The Double Headache of Women in the Norwegian Mission Society
Last year I spent a year undertaking anthropological fieldwork
at the Norwegian Mission Society (NMS) in Stavanger, Norway. NMS
is a Christian (Lutheran) mission organisation, established in 1842,
that is still active today in both church and development work in
several countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One of the
things that struck me during my fieldwork was the ambivalent image
of women that is alive in the organisation. This paper is about
this ambivalent image: how it is understood, how it is not understood,
and what a veritable headache it is either way.
There could potentially be two different reasons for looking at
this topic. On the one hand, one might wish to look at the history
of women in NMS to see what this says about the women: to
highlight, perhaps, the fact that women have contributed more to
the organisation’s work and shape and thinking than is usually portrayed
in official histories. This is an important task too. However, that
is not my reason in this paper. Here, I will take a second approach
to women history: I wish to look at the history of women in NMS
to see what exactly this says about the mission society.
My paper has three parts. First I will explore the question of
the ambivalent image of women through four everyday episodes that
occurred during my stay in Stavanger. It is worth noting that although
these are specific episodes, they did not in any way strike me as
unusual at the time. In the second part of the paper I will say
something about double symbols and double binds. And then, in conclusion,
I will try to indicate what all this might suggest about NMS.
Episode 1: NMS has invested in women
August 22nd, 2004. I was in the NMS Archives, which
are housed in NMS’ School of Mission and Theology, in Stavanger.
I was reading through a stack of old, dusty mission magazines from
around 1890—the magazines especially devoted to women, Missionslæsning
for Kvindeforeninger (“Mission reading for women’s groups”).
In a few of the issues—November 1888, July 1890, November 1892—I
came across several articles about two young Malagasy women, Ester
and Sigrid. I could picture Ester and Sigrid: two pretty young women,
with white dresses and neatly braided black hair. The Norwegian
missionaries in Madagascar wanted these two young women to become
teachers, and, with the help of countless contributions from “mission
friends” in Norway, they were able to send Ester and Sigrid to Norway
for education and training from 1888-1890. After I had read about
this, I was sufficiently impressed to mention it to the next person
I met in the corridor. She nodded, equally impressed. “That was
progressive thinking,” she said. “NMS has invested in women.”
NMS has invested in women. She is right. And in many ways, this
is how the organisation likes to imagine its role during both the
colonial and the development eras: the image of these two young
Malagasy girls, Ester and Sigrid, can stand for all the determination
of missionaries throughout the organisation’s history to promote
gender equality. There has always been a wish to improve the conditions
under which women live, and a willingness to bear women in mind
as people who are equally worthy of mission, help and commitment.
The organisation aims, and has always aimed, to lift women up.
That was the first episode: Ester and Sigrid. NMS has always invested
in women. NMS wishes to lift women up.
Let me move swiftly on to the second episode.
Episode 2: The mission women are incredible witnesses—often
June 13th, 2004. I was at one of the so-called “mission
meetings” of NMS: gatherings for the mission people. There was a
good turn-out that night; mainly pensioners, both men and women,
were milling about in the meeting room. You can picture the scene:
a sea of people with grey hair and white hair and no hair, friendly
faces, smiles. The theme of the meeting that night was the history
of women in NMS. Women—“mission women”, as they are called—have
meant a great deal for the organisation right from its foundation
in 1842. They have always come together in small groups to collect
money for the mission, to share mission information, and to pray
for the mission work. They have always contributed a substantial
amount to the organisation’s budget. One often imagines them as
I have just described them: white hair, friendly faces, smiles,
praying, or donating money, or knitting. One of the men at the mission
meeting that night, inspired by the evening’s theme, contemplated
this image in his mind: the long, long, long row of mission women
who have contributed to the mission society from 1842 and until
today. “They are incredible witnesses!” he remarked. And then, a
little later, he added: “Often quietly.”
They are incredible witnesses. Often quietly. This is usually remarked
upon as one of the saving graces of the mission women: they serve
in silence. They do not clamber and row. They do not make much of
themselves; on the contrary, they are often seen as modesty itself:
the very personification of quiet, humble, faithful servitude.
That was the second episode: The Norwegian mission women. Symbols
of witness. Quietly.
