Sue Helder Goliber, PhD.
December 6, 2007 • The Center Club,Baltimore, Md.
Professor of History, Mount St. Mary's University
Thinking about how I wanted to structure this talk was personally enlightening. It came to me as I thought back over almost 40 years of scholarly research that every major project I have undertaken came about because someone told me that it could not be done. I am not sure what this says about me but it has resulted in some really interesting research into the lives of some fascinating women whose stories have for the most part inspired me and filled me with gratitude.
I started this journey in graduate school at Kent State University; I chose Kent over University of Michigan and Wisconsin because I wanted to work with Dr. Samuel Osgood, an internationally known scholar in 19th century France, a country and century I have fallen in love with as an undergraduate. One day I was sitting on the floor of the library stacks trying to find some inspiration for my Master’s thesis. I was looking for something on the wife of Alfred Dreyfus, a French general of Jewish background who had been accused unjustly of selling secrets to the Germans in the late 19th century. I had written my college senior thesis on the resulting scandal and had discovered the poor man had had a wife. I was rather dispiritedly looking through books on Dreyfus when a footnote caught my eye. The footnote mentioned that one of the strongest supporters of Dreyfus was a French feminist named Marguerite Durand, editor of a French feminist newspaper. Wow, I thought and tore off to talk to Sam; who informed me in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing a French feminism (he seemed totally offended by the very idea of it!) and I should go back to looking for material on the unhappy Madame Dreyfus. That was enough of course. I started digging and frankly digging was a whole lot harder in the early seventies; no Google to get one started, an historical fact that causes my students to go pale!
But I found out that the feminist newspaper was called La Fronde, that all of the issues were available in the Bibliotheque National in Paris, and that Durand had, at the time of her death, donated all her personal papers to the city of Paris, which had housed them in their very own little library. My Master’s thesis was an analysis of La Fronde which Osgood talked Kent State University library into buying for me and my PhD. Dissertation is entitled “Marguerite Durand: the Life and Times of a French Feminist”. I managed to get a few articles out of my dissertation but the fact was, as I discovered early on in my research, that Durand was a woman who could not think from A to B to C and that she was viciously anti-clerical. In other words I tired of her rather quickly. But that meant finding a new area of research and in time something presented itself.
I was brought up in a relatively small and very strict Protestant denomination associated with the Dutch Reformed Church. I married into Catholicism but of course still had emotional ties to the church of my youth. So when a book came out on the history of the denomination, I bought and read it and discovered its author had managed to write the history of the denomination without mentioning a single woman. By the time I was finished, I had smoke coming out of my ears. A trip home the following summer brought me into contact with another incensed woman, and together we decided we would find women who had contributed to the history of the denomination. What we found surprised even us. Almost every institution connected with the denomination had been begun by women. Pine Rest Christian Rest Home of the Mentally Ill, one the premier facilities in Michigan was started by a woman; Elon Christian School for the physically handicapped in Chicago was begun by two sisters; Bethany Christian Home, which started as a home for unwed mothers (before that condition became fashionable) is now the premier anti-abortion and pro-adoption agency in Western Michigan, and was founded by two female friends. And when Johanna Timmer, a trained theologian, was not allowed to teach theology at my alma mater, she went off and founded her own college which is now Cornerstone University and a recruiting rival to the college from which I graduated and from which she was barred from teaching theology. The result of all this research was a book entitled “For Such as Time as This: 26 Women of Vision and Faith Tell Their Stories.”
But as far as I was concerned, two women were missing from the book. They had been left out because our editor at Eerdmans Publishing House thought their stories too well know in the Dutch community and therefore not interesting enough to be included. All my pleadings were in vain. It was pointed out that each of the women in question had a dorm named after them at my alma mater; I pointed out that no one living in those dorms had a clue from whom the dorms had been named (rather like my students who do not have a clue after whom the dorm they know as Dube is named): this I had discovered by strolling thru the dorms in question, asking the students living there who Wilhelmina Kalsbeek and Johanna Veenstra were. No one knew; this admittedly was not a scientific investigation but none the less it did seem to indicate that a whole generation was growing up without knowledge of these two remarkable women. So I set out to remedy that situation.
