"If it wasn't for the women..." : Black women's experience and womanist culture in church and community /
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes.
Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books 2001.
viii, 253 p.
1570753431 (pbk.)
More Details
Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books 2001.
1570753431 (pbk.)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Catholic Press Association Awards, USA, 2001 : Nominated
First Chapter

Chapter One

"If It Wasn't for the Women ..."

Community Work and Social Change

Many sociologists who studied the relationships between dominant and subordinate racial-ethnic groups in the 1960s stress the creative ways in which individuals and groups enable communities to articulate their own needs and challenge oppressive structures in the wider society. Other sociologists such as Stanford Lyman emphasize the historical experience of racial-ethnic groups in the data used for sociological interpretation. The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the American Indian Movement, along with diverse movements within Asian American, Puerto Rican, and Chicano communities, challenged sociologists to explore historically rooted conflicts over power, labor, economic resources, and the appropriate strategies for achieving social change

    Creative social conflict is inevitable and necessary if racial-ethnic, gender, and class inequities are to be eliminated and social justice achieved. When enterprising, caring members of oppressed communities become involved in public affairs, their actions often contribute to a creative cultural process that is a force for social change. This chapter is about an aspect of that creative cultural process: enterprising women in African-American communities who shape social change through their community work.

    Women are vital to the creative cultural process of social change. African-American women and their community work highlight the importance of a group's history and culture to the process of social change. The rise of the women's liberation movement and public concern about African-American women, their families, and their position in the labor force generated a particular interest in their roles in the process of social change. Along with Asian American, Native American, and Latina women, African-American women's work outside the home was recognized as a distinctive component in their family roles. Community work is part of this work outside the home. It is labor these women perform in addition to work in the household and the labor force.

    This chapter describes the contemporary expression, historical foundations, and persistent activities of the community work of African-American women. Community work includes a wide range of diverse tasks performed to confront and challenge racism as a total system. This work has historical foundations, and a historical perspective helps to highlight the areas of activity common to the work at different time periods. Community work consists of the women's activities to combat racism and empower their communities to survive, grow, and advance in a hostile society. The totality of their work is an emergent, dynamic, interactive model of social action in which community workers discover and explore oppressive structures, challenge many different structures and practices that keep their communities powerless and disadvantaged, and then build, maintain, and strengthen institutions within their community. These institutions become the basis for the community's political culture. The women generate an alternative organization and a set of commitments to group interests that are the basic elements of "community." They work for the community that they themselves re-create and sustain, a mutually reinforcing process.

    During the late 1970s in a Northeastern city I gathered oral histories and observed the community activities of twenty-five African-American women whom other African Americans had identified as those "who have worked hard for a long time for change in the black community." As these women talked about the ways in which they became involved in community work and the different kinds of organizations and activities in which they participated, I learned about the very intricate and diverse ways in which people make social change. I also learned about the many ways in which women experience racial oppression. Their family roles make them acutely conscious not only of their own deprivations but also of the suffering of their children and the men in their lives. Their insightful and enterprising responses to these many kinds of suffering led to their prominence in the community. They were responsible for maintaining a dynamic community life to create social change and an adaptive family system to foster survival in a hostile environment. Through community and family, these women generated a set of values and a social organization that persistently challenged and changed American society.

Community Work

    Women in American society are expected to be good managers. They organize and coordinate diverse schedules and activities within their families, and among the organizations and institutions with which family members are involved. Work outside the home is often added to this responsibility. African-American women usually work, manage their families, and, if they are community workers, participate in the struggles between the communities and the dominant society.

    James Blackwell's definition of the African-American community helps us to understand the context of their work. Blackwell argues that the community, although diverse, is held together by both internal and external forces. It is "a highly diversified set of interrelated structures and aggregates of people who are held together by the forces of white oppression and racism. Unity within the black community is a function of the strategies developed to combat white racism and to strengthen black social, economic, and political institutions for group survival and advancement."

