Our Club life is the outgrowth of the encouragement and inspiration which the Church has given to the work of women in the Church and, as a “little leven will leven the whole,” so have the small beginnings of organized work among women led to these general movements, both state and national that have brought out so prominently the great possibilities of Christian womanhood. . . .
[T]he leaders in religious thought and effort have become the leaders in nearly every fraternal, business, educational and reform movement which has been inaugurated or prosecuted for the improvement, development or advancement of the race.Mamie E. Steward (1907)
Organization has given hope for a better future by revealing to colored women their own executive ability. . . . [T]heir organizations have bound the women together in a common interest so strong that no earthly force can sever it. . . . Organization has taught them the art of self government.” Through words and deeds, Sarah Jane Woodson Early boldly asserted her right to speak and act, during a time when women were mostly considered appendages to their husbands. In 1894, when she penned these words, Early was sixty- nine years of age. As an independent thinker and pioneering black feminist involved in the early women’s movement, she was widely known and revered as a model to be emulated by other women. Yet Early does not fit into any of the niches defined for either women or African Americans of her time. She was neither poor, enslaved, illiterate, nor southern in her upbringing. As the daughter of free blacks who lived in a small town in Chillicothe, Ohio, Sarah Jane Woodson grew up in a black community that revered both religion and education. Her philosophy was shaped by the issues of the time, in particular the abolitionist
and women’s rights movement. As a graduate of Oberlin College in 1856, she was among the first black women to obtain a college
degree. Her appointment to the Wilberforce University faculty in 1859 distinguished her as the first black woman to serve on the faculty of an American university. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, she went south to Hillsborough, North Carolina, to teach black girls at a school administered by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1868, at the age of forty- three, Sarah Jane Woodson married Rev. Jordan W. Early, a pioneering minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Accompanying her husband to his many charges, Sarah Early continued to teach, and became deeply immersed in her duties as a minister’s wife.
In 1888 she became the first black woman to serve as superintendent of the Colored Division of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Her experiences at every level of society, among blacks and whites of all classes, confirmed her belief that the involvement of African American women in social and political reform was critical to racial advancement.
Sarah Early is a prototype of the pioneering black feminists whose lives were shaped in the tumultuous events of the nineteenth century—women who defined what it meant to be a woman and an African American. These women created organizations and launched movements whose impact is still felt. The lives of Sarah Early, Ida B. Wells- Barnett, Rev. Julia Foote, Virginia W. Broughton, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph, Sarah Willie Layten, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mamie E. Steward, Mary McLeod Bethune, and numerous other women who came of age in the nineteenth and twentieth century illustrate how religion informed and shaped the public lives and social activism of African American women and how that in turn has influenced the American experience more broadly.Jesus, Jobs, and Justice
: African American Women and Religion
takes a historical approach to the subject of women, religion, and politics, analyzing religious, class, and gender dynamics in the black community and racial dynamics in the larger society. Jesus, Jobs, and Justice demonstrates how black women have woven their faith into their daily experiences, and illustrates their centrality to the development of African American religion, politics, and public culture. Moreover, it emphasizes their importance to the struggle for racial and gender freedom. Emboldened by their faith and filled with hope, over time black women created an organizational network that has been indispensable to the fight against racism, sexism, and poverty. It is fitting that this book is published at the beginning of the twenty- first century, and that it recounts the extraordinary history of black American women’s struggle for freedom in all aspects of their lives. By the end of the twentieth century all legal barriers to the full participation of women and people of color in American society had been removed. Though it is impossible to predict what the twenty- first century will bring, one thing is certain: the new era will be about maximizing and maintaining the gains that have been made.
Many of the women and movements in this study either are unknown or have received minimal or no treatment. Numerous studies
consider the importance of race, class, and sex to black women’s history, but few perceive religion or spirituality as significant factors in the shaping of women’s thought and actions, or consider the multiple external historical forces that have impacted the lives of generations of African American women. It is impossible to trace the history of black women and religion without contemplating their encounter with the main currents of U.S. and, indeed, world history as exemplified in their transnational interests.
Religion has served as both a source of black women’s oppression and a resource for their struggles for gender equality and social justice. Historically, religion has been the
central guiding force in the lives of most African Americans. Speaking in 1952 about a conference where “women were considered from every angle” but there was no session on religion or philosophy, Virginia Simmons Nyabonga observed, “It was the conviction of everyone that religion and philosophy are basic threads of all existence and activity.” This is the underlying premise I have used to interpret the history of black women and religion. Of central importance to this work are questions of how issues of patriarchy, sexism, and gender inequality relate to the African American community, and how issues of racism impacted not only the black community but also the interracial and women’s movements. It is an interdisciplinary history that explores the race, class, gender, and religious experiences of women within the context of U.S., black, and women’s history from the unique perspective of African American women.
Being black and female and faced with racism and sexism posed special problems for African American women. Unlike white women, they could not simply choose to fight sexism: for black women the chains of race were equally as binding as the chains of sex. However, through it all, most black women never forgot that whatever their struggle was with white America, the sex issue was equally as important to their survival and advancement as women of color. At the same time, they fully recognized that white America, including most white women, viewed them as black first and women second. Race impacted their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and other relatives. As long as racism existed, freedom from sexism would not advance black women’s social, economic, or political position in the United States.
