Mission historiography tends to be framed either in the context of imperialism and colonialism, or with hagiographic tendencies from inside the church. But missions have played an ambivalent role in the contact zone, and this is sometimes reflected in indigenous biographies. Missions were homes, and places of refuge and training, and therefore a vital space in the contact zones, where interpersonal relations and the continual negotiation of meanings were absolutely central.

Women played a central role in attracting families to missions and creating the conditions that ensured their success. Conversely, the failure of missions can often be directly linked to the absence of a white missionary wife (or in the case of Catholic missions, of nuns). The aim of this symposium is to imbue mission history with a strong sense of the contribution of white women on missions, and facilitate their inclusion in contact zone historiography.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2013 this conference brings together speakers from Australia and Europe ranging across religious studies, gender studies and Australian history over the theme of the contribution of white women on missions in Australia and Papua New Guinea. It links up senior Australian researchers with early-career researchers. Two international participants are direct descendants of major missionary figures in Australia, John Strehlow, the grandson of Carl and Frieda Strehlow, and Susanne Froehlich nee Pilhofer, great-granddaughter of missionary Johann and Luise Flierl, who have explored privately held primary material not otherwise accessible. The conference convenors are Professor Regina Ganter at Griffith University, an ARC Future Fellow working on a history of German missionaries in Australia, and Professor Pat Grimshaw at the University of Melbourne who has a longstanding interest in women’s history and mission history. The event is focussed on the Australian experience, and seeks to shift the discourse of mission from its overarching structural effects to the personal circumstances of staff on missions, capable of helping to decipher the failure of so many and the great success of other mission ventures.