Portland YWCA Religion, Race & Reform
How Did the Portland YWCA Respond to Religious and Racial Differences in the Portland Women's Community?
Research by Tanya Pluth
The YWCA's purpose to "build a fellowship of women and girls" (1934) meant negotiating the inclusive and exclusive aspects of the organization's religious basis for membership. On the exclusive side, "fellowship" by definition excluded non-Protestants for most of the twentieth century. On the inclusive side, the religious basis could bridge barriers of age, class, and to some extent, race and culture. For example, the Portland YWCA's "Sunday At Home" worship services sought out "Big girls, Little girls, Bachelor girls, Mothers, Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts." Breaking the barriers against women of color posed a distinct set of challenges, however. Many urban YWCA's established segregated "branches" for African-American and Asian-American women. Although national and regional conferences were held only in facilities that could accommodate delegates from diverse racial backgrounds and in Portland, black women were admitted to YWCA dormitory rooms, the rest of the facilities at Taylor Street remained segregated until the 1950s.
Movement toward a more inclusive fellowship took energy from the "Social Gospel," a theory of Christianity that accented an applied, practical expression of faith. The Social Gospel was popular at the turn of the twentieth century and the national YWCA officially embraced it in 1911. Problem-solving -- rather than protection or evangelicalism -- was seen as a bridge to social change, especially when women tackled their own issues through petitioning, organizing, and agitation. In the Portland YWCA, many leaders embraced an ethos of friendship or a "spirit of love" rather than politics. This spirit of love emphasized individual relationships and humane values, and was often vested with a special power for overcoming social problems, especially racial prejudice. This spirit helped generate YWCA support for progressive social policies, like civil rights, open housing, and equal accommodations after World War II. The spirit of love proved less effective in resolving inequities of power both within the organization and in the surrounding community, however.
After the financial strain of constructing the building at Tenth and Main in the 1950s, the Portland YWCA struggled to keep up with a changing social and political context. The organization broke its employees union in the mid-1960s and, with the sale of the Williams Avenue Center in 1959, lost touch with black women just as the Civil Rights Movement went into high gear. The National YWCA's One Imperative to end racism, adopted in 1970, finally created legitimacy for challenges to long-standing inequities in the organization. In 1975, the Portland YWCA settled a racial discrimination suit out of court brought by Dorothy Baker, a social worker employed in the Women's Prison Project. This resolution side-stepped rather than resolved the problem of racism in the organization.