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Published Date: January 31, 1995

Published Date: January 31, 1995

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Featured Articles

The Legacy of Katherine Bushnell

How do we measure greatness? If by loftiness of purpose, we see Katherine 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.

Katherine 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), 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 Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Bushnell worked for social reform on behalf of women. The WCTU, with 39 departments of activities, and in the vanguard of the 19th-century women’s movement, embraced far-ranging concerns; temperance, labor and prison reform, 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 task.”1

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 through-out the city and nation.2 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.3

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 stockaded 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.4

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.5

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 cantonments. Bushnell used “her medical profession and a lot of nerve” to get through “carefully barricaded doors” and to “cut through masses of red tape.”6 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.7

Bushnell was admired by co-workers for her organizational ability. For example, the Union Signal, the WCTU’s official publication, noted: “Katherine 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 of Asia, Africa and Australia.”8 She was recognized as a forceful, 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 hackneyed … about her mode of thought or of expression. She is fresh, vivid, instructive, and profoundly in earnest.”9

A letter to the Union Signal agreed: “I have never heard a woman speak with more peculiar persuasive power than she does.”10

In 1904 Katherine 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 an ancient Latin Bible into English.11

The scriptural status of women continued to be of intense concern to her. She 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.”12

Further, she wrote, God does not approve “that law which places Jehovah in a position secondary to her husband in a wife’s life.”13

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 — it eventually faded into obscurity.

Early in 1971 I received a telephone call from Katherine BushnelPs 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, Katherine Bushnell often attended church alone. Although not exactly a recluse, she did not get out and around a great deal. Her manner was good-humored and cordial; she 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 sec Katherine 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, the end of it.” I wonder what he would think of the interest in her work now.

I met a niece of Katherine Bushnel’s, Peg Hoppin Moor of San Bruno, CA, who called me because of her interest in Hoppin genealogy, and then 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; William Bushnell in Norwich, CN. They were married May 15,1837, in Harlem (NYC). Five sons and four daughters were born to them: Sarah, Milton, Carlton, Mary, Lucy, Edward, Katherine, William, Jr., and John. With the exception of Katherine, all married.

Katherine’s sister Sarah made her a patchwork quilt, which Katherine treasured and bequeathed to another niece, Mrs. Jean O’Rourk,14 the first city librarian of Daly City, CA (where I now live). In her will Katherine also bequeathed to a friend, Mrs. Evelyn Kane, her “little pictured motto ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthened me.’”15

To us Katherine Bushnell has left the example of a multifaceted life that reflected the light of Christ wherever she went. She died on January 26, 1946.


  1. The Union Signal, March 4,1886, p. 3. Temperance and Prohibition Papers, microfilmed by the Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH 43211,1977. Project Director: Andrea D. Lentz. Editor: Francis X. Blouin, Jr. I am indebted to Gayla K. McDowell, Librarian, Frances E. Willard Memorial Library, Chicago, for providing Union Signal index entries pertaining to [Catherine Bushnell. Microfilm available at Stanford University.
  2. Union Signal, April 22,1886, p. 12.
  3. “Does God Speak to Women?” West Bluff Word (IL), November 1983, p. 8.
  4. Obituary, “Dr. Katherine Bushnell,” The KNAVE Section, Oakland Tribune, February 10, 1946.
  5. 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. H. Rupert Theobald, Chief, Legislative Reference Bureau, The State of, Wisconsin, June 25, 1986).
  6. Obituary, Oakland Tribune; Union Signal, June 22, 1893, p. 1; September 21,1893, p. 1.
  7. Obituary, Oakland Post-Enquirer, “Bushnell Services Conducted,” January 28,1946, and Oakland Tribune.
  8. Union Signal, June 8, 1893, p. 10.
  9. Union Signal, July 1,1886, p. 9.
  10. Union Signal, September 16, 1886, p. 9. Letter by Gertrude Magoffin Singleton.
  11. Obituary, “Bushnell Rites Set for Monday,” unidentified newspaper, and obituary, Post-Enquirer.
  12. God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy, Author’s Note.
  13. From a booklet, The Vashti-Esther Story (c. 1945). I am indebted to Catherine Kroeger for a copy of that booklet and also for a Bushnell leaflet, “Covet to Prophesy.”
  14. Telephone conversation with Jean O’Rourk, March 31, 1971.
  15. “Last Will and Testament of K..C. Bushnell,” received from Jean O’Rourk. The Scripture verse is Philippians 4:13.