Review by Julian Gotobed, 2002
Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. If It Wasn't for the Women...: Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2000. 253 pp. ISBN 1-57075-343-1.
Cheryl Gilkes is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Colby College, Maine. She is also an ordained minister of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gilkes writes from the perspective of an African-American woman versed in the discipline of sociology and personally involved in church leadership.
The purpose of If it wasn’t for the Women is to open up and explore the experience of black women in America. Gilkes maintains that historians and sociologists have largely neglected the experience of black women. Furthermore, analytical frameworks developed from a white perspective simply fail to do justice to the experience of black women, because theirs is so different to white counterparts.
However, If it wasn’t for the Women does not focus on the interior nature of the experience of black women. The author reflects her sociological interests by drawing attention to factors within the black community, black church, and American society that impact black women. For example, the experience of black women must be viewed against the backdrop of racial oppression within a predominantly white society.
Gilkes’ personal research among black women community workers revealed the almost universal presence of a religious dimension to their personal lives. So central and normative was this religious component that it was taken for granted. They were surprised that the author should even ask whether or not there was a religious dimension to their lives.
A striking feature of the experience of black women in community and church is the social nature of their experience. Community workers strive to implement projects that will benefit the black community as a whole. Black women in the church define religious experience in communal terms through active service to support the church. Public worship is very participatory in the black church tradition ‘The community connection’, as Gilkes puts it, cannot be ignored.
The author warns against the mistake of stereotyping black women and their experience. Black people are not all the same. This is clearly illustrated in a series of fascinating studies of the Sanctified Church, a term used to describe a collection of black church groups that broke away mainly from historically established Baptist and Methodist churches in the period following the Civil War. As black Baptists and Methodists moved towards accommodating their church cultures to white cultural forms, the Sanctified Church resisted this trend by preserving more ecstatic forms of worship. Black Baptists and Methodists began to restrict the opportunities available to women to assume positions of leadership. The Sanctified Church created structures and encouraged women to develop leadership potential in more flexible and far reaching ways.
Gilkes makes the case for further research into the religious experience of black women.