Friday, December 16, 2011

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

"Women Were In It From the Beginning"
Guest review by Jo Freeman (full review with additional links at

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC
by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young and Dorothy M. Zellner,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 616 pp.

Of all the Sixties civil rights organizations, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee was the one which most inspired young people all over the country. SNCC – pronounced snick – grew out of the sit-ins that started in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, and rapidly spread throughout the South to protest race discrimination.

Women were in it from the beginning. Ella Baker, an experienced activist in her fifties, had had a heavy taste of male chauvinism in her three years with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When she invited the student protestors to come together at her alma mater, Shaw University, in April, to co-ordinate their actions, she did not want them to follow the same path.

During the next few years SNCC expanded from protesting segregation to organizing communities. Staff went farm to farm and door to door persuading some of the most oppressed people in the U.S. that the time had come to throw off their shackles. For this they were beaten, jailed, and sometimes killed. The risks they took created a camaraderie which has remained to this day.

In this book 52 women who worked in SNCC in the 1960s tell their stories. They come from many walks of life: black and white, North and South, farm and city. They organized in the field and worked in the office. They demonstrated in the streets and went to jail. Some came and went, some stayed for years. Their stories flesh out a civil rights history which has emphasized the heroics of men.

Those who contributed to this book chose what to write about. The editors organized their recollections into ten sections, each with a preface. Geography and chronology roughly structure the book, but only roughly.

While the common theme is that all the authors are women, this is not a book about women. We don’t learn much about women as a group and only a little about them compared to men – not even the ratio of males to females, or the gender dimensions of work. There is no discussion of "the role of women in SNCC" or any attempt at feminist analysis. It is, as the subtitle says, accounts by women in SNCC.
Nonetheless, there are enough paragraphs on women to fill about six of the 616 pages.

Women were a major presence in the local communities in which SNCC worked. One of them, Victoria Gray Adams of Hattiesburg,* Mississippi, wrote that "Women were out front as a survival tactic. Men could not function in high-visibility, high-profile roles where we come from, because they would be plucked off.... The white folks didn’t see the women as that much of a threat.... They didn’t know the power of women, especially black women."

Annie Pearl Avery of Birmingham,** Alabama, writes: "In the South, black women were more able to exercise their rightful privileges than black men. On SNCC projects there was sexism toward women, because this was a way of life for all women. Sometimes I felt limited because we weren’t allowed to drive the cars.... The male chauvinism was there, but I don’t think it was intentional. It wasn’t as dominant in SNCC as it was in SCLC, which Miss Baker told us about."
Historians see SNCC as a seedbed of the women’s liberation movement, but the women in this book remember SNCC as a nurturing family which taught them skills and gave them a breadth of experience that they had not found elsewhere. "[W]orking with SNCC was an empowering and egalitarian experience." No one has memories of being demeaned and only a few of being restricted in any way because of their sex. One wishes they could compare their experiences to those of SNCC men to see if there was any difference.

For example, Dottie Zellner writes that when she first met Jim Forman, executive director of SNCC, he asked her "Can you type?" Not in this book is the question Forman first asked of Julian Bond, which was "What can you do?" (I heard Bond tell that story at Forman’s memorial service). At the time, the different assumptions about male and female capabilities captured in these different questions was so embedded in the culture that no one questioned them, and, years later, apparently they still don’t. Instead Dottie recounts that Forman’s "greatest gift was the ability to immediately match each person’s skills to the organization’s needs."

Forman put Bond in charge of SNCC communications. After Dottie (not yet married to Zellner) earned her stripes as a typist, Forman realized that she could also write and let her assist Bond. Indeed Forman assigned several women to the communications office, with the result that this book has excellent descriptions of how SNCC got the word out to the press about what the movement was doing.

The belief that the women’s liberation movement was rooted in SNCC dates from a paper on "Women in the movement" presented at a SNCC conference in the fall of 1964. One of 30 to 40 papers submitted for discussion, it was authored anonymously. Two of the authors – Mary King and Casey Hayden – later became known when they published a somewhat different version. Two more – Elaine DeLott Baker and Emmie Schrader Adams – acknowledge their authorship in this book. According to the editors, the women who submitted this paper were all white, though we don’t know how many there were.