Combining black women’s experiences and perspectives while simultaneously documenting the history of black American women
and their organizations, this study looks in depth at the major dimensions of African American women’s lives and brings an understanding of the historical significance of religion in most aspects of black life and culture. Many black women leaders were deeply imbued with religious convictions and saw their work as a way of implementing their Christian faith. Expanding far beyond their religious institutions, they created multiple national organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, the National League of Colored Republican Women, and the National Council of Negro Women; joined white-led quasi-Christian groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; cooperated with white women in the interracial movement; and worked in numerous maleled organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and the United Negro Improvement Association to advance their race, sex, religious, and social agendas.
The themes and broad outlines of women’s struggle are similar for Protestant denominations and some non- Christian religions. However, most black women’s organizations engaged in organized activities aimed at achieving racial and gender freedom and advancement. Religious women’s organizations were differentiated mostly by their geographical and class differences. From the outset, the organizational structures and issues of most women’s missionary societies and conventions were influenced by church law and the social status and political ideology of the organizations’ leaders.
Scholarly work on African American women has focused almost exclusively on limited aspects of their club work or, more recently, on their discrete roles in specific religious traditions in the period after the Civil War to 1920. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s pioneering study of the women’s movement in the National Baptist Convention opened up new vistas for the study of women and religion. However, in the absence of historical studies of African American women in other denominations, Higginbotham’s Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880–1920
is often utilized to explain the experiences of all black church women. The tendency of scholars to conflate the history of the Woman’s Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, with that of women’s organizations in other denominations has created a false and monolithic history of black American women and their institutions. Covering more than two centuries of black and women’s history, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice
: African American Women and Religion
serves as a corrective to that notion and illustrates the diversity and richness of African American
and women’s history.
Founded in 1900, the Woman’s Convention was among the last of the national black women’s religious organizations to be organized. It was preceded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Woman’s Parent Mite Missionary Society and Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society; and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s Woman’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society. In Engendering Church: Women, Power, and the A.M.E. Church
, sociologist Jualynne E. Dodson astutely examines how women acquired and used power within the AME Church in the late nineteenth century. In God in My Mama’s House
: The Women’s Movement in the CME Church
, Bishop Othal Hawthorne Lakey and Betty Beene Stephens, leaders in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (founded as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church), provide insight into the leadership roles of women in the CME Church. In the recently published Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World
, Anthea Butler perceptively discusses the activities of Pentecostal women in COGIC’s Women’s Department. There are no published full-length histories on black Catholic, Episcopalian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Presbyterian women’s organizations.
There is no comprehensive history of black women’s organizations and their leadership. There are few comparative studies of black women that explore what it meant to be a club woman and a church woman, and how black women constructed their identities in a manner designed to merge their religious and secular experiences and environments. Utilizing the language of evangelical Christianity to argue for both gender equality in the church and community and racial equality and social change in white dominated organizations and the American body politic, black women skillfully negotiated the different worlds in which they functioned. Several studies of religion and African American history have provided some insight into the opposition black women faced in their endeavors during certain periods of time. However, few focus on the ongoing internal struggle over the meaning of black masculinity and femininity that is evident after the Civil War, escalates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as women demand religious rights and political suffrage, and continues through the civil rights–black power movement of the late twentieth century into the twenty first century. Critical analysis of the opposition faced by women in black churches and denominations is limited. Yet the church is the base from which African American women first launched their national crusade against sexism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century African American women created missionary societies and women’s conventions through which they obtained organizational skills and leadership training, asserted their power within the church and community, and began to speak for themselves and fight for women’s rights and racial justice. They also engaged in transnational work in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, believing that improvement of the status and image of women in Africa was necessary for the general acceptance and advancement of black women in the United States and throughout the diaspora.
The granting of political suffrage to women in the United States did not ignite the self- conscious black masculinity that was evident after World War I; rather, it inflamed it. As numerous black women embraced their newfound freedom and became more politically active and outspoken, black men felt even more threatened. The rise of laymen’s and “brotherhood” religious organizations and attempts of male clergy to further control and constrict women’s religious freedom after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 exemplifies the reaction of many men to the changes occurring in the national political status of women. One cannot fully understand sexism and gender discrimination in the black community without a careful evaluation and understanding of religious institutional praxis and the internal discourse over the meaning of black manhood and womanhood. Historical issues of gender, debates about class, and sexist ideologies advanced by black male leaders were often part of their quest for citizenship rights and racial equality in a white-male-dominated society that valued patriarchy. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the church was at the center of this struggle. This is reasonable and logical considering that historically the church has been one of the most powerful institutions in the African American community as well as the forum in which most of the first debates about racial equality, black “manhood rights,” and women’s roles and rights in the church and society occurred.
Excerpted from Jesus, Jobs, and Justice by Bettye Collier-Thomas. Copyright © 2010 by Bettye Collier-Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.