"'Deeper Even than Race'?: White Women and the Politics of Christian Sisterhood in the Young Women's Christian Association, 1906-1946"

Nancy Marie Robertson

History Department, New York University, 1997


This study examines race relations between white and black women in the twentieth-century United States using the Young Women's Christian Association as a case study. Among the largest of the independent women's organizations, and the major one with substantive participation by women of both races, the YWCA is a window in on the society that produced it. Analyzing its history allows us to explore how one group of middle-class Protestant white women understood their race and gender. In 1917, Lily Hardy Hammond, the daughter of former slaveowners, wrote that womanhood was "deeper even than race." White YWCA women shared that belief. They relied on "Christian sisterhood"--a fusion of nineteenth-century ideas of womanhood and evangelical Protestantism-- to produce a feminized social gospel. They also shared Hammond's belief that racial justice was compatible with segregation and instituted segregated branches in both the South _and_ the North.

In the nineteenth century, white women in the YWCA had emphasized meeting the needs of native-born white working women. By the turn of the century, they increasingly expanded their programs to respond to the situation of white immigrant women and girls. World War I, as well as African-American migration to southern cities and to the North, helped to increase whites' interest in race problems as well. In the face of increasing racial tensions, white and black women adopted a strategy of "interracial cooperation" intended to expose the "better classes" of each race to the other in order to promote racial harmony. Black YWCA women shared the beliefs in women's duty to better society and a Protestant mission to improve the world, although not the belief in segregation. By the mid-1920s, black women like Addie Waites Hunton, Eva Bowles, and Lugenia Burns Hope successfully challenged white women for control over programs for the black community.

In the late 1920s, YWCA women of both races increasingly promoted the importance of interracial fellowship for all women, in part to emphasize their difference from the YMCA which was urging merger on a coeducational, but racially-segregated basis. In the 1930s, a growing number of white women recognized that simply educating individuals was insufficient to deal with the structural problems of racism and segregation. Under pressure from black women, white YWCA women shifted to legislative efforts to improve race problems. Their efforts occurred in the face of both race baiting and red baiting.

The efforts of black women, like Dorothy Height, and white allies, like Mary Shotwell Ingraham, culminated at the 1946 YWCA National Convention, where members endorsed the "Interracial Charter" mandating desegregation. White women had moved from seeing segregation as acceptable to seeing it as a sin, and from regarding race as a _southern_ problem to defining it as a _national_ issue. Although white women in the YWCA had their limitations, they were more involved with racial issues than were white women in secular organizations like the General Federation of Women's Clubs or the National Woman's Party, pointing to the importance of religion well into the twentieth century as the basis for the social activism of many white women. The continuing existence of the YWCA as an autonomous women's group provides a useful complement to the literature on earlier women's organizations and separate spheres. The conflicts in the YWCA foreshadow those that would occur as other white Americans questioned segregation in subsequent years. The belief that womanhood could be "deeper even than race" was mistaken because womanhood and sisterhood were (and are) racially based.


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