The paper began with a list of "gender inequalities ... all concerning black women," derived from observation and informal discussions among women after several "demonstrated in the office, protesting the expectation that women would always perform certain secretarial tasks." Hayden and Adams insist that the paper really wasn’t about women in SNCC but about the larger culture. "The openness of SNCC, ... the invitation to critique the organization ... provided the arena."

The abundance of first-person stories make this a very valuable book from which future historians of the civil rights movement will learn much. But someone still needs to explain what was it about SNCC that fostered a feminist perspective.
* The current Mayor of Hattiesburg is Johnny Dupree, an African-American who was also the Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Mississippi in 2011. He received 39 percent of the vote. A prior poll showed that there was a 3 percent gender gap, with women favoring Dupree. Blacks favored Dupree by a ratio of four to one.
** Birmingham has only had black mayors since 1979. All were male except for Carole
Smitherman who was Acting Mayor for two months in 2009.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields (Random House first Canadian edition, 1997, 339 pp.)

Carol Shields (1935-2003) is a prominent member of the canon of Canadian writers. Although she is originally from the US and once won a Pulitzer prize (for The Stone Diaries), I had never heard of her until I moved to Canada. After finding out about her, I happened to read something of hers that I didn't care for, and so a second book of hers, The Box Garden, languished on my dresser unread for several years until I finally got around to giving it a try. I thought it was fairly original and nicely written, so I looked for something else by Shields in the public library, and the only thing they had on the shelf that day was Larry's Party.

A good book is always better, I'd say, if you expect nothing much of it in advance, so I don't want to overpraise it. Not much that is exciting happens, really, in Larry's Party. It covers twenty years of a man's life, from his twenties to his forties, 1977 to 1997; and during that time Larry learns a pretty interesting profession, marries twice, has one child, gets sick and recovers, lives in two countries, and slowly goes through a process of maturing.

What makes the book especially exciting to me, really, is its apparently unique structure. It's not chronological internally, and yet its overall motion is a chronology. At one point, Larry has a body scan for medical reasons, and the way the scan slices the body into segments seems to be related to the way Shields slices Larry into different views that can be put together to make a whole picture of the man.

Each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of Larry, and similar events are repeated in different chapters, through the lens of this different focus. The fifteen chapters include Larry's Love, 1978; Larry's folks, 1980; Larry's Work, 1981; Larry's Words, 1983; Larry's Penis, 1986; Larry's Search for the Wonderful and Good, 1992; Larry's Threads, 1993-4; Larry's Living Tissues, 1996.... By the end of the book, we know Larry quite intimately, as a person, similarly complex to ourselves.

There's a story about Shaw, that he was asked how he wrote such interesting women characters. He is said to have replied: "I imagine that a woman is a person like myself, and that is how the trick is done." In Larry's Party, Shields has reversed that gaze. In the last scene, the women in Larry's life have quite a discussion about gender and the role of men, which at this point we can consider from inside the persona of a pretty decent man, who is able to hear it without discomfort.

In my experience it is fairly rare for a novel to have an original structure that is both very evident and very functional. The great exemplar that comes to mind is Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Larry's Party is nothing so monumental, but it stands out as being constructed with mastery of the craft. The research Shields did into garden mazes is also very gratifying.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ms. Magazine Library!/media/set/?set=a.10150312289568540.360163.15914543539&type=1

Ms. Magazine is re-organizing its library. The pictures show quite a few covers of books a lot of us must have read.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Cow by Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex 2011), 166 pages, trade paperback

Susan sent me a copy of Cow and I find it fascinating but difficult to explain. There are all these different cows with different names of goddesses and mythical and historical figures, references I vaguely recognize in many cases, but they also have viewpoints and voices that are credible as those of cows in some ways, and as tale-tellers in others. There are a few marginal notes, which are great, but if there were as many marginal notes as I really needed, they would be longer than the poems. That said, the stories and scenes in the poems seemed to just whisk me along through the book even though I didn't know how I got there exactly or where we were going. It has an airy quality, like being out in a meadow or riding on a magic carpet or something. I recommend the trip.

