Sarah and Her Sisters: American Missionary Pioneers in Arab Female Education 1834–1937
When newly married Sarah Smith arrived in Beirut in 1834, she was appalled by the ignorance and ill treatment of Arab women and girls. Well educated for her times, she was not content just to keep house for her missionary husband. Rather, having taught Mohegan Indians in Connecticut, she, in her two remaining years, opened a small school for girls that began the transformation of education for Arab females. Sarah’s pioneering venture inspired a series of Protestant “sisters,” married and single, to follow in her wake as missionary teachers. Leaving loved ones and the comforts of home behind, they crossed two perilous seas, learned Arabic, and against great odds continued her work in elementary and then secondary and higher education. Sarah’s posthumous memoir was widely read. But the stories of her “sisters” were little known—until now. Here, they are linked in an extraordinary chain of educational achievements despite religious strife, civil war, epidemics, famine, isolation and finally a world war, pandemic and global depression.
Regrettably, many “sisters,” like Sarah, paid the ultimate price and were buried abroad. As long as any girls anywhere are denied an education, these stories can inspire teachers of girls and advocates for female education worldwide to persevere. And hopefully coeds at Lebanese American University will be inspired and motivated to excel knowing that your university goes back to Mrs. Smith’s Beirut Female School and that you are the direct beneficiaries of Sarah and her sisters.
Sarah and Her Sisters had its origins in 1999 when I was serving as a vice president of Lebanese American University, which was then celebrating its seventy-fifth year as a college. I found precious little history of the school on hand. Only in retirement did I find online the Memoir of Sarah L. H. Smith, Late of the Mission in Syria. That discovery led to my three lectures at LAU in January 2009 on Sarah Smith, the founder of the ‘Beirut Female School’ to which LAU traditionally traced its roots, and her husband, Rev. Eli Smith, a scholar of Arabic. I was then challenged by Academic Dean Abdallah Sfeir and others to connect the dots from Sarah to the present university. Thus began a decade of research and writing on only the first of LAU’s two centuries of history.
Extracted from letters, memoirs and school records, Sarah and Her Sisters is the extraordinary history of how Sarah Smith and successive missionary ‘sisters’ passed the torch of Arab female education forward from her Beirut Female School in 1834 to what became the co-ed Lebanese American University in 1994. It is hard to grasp the courage of these women, some married, some not, who bade farewell to their homes and families not knowing if they would ever return.