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Cindy Fox Aisen

Last modified: Monday, July 30, 2007

Biracial sisterhood laid groundwork for Civil Rights Movement

July 30, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS -- A new book by Nancy Marie Robertson of the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores how the Young Women's Christian Association -- the nation's major national biracial women's organization -- provided a unique venue for women to respond to American race relations during the first half of the twentieth century and laid the groundwork for the subsequent civil rights movement.

Robertson is an associate professor of history and philanthropic studies and also directs the women's studies program.

Nancy Marie Robertson

Nancy Marie Robertson

In Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46, Robertson writes that although the YWCA was segregated at the local level during the time period, African American women were able to effectively challenge white women over the YWCA's racial policies and practices at the national level.

"Women of both races used the metaphor of Christian sisterhood to legitimize their social activism at a time when women were usually relegated to the home," said Robertson. "Seeing themselves as "sisters in Christ" allowed black and white Protestant women a way to find common ground during an era of racial division.

"But while white women often emphasized their role as 'big sisters' who needed to help less-privileged women, black women in the YWCA used the metaphor to demand respect and equality. Their different responses were the result of different perspectives on both religion and womanhood," Robertson said.

Robertson explores how white YWCA members in the first half of the 20th century went from seeing segregation as compatible with Christianity and democracy to regarding it as a contradiction of those values. Prior to President Truman desegregating the military, Jackie Robinson joining major league baseball, or the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, white women in the association began to come to terms with American racism. Their struggles helped set the stage for other white Americans to address the challenges raised by the civil rights movement of the second half of 20th century.

Robertson's analysis relies not only on a large body of records documenting YWCA women at the national and local levels, but also on autobiographical accounts and personal papers from women associated with the YWCA, including Dorothy Height, Lugenia Burns Hope, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin and Lillian Smith.

Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46 is published by the University of Illinois Press.