Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920–1970 by Anne Stefani (review)
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Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920–1970. By Anne Stefani. ( Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015. Pp. vii, 334. $74.95 cloth)

In Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920–1970, historian Anne Stefani contributes a complex analysis of white southern women as activists for racial reform. In this multigenerational profile, she finds paradox, isolation, and evolution, providing insight into white southern women’s contributions to social justice through religious groups, institutions of higher education, and, eventually, civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As biracial cooperation within civil rights groups yielded to the leadership of Black Power movements, these women, Stefani suggests, forged their own brand of southern feminism that made visible the consistencies of regional identity that ran throughout their careers as activists, and perhaps [End Page 448] precluded their ability to cleanly divorce race from gender as their northern sisters seemed able to do.

Stefani’s coverage includes a study of thirty “cases” of white southern women who became activists over the span of two generations. Born into the earliest workings of legal segregation and forged into maturity during the Great Depression, the first generation of “lady activists,” as Stefani brands them, eschewed direct action campaigns, acting within expected norms for white southern women (p. 58.) They worked more frequently through existing organizations like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Women’s Division of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a testament to their commitment to Social Gospel ideals. While their work sometimes forged biracial bonds with black women, these women almost exclusively worked within white activist networks.

For the younger generation—women born in the 1930s and 1940s who reached adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s—their experiences defined them as a minority in their own way. As white southern women committed to antiracism campaigns in their native region, their status as white allies, not saviors, within black-led civil rights organizations distinguished their contributions from that of their older sisters. The collective acceptance of their unique role within the civil rights movement is beautifully captured in Stefani’s liberal integration of quotes from letters, oral histories, personal papers, and other reflections. It is through these sources, and thus from the women themselves, that the reader is able to understand the humility and understanding with which these women undertook their mission.

Stefani’s work is at its best when we are able to understand her subjects as individuals who, while participants in networks, organizations, and movements, struggled to reconcile their dual passions for racial equality and southern identity. For both the first and second generation, the collision of personal guilt that their whiteness conferred and the ostracism from family and friends that their activism created drove them into support networks with other women involved in similar work. This was especially true of civil rights activists like [End Page 449] Casey Hayden, Mary King, Dorothy Burlage, Joan Browning, Constance Curry, and Jane Stembridge. In their correspondence with each other, they confided experiences unique from those of black activists but equally alienating to their families or any white confidant who did not share their commitment to black liberation. In outlining those relationships, Stefani draws out the ways in which activism forged a unique identity for southern white women and the implications the new identity had for their feminism. Their experiences as white southern women and activists in the civil rights movement ensured that their concepts of gender would forever be complicated by their witness to racial oppression.

Stephanie Rolph

STEPHANIE ROLPH is an assistant professor of history at Millsaps College. Her first book, Whiting Out the Movement: The Citizens’ Council, 1954–1989, is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press.

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