Women have shaped our world in incredible, impactful and important ways. We can thank women for many medical and scientific breakthroughs, for their roles as teachers (formally and informally), for the advances in gender equity, for their work in managing households and raising world leaders, for their work as world leaders influencing politics and culture. Women have used, and continue to use, their unique positions, perceptions and influence to challenge the status quo and to save lives. I want to introduce you to two such women.
Hannah Maria Norris was born in 1842 in Canso, Nova Scotia. In 1869 Hannah began to hear a “still small voice”* calling her to go to Burma as a missionary. However, when she approached the Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of Maritime Baptists she was told that there were absolutely no funds “for any new enterprise”*. She was then promised funds from another man who later changed his mind. When Hannah approached the Board of Foreign Missions a second time, she was told to make an appeal to her sisters of the Maritime Baptist churches. In a period of about two months Hannah visited 41 churches around the Maritimes, forming 32 Woman’s Missionary Aid Societies (WMAS) which fully funded her work in Burma*.
When she left just three weeks after this Maritime tour, Hannah became the second single woman from the Maritimes to work as a foreign missionary. Within 50 years the network of WMAS grew to more than 400 societies and supported 33 single women missionaries*. This network continues today as Atlantic Baptist Women and has grown to include support for international, national and local mission efforts. Hannah’s willingness to follow the “still small voice” despite facing rejection and obstacles started a movement that empowers everyone to engage in the work of sharing the gospel in word and deed.
Mary Two-Axe Earley was born in 1911 on the Kahnawà:ke reserve in Quebec**. Under the Indian Act (as amended in 1876) Mary Two-Axe lost her Indigenous status when she married Edward Earley, a man of Irish-American origin. According to section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, a status Indian woman who married a non-status man would lose her status, including her land and treaty rights**. This also meant that her children would lose their status and rights. The loss of status meant that Mary Two-Axe could no longer live or own land on reserves, could not be buried with her ancestors, and had no right to vote or be recognized in band elections. Mary Two-Axe was not welcomed among her own people.
She spent nearly three decades fighting for the rights of Indigenous women, including changing the Indian Act to allow Indian status to also be determined by female lineage. She spoke and wrote about the injustice and abuse faced by women on and off reserve who were denied their status, treaty and property rights. It wasn’t until 1985 with the introduction of Bill C-31 that the Indian Act was amended and Mary Two-Axe Earley became the first of many Indigenous women to have her status reinstated**. Mary Two-Axe’s determination to speak against the oppression she and other Indigenous women faced has redefined Canada’s understanding of Indigenous status and identity.
So, why share these stories? I hope that these stories have taught you about two of the women who shaped the cultural and religious landscape around you. Beyond that, I hope even more that these women have taught you the value of women’s influence, positions and perceptions.
Hannah Maria Norris used her influence as a woman to challenge other women to support international mission work. Her influence stretched beyond her work to challenge other single women to consider a lifetime of service in ministry. Who do you influence? How can you use that influence to stretch others to reach beyond themselves?
Mary Two-Axe Earley’s challenges and oppression offered a unique perception of the world that she spoke and wrote about in order to help herself and others. Other status men and women didn’t see the challenges the same way, non-Indigenous people did not notice or perhaps care about the challenges Indigenous women faced. Mary Two-Axe and other Indigenous women who had been robbed of their status stood up for themselves and brought forth solutions that mattered, that worked. What unique challenges and solutions do you see around you? How can you use your view and understanding of the world to inform, challenge and encourage others?
Both women used their positions as the starting point for their work. Hannah’s work as a teacher gave her the education and connections that she needed to persuade others to support her ministry. She started among women in Atlantic Canada because she herself was an Atlantic Canadian woman. Although Mary Two-Axe’s position as an Indigenous woman denied of her status may seem to marginalize her, it enabled her to speak about the problems with the Indian Act with credibility and from personal experience. Without this position, Mary Two-Axe may never have become so passionate about the rights of Indigenous women in Canada.
God has gifted each of us, regardless of gender, ethnicity or social status, with important perceptions, positions and influences. We are each created by God and placed where we are to do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us do to” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV). The question is, how will you use your positions, perceptions and influence to share His love with the world?
*Quotations and other information about Hannah Maria Norris from: http://www.stuartbarnard.com/csch-sche/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1992-1-ross-article.pdf
**Information about Mary Two-Axe Earley from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-two-axe-earley