Here's a review Susan linked to from her FaceBook page, written by someone who has gotten a bit more handle on the structure than I:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Letters from Egypt

This is a guest review of Letters from Egypt by Lucy Duff Gordon. This book has gone through many editions since it was first printed in 1865. The most recent edition is a paperback released by Virago Press in 2007. Virago is a publisher specifically for books written by women. There is also an online version for e-readers. Here, by permission from the blog Isis Unveiled, is Leona Graham's review. - FW

Isis Unveiled: Letters from Egypt, The Freedom March & The Shared Pain of Revolution

by Leona Graham on 28 February, 2011 (in Anthropocene Diary)

Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt (1st edition, 1865) reveal a woman in love with her adopted country, an Egypt that has changed in many ways since the 1860′s when she was writing to her husband Alick (Sir Alexander Duff Gordon) and her mother, Sarah Austin. In many others, it is the same, ancient land where injustice has reigned for centuries. The impact of Lucie’s letters, even after 146 years, is still profound. The first batch were reprinted three times in the first year of their publication (1865). Two more editions were published in 1875 and 1902, and a centenary edition in 1969. My (appropriately) well-worn ‘Virago Travellers’ copy is a 1986 reprint of the 1983 publication. The Letters‘ long-lasting, continuing popularity is justified, for despite my initial skepticism (having been put off by Frank’s biography and a fictional account of Lucie’s English lady’s maid Sally, Mistress of Nothing) because of her ‘upper class point of view’, I quite soon put aside my judgments of Lucie’s class and privilege as I drank in her absolute love of Egypt and its suffering people. The Egypt of Tuesday, November 11, 1862 (the date of the first letter in the 1983 edition) is one under the Pashas’ malign power. Egypt was a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. The first ‘modern’ viceroy of Egypt was Muhammad Ali, followed by Said and then, Ali’s nephew Ismail (from 1863). British rule was yet to come; in fact, Lucie avers that many Egyptians (of several classes) were asking for British intervention, to help them out of their desperate plight.

Lucie’s picture of the brutal misery of the people, over taxed and forced into labor (the corvee--building the Suez Canal and other projects at the whim of the Pasha) is painful, even now, or especially now, in light of recent events and the peoples’ suffering under the Mubarak dictatorship. Then the French were hated as they were the financiers and builders of the canal. In her ‘new’ 1983 Introduction to the Letters, (the original introduction that of the famous English doyen of letters and family friend, George Meredith), Sarah Searight refers to the ‘unveiling of modern Egypt’ (to ‘the west’) as stemming from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798; the accompanying French artist Dominique Vivant Denon provided extraordinary images; access to Egypt was largely unavailable till then due to the ‘prevailing anarchy’ of the Ottoman Empire.

I leave you to discover the fascinating details of Lucie’s journeys up and down the Nile, her stays in Luxor where she endeared the people to her by becoming their healer, her trials and tribulations, and her special devotion to her servant, Omar, the paramour of Sally (by whom she became pregnant), whose dismissal and disappearance is not remarked on; one supposes the daughter (Janet Ross) edited out any (?) references to the ‘scandal’.

Lucie’s Egyptian adventures all came about because she was forced to travel abroad to a warm country (in truth, a very hot one) to relieve the symptoms of TB, made worse by wet and cold British weather. It now seems an accident of sweet fate that she found herself and gained literary fame through her love of Egypt and its people. In today’s Egypt, she would may have had to evacuate, like my resident pal finally had to–but today she returns on the first flight back to Luxor, to the land she too has fallen in love with, that she has adopted and it, her. During the time of her brief exile we have seen events unfold, the powerful virus of revolution spread–The Freedom March across North Africa and into the Gulf states–and beyond, strangely reflected by the battle in Wisconsin USA to hold onto western democratic rights (“Our turn will come”, my husband says, ominously), to gather as a body to demand workers’ rights over capitalistic chicanery by big, brutal moneyed forces. We call these gatherings ‘unions’. The Misguided Right, funded by predatory corporations and bad governments, has attempted to turn the word ‘union’ into a bad word.

Words are such powerful tools; we have to constantly be on our guard to protect them, and those who dare to speak them. Free speech has been won at great cost by our ancestors; it is our duty to protect what they lived and in many cases, died for.

