dr ngo on feminism, part II

The Making of a (Male) Feminist. II: Home and Church

By dr ngo

I grew up the son of missionaries whose doctrinal position could be characterized as evangelical, even fundamentalist. They (we) believed in the literal inspiration of the Bible, in a number of basic theological precepts that I came later to recognize as Calvinist, and in rules of behavior that included not only prohibitions on smoking, drinking, and dancing, but on reading the newspaper on Sunday and attending movie theatres at any time. But ours was a loving family, and although we were monetarily poor, we never went hungry, as my current girth will doubtless testify. Generally we didn’t miss what we didn’t have; it was only when I went to college [university] that I really became aware that most of my peers were from much wealthier households.

My father, born in England early in the 20th century, was the last Victorian gentleman. He was immensely dignified, reserved, and conservative in habits and demeanor, though he could be quite funny, even foolish, in the privacy of the family. Both he and my mother accepted completely the idea that the man was the head of the household, and she (like most women of her generation) included in her marriage vows the promise to “obey” him, which I have no doubt she did.

Within the church, each stuck to their assigned spheres: he was ordained and could preach, she was barred from the pulpit and could only (only!) “teach.” I was perhaps lucky that these gender roles were not openly contested in those days, so I was not exposed to the elaborate theological and ideological arguments for this distinction that have come to characterize many churches since. Out in the mission field, my father, like other men, was given an extra year of Chinese language training, because he would be preaching and conversing with educated Chinese men. My mother, like other female missionaries, had just enough language training to get around and talk to simple peasant women about Jesus.

And yet in many respects she was the dominant partner in the relationship. She had been to college (majored in Latin, minored in Greek, and graduated cum laude); he had not. She was energetic, loquacious, and outgoing, instantly making friends wherever she went, whereas he tended to be stiff and formal in social circumstances. She was, quite literally, joyful; he tended to melancholy. She was the one both her children and outsiders approached when they wanted something. It was she who told stories not only about her own past, but his; what little I know of my father’s early life comes almost entirely through her.

Around the house she cooked, cleaned, and managed the household, including three children, various domestic servants (in China), and the guests who perpetually drop in on mission homes, while he was away on business or shut away in his study, preparing his next sermon. (He was an excellent preacher, relying on intense preparation rather than spontaneity.) To be fair, he also took responsibility for the car and the garden – the traditional male duties “outside” – and I believe that they went through the accounts together. But everything else revolved around my mother.

This remarkable woman had learned to drive in Texas at 12, moved to California and graduated from Hollywood High School (with Fay Wray, among others), played the ukulele on the radio (performing with her sister as “The Sunshine Sisters”), matriculated at UCLA at 16, and after graduation headed off to Bible Institute in Chicago.

As a child of 3, we learned later, she had vowed to go to China as a missionary, and she actually was sent, as a single woman, just before she turned 24. She spent the next six years tramping around the war-torn Chinese countryside, learning the language, managing servants, walking up to 30 miles in a day, playing the portable organ at services, and teaching women and children the Gospel, while on the side throwing parties for her missionary friends (where she played the piano, and sometimes even the ukulele) and doing whatever else was needed in the field. I was amazed to find, years later, that once she had actually “coached” some Chinese children in basketball! (For more on my mother’s China years, see “This One Thing I Do’: A Single-Minded American in China,” forthcoming.)

She could have had an active social life if she had wanted. She had already been engaged – and had her fiancé dump her and marry her sister – and she had turned down various other proposals of marriage (including from my father, originally) while waiting for the “LORD’s will” (always capitalized) with regard to her future. Twice in these years she lost everything she owned, except what she was carrying with her, to the Japanese invaders. She claimed she never regretted anything she lost except the letters from my father, posted even deeper in China where he was serving. (He wrote her every day for more than five years until she gave in and agreed to marry him.)

It was thus my mother who laid the groundwork for my later feminism, though she herself was slow to identify as a feminist. Many years later, when my sister – of whom more next time – became an ordained minister, and my brother a professional opera singer, we could sense my mother struggling with these facts. In her eyes (we thought) it would have been so much more appropriate if he had been the minister, and she had been the musician. When I was growing up in the 1950s, however, feminism was never an issue, so I was aware more of my mother’s capabilities than of her gender ideology.

Thus, years later, when I finally encountered feminism, it took very little to convince me that women could be as competent, as talented, as fully human, as men. My mother had already proved it to me.

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One thought on “dr ngo on feminism, part II

  1. It’d be interesting to know how many other people have come to feminism via the influence of a particularly inspiring woman. I can’t remember anyone with quite such a key role for me, although I think I found those of my female relatives who worked outside the home as more interesting. I grew up around what I now see as the blatantly discriminatory situation of a father who was ordained and an aunt (his sister) who was a missionary and more suited to a clerical role, who was not then allowed to be ordained. Yet at the time I’m not sure I saw it as an injustice. I suspect my early feminism was more self-centred. I was not a ‘girly’ girl and I did not see why I had to behave in a certain way (or be told that women were intellectually inferior to men), when I was an unattractive, shy, bookworm with unusual natural ability at mathematics.

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