THE LEGACY OF KATHARINE BUSHNELL
by Ruth Hoppin
click here for a short bio
Katharine C. Bushnell was the author of God's Word to Women, a groundbreaking
study of what the Bible really says about women. Behind that remarkable
book, which has been reprinted twice in recent years, I see a remarkable woman.
How do we measure greatness? If by loftiness of purpose, we see Katharine
Bushnell going to China as a medical missionary. We follow her across America
and beyond its borders to several continents as she worked to reform conditions
of human degradation. We read her closely reasoned exposition of Scripture as
she tried to establish women in their rightful place in church and society.
When God's Word to Women was first published in book form in 1921, its author
was 65 years old. Her writings on the Bible were the product of her later years,
the culmination of impressions and concerns of her earlier life. God's word to
her personally was no doubt the inception of her book on the subject.
Katharine Caroline Sophia Bushnell was born February 5, 1856, in Peru (LaSalle
County) Illinois. She attended public school there; and in 1879 after pre-med. studies at Northwestern University (Evanston), Katharine went to the Chicago
Women's Medical College where she specialized in nerve disorders.
At that point in her life, in light of her own call to missionary work, she
pondered what seemed to be the Biblical injunctions against women preaching. Her
studies led her to China where she established a pediatric hospital in Shanghai.
A medical practice spanning seven years, first in China, then in Denver, ended
in 1885 with an entirely new venture. Joining forces with Frances Willard,
president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) with 39 departments
of activities, and in the vanguard of the 19th century women's movement, which
embraced far-ranging concerns--temperance, labor and prison reform and peace.
From Denver where she worked among "fallen women," Bushnell went to Chicago as
National Evangelist for the WCTU's Department of Social Purity. The WCTU
announced her qualifications: Here was a woman of "strong character, courage,
and practical ways," one who "feels called of God to this sacred and difficult
As National Evangelist, Bushnell often went from door to door inviting women to
prayer meetings, which were held in attractively furnished, free reading rooms. She was able to secure employment for many of those women; then she outlined a
plan for expanding that work throughout the city and nation.[ii] During this
period, she also founded the Anchorage Mission for homeless women in Chicago
where as many as 5,000 women found shelter in a single year.[iii]
Doing battle against "white slavery" in this country and against government
sponsorship of prostitution in India, Bushnell became embroiled in controversy. She somehow managed to get into stockade dens in Wisconsin lumber camps where
women were being held against their will for sexual purposes. Armed with facts
and sketches, she reported what was going on. When Wisconsin officials denied
those charges, she testified before the Wisconsin State Legislature, flanked by
police guards for protection.[iv]
The Wisconsin legislature did not keep verbatim records nor even a summary of
its proceedings. Yet a bill enacted in 1887 may be the so-called Kate Bushnell
Bill. "Senate Bill 46 outlawed the abduction of unmarried women for the purposes
of enforced prostitution; a prison term of five to fifteen years was mandated
for detaining any woman involuntarily. Another section of the law provided
protection for mentally retarded women and girls. [v]
Bushnell next went with a colleague on a fact-finding expedition to India. Despite a prohibitory resolution passed in the British House of Commons, vice
was prevalent in the military encampments. Bushnell used ”her medical profession
and a lot of nerve to get through carefully barricaded doors” and to “cut
through masses of red tape.”[vi] For her expose and courageous efforts to reform
those debased conditions, she won international recognition. The British
government then commissioned her to investigate the opium trade between China
and India. That mission accomplished, she won new accolades.[vii]
Bushnell was admired by co-workers for her organizational ability. For example,
the Union Signal, the WCTU's official publication, noted: "Katharine Bushnell
has made out for the WWCTU (World's WCTU) a directory of names and addresses of
leading temperance men and women in every important town in Asia, Africa and
Australia.”[viii] She was recognized as a forceful and even charismatic speaker. In Frances Willard's words:
"Dr. Kate Bushnell has made two addresses. . . unique and well
considered, they breathed out her great, sisterly heart. . . reflected her
careful, deep and wide-ranging thought...There is nothing backward...about
her mode of thought or of expression. He is fresh vivid, instructive, and
profoundly in earnest.”[ix]
A letter to the Union Signal agreed: "I have never heard a woman speak
with more peculiar persuasive power than she does.” [x]
In 1904, Katharine Bushnell settled in northern California. When God's Word
to Women was published, she lived at 127 Sunnyside Avenue in Piedmont (adjacent
to Oakland). Not only a zealous crusader but also a brilliant and original
scholar, Bushnell spoke seven languages fluently. She was cited by the British
government for translating the ancient Latin Bible into English.[xi]
The scriptural status of women continued to be of intense concern to her. Bushnell believed that mistranslations were responsible for the social and
spiritual subjugation of women.
"If women must suffer domestic, legislative and ecclesiastical
disabilities because Eve sinned, then must the Church harbor the appalling
doctrine that Christ did not atone for all sin, because so long as the
Church maintains these disabilities, the inevitable conclusion in the
average mind will be the same as Tertullian’s - God's verdict on the
(female) sex still holds good and the sex's guilt must still hold also."
