Gender Symp.: “Bathing Bulgarians, Saving the World: American Bible Women and Hygiene in the Late Nineteenth Century Balkans, 1864-1918”
Fri, February 22, 2013 • 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM • GAR 1.102
The Department of History's Graduate Symposium on Gender, History, and Sexuality presents:
“Bathing Bulgarians, Saving the World: American Bible Women and Hygiene in the Late Nineteenth Century Balkans, 1864-1918”
A talk by Dr. Mary Neuburger, Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin
American exceptionalism, religious revival, and reformist impulses contributed to the steep rise of nineteenth century Protestant missionary projects. Women played a critical role in the global spread of American Protestant missions, intent upon reforming and “saving” the global “heathen.” Women became central, in part, because of their major role in raising money and organizing missionary efforts, but also because of their presumed ability to access the recesses of the impenetrable heathen home. This “heathen,” of course, was not just pagan or non-white. Rather, all non-Protestants were considered “heathen,” including the white, “European” Orthodox Christians populations of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Balkans. Interestingly, Bible women (and men) directed one of the most sustained missionary efforts of this period in the Bulgarian-populated Eastern Balkans.
As elsewhere in the world, the work of missionary women in this region was focused on the home and the practices and habits of Bulgarian women. While Bulgarians, in American Protestant thought, were generally barbaric, drunken, and filthy, they also had the “racial” makeup and therefore potential to be worthy of intensive efforts to purify their bodies and souls. This study of the protracted American Protestant engagement with Bulgarian populations in this region illuminates the ways in which American messianism entwined religion with the most intimate and gendered aspects of “progress”. At the same time, it offers insight into complex Balkan encounters with modernity in its specifically American guise, carried (as it often was) on the wings of committed religious missionaries.
The Symposium on Gender, History, and Sexuality has been a fixture in Department of History since 2001, offering a forum for graduate students and faculty to present papers and works-in-progress for discussion in a relaxed and collegial atmosphere.