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Butler Records - Part 5

In early 1879 there was a flurry of letters between the Butler women, as their number was swollen by the addition of my great-grandmother Maria to the family, through her engagement to Thomas. Maria herself was effusive in her letter to her prospective mother-in-law, Jane, soon after their meeting:



I fervently pray that God will abundantly bless you, and grant that you may be spared, for many years to come, to be a blessing to all around you, which I feel sure that you have been in the past. I can scarcely tell you the happiness that it affords me, to think that one so loving and kind as yourself is likely to become my own dear Mamma. In that case, God permitting, it will ever be my desire to prove a most affectionate and loving daughter to you. (March 8th)

As for letters welcoming Maria, Thomas’s sister Mary Ellen is typical:

Dear Maria, I am very very glad to think that I have a new sister, especially one whom I can feel to be also my sister in Christ. I have often been sorry that Thomas should be neither married nor engaged [Thomas was 32 at this time]. Thomas tells me that you are very fond of Sunday School teaching; so this, I hope, is one out of many things in which you and I shall sympathize with each other... Of course we have always expected that we should like anyone whom Thomas would choose for his wife, but if we had doubted it, we should have been quite reassured by the nice photograph which he shewed us on Saturday last. We are very glad to have it; indeed, we feel now as if we partly know you already. (Jan 6th)

Photographs seem to have been whizzing back and forth about this time; and one of them was from another sister, Fanny. Her letter begins:

As I cannot come myself to see you, I send you my photograph. I hope you are not shocked at the idea of having a strong-minded female, a lady-doctor for a sister. Never mind, you will find she can love you just as well as anyone else could. I have been a long time in writing to welcome you as one of our family. Like yourself, I am much engaged for many hours every day and am almost too lazy when I come home to be able to write letters. (Jan 11th)





This is the only letter I have from Fanny, but I want to pause over it. I admit I was intrigued by her slight note of apology for being "a strong-minded female" and "a lady-doctor", and the assurance that she is (nevertheless?) capable of sisterly feeling. Overall she seems anxious, perhaps, about being viewed as strange, or at least intimidating. Here is her photograph, by the way: possibly the very one she sent (but I’ve taken it from her sister Annie Robina’s memoirs of their father):

Fanny Jane Butler (1850-1889)

Annie Robina mentions that Fanny was a medical missionary and died in Kashmir, but I’d not known much more about her. I’d assumed, from the date (and being unfamiliar with the initials after her name), that she’d worked as a nurse: did they even have women doctors then? Annie, besides, had been much more interested in the religious side of Fanny’s work:

I said a little while ago that there was no favouritism in our home. But let me add here, for the encouragement of any who are thinking of the foreign field, that from the time any member of a family hears and obeys the call to publish amongst the heathen the unsearchable riches of Christ, that one becomes the favourite of the whole household, and everyone is pleased to have it so. (Annie R.Butler, Nearly A Hundred Years Ago (1907), 110-11.


A little web-probing reveals that Fanny not only qualified as a doctor (she was licensed in Dublin in October 1877, then the only place in the UK that awarded such qualifications to women), but in 1880 became the first British woman to practise in the sub-continent. According to her obituary in The British Medical Journal, she went first to “Jubbulpore, Central Province, India, then to Calcutta, and afterwards to Bhagalpore, Bengal, under the auspices of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society. At these places she laboured alone under considerable difficulties for more than six years. ... In 1888 she was appointed to start a hospital for women in Kashmir. Her death took place at the age of 39, after a year and a half of active earnest work in her new sphere.”

Note the name: “Zenana Missionary Society.” Fanny (and other female doctors who followed her) specialized in treating the women secluded within the zenana, that part of the house where male strangers (including doctors) were not allowed. Because of this restriction, these Indian women had not had easy access to Western medicine. In fact, one of the main arguments used in Britain for women to receive medical training was precisely that this would allow for the treatment of Indian women in the zenana – a significant intersection of feminism and colonial humanitarianism.

In that sense, Fanny looks as if she was a feminist pioneer at home, and a dedicated worker for women’s health abroad. And in that sense she was. On the other hand... although she trained as a doctor her primary aim was always to convert the "heathen" – and the feminist label doesn’t stick very fast either. According to one article:

While deeply committed to the work of evangelizing India and particularly its women, Butler was uneasy about the whole notion of “lady-doctoring.” She shared many of her contemporaries’ prejudices about the “unwomanliness” of the profession and for a time was firm in her opposition: “I could not do it,” she wrote; “I could not care for the medical women’s movement.” And yet, like so many other British women of her generation, Butler’s understanding of the zenana system in India convinced her that evangelization must go hand in hand with medical treatment—both because she cared for the physical well-being of Indian women and because “it was a means of approach to many who were inclined to be hostile to [missionaries’] teaching, but could not resist it when it was expressed in acts of mercy.” (Antoinette Burton, “Contesting the Zenana: the Mission to make ‘Lady-Doctors for India’, 1874-1885”.)


Perhaps this worry about unwomanliness accounts for the air of apology in her letter to Maria Stockdale. More seriously, was the medicine just a means to an end, a Trojan horse designed to get Fanny “on the inside”, where she could take advantage of her patients’ vulnerability and sickness to prosecute her work of evangelism? That’s pretty exploitative, surely? Though, of course, she sincerely believed she was ministering to their immortal souls. And she at least got herself properly qualified (there were more than a few missionaries out there giving medical treatment with only rudimentary training), and as far as I can discover was good at her job. (A note on the family tree records that she was told by the King’s Professor of Midwifery that her paper was the best he’d ever received from a student at the Royal College of Physicians – a branch of medicine that must have been useful in the zenana.) And, thanks to her there was a hospital for women in Srinagar, where no hospital had been before. But still...

Oh dear. I’m ambivalent about missionaries. What’s your position?
Tags: family history
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