A Life of Silence Breaking: Katharine Bushnell, MD

Mimi Haddad

Those who broke the silence on sexual harassment and abuse were honored as TIME magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year. Exposing an epidemic of abuse, The Silence Breakers span the globe and include every demographic. What makes today’s Silence Breakers so extraordinary is that while one in three women experience sexual harassment or abuse, these are often the most underreported crimes. While survivors are breaking the silence on sexual abuse more than ever before, the truth is, women have been Silence Breakers throughout history.

Working more than 100 years ago, an international sisterhood of Silence Breakers exposed the abuse of girls and women enslaved in brothels globally. Their holy disruption led to sweeping social changes not only through new legislation, but they also promoted an egalitarian theology that challenged distorted readings of Scripture that demeaned the character of females. Their legacy galvanized a global movement of Christian silence breaking just like those honored by TIME last year.

One of history’s most accomplished Silence Breakers was the physician, Dr. Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946). For more than thirty years, she held center-stage as an anti-trafficking activist. Famous for infiltrating brothels, gathering evidence for lawmakers and driving the earliest anti-trafficking legislation, Bushnell traveled the globe with little more than the clothes on her back and an unshakable faith. Through decades of dangerous work, Bushnell observed how perpetrators colluded not only with elected officials, lawmakers, and police, but also with distorted interpretations of Scripture. Ultimately, Bushnell recognized the necessity to break the silence on Christian patriarchy as it fueled a devaluation of females that justified their abuse. Her legacy is one that influences humanitarians today.

A graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Chicago (today, the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University), Bushnell worked briefly as a medical doctor in China, but returned to the US to accompany a colleague that was dying of tuberculosis. Assisting with her care, Bushnell also worked with prostituted girls and women in Denver’s red-light district. While in Denver, Bushnell explored expanding her work with Frances Willard, her former teacher and then president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—the largest women’s organization of its day. Recognizing Bushnell’s unique capacity to engage trafficked girls, Willard invited Kate to lead the WCTU’s “Social Purity Department.” Here Bushnell became an activist of the highest order.

While creating a home for survivors in Chicago, Kate learned of a girl burned to death for refusing a man in a Wisconsin brothel. Embarrassed state officials published counter claims, but Bushnell went to discover the truth. Interviewing women held against their will, the evidence Kate compiled was requested by the Wisconsin state legislature. Do not imagine that her work went unchallenged. According to Lorry Lutz, while attempting to meet with legislators at the Wisconsin’s Capital Building, Kate was met by a hostile mob of men. Fearing harm, she and her colleagues prayed for deliverance (Daughters of Deliverance [Heritage Beacon, 2016], 257-258). Within minutes, a band of women entered the senate floors reminding Bushnell that she was not alone. Her righteous cause would succeed. Her efforts that day led to a bill dubbed the “Kate Bushnell Bill,” and it sent perpetrators to prison for enslaving girls throughout Wisconsin where trafficking was especially heinous.

From here, Bushnell joined forces with the prominent British evangelical and social activist, Josephine Butler (1828-1906). Together they challenged the systemic complicity of Christians leaders who propped up policies and practices that preyed on impoverished girls and women. While Butler worked in Britain to dismantle the Contagious Disease Act that allowed the forced examination and surgical rape of girls suspected of carrying venereal disease, Kate traveled to India where she interviewed girls held in brothels for the British military—a reality the military denied. In her autobiography, Katharine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of her Life and Work (KCB; Hertford, 1930), she described how she and her colleagues:

…walked through the lines of encampments … [and] went on to the little tents for women… [here we] took their testimony…hearts melted and tears flowed, and they were eager to tell us how they had been brought against their will, or by trickery or thoughtlessly, into such a horrible life. More than once… they would not let [us go] until [we] prayed… to help them to get out of [their] virtual imprisonment. We interviewed about 500 … [girls]. (9)

Outraged by the indifference and complicity of Christians, Bushnell challenged high-ranking gatekeepers. Among the most egregious offenders was Sir John Bowring, British Consul to Hong Kong and author of the hymn, “The Cross of Christ I Glory.” His legislation made it illegal for trafficked girls to flee their owners who enslaved them as prostitutes (KCB: 11-12). Many of these girls and women were subsequently trafficked to the US in cities throughout the West Coast, as duly noted by Kristin Kobes du Mez in A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism ([Oxford University Press, 2015], 83).

While Bushnell and colleagues presented their findings to legislators in Britain and the US, their work brought little lasting relief to women and girls caught in the sordid trade. Frail and sickly, and concerned about her friend, Butler called Bushnell to her bedside. She encouraged her to devote her keen intellect—knowledge of five languages and understanding of Scripture—to write and teach men and women that God values and loves both women and men equally.

As though reinforcing Butler’s vision for her career transition, Bushnell read of an elderly woman who was brutally raped in broad daylight by British soldiers. Despite being witnessed by a dozen soldiers, no one intervened and the woman died. Worse, as Kobes du Mez notes, no soldier was ever convicted (90-91). This injustice drove Bushnell headlong into the biblical text to examine, in the original languages, God’s teachings on women.

