First Wave Feminism and Racial Politics
The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus. They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, and the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude primed for God’s finish line. In many small, storefront Pentecostal churches, these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces: Hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing. My student, Stacy Castro, is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band. She’s also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent gifted speaker, up until her participation in my Women’s Leadership Project program she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school. Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe, only a small minority of students go on to four-year colleges and universities.
In my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argue that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. Harlem Renaissance-era writer Nella Larsen and Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering 20th century black women freethinkers. However, what few women’s histories of freethought there are celebrate the political influence of prominent 19th century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-a’-vis the race and gender politics that informed both the feminist and freethought movements. For example, I have yet to see mainstream secular feminist appraisal that problematizes the racism and xenophobia of forerunning freethinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.