"A Dynamic Force in Our Community": Women's Clubs and Second-Wave Feminism at the Grassroots

By Blair, Melissa Estes | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

"A Dynamic Force in Our Community": Women's Clubs and Second-Wave Feminism at the Grassroots


Blair, Melissa Estes, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


An historian today looking for second-wave feminist action in Durham, North Carolina during the 1960s and 1970s would, at first glance, find very little. Several efforts were made to found a National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in the city, but none were successful. (1) Consciousness-raising groups and other radical feminist organizations often left little paper trail; one such group appears in neighboring Chapel Hill, but there is no documentary evidence of these groups in Durham. (2) But when one looks beyond these second-wave groups, feminist activism in Durham comes into focus. The public face of feminism in Durham was not pickets or rallies, but rather workshops and a women's center run by the city's Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and efforts by the local League of Women Voters (LWV) to secure ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. This is not to say that there were no consciousness-raising groups in Durham. But no public actions by radical feminist groups were reported in the city's newspapers, either the African American weekly the Carolina Times or the daily Durham Sun. The feminist work of established women's groups was the work with which community members would have been most familiar. The leadership of these established women's groups in Durham's feminist community was not anomalous to this Southern town. Existing women's organizations were key channels for feminism in cities throughout the country. (3) This essay sheds light on how the second wave looked in cities far from the movement's intellectual heart in a handful of large cities, examining the opportunities and limitations created when grassroots women undertook feminist action from within women's clubs that had been founded well before the second wave. It also argues that conducting feminist action through existing groups determined who would and would not participate in public feminist action in one Southern town.

This essay has two main goals. By documenting the role of established women's clubs in spreading second-wave feminism beyond the metropole, it expands our understanding of how the women's movement functioned as a grassroots movement that received little explicit direction from the movement's theorists or media-identified leaders. While grassroots activists took cues from national leaders about which issues were appropriate for feminist action, they developed their own methods of addressing those issues, crafting programs to be successful in their cities. In examining the feminist community in one Southern town, this essay also shows how the race and class relations in that town shaped the city's feminist community. Durham's women's clubs had worked hard to integrate over the course of the 1960s. Channeling feminist action through those clubs created a feminist community that was racially integrated. But these were middle-class clubs, and working-class women of neither race participated in feminist activities in large numbers.

In the early 1970s the ideas and analyses of the women's liberation movement moved through the country primarily by means of mass media coverage. (4) Most leading intellectuals of second-wave feminism did not develop mechanisms for widely disseminating their ideas. (5) This omission has been replicated in the scholarship on the second wave, which has largely failed to examine how the movement proceeded outside of major metropolitan centers. (6) Established women's organizations--clubs like the YWCA and the League of Women Voters--were vital channels for feminist activism in cities and towns throughout the United States. For women around the country, women's clubs provided communication networks through which ideas could flow. These networks were strikingly similar to those that existed among young women who participated in the civil rights movement and the New Left, and scholars have long recognized the importance of these networks to the leaders of the women's movement, and to the movement's success. …

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