So now we have young Ester and Sigrid on one side of the globe,
and the quiet Norwegian mission women on the other side. The two
images on opposite sides of the globe are linked together: young
women moving from Madagascar to Norway and back again, women in
Norway praying for women in Madagascar; there is movement and connection.
There have been innumerable such connections throughout the organisation’s
history—women praying for women, women praying for men, men praying
for women. There are interesting implications of all of these—which
I won’t go into here.
What I will note instead is that in the next two episodes, surprisingly,
all connections seem to be lost.
Episode 3: Where would the women come from?
December 10th, 2003. I went down to the canteen in the
head office of NMS to have lunch. I sat down at a table with some
of the staff. In a friendly attempt to relate to me, one of them
asked me how my studies were going. I said that I had just been
going through archive material on the so-called “mission feminists”:
the women who argued for gender equality in NMS in the early twentieth
century. We began talking about Christian feminists around the table,
and then about women theologians. One of the men next to me remarked
on the fact that there was only one woman theologian employed at
the NMS head office. When I was there, there were around 70 people
working in the head office building, and they were just about equally
divided between men and women—although the lower ranks of the organogram
were overly populated by women while the higher ranks were overly
populated by men. Leaving this aside; of these 70 there were around
20 theologians while I was there, but of these theologians—as this
man pointed out—only one was female. NMS has been educating female
theologians since the 1970s, so logically it should be possible
to have a more or less equal male/female theological ratio, 30 years
I asked, therefore, how there could be only one female theologian.
The man sitting opposite me shook his head: “That’s not so strange,”
he explained, “because where would they come from?” Everyone around
the table laughed a little at that: Where, indeed, would the women
come from? It seemed very hard for any of us to be able to think
of a single eligible woman. “It takes a while,” he explained; “it
takes a while for the women to become missionaries and then afterwards
they come back and get positions at the head office.”
None of us picked up on the fact that since there have been female
theologians within the orbit of the organisation since the 1970s,
it is, strictly speaking, not a matter of time any longer;
several of the female theologians have been missionaries already,
and they have come back, and yet they are nowhere to be seen near
the head office.
So where are the women? The question would seem almost bizarre
were it not experienced as so real—for me as well, sitting
at the table in the canteen; I wondered, along with the others:
Where would they come from? And this despite the fact that I came
straight from the archive, where I had been reading about the history
of feminism in the mission movement. After more than 150 years of
“lifting women up” in the mission tradition, women leaders should,
logically, be springing up all around. Yet they seem very hard to
find. And what is most surprising is that nobody finds this surprising.
There is no bewilderment at the question: after 150 years of pioneering
women’s groups, women’s education, the importance of gender equality,
women’s right to vote and, lastly, the acknowledgement of female
theologians—the question still seems very real: Where, indeed, would
any women come from?
The conversation around the table continued. I remarked that I
had been told that Anne Karin—who was one of the two women in the
nine-person leadership team of NMS while I was there—had been told
when she was young and on her way to the mission field as a missionary
wife, that it was all the same to NMS what she studied, and that
indeed it was all the same to the organisation whether she had a
degree in theology or simply a certificate from Sunday school. I
remarked that I found it incredible that someone could have told
her that. One of the men next to me thought about this for a few
seconds. “It was probably said in a well-meaning way,” he commented;
“what the person was trying to say to her was probably that the
mission society wanted to send her out as a missionary wife just
the way she was. They didn’t want to burden her by demanding a theological
They didn’t want to burden her. And that is where we end the third
episode: Around lunch in the canteen of NMS, wondering: Where would
the women come from? And noting, in passing, that women should not
be overly burdened.
Let me move on now to the fourth and final episode.
Episode 4: We would like to recruit women leaders—but there
is hardly ever a chance
November 19th, 2003. I was speaking with one of the
nine high-level staff in NMS; we were talking about the lack of
women leaders at the head office. “We would like to change that,”
he said. He emphasised that the gender inequality was not there
because of a lack of awareness from their side. On the contrary,
they were apparently very aware of it. But, he added, by way of
explanation to me: “It’s just that top-level staff remain in their
positions for so long. There’s hardly ever a chance to recruit new
Yet when I remember this conversation now, it puzzles me. Even
during the relatively short time that I was in Stavanger there were
recruitment rounds for two of the top nine leadership positions
at the head office; one internal round, to cover for maternity leave,
and one external round, for a programme director. Both posts were
successfully filled—and in both cases the new recruits were men.
