1964 November 6

Conflict Arises Over Role of Women in the Civil Rights Movement


At a staff retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, held by the civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) following Freedom Summer (June 21, 1964), the issue of the role of women in the movement arose. An anonymous paper, “Women in the Movement,” circulated and generated considerable controversy. The paper (see below) drew a parallel between the place of African-Americans in society at large and that of women in the movement, arguing that they had been excluded from leadership positions and assigned to do menial office tasks.

The meeting and the paper are widely credited with being one of the seminal moments in the birth of the feminist movement in the 1960s. Interestingly, the word “sexist” did not exist at that time.

The paper was a collective effort involving a number of women, but activists Mary King and Casey Hayden are generally credited with writing it (see their memoirs, below). King and Hayden later wrote another article that was published in the pacifist magazine, Liberation.

The memoirs of both King and Hayden refute one of the most widespread stories about the response to the paper. It is often written that SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael responded by stating publicly that the place of women in the movement is “prone.” Both King and Hayden recall that he said it as a joke, and that they and others understood it as a joke at the time.

From “Women in the Movement:”  The woman in SNCC is often in the same position as that token Negro hired in a corporation. The management thinks that it has done its bit. Yet, every day the Negro bears an atmosphere, attitudes and actions which are tinged with condescension and paternalism, the most telling of which are when he is not promoted as the equally or less skilled whites are. This paper is anonymous. Think about the kinds of things the author, if made known, would have to suffer because of raising this kind of discussion. Nothing so final as being fired or outright exclusion, but the kinds of things which are killing to the insides — insinuations, ridicule, over-exaggerated compensations.”

Read the complete “Women in the Movement”: http://www.crmvet.org/docs/snccfem.htm

Learn from the Southern Poverty Law Center Discussion Guide on Sexism in the Civil Rights Movement:

Read first-hand accounts by women in the movement: Faith Holsaert, Martha Noonan, et al, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (2010)

And read more first person accounts (with Casey Hayden’s account of the paper): Constance Curry, et al, Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (2000)

And read Mary King’s memoir, with her account of the paper: Mary King, Freedom Song (1987)

Learn more: Sarah Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (1979)

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