    Community work consists of all tasks contained in strategies to combat racial oppression and to strengthen African-American social, economic, and political institutions in order to foster group survival, growth, and advancement. Community work is focused on internal development and external challenge, and creates ideas enabling people to think about change. It is the work that opens doors to elected and appointed positions in the political power struggle, and demands and creates jobs in local labor markets and the larger economic system. Community work also focuses on changing ideas, stereotypes, and images that keep a group perpetually stigmatized. Sometimes this is done by demanding different textbooks in the schools or publicly criticizing newspapers and other media. At the same time, community workers may insist, rightly or wrongly, that community members change their behavior to avoid being treated in terms of prevailing stereotypes. Community work is a constant struggle, and it consists of everything that people do to address oppression in their own lives, suffering in the lives of others, and their sense of solidarity or group kinship.

    Women participate in every part of a community's experience of racial oppression. Racial oppression is a phenomenon that not only singles out African Americans because of their heritage and color but also places the entire community in a colonial relationship, a relationship of powerlessness and dependency, within a dominant and dominating society. Robert Blauner calls this "internal colonialism," and it involves the subordination of an entire group of people in order to take away its land, to capture its labor, or to do both. Colonized people must be excluded from the political process and, by law, have few, if any, citizenship rights. Because the primary purpose of the group is to labor unceasingly for someone else, the other dimensions of its cultural life, such as family life, health, education, and religion become difficult, if not impossible, to pursue.

    During slavery African Americans had their children and spouses sold away from them. Their family lives were repeatedly disrupted and invaded by the sexual terrorism that was part of slavery. Teaching slaves to read and write in the antebellum South was illegal. During the last decades of slavery, religious worship outside of the supervision of white people was illegal as well. The health of African Americans was constantly threatened by the violence of white slave owners, through beatings and overwork. Because they were legally nonpersons, emancipation left African Americans overwhelmingly landless and still dependent upon white landowners for a livelihood. Political powerlessness through violence and denial of the vote increased that dependence. Racist stereotypes, ideologies, and actions continued to justify the dominant group's actions and the continued subordination of another group. Racial oppression is a total phenomenon that combines cultural humiliation and destruction, political subordination, and economic exploitation to maintain a hierarchy that limits the life chances of a group of people.

    The economic needs and organization of the society change. Slavery was abolished in 1865; African Americans moved to northern cities in large numbers during World Wars I and II; the Civil Rights Movement did away with Jim Crow laws. However, the racist hierarchy retained a life and meaning that survived the massive changes in economic, legal, political, and social institutions. Although slavery ended, the society learned to associate low-paying, dirty work with black people and higher-paying, clean work with white people. Contemporary racial stereotypes and media images perpetuated those images rooted in slavery.

    Community work confronts this totality. Everett Hughes suggested that an important way to conceptualize "work" is to view it as a "bundle of tasks." Racial oppression takes up more time and creates extra work, or more "bundles of tasks," for members of a victimized group. People working for and with their communities involve themselves in activities surrounding the problems associated with jobs: labor union activities, creating access to jobs, teaching strategies to fight specific problems in work settings, and seeking legislation to protect occupations where group members are concentrated. One community worker had worked for the Urban League early in her career. She described recruiting other African-American women for newly created jobs during World War II by visiting churches and women's clubs. She then organized discussion groups in order to teach these women how to confront the racial harassment they would encounter in unions and factories. Another woman described in great detail the way her women's club of the 1920s and 1930s taught fellow domestic workers how to demand the full wages their white female employers had promised. That same women's club, in the 1960s and 1970s, was involved in administering job training programs for homemakers at the same time they were lobbying for protective legislation for household workers. Community workers involved themselves in activities that confronted ideas as well as structures within and outside the community.

    Education is a case in point. Issues of self-image and self-esteem are related to educational success at the same time that employment discrimination and racist attitudes in the educational system account for the lack of African-American teachers. Educational failure locks many members of the community out of the economic system at the same time that political powerlessness through gerrymandering accounts for the lack of access to low-skilled but high-paying municipal jobs. One woman who had been quite prominent in challenging the public educational system talked about the importance of self-esteem for African-American students. Another woman, an elected official, displayed publications she used for raising the racial self-esteem of teenagers and described the workshops she gave for parents in order to reduce the sense of intimidation they felt when confronting white teachers. Each of these problems presents a different "bundle of tasks," yet they are all manifestations of the totality of racial oppression. Each woman interviewed described diverse and intricate daily schedules that reflected the complexity and connectedness of the social, political, and economic problems that pervade everyday life in minority communities. One woman, for example, described getting a group of adolescent males assigned to early morning jobs, going to court as a character witness for a teenager, meeting with a board of directors in another part of the city, and coordinating a public demonstration against the same board of directors before leaving for the meeting. While levels of confrontation and activity often vary, community work persistently rejects racial oppression as a normal and natural feature of human experience. Community work, encompassing issues of challenge as well as survival, is perhaps more complicated than the racial oppression that gives rise to it.

