Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Emergence and First Years of a Grassroots Women's Movement in Northeast Arkansas, 1970-1980

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Emergence and First Years of a Grassroots Women's Movement in Northeast Arkansas, 1970-1980

Article excerpt

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT was one of the most important cultural and social phenomena of the twentieth century.1 The movement's mobilization was a result of grassroots organizing undertaken by national feminist organizations and hundreds of local women's groups. Although, as Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin have argued, this mobilization produced many organizations that have worked for social change, "few of them have been studied in the depth and detail they deserve."2 Even more importantly, existing studies of the women's move-ment have been largely limited to large metropolitan areas in the North or on the East and West Coasts.3

This focus on large metropolitan areas has created a bias in our understanding of the movement's history. First, as Nancy Whittier notes, "[p]eriodization based on the national movement and on major cities does not. . . accurately describe the course of the movement at the grassroots level in smaller cities."4 Second, the lack of attention to what happened outside large cities has obscured the centrality of the grassroots movement to the development of women-oriented services and the greater integration of women into the economic and political structure in mid-size urban areas. This study seeks to rectify this situation by examining the emergence and the first years of the grassroots women's movement in Fayetteville, Arkansas.5 In doing so, it focuses on the similarities and differences between the local movement and those movements that emerged in larger cities.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the so-called "woman's issue" moved to the center of public debate in the U.S. John F. Kennedy's creation of the President's Commission on Women in 1961, the nearly simultaneous publication of the commission's report and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and the establishment of the National Organization for Women in 1966 helped focus national attention on existing gender inequalities and fostered the development of the more mainstream, women's rights-oriented, feminist movement. On the other hand, the civil rights and the New Left movements served as midwife to the more radical, grassroots feminist movement. Unlike national women's organizations, radical grassroots groups operated outside of mainstream politics, sought to transform existing institutions, and emphasized the importance of creating women's-only groups and building egalitarian organizations, rather than structuring its activities more bureaucratically and creating mixed organizations and groups.6

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement in the South and various antiwar student groups concentrated in the North, including Students for a Democratic Society, offered women opportunities for activism. In the South, as Sara Evans has argued, feminist consciousness first emerged within the network of women involved in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. To become activists in the civil rights movement, these women had to challenge the ideals of southern femininity and create a new sense of self. In turn, participation in the civil rights movement brought to their attention "the tangled relationship between race and sex" as well as the recognition that "racial equality required fundamental changes in sex roles."7 This changing consciousness, which was reinforced by the disparaging treatment women activists received from some male comrades, prepared many southern women to become active participants in the impending women's liberation movement. The mobilization of women in other parts of the country resulted from their growing awareness of gender oppression, especially as they experienced gender discrimination and inequality within the New Left itself. Between 1967 and 1968, Evans argues, women activists within the civil rights and New Left movements became the main constituency of radical feminist groups, which, in turn, gave birth to the massive grassroots feminist movement.8

In Northwest Arkansas, however, the majority of grassroots feminist activists did not have such experiences. …

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