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  • The Making of a Modern Feminist Vanguard, 1964–1973:Southern Women Whose Leadership Shaped the Movement and the Nation—A Synthetic Analysis
  • Carol Giardina (bio)

In the spring of 1964, women in the Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) struck in protest of sexist job assignments and sexual harassment. SNCC staffer Ruby Doris Smith Robinson led the strike, and the women even sat-in. "'All of the women, every woman did absolutely nothing. They didn't speak; they didn't type any letters; they didn't answer any phones,'" SNCC coworker Stanley Wise later told historian Cynthia Griggs Fleming. Instead, they "'issued a memorandum of agreements'" that described "'the kinds of activities that women would no longer tolerate in the organization.'" Robinson, then in her early twenties, was credited as the organizer of and negotiator for the women. As striker Bobbi Yancy recalled, Robinson "'was the figure [men] clearly backed off [from]. And that certainly gave other women courage.'"1

This women's strike was a pivotal early application of labor and black civil rights strategies to the fight for women's equality. It was a lesson Robinson borrowed from her first collective sit-in experience in 1960, as the black student sit-in movement spread like wildfire from Greensboro, North Carolina, throughout the South.2 The SNCC women's sit-in strike set off a [End Page 611] chain reaction that led to the formation of the radical women's liberation branch of the soon-to-be nationwide feminist upsurge of the 1960s.

The strike exemplifies the central argument of this article: in feminism's rebirth years southern women numbered disproportionately among the national feminist vanguard. This was due to the concentration of the black freedom movement in the South, where women experienced its catalytic effect earlier and in greater numbers than in other parts of the country. Much new work has uncovered the breadth and prevalence of feminism in the South, the regional traditions that shaped it, and the ways that the black freedom movement nourished it. I argue that this dialectic propelled a disproportionate number of southern women into the movement's front lines.

Moreover, though the black freedom movement has been generally understood as the birthplace of modern American feminism, the SNCC women's sit-in strike and other causal connections have been replaced in the historiography by unspecific and ahistorical causes including inspiration and "role models."3 As a result, the meaning of pivotal movement theory has been muddled, and lessons from one movement that helped form a rising one have been lost. The influence of the southern civil rights movement was direct and specific: the courage, consciousness, and strategies of many of the pioneers of post–World War II feminism were forged through their own leadership of and proximity to the black freedom movement. This underestimation of the influence of the civil rights movement and its African American feminist leadership, despite examples like Robinson's initiation of collective feminist action in SNCC, has produced an incomplete map of the resurgent feminist movement.4 The synthesis history of post–World War II [End Page 612] feminism remains dominated by white professionals and students from northern and coastal big cities. All things feminist between "cities and college towns along the two coasts" are called "outposts" by prizewinning historian Christine Stansell.5

This article synthesizes an outpouring of new scholarship that recognizes the contributions of southern feminists but goes beyond this new work to show not only that the South was a hotbed of feminist activism, but also that it produced an outsized number of women who had transformative influence on the national feminist movement. Southern women were architects and engineers of the movement's radical and liberal branches. They were first to apply the strategy of collective action learned in the southern civil rights movement to organize a mass movement against sexism. They dealt decisive blows to the racist, sexist Jezebel myth that began in slavery and that was, as Gunnar Myrdal pointed out, "the principle around which the whole structure of segregation … is organized."6 In Mississippi they instituted the earliest sexual harassment policies, and from Georgia, Florida...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 611-652
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-07
Open Access
No
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