doss, Twenty-five Years of Research on Women Farmers in Africa: Lessons and Implications for Agricultural Research Organizations (CIMMYT International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, 1999), p. 4.

3  “Gender and Diversity Program—CGIAR http:// www.genderdiversity.cgiar.org/; accessed Jan. 2, 2011.

4  “Aid effectiveness, gender equality and women’s development,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development http://www.oecd.org/document/62/0,3343, en_2649_34541_42288382_1_1_1_1,00.html; accessed Jan. 2, 2011.

5  For instance, 97 percent of the Grameen Bank’s loans have been to women. http://www.grameen- info.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view &id=16&Itemid=112 ; accessed Jan. 3, 2011.

http://www.oxfamamerica.org/files/ climatechangewomen-factsheet.pdf ; accessed Jan. 3, 2011.

Half the Sky (Knopf, 2009).

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World (Rodale, 2009), p.163.

9  Novogratz, Blue Sweater, p. 157.

10 Norogratz, p. 243.