On her shoulder, Mary Slessor carried her adopted baby. Clinging to her skirt was her five-year-old, and with her right hand she coaxed along her three-year-old. Two older children sloshed behind. Sloshed, because they were trudging through a mangrove swamp in West Africa. It was night, for their boat had reached its destination late. They could not see any snakes that might lie across the path or drape from trees above. But they could hear leopards. To keep the big cats at bay, Mary belted out hymns. The children chimed in. “Our singing would discourage any self-respecting leopard,” Mary wrote to a friend later. On this night, no other adult was within miles.

Because no missionary had the time, or, perhaps the courage, to go, Mary Slessor and her children were moving in to live with the fierce Oyokyong people in what is now Nigeria. The year was 1888.

Today women are faced with multiple role possibilities and struggle with their identities: “What are my priorities?” “How assertive should I be?” “What dare I do?” In this quest, Mary Slessor is a worthy addition to our gallery of role models.

Mary was born in 1848 in Scotland. Population had boomed in the early 1800s. Crops, however, had failed. On the non-agricultural front, the steam engine was squelching cottage industries. Desperate for jobs, families migrated to cities. Many lived, begged, and died on the streets. The Slessor family of nine lived in one room.

Mary’s father was a shoemaker, and her mother a weaver who earned ten shillings a week for 58 hours of labor. Because weaving required nimble fingers more than strength, and because a woman’s wage was nearly half a man’s—and a child’s wage only one-fourth—there was almost no work for men in weaving mills. Boys could ...

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