Highly competent men, I must add—although this is beside the point.
The point, rather, is that this makes the explanations I received
seem, again, vaguely bizarre—and all the more so because they are
experienced as so genuine. “We would like to recruit
women leaders, but there is hardly ever any new recruitment opportunities”—the
explanation is experienced as genuine for the top leadership; in
fact, when the person who explained this to me said it, he seemed
completely oblivious to the fact that the organisation actually
recruits for top positions on a fairly regular basis. If I were
to hazard a guess I would say that the high-level positions in NMS,
taken together, have a turn-around time of about ten years, which
by organisational standards is pretty good—and which certainly does
not explain the non-recruitment of women. Why then is this forgotten
when the matter is presented to me?
Let me assemble together the episodes, images and sentences that
I have collected along the way so far: Firstly, Ester and Sigrid:
NMS has always invested in women, NMS wishes to lift women up. Secondly,
the Norwegian mission women: symbols of witness, quietly. Thirdly,
the table in the canteen of the mission society head office and
the conversation about women theologians: Where would the women
come from? And why shouldn’t women be burdened? And, finally, my
conversation with the member of staff who explained: We would like
to recruit women leaders, but there’s hardly ever a chance.
If we bring all this together, what image does it present us with?
It presents us with an image of women as an important part of the
organisation, yet quiet; they are worth investing in, yet shouldn’t
be burdened; they are valuable human beings, yet not leaders; they
are to be lifted up, if only they could be found. How can we understand
this bundle of thoughts and images—and there are many more in similar
vein—that surround women in NMS?
I would like to suggest two concepts that may go some way towards
explaining these seemingly incongruent ideas about women and how
they can coexist in NMS today: double symbols and double
Nira Yuval-Davis (1997) has argued that women serve as ambivalent
symbols in the construction of nationhood: on the one hand, they
symbolise—in potent and exalted ways—the nation’s unity and honour
and the collective raison d’être; on the other hand, they
are excluded from the collective “we” of the body politic and are
inserted into the symbolic category “womenandchildren”: to be protected.
They are regarded as good icons but not as grown-ups.
It seems that the same ambivalence has marked the image of women
in NMS throughout the organisation’s history, from 1842 until today.
To illustrate this double-edged symbolism, let us reconsider the
phrase “to lift women up”. What does it mean in NMS today? Does
it mean to lift up women in the way that one would lift up a flag
or a crucifix, as a rallying cry and symbol of unity and purpose,
to treasure and adore—but not to have a proper argument with? Does
it mean to lift up women in the way that one would lift up a small
child, to care for, to protect, to love, to save, to guide—but not
to enter into theological discussions or budget negotiations with?
The images that surround women in NMS come stumblingly close to
either angels on the one hand, or children on the other. Both angels
and children are important to have around. But, quite understandably,
one does not sit down to make serious high-level recruitment plans
for either of these two categories.
Let me reiterate that I am speaking here of images of women—the
ideas and thoughts that surround them, the emotions, visions, what
we hope for and invest in—and not necessarily of women themselves.
The many committed and capable women in NMS are neither childlike
nor, I must say, particularly angelic. But images still play some
part in which possibilities are naturally open to them, and which
possibilities they have to fight for or are implicitly encouraged
To add another layer of depth to this picture, let me also introduce
the concept of double bind. Gregory Bateson (1972) defined
double bind as that form of double-edged communication where one
thing is said while another thing is signalled. Let me give a brief
example. A father says to his young daughter, through gritted teeth:
“You know you’re free to do what you want.” The mother adds, with
a sad face: “Of course, I don’t mind.” The girl then hesitates.
The parents ask why she has suddenly turned so silent and sulky.
The girl is then confused. She is so confused, in fact, that she
does not know why she suddenly feels deeply shameful—or why she
is not able to say so. If she chooses to do what she wants now,
she will be wrong, and if she chooses not to do it, then she will
also be wrong. She is caught in a double bind.
Some of the same double-edged communication is evident in NMS.
If women stick their neck out too far, it is relatively easy, in
the mission tradition, to think that they are “making noise”; they
are no longer adhering to the admired image of quiet humbleness.
On the other hand, if they remain in quiet servitude, then it is
relatively easy to blame the women themselves for the lack of women
leaders in NMS. And this is not the only example; there are several
such double binds that surround women in NMS, spun out in a closely-knit
web of thoughts ranging from professorships in Stavanger through
missionary wives in Madagascar to the internal humour among high-level
staff at the head office.
