Rhoda Lois Blumberg
Scholars and activists agree that the modern Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important forces leading to a resurgence of the Women's Movement.( 1) Civil rights and the New Left were crucibles in which women activists were tested for their qualities of judgment, bravery, and commitment under stress. As they learned to fight oppressions, many developed a greater awareness of women as an aggrieved group. Obviously their participation in these movements was significant--but significant to the movements as well as themselves. Yet until recently, the role of women, black and white, in the Civil Rights Movement has been seen mainly in terms of certain dramatic cases. Rosa Parks, a black woman, is known because of her crucial act in precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott; Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, achieved fame when she was assassinated. They are exceptions to a rule--for the historical significance of women both as leaders and as a main source of mass mobilization has been largely overlooked and unexamined.
This paper addresses the issue of African-American and white women's roles in the Civil Rights Movement and suggests some hypotheses about the intersections of gender and race.( 2) I maintain that, as is true in other social movements, women had some unusual opportunities to lead, especially in their local communities, but also faced gender-related barriers to their recognition and mobility in leadership roles.
The current reexamination and reconstruction of the Civil Rights Movement has revealed several types of new information and provided analyses that were not possible earlier. For example, the Freedom of Information Act, utilized by a number of researchers, enabled them to confirm suspicions about the role of the FBI, our chief executives, and other officials. Also, the movement itself no longer has to preserve certain secrets or picture itself as spontaneous rather than organized. And now, in dialectical fashion, the Women's Movement is acting back on the Civil Rights Movement, as participants and scholars reexamine the movement from the perspective of gender. Of particular importance are the new autobiographical accounts of such women as Septima Clark, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, and Mary King.( 3) These leading activists are telling their stories of major events as they now perceive and remember them. The movement is called challenging and role-expanding; the women learned skills and contributed ideas but received little national recognition. In the case of Ella Baker, the most influential woman strategist of the movement, recognition as a leader was neither sought nor valued.
Septima Clark's autobiography was told to Cynthia Stokes Brown when Clark was eighty-one years old and is a story "told from a feminist perspective." For, "after the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Clark took part in the women's liberation movement and learned to comprehend her own