Historical Foundations

    Community workers' expectations and obligations represent a historical role. These women, through their public participation on so many levels, claim a prominent place in the community's history. This historical prominence often provides levels of prestige and influence unmatched in the lives of white women of similar class backgrounds. All of the women were connected in some way to earlier generations of organizations, activists, and confrontations. What becomes visible to outside observers as "social movements" are the most dramatic dimensions of an intergenerational tradition of community work. Bernice Johnson Reagon emphasizes this continuity:

If we understand that we are talking about a struggle that is hundreds of years old, then we must acknowledge a continuance: that to be black women is to move forward the struggle for the kind of space in this society that will make sense for our people. It is different today. Things have changed. The search for high levels of humanity and space to be who we know we are is the same. And if we can make sense of our people in this society, we will go a long way in making sense for the rest of the peoples who also live and suffer here.

    The historical continuity of community work depends upon an intricate fit between many kinds of organizations and people. All of the women worked within traditional and nationally recognized groups, such as churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and the National Council of Negro Women. At the same time they formed local organizations that specialized in problems of job training, drug addiction, city services, welfare rights, or public education. People in the community actively encouraged these community workers to be leaders and, once the women responded to a community need, they organized whatever was necessary to see an activity through.

    Such activities were not possible without intergenerational connections. When interviewing, I asked the women to identify their heroes and heroines. These women identified specific women within the local community as well as such notables as Mary McLeod Bethune. One woman remembered very clearly being impressed when Mrs. Bethune spoke at a local church for the Women's Day service. Several women identified Mrs. Burns, who was also interviewed, as their heroine and local sponsor. One said, "I walked to Mrs. Burns when I was nine months old!" This elderly community worker identified Mrs. Bethune as a coworker in the National Association of Colored Women. Older community workers, as heroines and sponsors, were the critical connection to earlier generations of community workers or "Race" women. These women who remembered Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell, not only as "heroines" but also as living role models in club work and church work, were the links to an unbroken tradition of community work or working for "the Race" that could be traced directly to antebellum communities, both slave and free.

    Working for "the Race" began during slavery. Within the slave community, women not only played key roles in the development of family, education, and religion but also developed a women's network that was a foundation of strength, leaders, and mutual aid. Deborah Gray White names midwives, nurses, and religious leaders as critical sources of survival. One religious leader, a prophet named Sinda, preaching the imminent end of the world, precipitated a strike by an entire plantation labor force. African-American women in Northern free communities built churches and developed abolitionist, literary, mutual-aid, and missionary societies that provided poor-relief and insurance benefits for their communities. Women such as Maria Stewart and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were militant antislavery crusaders and public lecturers. Stewart was the first woman of any race in the United States to lecture publicly and leave manuscripts that are still extant, and Harper was the first female public lecturer that many women, black or white, ever saw and heard.

    After emancipation, church women and teachers organized schools and churches throughout the South. Since male ministers also worked as teachers, male and female educators (preachers and teachers) became the vital source of leaders. With the rise of Jim Crow laws, women's public activism outside the church emerged in the form of an anti-lynching movement under the leadership of Ida B. Wells Barnett. This movement was the basis for the formation of the National Association of Colored Women, whose motto was "Lifting as We Climb." That club movement explored and confronted the way in which racism threatened or distorted every aspect of life.

    In order to provide the leadership essential for their communities, African-American women insisted upon their organizational autonomy while addressing their efforts to the condition of the entire community. In 1895, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin wrote:

Our woman's movement is a woman's movement in that it is led and directed by women for the good of women and men, for the benefit of all humanity.... We want, we ask the active interest of our men; ... we are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work ... and inviting ... others to join us.