Further, she wrote, God does not approve "that law which places Jehovah in a
position secondary to her husband in a wife's life.” [xiii]
God's Word to Women began as a correspondence course in 1908. In 1916, the loose
single sheets were bound into two paper-covered volumes, which evolved into the
cloth-bound 1921 edition. Although the book created a stir here and
abroad, it was, for example, reviewed favorably in the very conservative
Sunday-School Times published in Philadelphia, which eventually faded into
Early in 1971, I received a telephone call from Katherine Bushnell's former
pastor, Dr. K. Fillmore Gray (then of San Ramon Valley Methodist Church, Alamo,
CA), who offered to give me a copy of God's Word to Women that she had given him
many years ago. I was already familiar with Bushnell's work and had written an
article based on her research. Curious to learn more about her, I arranged an
interview with Dr Gray (March 13, 1971).
He recalled that although a companion lived with her, Katharine Bushnell often
attended church alone. Although not exactly a recluse, she did not get out and
around a great deal. With her good-humored and cordial manner, Katharine
had a cheerful disposition and was “easy to talk to, not at all like a
celebrity.” As she told him about her dreams and projects, her face lighted up.
How did Dr. Gray see Katharine Bushnell? "She was one of America's noblest
women," he said. What did he think of my interest in her book?
To him, it was incredible: "Her work was like a rock dropped to the bottom of
the ocean. Kerplunk. It was gone, and it seemed the end of it."
I wonder what he would think of the interest in her work now.
I met a niece of Katharine Bushnell's, Peg Hoppin Moor of San Bruno, CA who
called me because of her interest in Hoppin genealogy, who kindly answered my
inquiries about her aunt. From Peg Moor, I learned that "Aunt Kate's" parents
were Mary Fowler McKean and William Francis Bushnell. Mary Fowler was born in
Trenton, NJ , and William Bushnell in Norwhich, CN. They were married May
16,1837 in Harlem (NYC). Five sons and four daughters were born to them: Sarah, Milton,Carlton, Mary, Lucy, Edward, Katharine, William Jr. and John.
With the exception of Katharine, all married.
Katharine's sister Sarah made her a patchwork quilt, which Katharine treasured
and bequeathed to another niece, Mrs. Jean O’Rourk, the first city librarian of
Daly City, CA where I now live.[xiv] In her will, Katharine also bequeathed to a
friend, Mrs. Evelyn Kane, her “little pictured motto: ‘I can do all things
through Christ who strengtheneth me.’”[xv] Bushnell died on January 26, 1946.
To us, Katharine Bushnell left the example of a multifaceted life that reflected
the light of Christ wherever she went.
[i] The Union Signal, March 4, 1886, p. 3. "Temperance and Prohibition Papers,"
microfilmed by the Ohio Historical society, Columbus, OH 43211, 1977. Project
Directors: Andrea D. Lentz, Editor: Francis X. Blouwin Jr. I am indebted to Gayla K. McDowell, Librarian, Frances E. Willard Memorial Library, Chicago, for
providing Union Signal index entries pertaining to Katharine Bushnell, microfilm
available at Stanford University.
[ii] Union Signal, April 22, 1886, p.12
[iii] “Does God Speak to Women?” West Bluff Word (11). November 1983, p.8.
[iv] Obituary, "Dr. Katharine Bushnell," The KNAVE Section, Oakland Tribune.
February 10, 1946.
[v] Laws of Wisconsin, Chapter 214, published April 28, 1887. "This
appears to be the first Wisconsin law which related to the 'white slave trade'"
(letter from Dr. I. Rupert, Theobald, Chief Legislative Reference Bureau. The
State of Wisconsin, June 25, 1986.)
[vi] Obituary, Oakland Tribune; Union Signal, June 22 1893, p. 1; September 21,
1893, p. 1.
[vii] Obituary, Oakland Post-Enquirer, "Bushnell Services Conducted." January
28, 1946, and Oakland Tribune.
[viii] Union Signal, June 8, 1893, p. 10.
[ix] Union Signal, July 1, 1886, p. 9.
[x] Union Signal, September 16, 1886, p.9. Letter by Gertrude Magoffin
[xi] Obituary, “Bushnell Rites Set for Monday.” Unidentified newspaper, and
[xii] God's Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman's Place in the
Divine Economy. Author's Note.
[xiii] From a booklet, The Vashti-Esther Story (e. 1945). I am indebted
to Catherine Kroeger for a copy of that booklet and also for a Bushnell leaflet,
"Covet to Prophesy."
[xiv] Telephone conversation with Jean O’Rourk, March 31, 1971.
[xv] “Last Will and Testament of KC Bushnell” received from Jean O’Rourk.
Reprinted with permission from Priscilla Papers Vol. 9 No 1 Winter 1995 and
Ruth Hoppin who is also the author of Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of
the Epistle to the Hebrews (Lost Coast Press, 2000) To read a chapter on our
website click here