After months of study, Bushnell wrote to her mentor, Josephine Butler, that she had come to reject male authority and female subjection as biblical. For Bushnell, the teachings of male headship give to men what belongs to God: the right to direct women’s talents and agency. Bushnell recognized that for too long, Christians have “glorified” and elevated men to teach and hold authority over women not because of their character or devotion to Christ, but solely because Eve was the first to sin. Until we challenge the belief that women are more prone to sin and seduction because Eve gave Adam the fruit and he ate, women will be subject to male authority and impunity, placing them at risk for abuse.

Because the devaluation of females is contrary to the teachings of Scripture, Bushnell determined to challenge the fallacy at the top of the stream—at the level of biblical interpretation and translation. Otherwise, she feared it will flow as God’s word, as it has for centuries, polluting the lives and obscuring the dignity and agency of females as taught by Scripture. The social evils resulting from patriarchy—male rule—will never abate until the subordination of women is no longer reinforced by Christian teachings and practices; “and they will not believe this until they see it plainly taught in the Bible.” Without more consistent teachings and bible translations, Christian high officials like Sir John Bowring, will remain “indifferent to the wrongs of women and girls, and complacent in the dealing and the sensuality of men; ready to condone their offenses against decency” (KCB: 13). For this reason, dismantling sex-abuse, though essential, will inevitably fail without exposing the theological errors that fuel a fundamental debasement of females.

A gender reformation among Christians was needed and it must begin, argued Bushnell, with women’s theological leadership. By learning to read Scripture in the original languages, women will interpret its meaning for themselves. To equip women as biblical scholars, Bushnell developed a Greek correspondence course. She also published a comprehensive study of women in Scripture, with more than 800 studies that exposed a patriarchal reading of Scripture. Her seminal work—God’s Word to Women: 100 Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in The Divine Economy (obtain a free online copy here), equipped women as bible scholars because “no class nor sex should have an exclusive right to set forth the meaning of the original text” (KCB: 221). Never wavering on the authority of Scripture, Bushnell aligned patriarchal translations and interpretations of Scripture as the fruit of evil.

Although exhaustive in its critique of women in the Old and New Testament passages, God’s Word to Women invested enormous effort on Genesis, taking an unprecedented look at Eve. Bushnell’s analysis showed that over the centuries, women’s identity was associated with the weaknesses of Eve, yet little or no attention was given to the failures of Adam. This was, in fact, the same pattern Bushnell observed in working with trafficked girls and women. It was women who were scrutinized and viewed as immoral rather than men like Sir John Bowring.

In evaluating the apostle Paul, Bushnell showed how he championed women’s leadership provided they were not domineering (1 Tim 2:12); that their teachings advanced the gospel (1 Tim 2:11–12, Acts 18:26, Rom 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15); and when speaking in public they were not disruptive or distracting (1 Cor 11:5; 14:34). Bushnell locates the character of a woman not in the fall, but in their newness of life in Christ. To be consistent, an assessment of man or woman’s spiritual and social status should be based on the atonement of Jesus. For Bushnell, we “cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the Gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation’” (KCB: 142). The Cross is good news not only for men but also for women.

Through God’s Word to Woman, Bushnell showed how the church had been complicit in the trafficking of girls and women. Through her theological and social activism, she demonstrated how when one type of human being is deemed lesser, it provides license to treat them as less. Dehumanizing ideas of females lead to dehumanizing actions. For this reason, the church will remain a weak vessel of justice until Christians interpret Scripture without elevating the character of male over female. For Bushnell, challenging gender injustice will always require both social and theological reform. And, it must always engage the leadership of women.

We stand at a unique moment in history. Thanks to the courage of today’s “Silence Breakers,” we are reaching the tipping point in tolerating the sexual harassment and abuse of girls and women. In confronting perpetrators, the silence breaking of Katharine Bushnell is more important than ever. Ideas have consequences, as Bushnell showed. Exposing the abuse of girls and women is necessary, but equally essential is breaking the silence on the theological assumptions that enable perpetrators. Thanks to Bushnell, many have found the moral courage to reform a patriarchal worldview that continues to cripple the Church’s witness and mission in our world. By exposing Christian patriarchy and its distortions to the character of women, Bushnell made visible the power of Christ to redeem and sanctify women and men equally. It is not maleness or femaleness, but a demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit that Scripture celebrates as the basis for leadership.

An indomitable activist, Bushnell sacrificed family, home, and financial comfort to break the silence not only on the flawed legal structures that perpetuated the abuse of girls and women, but also on the anemic theological teachings that fueled their abuse. Her work placed her at risk for ridicule and harm, and she was often denigrated on every horizon she helped pioneer for the dignity and equality of females. Like the Indian girls in the military brothels during the Victorian era who believed they were the daughters of the Queen, Bushnell knew that she was God’s beloved daughter. She devoted her life to making known the fullest impact of Calvary on the lives of girls and women. May the legacy of Katharine Bushnell guide the church to be the headlights of social justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once proposed. Because ideas have consequences, may we always give our fullest attention to the social and theological roots when breaking the silence on sexual abuse.

Posted Mar 22, 2018