    The importance of these women's clubs was evident in the interviews with the elderly community workers, who described these organizations as places where they learned to lead and administer, and where they organized to win elections in organizations seemingly dominated by men, such as the NAACP and the Urban League. The oldest surviving national African-American political organizations are women's organizations whose founders and members also participated in organizing the NAACP, the Urban League, the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, and every other national African-American organization. Emerging as one of the prominent leaders during the Depression, Mary McLeod Bethune created the National Council of Negro Women as a lobby for civil rights and working women. The clubs served as training stations for both middle-class and lower-class women leaders.

    Several observers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries noted the prestige associated with women's public participation and work for "the Race." In urban communities, mothers' clubs were organized to deal with childbirth at home, housework, and child care. As children grew older, these clubs became scholarship clubs. Clubs for the protection, cultural "uplift," and mutual aid of household workers were formed. Carter Woodson identified the significant role of washerwomen in financing and building associations that developed into the major black insurance companies. He argued that this was one of many examples of the way in which African-American working women not only supported their families but also contributed to the possibility of economic self-sufficiency in the entire community. Through such community work, Maggie Lena Walker became the first woman of any color to be a bank president in the United States.

    W. E. B. Du Bois observed that the club movement, lacking money as a resource, made its most substantial contribution through the web of affiliations it built, connecting and empowering black people across class and status lines:

The women of America who are doing humble but on the whole the most effective work in the social uplift of the lowly, not so much by money as by personal contact, are the colored women. Little is said or known about it but in thousands of churches and social clubs, in missionary societies and fraternal organizations, in unions like the National Association of Colored Women, these workers are founding and sustaining orphanages and old folk homes; distributing personal charity and relief; visiting prisoners; helping hospitals; teaching children; and ministering to all sorts of needs.

The organizational history of these women is central to African-American protest and survival history. They and their organizations have provided the space where contemporary community workers work as directors, managers, social workers, elected politicians, and advocates.


Excerpted from "If It Wasn't for the Women ..." by Cheryl Townsend Gilkes. Copyright © 2001 by Cheryl Townsend Gilkes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-06-01:
This collection of essays focuses on the central and indispensable work of black women in their churches and communities. The argument that binds the essays together is perhaps best seen in the completion of the sentence begun in the title: "If it wasn't for the women, you wouldn't have a church." The resulting portrait clearly places black women in the role of heroine. It also, however, offers insight into the distinctive voice of black women in American religious life by providing a historical and sociological interpretation of their significance. Almost all of the essays in this volume were published previously and reflect the twenty-year career of their author. Gilkes (Colby College) is motivated and directed by her own experience as a leader in the black church. Although the writings will be accessible to most readers, the author assumes familiarity with sociological terminology and with practices within African American churches. This book will be of interest primarily to students of the American religious experience. L. H. Hoyle Georgetown College
This item was reviewed in:
Choice, June 2001
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Unpaid Annotation
These collected essays examine the roles of women in their churches and communities, the implication of those roles for African American culture, and the tensions and stereotypes that shape societal responses to these roles. Gilkes examines the ways black women and their experience shape the culture and consciousness of the black religious experience, and reflects on some of the crises and conflicts that attend this experience.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Community, Churchwork, Culture, and Crisis Toward a Sociology of Indispensable Black Womenp. 1
The Community Connection
"If It Wasn't for the Women ..." Community Work and Social Changep. 15
Exploring the Community Connection Race, Class, and Women's Agencyp. 28
Church Women and Their Work
"Together and in Harness" Women's Traditions in the Sanctified Churchp. 43
The Roles of Church and Community Mothers Ambivalent American Sexism or Fragmented African Familyhood?p. 61
The Role of Women in the Sanctified Churchp. 76
The Politics of "Silence" Dual-Sex Political Systems and Women's Traditions of Conflictp. 92
Womanist Culture
"Some Mother's Son and Some Father's Daughter" Issues of Gender, Biblical Language, and Worshipp. 121
"Sisters Who Can Lift a Community" Nannie Helen Burroughs, "The Slabtown District Convention," and the Cultural Production of Community and Social Changep. 142
Crises, Confrontations, and Conflicts
"Liberated to Work Like Dogs!" Labeling Black Women and Their Workp. 161
The "Loves" and "Troubles" of African-American Women's Bodies The Womanist Challenge to Cultural Humiliation and Community Ambivalencep. 181
Ministry to Women Hearing and Empowering "Poor" Black Womenp. 196
Notesp. 212
Acknowledgmentsp. 245
Publication Historyp. 247
Indexp. 249
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