Gale L. Kenny

Christian Imperial Feminism: White Protestant Women and the Consecration of Empire

New York University Press, 2024

269 pages


Reviewed by Kerri Kilmer

Christian Imperial Feminism: White Protestant Women and the Consecration of Empire, by Gale L. Kenny, provides a necessary complication to the conventional understanding of American imperialism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This imperial history is often conceived as either a purely masculine and secular political process or as one indelibly rooted in conservative evangelism. Kenny instead argues that white Protestant American women increasingly adopted a liberal feminist agenda and embraced social issues such as civil rights and suffrage to promote a racially diverse “empire of Christ,” which they believed they were uniquely qualified to manage and control. Kenny is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College (Columbia University, NY). 

In her book, Kenny tracks the history of white-led ecumenical women’s organizations in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Focusing on both missionary and non-missionary groups, she argues that white Protestant women used the language of cosmopolitanism and unity—both religious and racial—to form their identities and define their religious activism through the racial, religious, and gendered hierarchies of the missionary movement’s imperialism. Believing themselves uniquely positioned to “rescue” so-called “heathen” women both at home and abroad, these white Protestants sought to identify, analyze, and ultimately resolve “problems” of race, empire, and women’s rights through their brand of cosmopolitan Christianity, which maintained, and indeed strengthened, their sense of religious and racial superiority. 

Kenny defines the critical title of her book, “Christian imperial feminism,” as only one of many feminisms that were developing in the twentieth century, and which possessed three distinct qualities. First, white Protestant women believed “that only their brand of Protestant Christianity could produce the religious, social, and political circumstances that would enable a woman’s emancipation.” Second, these women clearly understood and defined themselves as “Christian feminists,” where gendered studies of the Bible and Christian history cultivated their sense of “moral authority and citizenship.” Finally, this feminism “made the matter of empire and human difference an object of study of particular importance to Protestant women” who saw Western imperialism as both “a modernizing force that enabled the creation of a global Christianity” and “as inferior to a supposedly more equitable ecumenical Christianity.” Feminism for white Protestant American women was not just an identity (and certainly not an identity that was incompatible with control of colonized women), but rather the very means by which they “tethered their moral, social, and political authority to their expertise in managing difference.” Bringing about a kingdom of God on Earth therefore necessitated bringing “order” through their specific visions of femininity, race, religion, and empire. 

Chapter One, “Christian Imperial Feminism and Mission Study,” tracks the life and work of Helen Barrett Montgomery, a key figure in the United Mission Study program. Launched in 1901, this program and its related textbooks and pedagogical exercises “were meant to educate existing missionary supporters and recruit new women to the cause.” In a departure from nineteenth-century Protestantism which emphasized familial and domestic piety, White protestant women were taught through mission study “to channel their moral sense in particular ways through educating them in their responsibility toward the conduct of the US empire and to interpret racialized people.” Learning about the world through cosmopolitan and colonial systems of knowledge, white Protestant American women sought to manage rather than erase racial hierarchies through appeals to women’s societal improvement and progress. 

Chapter Two, “Performing Christian Imperial Feminism in Missionary Pageants,” argues that Protestant missionary women adopted pageantry—a ubiquitous contemporary form of entertainment—to entertain and develop their imperial projects. Participating in pageants allowed white Protestant women to inhabit and embody a diverse world Christianity and to strengthen their communal bonds and relationship with the divine. They participated directly in establishing narratives that linked personal development as women, missionary projects, and the belief in an unfolding millennial kingdom of God, which they alone could institute through their Christian imperial feminist knowledge and religious feelings of sympathy, superiority, and cosmopolitanism. By acting out imperial and religious conflicts and resolving them, white Protestant women demonstrated their belief in their unique ability to manage women’s rights and diversity. 

Chapter Three, “Learning to Cooperate by Cooperating,” provides an institutional history of white-led church women’s organizations at both local and national levels, arguing that the different invocations of “cooperation” were an attempt by white Protestants to maintain and increase their influence amid increasing concerns around religious and racial diversity. In the northern United States, de facto segregation meant attempts by white Protestant organizations to “cooperate” with black churches often only further emphasized white Protestant forms of activism and control. Viewing the United States as “a vastly expanded missionary field” allowed white churchwomen to define their new organizations and focus on cooperation as an instrument to mobilize Protestants to shape public policy around imperialism and social progress in their own image rather than to promote diversity and integration in good faith. 

Chapter Four, “Christian Americanization and the Tri-Faith Movement,” examines the attempts of white missionary women to assimilate immigrants into their worldview. White Protestant women defined race and emphasized racially inclusive Christianity to obscure their intentions for conversion and evangelism. Promoting themselves as religiously tolerant through associations with white Catholics and Jews, white Protestants both excluded black Protestants and produced a narrow and restrictive kind of religious freedom. Interreligious cooperation and an apparently liberal attitude toward immigration and Americanization were belied by their history as a continuation “of decades of home missionary work intended to assimilate and evangelize” so-called “New Americans” and to manage the empire of Christ in their own communities. Protestant goodwill therefore masked a strengthened exercising of Christian imperial feminism and power. 

Chapter Five, “The Spiritual Feelings and Religious Politics of Interracial Cooperation,” addresses the complex attitudes towards interracial cooperation that were exposed and developed through organizations such as the Church Women’s Committee on Race Relations. White and black Protestant women experienced interracial cooperation differently: while white women viewed it as an educational and spiritually fulfilling experience for white participants, black women used imperial language to condemn the “barbarism” of Americans who had perpetuated slavery and continued to perpetuate Jim Crow segregation and lynching. In their focus on directing white cosmopolitan spiritual feelings about interracial cooperation into political action, black Protestant women were often frustrated rather than edified by these relationships. White churchwomen thus used cooperation to maintain Christian imperial feminism as morally and racially relevant. 

Chapter Six, “Christian Citizens, World Citizens,” draws connections between the simultaneously evolving concepts of Christian and world citizenship, terms which became embedded into Christian church women’s identities as Christian imperial feminism adapted into a postwar world order. Churchwomen increasingly positioned themselves as Christian citizens to mobilize political action and to unite white Protestant women into a political constituency. Using Christian citizenship to foster a sense of shared identity and political unity among black and white Protestant women rendered them as members of a global Protestantism and as world citizens who had a unique power to bring about the kingdom of God—marked by an ironic diversity and world peace that was sanctioned by American political, cultural, and religious might. 

Christian Imperial Feminism, though perhaps less relevant to a widespread audience than its title might suggest due to its tight historic and geographic focus, nonetheless leaves readers with compelling arguments for the complicity of liberal religious feminism in imperial thought and action and feminism’s continued resonance and impact on American imperialism today. Kenny’s text would usefully add to any research describing imperialism as a bipartisan religious and cultural, rather than simply political, force.