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Church Ladies and Grassroots Political Religion

A large group of women carry many signs, including a large banner that reads "The Women's Wave Rises: 2019 Women's March on Washington."

The Women’s March and related activism are similar to the 20th century political organizing of the United Council of Church Women. Image via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Following the excitement of the 2017 Women’s March, many white suburban women in swing districts revitalized the Democratic Party from the ground up. In their research in several swing states, historian Lara Putnam and political scientist Theda Skocpol looked past the massive one-day demonstration to find that college-educated and middle-aged women had returned home to invest in local Democratic politics. Motivated in part in opposition to the 52% of white women who voted for Trump, “middle America’s mothers and grandmothers,” some of whom had been Republicans and independents, formed local chapters of Indivisible, attended town halls, and volunteered for campaigns for the 2018 election. Many of these new activists invoked a shared gender identity, in this case informed by a distaste for Trump’s “brand of male authority.” Yet as critics of the Putnam and Skocpol report have noted, liberal white feminists have often advanced their causes by drawing on white supremacy instead of battling it. Many newly politicized white women have had to reckon with their racial privilege as they have worked alongside African American women and men and others who have been traditionally part of the Democratic base. In their relational organizing, and in their confrontation with their racial privilege, the experiences of today’s white women political activists resemble those of the United Council of Church Women (UCCW) in the mid-twentieth century.

“Prayer, study, action – these are the methods we use,” wrote Mrs. George Barbour in the May 1945 issue of the Church Woman. As the chairwoman of the International Justice and Goodwill committee of the United Council of Church Women, Barbour offered specific instructions as to how Protestant churchwomen might rally their friends and neighbors in support of the United Nations. Local churchwomen’s councils should hold summer “porch parties” and organize discussion groups to explain why Christians must support the newly formed UN. Churchwomen, Barbour advised, must then write letters to their senators urging them to ratify the United Nations charter. The UCCW planned for the whole campaign to culminate in the prayer services for World Community Day in November 1945.

For thousands of organized Protestant women who belonged to ecumenical councils affiliated with the UCCW, this mixture of religion and politics was nothing new. Barbour’s call for “prayer, study, action” had been applied to earlier temperance and purity campaigns, the women’s peace movement, and other progressive-era efforts. Historian Michael McGerr has described women’s distinctive middle-class voluntarist political style that marked both conservative and liberal activism. For churchwomen, this kind of political activism was also a vital religious practice. Established in 1941, the UCCW (now known as Church Women United) was formed primarily by adherents to the social gospel: white middle-class women who had been leaders in the Protestant home and foreign missionary movement. In the 1920s and 1930s, these women had denounced the Klan, lynching, and nativism, even as their Christian imperial feminism sought to “save” women oppressed by non-Christian religious cultures at home and abroad. In the 1940s, the national UCCW encouraged interracial councils, and an African American woman, Christine S. Smith, served as the organization’s first vice president. Yet, many black women faced latent and overt racism within the organization. As growing numbers of African American women and other women of color joined in the 1950s and 1960s, they interrogated the organization’s missionary origins and the sins of white supremacy.[1]

In contrast to white conservative Protestants who drew a firm line between religion and politics in the midcentury (a move that was itself a political stance), the UCCW continued to see political engagement as Christian practice. From the 1940s onward, the UCCW and local councils educated members about the plight of war refugees, fair labor relations, public health, criminal justice reform, and child welfare. Their monthly magazine, the Church Woman, updated readers about upcoming bills before Congress and UN resolutions. In many locales, churchwomen’s councils partnered with the YWCA, the League of Women Voters, the Council of Jewish Women and Council of Catholic Women, the NAACP, and United Nations Associations. While conservative Protestants in the emerging religious right opposed the ERA, Church Women United supported it and participated in the creation of the National Organization of Women. In 1989, the organization also endorsed lesbian and gay rights.[2]

As they interviewed white suburban women in 2018, Putnam and Skocpol noted the activists’ relational organizing strategies. Like earlier generations of conservative “suburban warriors” and the women in the UCCW, contemporary activists are mobilizing preexisting networks based in their churches and synagogues as well as the PTA and other civic organizations. They do so with a distinct appeal to women’s issues. In the 1950s, the UCCW emphasized churchwomen’s position as Christian women and mothers not as a retreat to domesticity but as a way to justify their political engagement. Articles in the Church Woman gave out concrete advice on how mothers could and should lobby politicians. For example, a short story entitled “A New Way to be Christian,” focused on one woman’s efforts to mobilize her friends in support of the proposed United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. As the story begins, the woman calls her friend and reminds her of the recent lecture on atomic energy they had attended at church. The caller encourages her friend to write her senators that “our country ought to stop making atomic bombs and share the control of atomic energy with the other nations as fast as possible.” She notes that a “short, handwritten letter from a sincere housewife” has proven quite effective. Meanwhile, the friend watches her children come up the front walk, and she thinks about how her son will soon be conscripted into military service. Uncertain yet worried, she asks if Christian women should really be getting so involved in politics. The caller reassures her that “taking action on the great moral issues before Congress is as much a part of putting our Christian principles into practice as supporting missionary work.”[3]

When Putnam and Skocpol published their research in early 2018, they noted the lack of media attention on these mostly white suburban women activists. More recently, the fissures related to race and religion within the Women’s March movement have driven headlines while the ongoing and difficult work of building intersectional feminist coalitions and engaging in grassroots relational organizing remains in the background. Yet we also might ask how our limited notions of religion and politics that rarely extend beyond the voting patterns of white conservative evangelicals has obscured other kinds of religious politics, including, possibly, women’s grassroots activism. Paying attention to the history of organized Protestant women – and also their Jewish and Catholic counterparts – prompts us to consider “religion” as not only a demographic identity but as a mechanism for many kinds of political activism. It suggests that we examine the religious commitments of those in this new bloc of “suburban women voters,” perhaps discovering that they too would claim the motto of “prayer, study, and action” to describe their overlapping religious and political practices.

Gale Kenny is an assistant professor in the Religion Department at Barnard College. Her forthcoming book on organized Protestant women is entitled Christian Cosmopolitans: Protestant Churchwomen and the World, 1900-1950.She is also the author of Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica (UGA Press, 2010).

[1] Michael McGerr, “Political Style and Women’s Power,” The Journal of American History, 77 (no. 3, 1990), 864-885. For more on the racism that African American women faced in the UCCW, see Bette Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York, 2010).

[2] Ann Braude, “A Religious Feminist – Who Can Find Her? Historiographical Challenges from the National Organization for Women,” The Journal of Religion, 84 (no. 4, 2004), 555-572.

[3] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: the Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001). Joy Hume Falk, “A New Way to be Christian,” Church Woman, May 1946, 20-21.

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