Remembered as the “Goddess of Nanking”, Minnie Vautrin devoted her career to her students in China, first at Luchowfu Girls’ School and then at Ginling College in Nanking. She served Ginling College as faculty member, dean of education and as president for two years.
Alongside her vocation of teaching she worked closely with the Disciples missionaries and doctors in Nanking. As significant as her vocation was, her courageous resolve and steadfast commitment to protect her students during the 1937 Rape of Nanking has ensured that she is remembered as a true hero.
Minnie Vautrin was born in Secor, Illinois. She was hard working and spent much of her childhood and teen years earning money to attend college. At 17, she attended Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. She then graduated from the University of Illinois. She began a career in teaching, starting with high school in LeRoy, Illinois.
In 1912, Vautrin made her way to China as a missionary and teacher. During her first few years there she helped found a girls school in Luchowfu. After her first furlough, she returned and helped build and found Ginling Girls College in Nanjing, where she eventually took over as Master of Studies.
When the Japanese army invaded Nanjing in December 1937, she and the other foreigners in the city, including John Rabe, worked to protect the civilians in the Nanking Safety Zone. Ginling Girls College became a haven of refuge, at times harboring up to 10,000 women in a college designed to support between 200 and 300. With only her wits and the use of an American flag, Vautrin was largely able to repel incursions into her college.
Minnie recounted the horrors of the war in her diary in 1937:
"There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night—one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people. … I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out "Jiu ming! Jiu ming!"—save our lives. The occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street, make us realize the sad fate of some man—very probably not a soldier."
On 19 December :
"In my wrath, I wished I had the power to smite them for their dastardly work. How ashamed women of Japan would be if they knew these tales of horror."
In 1938, she wrote in her diary that she had to go to the Japanese embassy repeatedly from December 18 to January 13 to get proclamations to prohibit Japanese soldiers from committing crimes at Ginling because the soldiers tore the documents up before taking women away.
In 1940, weary and stressed, Vautrin took a furlough again from her work. A few months later, haunted by the images she saw and feeling responsible for not being able to save more lives, Vautrin committed suicide by turning on the stove gas in her small apartment in Indianapolis.
After the war, Vautrin was posthumously awarded the Emblem of the Blue Jade by the Chinese government for her sacrifices during the Nanjing Massacre. Her work saving the lives of Chinese civilians during the massacre is recounted in the biographical book, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking, written by historian Hua-ling Hu.
In the documentary film Nanking, Vautrin was portrayed by actress Mariel Hemingway, who recited excerpts from Vautrin's diary.