Laura R. Prieto

Professor,

Simmons University 

 

Laura R. Prieto (B.A., Wellesley College; A.M., PhD., Brown University) is Professor of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons University in Boston. Her first book was At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in the United States (Harvard University Press). She has a special interest in using visual and material culture, from photographs to dress, as sources for women's lived experience. Her primary research interests currently concern gender, race, and imperialism in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Dr. Prieto’s most recent scholarship focuses on American and Filipina women at Protestant missions in the early twentieth century. Her book manuscript in progress traces how the women’s missionary movement played out in the archipelago during the era of American colonization. In 2017-2018, she was Visiting Professor and Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School.

“Intelligent Motherhood: Maternal Care and Education at a Women's Mission Hospital in Colonial Manila, 1906-1940
 

In 1906, just a few years after the U.S. took possession of the Philippines, the Woman’s Foreign Mission Society (Methodist Episcopal) dispatched Dr. Rebecca Parrish as a medical missionary to Manila. Parrish proceeded to establish the Mary J. Johnston Memorial Hospital to serve women and children in the impoverished Tondo district. The hospital thrived, gaining additional funding from both the Philippine government and the WFMS. It increasingly employed Filipinas as Bible Women, nurses, and eventually physicians on its all-female staff.

Reading mission archives against the grain, this paper examines how and why the MJJ hospital focused its religious and medical evangelism, and its hopes for a global Christian sisterhood, on Filipina mothers. The U.S. colonial state expressed great concern over high infant mortality, using such statistics to justify the period of “benevolent tutelage” they imposed on the Philippines before being willing to grant independence to the archipelago.  The American and Filipina staff of the MJJH agreed that intervention by modern, scientific medicine was necessary for childbirth and post-partum.  They established programs to instruct Filipina women in infant care, as well as in Protestant precepts. Yet even as they frequently reproached Filipina mothers as ignorant or incapable, the MJJH increasingly entrusted professional Filipina nurses to teach those mothers. Through education and Christian conversion, the MJJH nurses became the modern Madonnas who aimed to birth a “better Filipina womanhood.” They adopted American ideals of gender and medicine but adapted those teachings to their culture, their climate, and their personal ambitions.

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