Liberal Christianity and Women's Global Activism

The YWCA of the USA and the Maryknoll Sisters

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Amanda Izzo
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University Press
    , January
     286 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many today know the YWCA (The Young Women’s Christian Association) as a sister organization to the better-known YMCA, whose athletic facilities many enjoyed for swim lessons or pick-up basketball. Many Americans probably associate the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic with the horrific December 1980 murders of two Maryknoll sisters along with an Ursuline sister and a lay missionary by El Salvadoran National Guards. That incident captured broad media attention and is documented in the final chapter of the text with unique attention to the way in which the Maryknoll Sisters translated the tragedy into a powerful human rights campaign. For most millennials and younger generations, this is likely the extent of their knowledge of these two innovative, influential, and politically engaged women’s religious organizations.

Amanda L. Izzo provides lively, lucid, and intersecting histories of these women’s organizations in Liberal Christianity and Women’s Global Activism: The YWCA of the USA and the Maryknoll Sisters. This text uniquely juxtaposes YWCA and Maryknoll histories in the 20th century. In offering the discrete and at times converging histories of these originations, Izzo provides a partial view of the rich topography of the liberal Christian ethics and politics as enacted by women’s organizations over the course of a tumultuous century. In considering these two single-sex religious institutions together, Izzo marks well the ways in which these and other religious organizations influenced, were shaped by, and engaged with broader social movements.

Izzo’s research successfully traces the “evolving means by which these two profoundly influential US religious women’s groups put a gendered, activist Christianity into motion by creating bridges between the grassroots realm of small-scale interpersonal encounters and social movements that were both local and global in scope” (3). In doing so, she effectively counters dominant androcentric narratives of 20th-century US Christian history, particularly regarding liberal, religious activism, by centering this history on narratives of women’s religious groups, both Catholic and Protestant. The historical narrative of Liberal Christianity and Women’s Global Activism is not only refreshing due to Izzo’s centering of women’s roles in American religion, but also because she highlights the importance of liberal Christian politics and social movements which have been overshadowed in historiography by conservative groups and political movements in recent decades.

The histories presented draw on an impressive array of archival research. She details the transformations of these women’s institutions through analysis of programs developed, services offered, correspondence from at home and abroad, and the notable sociological and statistical records kept by both groups. The rhetoric used not only in fundraising campaigns by Maryknoll and YWCA, but also in the first-hand reports by missionaries at home and abroad bring the histories of both organizations to life.

These women’s groups proved over and over again to be ahead of their times, even if some of the internal and theological stances of Maryknoll lagged decades behind those of the YWCA. For example, Maryknoll couched their 1960s reinterpretations of their charism in the “language of psychological development and spiritual growth not unlike the psychological theory that had transformed the YWCA’s religious discourse in the 1920s” (167). Nevertheless, the 1946 Interracial Charter which committed the YWCA to actively combat segregation and Maryknoll’s mid-century commitment to “racial and national cooperation” as complexly detailed by Izzo, demonstrate how both organizations were forward thinking, even if enacting these policies and goals only came to fruition when broader movements provided them concrete means of engagement.

Certainly through programming and other means these organizations attempted to bring about social progress as motivated by the Social Gospel and Catholic social teaching, but Izzo makes evident the challenges of this work given the paternalistic, imperial, and colonial tinges of some of their ministries—particularly missionary and interracial ones. Presenting the paternalism and “racialized sense of cultural superiority” which marked Maryknoll and YWCA sensibilities, Liberal Christianity and Women’s Global Activism does a remarkable job of demonstrating the complexities of the work of these women’s groups without demonizing these women or their work. Instead, she “complicates simplistic accounts of cultural imperialism, demonstrating that mission could never be a simple act of Western domination” (5). Taking on this complex work, Izzo’s text addresses contemporary academic concerns like colonialism, gender, and race, without allowing them to overpower Maryknoll’s and YWCA’s histories.

The trajectories of these women’s institutions from their beginnings in the early decades of the 1900s into the 21st century is astonishing. Time and again they weathered attacks from both liberal and conservative ends of the political and theological spectrums. The women of the YWCA and Maryknoll Sisters faced constant attacks—from charges of communism to being anti-Christian. And yet, they persisted in continually transforming their attempts to live out the commandment to love. They did not shy away from reassessing their missions or charisms in light of contemporary injustices and political needs, which both groups garnered through humanitarian outreach and interpersonal encounters. In doing so the organizations became increasingly liberal and political over the course of the century by responding to contemporary social and political movements and issues, as well as through theological developments whether through liberation theology and the Second Vatican Council, in the case of the Maryknoll sisters, or through Christian engagement with feminist and human rights movements for social justice.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American religious history, Christian social justice movements, women in Christianity, or political theology. Not only is Izzo’s style compelling and lucid, but the roles of these women’s religious organizations in social movements and political advocacy in the United States and abroad during the 20th century is remarkable and inspiring, if fraught. These histories, so well recounted here, can teach us a great deal about Christian identity and social engagement in the modern era.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick A. Kelly is a doctoral candidate at Drew Theological School and instructor at Colorado Mountain College and Phillips Exeter Academy.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda Izzo is Assistant Professor in Women's and Gender Studies at Saint Louis University.


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