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Of the thousand or so white volunteers who joined the southern civil rights struggle during the mid-sixties, at least half, including myself, were women. Many of us went on to found--or to play a major role in--the Women's Liberation Movement a few years later. History seldom offers parallels this tidy, but as it happened, many of the female abolitionists of the nineteenth century had gone on to organize for women's suffrage. These two vivid epochs were separated by more than a century, yet nearly identical forces applied. After fighting alongside men in a radical movement to correct a grievous wrong, the women then woke up and wondered, "What about us?''
Political organizers understand that the important thing about action is reaction. There you are, taking a stand, struggling to express a new idea, and the response is so powerful--positive or negative--that it reverberates into new responses and reactions, especially in you.
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were part of the American delegation that traveled to London in 1840 for a World Anti-Slavery Convention. As the high-minded congress got under way, the male abolitionists voted not to accredit and seat the women. For ten days Mott and Stanton watched the proceedings from the visitors' gallery, where in mortification and anger they hatched the idea for a women's rights congress that became the historic Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
White women in the civil rights movement during the 1960s were also consumed by a vision of equality, one that seemed important enough to risk our lives for. (And one white woman, Viola Liuzzo, did in fact lose her life to a sniper on the Selma-to-Montgomery March.) Although Martin Luther King, Jr., came to embody the stoic heroism of those hopeful years, to kids on the college campuses, and to many older radicals like me, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the true cutting edge of the movement.
SNCC had been formed after the lunch-counter sit-ins in February 1960. And it was SNCC that sent out the call for an army of northern volunteers to help register black voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, the call to which so many white women responded. SNCC was cast in the image of a young, fearless black male, a concept that may have been necessary for its time, but its corollary was that women of both races were expected to occupy a lesser role.
Jan Goodman and I were in the second batch of volunteers for Mississippi Freedom Summer. No longer part of the student community from which SNCC drew most of its volunteers, I was by then a researcher at Newsweek, stuck in a dead-end job, and Jan was directing inner-city programs for the Girl Scouts. During our orientation session in Memphis, we were told that Meridian needed emergency workers. Michael Schwerner, the project director, James Chaney, a local organizer, and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer who hadn't had time to unpack his duffel, had just been murdered in nearby Neshoba County, although their bodies would not be found for another forty days. When no one else at the Memphis orientation session volunteered for Meridian, Jan and I accepted the assignment. Between us, we had a good ten years of organizing experience, hers in Democratic primaries and presidential campaigns, mine in CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and both of us together in voter registration drives in East Harlem. The night we arrived in Meridian, a field secretary called a meeting, asking to see the new volunteers. Proudly we raised our hands.
"Shit!'' he exploded. "I asked for volunteers and they sent me white women.''
On other projects in other Mississippi towns that summer, white women were reminded of their second-class status as movement workers through a variety of slights. Because of the southern white male's phobia about mixing the races, our presence in the volunteer army of integrationists was construed as an added danger to the movement's black men. I do not wish to underestimate this danger, but there will always be a germ of a reason, sound or unsound, behind the perpetuation of sexist practice. When antiwar activism got under way a year or so after Mississippi Freedom Summer, there was also a logical reason why women in that movement were relegated to second-class status: the draft for the war in Vietnam directly affected young men.
Women the world over are required to modify their behavior because of things that men fear and do.
SNCC was a "beloved community'' to Mary King and Casey Hayden, an encompassing lifestyle dedicated to the perfection of moral virtue. They were among the first white women to have staff jobs in the Atlanta headquarters. Mary was the product of six generations of Virginia ministers on her father's side. Casey, from East Texas, entered student politics through the Christian ecumenical movement and helped to found Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the primary force on the white New Left. She had married Tom Hayden but they were living apart.
The two women studied the French existentialists in their evening hours to broaden their understanding of theory and practice. When they'd exhausted Camus, they turned to Simone de Beauvoir. Certain passages in The Second Sex spoke to them so directly that they began pressing the book on others. Some people in the movement started grumbling that Mary and Casey were undisciplined sentimentalists "on a Freedom high.''
In the fall of 1964, Mary and Casey wrote a position paper on women in SNCC that owed its inspiration partly to Beauvoir and partly to their experience in their movement work. "The average white person doesn't realize that he assumes he is superior,'' they wrote. "So too the average SNCC worker finds it difficult to discuss the woman problem because of the assumption of male superiority. Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep-rooted and as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro.''
Expecting ridicule, the two white women did not sign the paper they passed around that November at a staff retreat on the Mississippi coast. Thirty-seven manifestos and proposals had been prepared for the retreat at Waveland, and most were being ignored. A wrenching split within the organization was consuming everyone's energy.
One evening Stokely Carmichael and a few others took a welcome break down at the dock. Camping it up, he joked, "What is the position of women in SNCC? The position of women in SNCC is prone.''
Alas for Stokely, his riff became nearly as famous as his later calls for Black Power. While language purists wondered if Carmichael had really meant "supine," his jest came to symbolize the collection of slights suffered by women in SNCC.
One year later Mary King and Casey Hayden gathered the courage to sign their names to an expanded version of their paper and mailed it to forty women activists against the Vietnam War. The second broadside recounted a list of movement grievances--who gets named project director? who sweeps the office floor? who takes the minutes? who speaks to the press?--before it concluded "Objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system. Therefore, most of us will probably want to work full-time on problems such as war, poverty, race.'' King and Hayden titled their paper "A Kind of Memo.''
Another year passed and "A Kind of Memo'' found its way to a national SDS conference that convened at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana two days after Christmas in 1966. Fifty women, a lot for that time, caucused in the school cafeteria to discuss it.
"Heather Booth and I were there,'' recalls Marilyn Webb, who would play a significant role in the founding of Women's Liberation in Washington D.C. "When the SNCC letter from Mary and Casey was read aloud, it precipitated a three-day marathon discussion about women in SDS. We'd been dealing with civil rights, with the Vietnam War, we'd been urging resistance to the draft with slogans like 'Women Say Yes to Men Who Say No'--that had been our mentality. This was one of the first conversations where we talked about what was happening with us. We ended up talking about everything, including our sexuality.''
Community organizers trained by Saul Alinsky, who ran workshops and wrote primers on the principles of activism, Marilyn Webb and Heather Booth were soon to marry New Left leaders. They were to try as well to marry the new women's thinking to SDS. The political union, however, was not to be.
The following April, "A Kind of Memo'' surfaced yet again, this time in Liberation, a leftist-pacifist magazine. Having served as catalysts, Mary King and Casey Hayden then retired from the fray. SNCC, their beloved community, no longer welcomed white participation. They had lost their political moorings. It would be characteristic of the emerging feminist movement that various women would surface for brief moments in leadership roles and then, exhausted by the effort, depart from the scene.