Gale Kenny on the Womens March, Church Ladies, and Grassroots Political Religion

Historians in the News
tags: political history, womens history, Womens March, grassroots organizing

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).

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.d

“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.

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