Jewish World Review May 28, 2003 / 26 Iyar, 5763
YWCA names culture warrior as its new head
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In 1991, James Hunter of the University of Virginia wrote a book in which he argued that on the big moral issues of our time, such as abortion and homosexual rights, the nation divides into two groups: "the orthodox" and "the progressive." The orthodox hold conservative views that are derived from traditional religion, while the progressives embrace distinctly modern perspectives that may or may not be grounded in religion of any kind. In Mr. Hunter's analysis, the two groups are, figuratively speaking, at each other's throats. Hence, the title of his book, Culture Wars.
A skirmish in the culture wars, you could say, has occurred over the appointment of Patricia Ireland as the new chief executive officer of the Young Women's Christian Association.
Ms. Ireland, for 10 years the president of the National Organization for Women, is a conspicuous culture warrior of the left. Her views are "progressive," even radically so, and she has tirelessly battled for them - on talk shows, in speeches and even in the faces of those she opposes. A few years ago, Ms. Ireland showed up on the Mall in Washington to harangue some Promise Keepers - "ominous" and "dangerous," she declared the men as they assembled to pray.
Ms. Ireland also happens to live as left as she thinks. A few years ago, she had a male (it being necessary to include the adjective here) husband and a female "companion," both of whom, she wrote in a 1996 book, are "very important in my life."
To say the Ireland appointment has been noticed by the orthodox side in the culture wars is an understatement. A spokeswoman for the Traditional Values Coalition declares Ms. Ireland "the enemy of all things Christian." Another warrior of the right observes that she is "not a good role model for young girls."
Most likely, traditionalists would have ignored the story had Ms. Ireland been named to some culturally left entity lacking the word "Christian" in its name. Indeed, that she is presiding over the Young Women's Christian Association is what gives offense.
As it happens, the YWCA didn't choose Ms. Ireland to move the organization to the cultural left. It already was there. True, the YWCA touts its day-care services, its battered women's facilities and its job-training and leadership development programs. But over the decades, it has come to embrace the principal causes of the progressives.
In 1996, a presidential election year, a number of YWCA affiliates signed up as sponsors of NOW's "Fight the Right" campaign. Its purpose: to "denounce the divisive hate-mongering of the right wing" and "with our time, money and vote [to] actively support affirmative action; economic justice; abortion rights and reproductive freedom; civil rights for people of color; lesbian, gay and bisexual rights; and efforts to end violence against women."
Given where the YWCA is coming from - and note that the organization even spoke out on the war in Iraq (against) - the choice of Ms. Ireland hardly is illogical. Which isn't to say its board entirely understands what the Y is going to get in Ms. Ireland. Some board members might prefer that she speak of the uncontroversial programs, of job training and leadership development.
But Ms. Ireland is at heart a culture warrior, and it won't be surprising if she shows up on the talk shows, arguing (for example) against a Bush nominee to the Supreme Court. Among other things to watch for during Ms. Ireland's tenure is the extent to which not just culturally conservative but non-ideological women - should there be many of those descriptions still going to their local Y's - find themselves comfortable with her leadership.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of the organization's name. Founded in 1858 following a period of Protestant revival, the YWCA had "Christian" in its name because its organizers had Christian convictions, "the religious welfare" of women being a concern they stitched into the Y's motto. The YWCA sought to make life better for women and girls, doing so on terms its founders thought stemmed from their evangelical faith. Purity and chastity were words they used without embarrassment.
Like so many parachurch organizations in America, however, the Y
gradually moved away from its founding faith. And its work was given
other rationales. A decent regard for truth would lead the board to drop
the "C" from YWCA. After all, as Ms. Ireland told The New York Times, "I'm
not the head of a Christian organization. I'm the head of a social justice
women's organization." Why not the YWSJA? A mouthful, yes, but one
more easily digestible than YWCA.
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