The stories of Johanna Veenstra and Wilhelmina Kalsbeek are astonishing. Jo was born in 1894 in Patterson, New Jersey. One of six children, she was forced by her father’s death from typhoid fever to enter business school and by age 14, she was working in New York City as a stenographer, commuting each day from Patterson. She enjoyed life in the city – she smoked, attended dances, drank (keep in mind this was the pre-Great War world). At 19 the course of her life changed radically. She found her life empty and meaningless, and enrolled at Union Missionary Training Institute, planning on serving people in the inner cities. But while studying at Union, she felt called by God to serve overseas, specifically in Africa. She was only 22, too young to go abroad, too untrained to be of much good to anyone. So she became a midwife and then attended my alma mater, Calvin College, to study theology, and finally in 1919, she boarded a ship and sailed to Lagos, Nigeria. If all of this sounds simple, it assuredly was not. No one understood why she couldn’t be satisfied working in New York City or Patterson, New Jersey; no one thought she really had been called by God to work in Africa. But Jo Veenstra was adamant and she found her own way to Africa. Sudan United Missions, a British group, agreed to support her, after the Dutch Reformed Church refused. When she finally arrived in Lagos, she hired a crew of men to pole her down stream; for two weeks, she and her crew, none of whom spoke English, traveled to the town of Donga. There she paused for a year, learning to speak Hausa. Then she hopped on her bicycle and pedaled 25 miles inland to a place called Lupwe in the Takum district, where she lived among the Dzompere tribe. The name of the tribe means “man eaters”; the members of the tribe had never seen a white woman before. Because of their cannibalism, their intense tribal wars, and witchcraft, the ruling British Government had long refused to allow missionaries to settle among these people.
At Lupwe Jo Veenstra taught the Gospel, opened a medical dispensary and a boarding school; she soon started traveling her territory on bike where 15,000 people lived, scattered over an area that spanned 80 miles north to south. She braved disease, snakes (of which she had a special horror), wild animals, swollen rivers, and angry tribal chiefs. In her “spare” time, she wrote – articles for journals, letters and her autobiography. She convinced another young woman, Nell Breen, to join her and finally in 1929, she had a companion at Lupwe. Johanna Veenstra died in 1933, having spent just 13 years on the mission field. Her church, hospital, and school minister to this day to the Takum district.
Like Jo Veenstra, Wilhelmina Kalsbeek lived a remarkable life. She too grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the church decided in the early twentieth century to begin work on a foreign mission field, the choice came down to Africa or China. Although Jo Venstra was lobbying for Africa, the denomination chose China as its first foreign mission field. The reasons the denomination chose China so lacked any understanding of China (for example they reckoned that everyone spoke the same language, that the climate was temperate, that there were few missionaries in the country, and that the people were more cultured and therefore would be more amenable to the highly intellectual teachings of reformed theology) that in my mind it proves the existence of God because their efforts at evangelization actually were successful despite their ignorance of all things Chinese. Mina sailed in 1922 at the age of 28 and arrived in Shanghai that same year. She would spend two years there learning Chinese before being sent to the city of Jukao, just north of Shanghai. When she arrived, she discovered no one could understand her because they spoke different dialects (so much for a common language). She suffered terribly from the cold winters and summers so hot that the other missionaries all left the district for the mountains in June (so much for the temperate climate.) She found 23 other denominations working in the area (so much for the lack of missionaries). And she discovered that these cultured Chinese were quite committed to their ancient beliefs and not particularly interested in the intricacies of reformed theology. (I told you it had to be God because the reformed church she founded still exists and is growing so fast, they just opened a new sanctuary.) She lived so close to her neighbors that no conversation was private; she adopted two abandoned baby girls; and when the Great Depression splashed over into China, she began to make what we know as micro loans to young women to keep them off the streets. Mina spent World War II in a Japanese prison camp and was finally chased out of China for good by the communist party in April of 1949. She died in 1954, worn out from the hard labor in China.
So why do these women inspire me and fill me with gratitude? In part because all of them defied social convention and social expectations for women. They really pushed the boundaries of women’s lives. And they defied these conventions for the good of others. Even the wooly headed Durand was attempting to improve the condition of women in France and she had much empathy for poor and working class women. The others poured their energy and their love into the lives of those in need: the sick, the rejected, the unborn, the ones without hope and without God. And with the exception of Durand, all these women were motivated by their faith in a loving God who cares. They took seriously Christ’s demand that we feed the hungry and visit those in prison and spread the Good News of his love for all of us. These were not just words for them but a way of life. They endured ridicule and rumor. My mother always said that people thought that Mina and Jo became missionaries because they could not find a husband; as far as I can tell from their letters and their lives, they had no desire to marry. They felt called by God to do this work. And so they fill me with gratitude because for all of them the work is what counted. Doing good work in God’s name.
And this brings me to my final point. We are here to celebrate the bicentennial of Mount St. Mary’s. I agreed to speak because this institution has allowed me to do my work, to, if you will, follow God’s calling for my life. I could not do this kind of research as most universities. It would be considered unscholarly. I could not teach a course called “Women of Faith” because faith is not to be mentioned, much less be considered seriously as a basis for life’s decisions. But because of the Mount, I can say to my students, in the words of Julian of Norwich, on of my favorite medieval mystics, All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.