Church Women United: Women need, want to focus on others
Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
Church Women United describes itself as "a racially, culturally, theologically inclusive Christian women's movement, celebrating unity in diversity and working for a world of peace and justice."
At its founding in 1941, it was called the United Council of Church Women (UCCW). It brought together women from 70 denominations who were already working collaboratively in three interdenominational Protestant women's organizations—the Council of Women for Foreign Missions, the Committee on Women's Work of the Foreign Missions Conference and the National Council of Federated Church Women.
Congregational Christian women and Evangelical and Reformed women were active in UCCW. In fact, a member of First Church of Christ UCC in Hartford, Conn., Amy Ogden Welcher (1887-1992), was elected the first president of the United Council of Church Women, serving from 1941 to 1944. She had spent much of her life in foreign missions, especially in China, and she was deeply committed to domestic mission cooperation and social action.
I met "Miss Amy" in 1991, 50 years after her election. She was 104 years old, frail in body, but still filled with a fierce pride in the work of women in the church. "Women," she said, "always need to get outside of themselves and focus on what they can do for others." As the first president of UCCW, she pushed the organization to take initiative. People remembered her enthusiastic confidence in women and her admonition, "When in doubt, accelerate."
For the past 60 years Church Women United (as the UCCW came to be called) has stretched local churches to confront controversial issues. In the 1960s, it expanded its membership, inviting Orthodox and Roman Catholic women to join. During that same era, CWU women held open interracial meetings when many local churches were segregated. CWU refused to let doctrine, race or liturgical custom keep women from worshipping together.
Today, CWU promotes three special ecumenical celebrations: World Day of Prayer (the first Friday in March), May Friendship Day (the first weekend in May) and World Community Day (the first weekend in November).
May Friendship Day (earlier called May Fellowship Day) began in New York during the depression. When the bank moratorium was called in March 1933, the New York Women's Council of Home Missions threw a "festive party" to prove to themselves and their neighbors that they "still had life." In subsequent years others joined in. Today more than 1,000 communities celebrate May Friendship Day. The theme for the 2004 Friendship Day on May 7 is "In faith, women shape the future through friendship."
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Currently, she is a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board. She teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.