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"I Must Do What I Can":
Susan Rowena Bird and the Oberlin Band of Missionaries
in Shanxi, China

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Susan Rowena Bird

30/351 Susan Rowena Bird

Nuria Alishio-Caballero, Lara Griffin, Sarah Jane Kerwin



Susan Rowena Bird was born 31 July 1865, in Sandoval, Illinois. She was the daughter of William Harrison Bird and Susan Bowen Bird. To avoid being confused with her mother, Susan Rowena went by her middle name. During Bird's childhood her parents moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where she finished high school and subsequently enrolled in Oberlin College. While at Oberlin, Bird joined the Student Volunteer Movement, an organization of young people devoted to the gospels as well as local charity and mission work. Through her participation in the Student Volunteer Movement, Bird gained a passion for missionary work, and enrolled at Oberlin College with the desire to learn the Chinese language to better prepare her for missionary work in that country. In 1890, Susan Rowena Bird received a literary degree, followed by an honorary B.A. in 1895 for her knowledge of the Chinese language. Upon her graduation in 1890, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions offered Bird a position to do missionary work in Shanxi province of China, which she readily accepted. From 1890 until her death in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Susan Rowena Bird worked as part of a group of missionaries in Shanxi known as the Oberlin Band.1

Letters home are an integral part of understanding the stories of missionary workers abroad. As such, this project consists of three transcribed letters, all of which describe aspects of Susan Rowena Bird's missionary experience. The first is a letter Bird wrote to her mother as she was traveling through Japan in the fall of 1898, on her way to work in China for a second time. The letter includes descriptions of the places she visited, her travel companions, and their encounters with other missionaries doing work in Japan. The second letter, written by Bird to her mother in January 1899, was sent from Taigu, a missionary compound where Bird lived for the majority of her time in China. The letter details her activities in Taigu and gives the reader a picture of events in Bird's daily life abroad. The third transcribed letter is from Kung Hsiang-hsi one of Susan Rowena Bird's closest converts, to Bird's mother sent almost a year after Bird's death in Taigu. The letter briefly discusses the violent circumstances of her death and gives a moving example of the significance of her relationship with this boy during her time as a missionary.

As a missionary, Susan Rowena Bird followed the legacy of many outspoken Christian women from the first wave of American feminism. Like others, Bird felt a moral calling to convert others and devoted her time to Christian mission work. She would have read with fondness and familiarity the following words of feminist Maria Stewart: "From the moment I experienced the change, I felt a strong desire, with the help and assistance of God, to devote the remainder of my days to piety of virtue, and now possess that spirit of independence, that, were I called upon, I would willingly sacrifice my life for the cause of God and my brethren."2 During Bird's life and missionary career, Christianity was widely accepted as an appropriate and respectable sphere for women to encompass. Although her missionary work may not have been radical, Bird's religious calling nevertheless led her down an unconventional path as a single woman living abroad. She embodied the challenge of "radical respectability," using conservative values to authorize her unusual personal behavior.

While Bird was traveling Japan in 1898, she visited Kobe Girls School, a missionary boarding school founded and operated by women. One of the two founders, Julia Dudley, attended the Rockford Seminary a few years before Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago and a woman who possessed similar ideals to Bird and other missionary women. Addams' graduating class motto, "Bread Givers," embodies the work women like Dudley and Bird were trying to do by going abroad to serve others in the name of Christianity. In her explanation of the idea, Addams states:

We have planned to be "Bread-givers" throughout our lives; believing that in labor alone is happiness, and that the only true and honorable life is one filled with good works and honest toil, we have planned to idealize our labor, and thus happily fulfill Woman's Noblest Mission3

Addams believed that doing work for others was the most important role a woman could fill, and Bird likely would have agreed. Whether in Chicago or China, women with this worldview devoted their time and energy to a range of social issues, such as education and substance abuse, each of which Bird worked to improve during her time as a missionary. Both Jane Addams and Susan Rowena Bird held the conviction that a group of people - largely made up of women - could join together to enact what they saw as necessary social reform.

It is important to situate Bird's missionary work within the larger context of U.S. imperial expansion occurring in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Alison Sneider notes in her book Suffragists in an Imperial Age, "U.S. women's civilization work depended not only on exporting Christian spiritual beliefs but also on nineteenth-century gender norms that emphasized the sexual differences between men and women and the importance of distinct female roles in civilized societies."4 Bird's missionary work was very much complicit in the notion that Americans had a responsibility for the civilization of "backward" races. Through her work, Bird was able to exert power over "uncivilized" women and, ironically, enact agency that would have been unavailable to her in the U.S. While working as a missionary in China allowed Bird greater agency, she was also constrained by the particular gendered expectations of "civilized" women. Susan Rowena Bird worked largely in the boys' boarding school set up on the missionary compound and also aided in the nursing of opium addicts. Both teaching and nursing were gendered and understood as appropriate for civilized women. Thus, it is important to note that Susan Rowena Bird's missionary work did not exist in isolation from the larger forces of U.S. imperialism or the compulsory gender norms that coded the work of civilization. Bird's complicated history with Christian missionary work and the project of U.S. imperialism persists into the present age through her commemoration on Oberlin College's controversial Memorial Arch.5

[1] "Susan Rowena Bird (1865-1900) Biography," Oberlin College Archives.. http://www.oberlin.edu/archive/holdings/finding/RG30/SG351/biography.html.

[2] Maria Stewart, "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build," Boston (Massachusetts) Friends of Freedom and Virtue. (1835) Excerpted from Blackboard HIST 213, p. 1.

[3] Jane Addams, "Bread Givers," Rockford (Illinois) Daily Register (21 April 1880), Reprinted in Jane Addams, A Centennial Reader (Macmillan, 1960), p. 104.

[4] Allison Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 113.

[5] On the Memorial Arch in Oberlin, see "Memorial Arch," http://www.oberlin.edu/archive/resources/photoguide/memorial_arch.html