After reading of the sad and horrible story of Feng’s forced abortion in China, I hesitated to write about it here, although I felt so strongly about the situation. It was going to be a lot harder than I thought to not “look for the bad” and the sense of injustice in me wanted to let everyone know of this tragedy. But thinking over the sorry reports, I was reminded of a woman who, around 80 years ago, began fighting the same battle in Yungcheng of women’s rights and liberation, and the welfare of China’s unwanted children. I lost myself in The Small Woman by A. Burgess (1957) – the autobiography of Gladys Alyward.

Gladys is an odd sort of hero – a nearing-middle-aged woman from London (with all the background a parlour maid had) moving to China to become a “foot inspector” and caring for unwanted babies, particularly girls. However, if you look closer, you begin to see what, not just an out of the ordinary, but inspirational woman she was.

Society told her she was too old to follow her dreams. Culture dictated she remain a servant for her working life. Tradition told her she was foolish to attempt to change the treatment of women and children (as well as other neglected members of society). She brushed off her remarkable life once by saying that she would only be remembered for taking a hundred children over the mountains once which wasn’t particularly spectacular. Unlike other missionaries over the years, she didn’t march in and try to “Westernize the natives” – rather she dressed like her new countrymen, took a Chinese name, and loved Chinese children as her own, a radical move.

Maybe the poetic license of the Ingrid Bergman 1958 film “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” painted an inaccurate and over-romanticized picture of the Little Woman. But Gladys is remembered for her love for the repressed and her desire and efforts to make a difference.

I wish I could say that now, nearly a century later, the battles she fought were won. The sad news of Feng’s baby is only one, I fear, of many untold stories. But Gladys did what she could to create happier endings, against all odds and London’s laid out plans for women in her time, and she continues to inspire change.

More: read more about Gladys here.


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