First Advisor

Marc Feldesman

Term of Graduation

Winter 1997

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Anthropology






African American churches, Sex role -- Religious aspects, Women -- Religious life, Power (Social sciences)



Physical Description

1 online resource, (2, vi, 166 pages)


This thesis examines gender relations and gender symbolism in a small African-American Christian church in North East Portland. The study is based on ethnographic research in the church, from February 1995 to July 1995, and from February 1996 to June 1996, during which time I participated in Sunday services, religious activities outside of the service, and the social networks of some female church members. One section of this thesis describes my personal relationships to my fieldwork, not only to situate my position as a White female in an African-American church, but also to look at how my research questions relate to my personal experience. In order to interpret gender divisions and representations, we must begin with a set of questions. What do we mean by "power" and "domination?" What are the different levels or spheres of power? What power do women have in the church? When one looks at the ritual of the Sunday service, it seems that women are "dominated" because most of the prestigious positions are taken by men. Yet outside of the ritual itself, women also exert authority and gain prestige, although their prestige is earned and activated in different domains and through different activities than that of men. We examine the socio-political reasons why the African-American church seeks to present men as if they are in control and how this politics of representation can both empower and disempower women. Women may be disempowered in the sense that the church does not challenge the female traditional role, yet through church activities both women and men resist society's racial stereotypes. This constitutes a type of empowerment vis-a-vis white society. At another level, women become empowered through their spiritual lives and the helping network that the church provides. The sense of belonging and the collective identity created by the church constitutes for them a form of resistance and empowerment not readily apparent by focusing only on the symbolism of formal rituals.


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