Civilizing Habits: Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire

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9780199922840: Civilizing Habits: Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire

Civilizing Habits explores the life stories of three French women missionaries--Philippine Duchesne, Emilie de Vialar, and Anne-Marie Javouhey--who crossed boundaries, both real and imagined, to evangelize far from France's shores. In so doing, they helped France reestablish a global empire after the dislocation of the Revolution and the fall of Napoleon. They also pioneered a new missionary era in which the educational, charity, and health care services provided by women became valuable tools for spreading Catholic influence across the globe.

Philippine Duchesne traveled to former French territory in Missouri in 1818 to proselytize among Native Americans. Thwarted by the American policy of removing tribes even further west, she turned her attention to girls' education on the frontier. Emilie de Vialar followed French troops to Algeria after its conquest and opened missions throughout the Mediterranean basin in the mid-nineteenth century. Prevented from direct evangelization, she developed strategies and subterfuges for working among Muslim populations. Anne-Marie Javouhey evangelized among Africans in the French slave colonies, including a utopian settlement in the wilds of French Guiana. She became a rare Catholic proponent of the abolition of slavery and a woman designated a "great man" by the French king.

Paradoxically, through embracing religious institutions designed to shield their femininity, these women gained increased authority to travel outside France, challenge church power, and evangelize among non-Christians, all roles more commonly ascribed to male missionaries. Their stories teach us about the life paths open to religious women in the nineteenth century and how both church and state benefitted from their initiative to expand the boundaries of faith and nation.

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About the Author:

Sarah A. Curtis is professor of history at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Educating the Faithful: Religion, Society, and Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France and co-editor, with Kevin J. Callahan, of Views from the Margins: Creating Identities in Modern France.


"Civilizing Habits opens new directions in French colonial history, drawing attention to the importance of the early nineteenth century in establishing the patterns of France's modern imperial goals and placing women religious at the center of the colonial project... Curtis succeeds remarkably in telling exciting individual stories of achievement while
simultaneously revealing elements common to the experience of all three women... Curtis's book offers us a fresh look at the relationship between France, women, and empire." --Journal of Modern History

"This is scholarship at its finest. Sarah Curtis makes clear use of significant and complex sources, unweaving a tangled web of politics and power and empire-building--with all its assumptions about women as passive observers--to make her case for the extraordinary missionary efforts of French women in the aftermath of the French Revolution." --Magistra

"The three extraordinary lives at the center of Civilizing Habits demonstrate how religious women in nineteenth-century France could not only escape society's expectations; they could also play a key role in shaping their nation's empire. Sarah Curtis's excellent book offers a novel look at gender, faith, and colonialism in the modern world."-J.P. Daughton, author of An Empire Divided

"It's a measure of the significance of Sarah Curtis's manuscript that, while ostensibly about missionaries and empire, it addresses issues well beyond the primary topic, touching on the legacies of missionary activity in the context of recent events. By adopting the view of the missionaries themselves, Curtis seeks to restore historical richness to the personalities and projects of Catholic European missionaries. And by drafting the biographies of three missionaries - operating in distinct parts of the world, with very little overlap - she brings a comparative dimension to her work. Given that her missionaries operated in parts of the world where France had no serious imperial prospects - the American Midwest - as well as in parts of the world where it did - West Africa - she is able to disentangle convincingly the missionary impulse from the impulse to colonize. That is already a singular achievement for this work, but it's not the only one." -Raymond Jonas, University of Washington

"Sarah Curtis's manuscript makes a significant contribution to several fields - French history, the history of European imperialism, the history of religion, and the history of gender. I am genuinely impressed by the quantity and quality of research that went into this book. Curtis is sensitive and shrewd in showing how the evangelizing and service impulses of the sisters overlapped but did not correspond precisely with desires of the government and in some cases the people they served. She approaches her subjects with critical sympathy, showing how they simultaneously accepted and challenged the religious, racial, and gender frameworks available to them."-Thomas Kselman, University of Notre Dame

"A thoughtful and very readable volume...impressively documented...adds to our knowledge of the "feminization of Catholicism" and to the contours of efforts to re-Catholicize France in the 1800s." --H-France Reviews

"Curtis narrates...with style and flair and her text reveals the inventiveness and courage of Philippine Duchesne, Emilie de Vialar and Anne-Marie Javouhey...Curtis [uses] extensive and wide-ranging sources and has delivered a text which eminently readable and quite fascinating...A refreshing study of three 19th century religious women missionaries." -- Phil Kilroy, Historians of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland

"Finely researched, beautifully written, and profoundly illuminating." -- History of Women Religious

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