March 16, 2023
Today, it is not uncommon for a woman from the U.S. to travel around the world for a career, but in the early 1900’s, such a life was hard to imagine. So, when 25-year-old Emma Olson of Round Prairie left to work in Singapore in August of 1911, the local newspaper exclaimed about her “sacrifice” and “banishment from home, family and all that she holds dear”. Emma and her younger sister Della chose lives of education, travel, and leadership, and we’ll focus on them for Women’s History Month.
Emma and Della became Methodist missionaries. Christian mission work was the rare sphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where women could lead. Women in local churches formed mission societies that controlled their own money, unusual for the time. As an adult, Della earned a master’s degree from a Methodist college called “Scarritt Bible and Training School for Women Missionaries”.
The Olson family was very involved in the Methodist Church. Emma and Della’s grandfather, Nils Olson, was a Norwegian immigrant who first settled in Cambridge, Wisconsin, in the early 1850’s. There he helped establish what is now referred to as the oldest Scandinavian Methodist Church in the world. In 1857, he and his young family moved to Vernon County and settled on Round Prairie, near Three Chimney Rock between Viroqua and Westby. In their new home, Nils helped to establish the Westby Methodist Church.
Nils’ son Andrew married Betsy Matson, also an immigrant from Norway, and they took over the Olson family farm. Emma was born in 1885 and Della in 1890, two of eleven children. They became active in the Viroqua Methodist Church, and Emma decided at a young age to become a teaching missionary overseas.
The Olson children were encouraged to get good educations. They attended Round Prairie School through 8th grade, and then went on to Viroqua High School, where Emma graduated in 1906 and Della in 1909. Emma taught country school for several years, and then went back to school herself, graduating from the La Crosse Normal School (a teacher training college) in 1911.
Della also graduated from La Crosse Normal, and went on to study at the University of Chicago and at Columbia University in New York, plus the Bible School mentioned above. And partway through her missionary career, Emma again furthered her education, attending Northwestern University and Garrett Seminary in Evanston, IL, and earning a degree from the University of Chicago.
In 1911, Emma left for Singapore and a three-year tour as a missionary, which turned into a 30-year career teaching in mission schools. Her younger sister Della, following in Emma’s footsteps, left for Singapore in 1918 and the beginning of her own 34-year career in the same field. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at their working lives.