Mary Sumner: Mission, Education and Motherhood: Thinking a Life with Bourdieu
By Sue Anderson-Faithful
Founder and President of the Mothers’ Union, one of the first and largest women’s associations, Mary Sumner (1828–1921) was an influential educator and a force to be reckoned with in the Church of England of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using the analytical tools of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Sue Anderson-Faithful locates Mary Sumner’s life and thought within her highly restrictive environment, hindered by her sex and buoyed by her class and racial privilege. This dichotomy is the key to understanding the character of a woman who both replicated and shaped Victorian attitudes to women’s roles in society.
To Mary Sumner, mission and education meant the propagation of maternalist imperialism. Her activism was intended to nurture the growth of the British Empire at home and abroad, with women fulfilling their ‘destinies’ as mothers and educators of future generations. In her view, the legitimacy of imperial rule was intertwined with the moral force of Anglicanism. This symbiotic relationship between Church and state concentrated power in the hands of the ruling class to which Mary Sumner both belonged and was subordinate. In Mary Sumner: Mission, Education and Motherhood, Sue Anderson-Faithful interprets her work and legacy in the light of this paradox: her negotiation and reinforcement of gender essentialism as part of a patriarchal institution and her assertion of religious values and maternalism in order to bolster British imperialism.
Sue Anderson-Faithful is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at the University of Winchester, as well as a member of the Centre for the History of Women’s Education. Her focus is on women’s educational activism in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, in particular the history of the Mothers’ Union and the Girls’ Friendly Society. She is also the leader of the Winchester Women’s History Walk.