Portland YWCA Religion, Race & Reform

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Document 2

Identity Questions

Moving Toward Inclusiveness

Identity Questions

Research by Pinky Tejani and Patricia A. Schechter

Oregon Trail Reenactment, 1930s

Playing Indian at Camp
Miss YWCA, 1952

       Although awareness of non-Christian and/or non-white women has always been essential to the ideal of Christian womanhood at the heart of the YWCA's purpose, that awareness has not always translated into an acceptance of other cultures or races. Musical and theatrical programs by YWCA leaders inculcated members with the importance of the organization's missionary work with "our foreign sisters" abroad and in "Americanization" programs for immigrants at home. Most YWCA participants dramatized their identities as Christian white women by literally acting or singing them out in songs, plays, and historical tableaux.[1]


Blackface Pool Theatrical, 1963

       These theatrical events -- for example, portrayals of the icons of Western culture from classical mythology and re-enactments of the colonization of Oregon by Anglo-Americans -- affirmed white women's place at the top of the social hierarchy. Pageants with international themes intended to broaden U.S.-born participants' horizons through dress up and play-acting. But putting on the identity of "the other" by white women was underwritten by racism whether in an "educational" or entertainment context. An example of this kind of program was noted in the local press in 1915: "The dancing Topsies was one of the special features of the programme and the leader of the little pickaninny dancers was a certain Miss Blackwell, well known in Young Women's Christian Association circles."[2]

       Non-white women rarely portrayed their own experiences for YWCA audiences before World War II, and even in mid-century white women continued to play the parts of women of color in the organization's productions. That white youth "blacked up" for a YWCA water show as late as 1963 is a disturbing index of racist thinking. Since the 1960s, however, the leadership of women like Dorothy Haight and Dr. Prema Mathai-Davis at the National YWCA has gradually given more substance to the spirit of inclusiveness that always lived near the heart of YWCA work.


1. YWCA Jubilee Pageant, 1916 [pamphlet published by National YWCA], and Americanization Department Reports, 1925-1937, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon. On missionary work and Orientalist themes, see "Rise of Japanese Women Too Sudden: YWCA Worker from Tokio Says Change has Brought Great Problems," untitled clipping, c. 1908, in clippings file, and "Oriental Play to be Given at 'YW' on Sunday," 11 January 1925, Morden Scrapbooks, Vol. 1, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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2. "YWCA Notes," newspaper clipping, c. May 1915, Morden Scrapbooks, Vol. 1, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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