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The Power of Women's Voices
65th Anniversary Conference of the Sophia Smith Collection
at Smith College, September 28-29, 2007

Nancy Marie Robertson

YWCA Scholar

A new book by Nancy Marie Robertson of the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores how the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), 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.

Nancy Marie Robertson
Nancy Marie Robertson © 2007 NMR

Dr. Robertson is an associate professor of history and philanthropic studies and also directs the Women's Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Dr. Robertson graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1978, and received her M.A. (1984) and Ph.D. (1997) in history from New York University.

In Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46 (University of Illinois Press, 2007), Dr. 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.

Book cover

"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. 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," said Dr. Robertson.

Dr. 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 (many of which are now in the SSC), 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.

Two historians' advance praise for the book:

"This richly detailed book tells the largely untold story of the Young Women's Christian Association 'coming around' on race relations in the early twentieth century. Robertson offers a longer and more complex history of the civil rights movement, grounding the post-World War II movement in the work of progressive women decades earlier. In this rendering, women (both white and black) play a far more prominent role, and religion is a more consistently important factor, than in previous studies of the movement."
--Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, author of Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present.

"Nancy Robertson's Christian Sisterhood provides one of the most sensitive and nuanced accounts to date of black and white women's collaboration in the name of progress. Attentive to national, local, and regional dynamics, the differing assumptions of black and white women, working-class and middle-class, and the perils of those differences for black women in the field, Robertson provides a new understanding of the crucial role of one of the largest national women's organizations in guiding us from the women's movement of the early twentieth century into the civil rights movement of the late twentieth century."
--Sarah Deutsch, author of Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940.

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