Herstory

How The Women’s Conference got its name, and other her-stories.

The Women’s Conference began as a gathering of wives of missionaries in 1957  and has grown to embrace all women who want to share in it. Its program themes are rooted in the love that is learned from Jesus the Christ.  There is no formal organization; each year the conference entrusts this understanding to the next planning committee, and each year hearts are warmed and spirits are renewed in blessings and friendships.  Read on to learn more…

 After making enquiries from  previous attendees for information in January 1987, in January 1990 Betty Swain wrote the following history titled
“Who we are – The Women’s Conference”.

Lake Nojiri was the setting and the time was summer, 1957. A group of missionary wives gathered together for fellowship and mutual encouragement; they ended with a serious conversation about the need to do this more often. Losing little time, they gathered in a Fall Retreat at the Atami Toryu Hotel that same year, 1957 — the first Japan-wide conference. And it continues, propelled by a deeply felt need for time apart from family and work situations in fellowship with other women.

From the outset, the name of the conference reflected the composition of the women in attendance. The 1957 summer “tea party” guests were mostly IBJ (Interboard Committee for Christian Work in Japan — Protestant) women, and for the next few years it was their conference, partly funded by their cooperating mission boards. It became widely known as the “IBC Missionary Wives Conference”.

 An outstanding characteristic of the missionary involvement in Japan in the fifties was the sudden influx of young families with various problems of linguistic and cultural interactions. Many of the most common crises had to do with language ability: “The kindergarten teacher came to visit and I panicked and hid in the kitchen.” Home schooling: “I don’t even know the multiplication tables myself.” Household help: “I served HER tea, then I washed the windows.” Homesickness: “My mom won’t see the baby till she’s four.” Isolation: “It’s scary – I’m talking to myself in the mirror.” Medical care: “Have the baby on the kitchen table? You’re kidding…aren’t you?” All these problems, and others like them, often times very serious, contributed to the most depressing burden of all: “I’m not sure any more that this is what God wants me to do.” The absence of “old timers” to look to for advice and comfort was acutely felt.

 Initially, the need to share and seek answers to such problems seemed paramount, but there was the same natural need to share the joys and excitement of life in Japan, too. “His teacher helps me help him with homework.” “She’s like a grandmother to the children.” “We’re sending and receiving tapes as well as letters.” “My neighbor and I are exchanging cooking lessons.” “The doctor said a prayer.” “I can understand only a little of the service, but I am comfortable in God’s Japanese house.”

There was only one rule then as now: No children; nursing babies only. The end-of-January date was chosen early on as this was the time when husbands were most free and could care for the family. (Peer pressure to cooperate among the men was phenomenal!!) The mode of planning remains essentially the same: area groups take turns in organizing and everyone who can do so helps. From the beginning to this day, an amazing array of skills and talent has produced programs filled with a mixture of music and laughter, quiet contemplation, practical workshop, serious study, and both traditional and contemporary worship.

The 1958 conference retained the fall-retreat motif but recognized a wider fellowship with the name “Kyodan Missionary Wives”, usually shortened to the “Wives’ Conference”. In a natural sequence, missionary wives from any denominations who wanted to participate were included. There was a sharing of responsibilities in the planning, and no distinctions were ever made among the conferees.

In 1971, “The Women’s Conference” first surfaced firmly as a name, largely because of a budding women’s movement among the planners, as well as a growing consciousness of the need to include all the women, married or single, in the fellowship. At about this time some English-speaking women from the business and diplomatic communities of several different countries joined in. Still the largest group then as now were Protestant missionary wives, and most participants continued to say “Wives’ Conference”, even though each planning group would attach its own name — sometimes “women” and sometimes “wives”, reflecting an unconscious theme threading its way to the surface during the seventies. Lively debates centred on one’s self-perception as a “missionary wife” or “a wife who is also a missionary” or “a missionary who is also a wife”, and the differences among these understandings. One wit insisted, “It depends on what kind of a day you’ve had and who you’re talkin’ to.”

The roster for the 1972 conference, still “Kyodan” but “Women’s” rather than “Wives'”, included names of a few single women and, in 1975, the ecumenical barrier was breached with the presence of a Roman Catholic nun who led us in a study of the early history of the church as described in the book of Acts.

The watershed year was 1976. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gave a weekend to the conference and the publicity surrounding her visit filled Amagi Sanso to overflowing. There were Jewish, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, and Protestant women, and a few others who gave no indication of any religious orientation; both married and single woman, some widows and several divorcees, Japanese women and women from several western countries–an unprecedented mixture of culture and belief. Nevertheless, those who were present will attest that the variety of women who came together that weekend to discuss “Live, Die and Rejoice” did experience a communion of kindred spirits that exemplifies the joy and companionship of women seeking a meaningful life, death with dignity and an afterlife of peace and love.

Before 1976 the conference name had varied; but that year, in the presence of all those different categories of female persons, it was clear that a decision was needed to express properly who we are. In its business meeting the conference voted unanimously to adopt the name “The Women’s Conference” because, as one member of the naming committee put it succinctly, “We are women and we are having a conference. There are no boundaries, no limitations, no labels needed to either enhance or inhibit. We are ‘The Women’s Conference’. Never to be referred to, of course, as the W.C.”

Over the years since that time there has been an occasional suggestion that perhaps the name should be the “Christian Women’s Conference” to indicate the conference’s faith orientation. Various scraps of notes, committee meeting minutes, letters, and conference programs from the past describe a yearly gathering whose program themes are rooted in the love that is learned from Jesus the Christ, and it is this love that shines through to embrace the women who want to share in it. Each year the conference entrusts this understanding to the next planning committee, and each year, after the laughter and the tears, the prayers and the praise, the songs and the sacraments, hearts and warmed and spirits are renewed in blessings and friendships. And all women are invited to share in this celebration. Indeed, we are “The Women’s Conference”, and this name says all of the above.

This is WHO WE ARE. And what we are trying to do with it is best expressed in the 1984 Planning Committee’s parting words:

Go into the world
With a daring and tender love.
The world is waiting.
Go in peace.
And all that you do
Do it for love,
And by the Spirit of Jesus
Who is the Lord.

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