Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920-1970

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920-1970

Article excerpt

Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920-1970. By Anne Stefani. (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2015. Pp. xiv, 334. $74.95, ISBN 978-0-8130-6076-7.)

Unlikely Dissenters: White Southern Women in the Fight for Racial Justice, 1920-1970 focuses on those white southern women who opposed racial discrimination from the 1920s through the 1960s and, in the process, emancipated themselves from society's constraints by stepping outside the expected behavior patterns for their race and gender. Anne Stefani identifies two generations of activists: the older generation, those born between the late nineteenth century and World War I, and the younger generation, often students, born closer to World War II. She also points out women on the cusp who bridged the generations. All the women shared similar experiences regarding the expectations for white southern ladies, the influence of religious teachings, and the discrepancies they saw between the concepts of white supremacy they learned as children and the values they held as adults. While the older women used propriety as a tool to accomplish their goals, the younger generation openly defied gender norms. In both cases, as white southerners, the women felt guilt for belonging to the oppressing group, yet they too were victims of patriarchy and remained deeply attached to the South.

Stefani begins by exploring the prescriptions of southern society and how those norms impacted the relationships between white women and men and between white women and African Americans, especially black men. From there, she presents the material chronologically. In the 1920s, white southern women organized interracial activities because they believed contact across race would improve understanding. They defied racial norms while diffusing criticism by maintaining standards of respectability. After Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the women focused on education as an acceptable forum for women to advance civil rights. From one generation to the next, white women's tactics shifted from a reliance on their status as southern ladies to direct confrontation in the predominantly black-led, nonviolent, religious movement of the 1960s. …

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