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Women's History Month: Katharine Bushnell

This woman was no dainty lady. She was a medical doctor, scholar of Biblical languages, missionary to China, reformer, writer, evangelist, advocate, investigative reporter, and an exposer of evil.

And did we say relentless, tail-kicking, world-changing warrior?

Katharine Bushnell was all of those things and more. Born in 1855, her dream of becoming a doctor meant she had to work three times harder than her male contemporaries just to find a medical school that would train her. Once licensed, she felt called to serve as a missionary in China and soon found herself doing battle with men who insisted on crippling their wives and daughters through the cultural practice of foot-binding. Seeing female patients subjected to this practice infuriated her, and let’s just say she struggled to work within the cultural norms of her mission field.

Katharine eventually left China in 1882 to accompany an associate home to Denver who was extremely ill. There she found work in a hospital, but soon found herself treating women who were victims of domestic violence. Struggling to send these back into dangerous environments, more and more victimization was exposed and not long later she was led to the infamous Hamilton Street, reaching out to the women there trapped in soul-crushing prostitution by a 19th century mob boss. Seeking to meet medical and spiritual needs, Katharine soon found herself rescuing women out of the life and imploring the local church to help her. Church-going Christian women did not view the women as victims, however, and help was slow in coming from that quarter.

From Denver, Katharine moved to Chicago where she, with the help of a generous benefactor, established the Anchorage Mission, doing rescue and restoration work in in Hell’s Half Acre with prostitutes and domestic violence survivors. The mission ultimately ministered to around 5,000 women per year at its height. While there, she heard rumors about young girls and women being abducted and imprisoned in the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin. She set out to investigate and did so largely undercover, putting herself in incredible danger in the process. When she reported her findings back in Chicago, she was excoriated by the media and state officials for spreading falsehoods. They vehemently denied it all. All of it was abhorrently true. Things got ugly as it became clear that what was going on in the lumber camps was assisted by cops on the take, dirty politicians, and doctors without consciences. In 1887, Katharine advocated for a law that would make it a federal crime to abduct unmarried women for the purpose of prostitution. She saw it pass but not without making many powerful enemies in the process.

After one too many threats came her way, she sailed for England, asking God to lead her into work with one of the Victorian era’s greatest advocates for women, Josephine Butler. Soon Katharine was back in the thick of things. Rumors of unspeakable things were swirling about again. She heard that the British army was operating brothels in India as sexual outlets for the troops. She and a friend set sail to see if it was so.

It was so.

After interviewing 395 prostitutes in India, Katharine sent her report back to England, only to have it discredited and vigorously denied. She was undeterred. She exposed the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in India, who claimed to be regulating the activity for the protection of the women by the prevention of disease, for instead protecting the men who chose to visit the government-sanctioned brothels. She and friend, Elizabeth Andrew, wrote of their travels comprehensively and published The Queen’s Daughters as an exposé of all they learned. On to something, Katharine continued her investigations within the British Empire and discovered forced prostitution in Hong Kong and her beloved mainland China where her outcry over oppression all began for her. She called out government officials, especially the those who professed Christianity, and relentlessly fought for the freedom and equality of all women everywhere. The drumbeat of Katharine Bushnell’s life was that God is a God of love and a God of justice, and that women have the right to stand beside men as equals and be heard in every area of life.

And that’s a world-changing message in any century.


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