Sunday, March 7, 2021

Katharine Bushnell: Doctor, Author, and Activist

By Michelle Shocklee

I love reading about strong, courageous women. Back in December, I blogged about Josephine Butler, a 20th century English woman who took up the fight for women who found themselves forced into prostitution. Not only did she help hundreds of women throughout her lifetime, she was instrumental in changing laws regarding the age of consent, police brutality against the women, and other social justice issues in her day. One of the characters in my upcoming 2022 release, tentatively titled Hold on to This Moment, is inspired by Josephine. 

Katharine Bushnell

Katharine Bushnell was Josephine's American contemporary. 

Born in Illinois in 1855, Katharine was a bright student with a hunger for learning. She attended Women's Northwestern College, studying under Frances Willard, the Dean of Women who would become the long-time president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Willard took an interest in Katharine, seeing in her a likeminded woman of faith and determination to help women live to their fullest God-given potential. 

After receiving a degree from WNC, Katharine went on to study medicine at Chicago Women's Medical Collage. A determined and driven student, she finished three years ahead of her peers. Upon her graduation, her church persuaded her to take a position in China as a medical missionary. For the next three years, Katharine and a colleague, Dr. Ella Gilchrist, would treat hundreds of patients. While there, she began a lifelong study into Bible translation, especially passages pertaining to the role of women. She felt that "a meticulous examination" of the English translations revealed "male bias" that had corrupted the text. This would set her on a path that would eventually lead her to write numerous books and papers on the subject, including God's Word to Women, published in book form in 1921. She also became involved in investigative reporting of the opium trade and the sex slave trade of Chinese girls in Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1882, Katharine and Ella both fell ill, most likely from China's hot, humid weather, and returned to the United States. Katharine especially saw this as a failure, yet she continued her work. Under her former mentor's tutelage, Katharine accepted the position as head of a new department within Willard's Women's Christian Temperance Union. As the National Evangelist of the Department of Social Purity, Katharine focused her energies on issues regarding family, women, and the campaign to outlaw the sale of alcohol, believed by the WCTU to be the root of evil. 

Katharine went on to lead a crusade against forced prostitution in Wisconsin lumber camps, despite local authorities denial that the problem existed. In 1888 she testified before the Wisconsin legislature that women and girls had been forced to work as prostitutes in the camps, calling the situation a kind of "white slavery." The attention that came from her involvement was not all good, with slanderous things said about her. She wrote to Josephine Butler for guidance, who by this time had become internationally known as a reformer. Butler encouraged Katharine to go to India where the problem of forced prostitution existed within British military camps in colonial India. Accompanied by her friend Elizabeth Andrew, the two women set out to investigate the issue, culminating in their published work titled The Queen’s Daughters in India, a comprehensive account of their travels throughout India, in 1899. The inspiration for the title came from the missionaries' belief that “the Queen herself must not approve of the measures, for she has daughters of her own; and she cares for her daughters in India also."

Katharine passed away at the age of 91, but her work and writings continues to inspire women today. 

Is there a strong woman in your life who inspires you? Tell me about her.  

PS. Thank you to my friend Author Tracie Bateman for bringing Katharine to my attention!

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at

*2021 Selah Awards Finalist*

Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.

As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?


  1. What a fascinating post! I was not familiar with Katharine, so enjoyed learning about her. I also am intrigued by strong women in history. One who I find inspirational is Dr. Margaret Craighill, the first female commissioned officer in the Army.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I'll have to read up on Dr. Craighill.

  2. Thanks for the post! I have a friend who is the strongest woman I know. Her husband died of a tragic accident in his 40's and my friend became a missionary after that, bringing her teenage son with her to Indonesia. She has since been assigned many other places in the world, plus she traveled extensively as a life goal. Her job as a missionary was helping to translate the Bible into local dialects. She is strong and brave, and her faith in God never wavered. She's such an inspiration to me.

    1. Connie, your friend sounds like an amazing woman! Thanks for sharing.

  3. this is a fascinating post. I really enjoy posts about women and men of history. My mom was an extremely strong and gentle and compassionate woman of God. She loved her family and her animals and her church people who she came across. She was such a model of God. All five of her kids followed her and would give anything for her. To the day she left for heaven, she read her bible or I would read it to her. At the end, I had the privilege of taking care of mom in the morning/afternoon until dad came home from work. Then I went to work. If I am half as strong/gentle/compassionate as mom I count myself blessed. My sister is like mom in different ways. She is also strong/gentle/compassionate. My sister and I are 9 yrs. apart (I am the oldest, she is the youngest) we are so very different. But we have become best friends over time. Thank you Jesus. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. Lori, you were truly blessed with such a wonderful mom and sister. I imagine you are like them in many ways.

  4. Hmm... my comment didn't seem to work the first time, so I'm trying again. I hope it doesn't end up showing up twice!

    I just have to say that I think Under the Tulip Tree was the best audiobook I've listened to in a long time. Thank you for writing it!!!

  5. Thank you for this post. I found it very encouraging.