Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Throwing off the Cloak of Privilege: White Southern Women Activists in the Civil Rights Era

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Throwing off the Cloak of Privilege: White Southern Women Activists in the Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

Throwing Off the Cloak of Privilege: White Southern Women Activists in the Civil Rights Era. Edited by Gail S. Murray. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. xiv, 250; $59.95, cloth.)

Gail Murray has brought together a collection of eight essays which together seek to answer the question of why and how some white women raised in a segregated culture that granted them certain privileges simply because of their skin color rejected to varying degrees those social mores and worked instead for desegregation and equal opportunity. While recognizing that primary agency in the struggle for social justice rests with the African American community, the volume, a contribution to the Southern Dissent series, seeks to publicize the active role of privileged white southern women in challenging Jim Crow society within their local communities.

Collectively, the essays point to the generally conservative nature of the challenge, the situating of activism within the traditional and acceptable realm of social housekeeping, and the wide array of social, economic, and legal pressures on those women who defied community norms. While acknowledging personal and regional variations, the essays speak to the courage of individual women who stepped outside the privileged world they had known since birth and into an atmosphere of intimidation as they worked to bring about greater justice and opportunity in their communities. While admitting that there were "paternalistic" overtones and limited results to this strand of activism, the authors persuasively argue that it transformed individual lives, opened eyes to broader ramifications of a segregated society, and contributed in ways difficult to quantify to dismantling segregation on the local level.

Among the strengths of the volume is an excellent introduction crafted by editor Gail Murray. Murray firmly situates the collective essays within the existing literature on women and the civil rights movement and isolates both unifying themes and significant differences within southern white female activism.

The eight essays represent two complementary and interrelated strands of white women's activism. Four focus on individual women representing three generations of activists ranging from the anti-lynching campaigners of the 1930s to the militant critics of America's economic and social systems of the 1970s. Profiled in these selections are Dorothy Tilly, Alice Spearman Wright, Frances Pauley, and Anne Braden. Each essay provides interesting insights into the character, formative influences, strategies, and impact of the individuals, but some unevenness in sophistication of presentation and analysis is evident.

Edith Riehm and Marcia Synnott offer fairly straightforward biographical approaches to their respective subjects (Tilly and Spearman Wright), while Kathryn Nasstrom and Catherine Fosl employ more theoretical approaches. Fosl considers the career of Anne Braden within the context of "whiteness studies," arguing that Braden's socialist ("red") tendencies subjected her to greater harassment and offset the protective cloaks of "whiteness" and gender. Particularly interesting is Kathryn Nasstrom's treatment of Frances Pauley. Instead of simply rehashing her subject's life, Nasstrom engages in an intriguing discussion of the limitations of autobiography and the need for historians to delve deeper into unrecognized subtexts, not to replace the individual's own memories and perceptions, but to add new interpretative layers founded on current historiographical and rhetorical understanding. Nasstrom argues that Pauley's own privileging of race (whiteness) at the expense of gender, class, and family relations reflects theoretical and rhetorical limitations of the time. While cautioning against superimposing current notions of gender informed by sophisticated feminist theory onto the past, she nonetheless makes a convincing argument for extending the understanding of Pauley's activism by layering the historian's recognition of gender, class, and family subtexts over the autobiographical account. …

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