School of Social Sciences

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Claire Cooke

Start date

Feb 2011

Submission date

Feb 2015

Claire Cooke


Women on a Mission: African American Missionary Women, Gender and Race Relations, 1880-1940.


This thesis will critically analyse and deconstruct how African American missionary women negotiated race and gender in South African missionary societies. The empirical material of this thesis is drawn from case studies of missionary women who were part of, or affiliated with, the predominately African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and its missionary societies stretching from Cape Town to the kingdom of Barotse, north of the Zambesi. My timeframe is from 1880 to 1940 when the majority of AME missionaries went to Africa and concludes with the outbreak of World War Two. I have chosen this timeframe because race relations between African Americans and white Americans in the United States (US) plummeted at the end of the nineteenth century but, paradoxically, coincided with the expansion of AME missionary work. Thus the study of South African AME missionary societies is unusual and complex because the missionary work provided AME women with increased agency which was denied in the US. Yet AME women still had to negotiate race and gender relations in the South African missionary societies. This thesis explores these complexities by looking at the power and agency that AME women had in both the US and as missionaries in South Africa by asking how did African American AME missionary women negotiate gender ideologies and practices in the South African mission fields? How did these women negotiate race relations with indigenous South African women? And how did AME missionary women negotiate the regulation of their sexuality and sexual behaviour in the missionary fields?

Why my research is important

My study builds on the existing feminist literature about missionary women which places women at the centre of historical analysis by focussing on the unpaid and thus invisible work that women contributed, as well as the ideology of motherhood as a method of controlling the sexuality of female missionary workers. Patricia Grimshaw, for instance, has emphasised the importance of marriage in missionary societies because marriage served as one possible entry point for women who wanted an alternative career path and the opportunity to participate in foreign missionary work. Most importantly, the critical scholarship on missionary women has been largely devoted to white missionary women and their interactions with indigenous South African women. Therefore, this thesis addresses an important gap in the existing scholarship of race and gender by discussing how AME African American missionary women interacted with indigenous South African women.


  • Australian Postgraduate Award, 2012 ($23728, p.a)
  • University of Western Australia Top-Up Award ($3500, p.a.)