The same double binds may also be found, of course, to various
degrees, in secular development organisations. However, there is
something about the religious motivation of NMS that perhaps makes
it more difficult to bring these double binds to light or to object
to them. Firstly, because the gender roles can easily be framed
in terms of God’s will; it is difficult to object when staff comment
on how much they admire the loyal and silent Christian women with
their hands folded in prayer. Secondly, because a lack of gender
equality can be deflected and covered over by religious rhetoric;
it is difficult to object when high-level staff slip into the habit
of speaking of the gender equality propagated by St Paul 2,000 years
ago, yet don’t manage to bring about gender equality at the head
In conclusion, let me return to my opening statement: This time
I am not looking at the history of women in NMS to see what this
says about the women, but instead to see what it says about the
mission society. And I think it says a great many things about the
mission society. I will highlight two points here.
Firstly, the thoughts and images that surround women in NMS might
say something about the amount of external stress that the organisation
feels itself to be under. Or—if we are not to blame it all on the
external conditions—perhaps it is more accurate to say: it says
something about how insecure the organisation has allowed itself
to become under these conditions. Any organisation that advocates
universal religious truth or religious mission in contemporary Norway
faces a certain amount of scepticism and even hostility, and it
is not always easy to know how to respond to this.
Katherine Young (1987) has argued that when a religious organisation
perceives itself to be under stress or pressure of one kind or another,
then anxiety for women and the perceived need for rigid and stable
gender roles within the organisation become greater. It is very
demanding to start thinking about changes in gender images and roles
while one perceives oneself to be under pressure—because any changes
might themselves add to the stress and tension. Stable gender images
and roles are far more secure, both for men and for women.
If this is true, however, it does not augur well for gender equality
in NMS—in contrast to secular development organisations. Development
organisations can rely on far more external goodwill these days—while
the external scepticism and critique that NMS notices is not likely
to lessen in the near future. In this situation the future of the
ambivalent symbolism surrounding women—and the attendant gender
roles—will depend on the organisation’s ability to maintain a safe
enough internal space to be able to let oneself be challenged; a
space with boundaries, privacy and comfort; a space where alternatives
can be played with and tried out.
Secondly, the sentences about women that I have collected here
say something about how communication and power have operated in
tandem in NMS’ history, and how they continue to operate in this
way. It highlights the capacity that the organisation has developed
to throw out a net of double binds. Or perhaps it is not just a
capacity any longer; perhaps it has become a habitual way of communicating:
“You want to move with your missionary husband to Madagascar? You
know that we’re so happy about that. We’re sure you’ll find something
to do once you get there. Of course, we don’t want to burden you.”
Or: “You think we should employ more female leaders? Of course,
we think so too. But there are incredibly few suitable women who
are willing to take it on. You must realise that it is a very frustrating
situation for us.” And so on, and so on.
Such organisational double binds are trickier to overcome than
organisational stress. They need to be exposed for what they are.
This entails asking questions about unspoken mechanisms and power:
Why exactly are important spaces often occupied by important men?
What would have to change, for example, for the General Secretary
post and half the leadership team in Stavanger to be staffed by
women? Which changes would this in turn bring about? What would
happen if there was suddenly only one male theologian at the head
office and 19 female theologians? And why is it not experienced
as institutionally pressing to find out?
In sum, the historical tradition that NMS is placed in (with every
colonial and developmental separation etched into the bargain) has
left them—and all of us, I guess—with a heavy and unwieldy legacy
of doubles: double symbols and double binds. Even the most favourably
inclined member of staff in NMS seems to find it extremely difficult
to step out of this tradition for more than a single thought at
a time. To be able to connect those thoughts into a coherent whole
and to formulate congruent practical steps—to actually start thinking
about women and men in a wholly different way today—seems a particularly
challenging headache for all concerned.
Ingie Hovland has recently completed a PhD in Social Anthropology
at SOAS (University of London). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chandler,
San Francisco 1972.
Young, Katherine, “Introduction.” Women in World Religions.
Edited by Arvind Sharma. State University of New York Press, Albany
1987, pp. 1–36.
Yuval-Davis, Nira, Gender and Nation. Sage, London 1997.