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Black Women Activists and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Case of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson Cynthia Griggs Fleming Since their earliest days in American society, many people of African descent have worked to combat the racism and oppression confronting them. Some of these activists were women, and a select few of them even became famous. Names like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are famiUar to most Americans. Yet, those few African-American female freedom fighters who have been elevated to legendary status have often been forced to confront a very personal issue in the midst of their efforts to free their people: the issue of redefining their womanhood. Against the backdrop of the peculiar status of African-American women in U.S. society, black female activist efforts have routinely been tied to a negative assessment of black womanhood. This is a consequence of negative notions of African-American women that are firmly anchored in the nineteenth century and slavery. In fact, slaveholders defined African-American womanhood in their own best interests, shifting their treatment of female slaves to meet their needs: Where work was concerned, strength and productivity under the threat of the whip outweighed considerations of sex. In this sense, the oppression of women was identical to the oppression of men. But women suffered in different ways as weU, for they were victims of sexual abuse and other barbarous mistreatment that could only be inflicted on women.1 In short, "when it was profitable to exploit them [slave women] as if they were men, they were regarded, in effect, as genderless, but when they could be exploited, punished and repressed in ways suited only for women, they were locked into their exclusively female roles."2 At the same time, critical nineteenth-century poUtical and economic changes began to have a profound impact on definitions of white womanhood . It was at this time that sharply differentiated gender roles emerged. Many middle-class nineteenth-century white Americans became convinced that men and women were so different that their duties, obligations, and responsibiUties actuaUy constituted "separate spheres."3 In this context expectations of proper female behavior came to be defined by women's domestic duties. "Women's activities were increasingly limited to the care © 1993 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Winter) ________ 1993 Cynthia Griggs Fleming 65 of chüdren, the nurturing of [the] husband, and the physical maintenance of the home."4 Negative views of African-American womanhood combined with restrictive notions of white womanhood and persisted until well into the twentieth century. Both black and white women were affected by them— but in very different ways. Many white women were intent on questioning and testing the old established limits. At the same time, this white female restlessness contrasted sharply with black female aspirations. As black economic expectations rose during the post-World War II period, many African-American women would have been only too happy to stay home and cultivate a separate female sphere for a change.5 Yet, at this time financial reaUties continued to push large numbers of African-American women out of the home and into the job market. In such an atmosphere questions about black womanhood and white womanhood persisted. It was a confusing and unsettling time. In this volatile and fluid atmosphere one modern African-American female activist who sought to define her womanhood as she gained power within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. Robinson began her activist career in the Atlanta Student Movement. She was a freshman at Spelman CoUege in Atlanta when the sit-ins first started. Early on, though, Robinson began to look beyond Atlanta and concentrate her efforts on the national arena and SNCC. Over two decades after Robinson's most active period, many of her movement colleagues still have vivid memories of her. Friends and associates were able to recaU with remarkable clarity a wealth of detaü about Robinson's activist career and her personal life. Consequently, I conducted interviews with a number of those who were close to her, including f amüy members, childhood friends, Atlanta University Center associates, and SNCC comrades. Regardless of the circumstances of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 64-82
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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