Women in the Civil Rights Movement. (Book Reviews)

By Greene, Christina | Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Women in the Civil Rights Movement. (Book Reviews)


Greene, Christina, Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources


Introduction

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a civil rights activist noted the critical role of women and youth in the modern Black freedom movement. "It's no secret that young people and women led organizationally," he observed. (1) The remark has been alluded to so often, it is in danger of becoming a cliche. And yet the names most people associate with the movement are male--Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, to name just a few. (2) Even when public and scholarly recognition has been afforded to individual women, the full nature of their participation frequently remains obscured. (3) Still missing--but which the books reviewed here begin to address--are assessments of the collective power of ordinary, anonymous women, the unsung heroines who were "the backbone of the movement." Lest we think that several decades of women's history scholarship have put such concerns to rest, one need only note the recent and widely acclaimed study of the Birmingham Movement that not on ly ignores women, but proclaims their irrelevance. Thus, historian Glen Eskew informs us, "In contrast to the rural South where women often organized the movement, in the urban South, the men led, organized, and participated." (4) While few have embraced Eskew's perspective overtly, scholars of the movement generally give the obligatory nod to women before relegating them to the shadows.

Why this anomaly? Why do most observers agree that Black women were important players in the freedom movement, while at the same time a widespread collective amnesia persists concerning their participation? Why do African American women remain marginalized in movement scholarship even as sociologist Charles Payne notes that "every conference on the movement calls attention to the need" to address women's involvement? Conventional definitions of leadership, protest, and politics that have shaped the scholarship as well as the memories of activists; a media-driven history that, until recently, has characterized much of the work on the movement; and what historian Darlene Clark Hine has called a Black female culture of dissemblance (a survival strategy that Black women deployed to mask their activities from wider public view) offer several explanations. (5)

But what does Black women s participation tell us that we don't already know about the African American freedom movement? Aside from documenting that women were present, does their inclusion counter widely held assumptions and interpretations of the modern civil rights struggle? In a word, yes. It is not simply that "women were there too"--or what women's historians have more eloquently termed "contributory" history. Rather, an examination of Black women's activism fundamentally alters our understanding of how the movement emerged and how it was sustained. In effect, the African American freedom movement looks quite different when we include women. For example, scholarly focus on formal, public leadership and an emphasis on the more dramatic moments of the civil rights struggle--the sit--ins, the mass demonstrations, marches, and pickets--has diverted attention from the work that made such moments possible. As Charles Payne insists, we need to distinguish between mobilization and organization and to recognize that the often mundane tasks of organizing--efforts in which women predominated--were essential to the more sensational events captured in headlines, soundbites, and media blitzes. Other scholars, particularly sociologist Belinda Robnett, offer more expansive views of leadership that more fully encompass Black women's contributions. (6)

The works under review here--on both African American and white women's participation--certainly move us in the right direction. The recent collection edited by Betrye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle, as well as several soon-to-be-published community studies of women's involvement, similarly promise to enhance our understanding of what is arguably the most important social change movement in twentieth-century U. …

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