Each day, as The Freedom March has proceeded across North Africa and our TV and computer screens, I have been viscerally impacted. When they were battling for their rights in Tahrir Square in Cairo, I felt as if I were there with them, as a woman, beside the other women. In Libya, where I have never visited, it was at first harder to envision myself (unlike Tunisia and Egypt where I have spent time) and thus the despair, rage and pain I felt seemed at first not to be able to find a place to concretely ‘link to’. And then suddenly it happened: I was inside the houses with the women (there have been few images of women seen outside in the crowds, but some have been); I was one of them too, as they bravely opened their doors to let in and look after wounded strangers, the ‘pro-democracy protesters’, boys and men who could be their fathers, brothers, sons. And sometimes I went out with them, carefully. Many householders had (according to some reports) been gathering supplies, as they foresaw some of what was to come with the Egyptian uprising and revolution. They were somewhat prepared. Their sacrifice, both men and women, adults and children, is great. The fear is palpable; the determination even greater. They speak of a revolution that is about honour, the honour of the individual’s role in the state, of remaking the state with the blood and bodies and minds of the protesters. As their mangled bodies pile up in hospitals and morgues, are buried in hasty graves, some dug by Gaddafi forces to hide massacres, our common sense of Power to the People takes on a new note of urgency. And finally in the last few days and hours, ‘the international community’ through the United Nations has started to make its voice heard–our unified planetary human voice in fact as represented by the UN, an institution that many retrograde people (especially in the USA) have been trying to diminish and even destroy. Individual states have also raised their voices and imposed sanctions that hopefully will curtail the remains of the Gaddafi regime (and not the Libyan people at large). We can only hope that these diehards finally will see the writing on the wall and disperse, leaving Gaddafi and his ever declining circle of thugs isolated and ultimately available for the international justice for war crimes. That China and Russia (and Iran, as it was unanimous) also agreed to the UN statement is hypocritical but rather useful for future finger-pointing when their own peoples demand change.

The shared pain so many of us feel with regard to the uprisings and revolutions for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt (still very much ‘a work in process’ as we’ve seen in the last few days) and now Libya, as well as Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and most recently Oman, is salutary. For many of us in the ‘democratic west’, our heroic ancestors won the rights of democracy long ago; we are watching the future heroic ancestors for those in North Africa and the Gulf States (and beyond). We don’t honour our ancestors sufficiently for the deeds of bringing us freedom from despotic rulers and regimes. By honouring the present democracy freedom fighters (and they all avow that aim for a civil society, one with democratic institutions) we help to rectify our remissness as it it brings the shock of recognition: it brings the world closer, and in particular it brings those of differing cultures and religions, especially Christians and Muslims, closer. Those on the far right (and far left although the latter doesn’t really exist any more in the west) who try to undermine democratic human rights, who for the sake of personal and corporate greed try to wrest those rights from ‘we the people’ (selling off public utilities and woodlands to the highest bidder for example) or want to have the advantage of crimepetitive capitalism (as my cousin Gary calls it) need to think again, look back in respect and renew their commitment to what makes life ‘in the west’ free–relatively speaking that is. There’s a level at which such a selfish citizen or entity is a little Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi: that member ‘of the public’ who wants the advantages that democratic taxation gives without paying for them or lazy types who want it all without putting in honest labour to deserve them; they end up being the same crazy selfish entity. The ‘democratic body politic’ will survive despite a certain number of aberrants, but when the boat tips with too many on board, we could drown in the open seas of crass materialism, gross, untrammeled uncontrolled capitalism and selfishness, so we’d best rethink nasty prejudices, all sides, as we watch the Freedom March across North Africa.

May the March proceed as the Ides of March approach….

Caesar, then Anthony after him will fall, when and who and what will replace them? Another tyrant like Augustus? Or a new body politic informed with wisdom born of the pain of revolution?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

Thanks to Jo Freeman for sharing her many interesting feminist book reviews. Please also follow her columns at SeniorWomen Web - Frieda

Betty Friedan’s Book

by Jo Freeman

A review of
Strange Stirring:
The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

by Stephanie Coontz
Basic Books, 2011, xxiii, 222

When Coontz’ editor asked her to write about the impact of The Feminine Mystique she sat down to re-read a book she thought she knew well, but in fact, had never read. She had heard and read so much about it over the years, that she had absorbed its message without having read it at all.

It was her mother who told Coontz, a child of the Sixties, about the 1963 book, and her mother’s generation that had been excited by it. When Coontz assigned it to her own students, they found it “boring and dated.” So much had changed since 1963, that the book that stirred a generation of women didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

Her students had no idea how much their grandmothers had to learn about their own unhappiness, let alone why they had to learn it. So Coontz set out to write about a generation of intelligent, well-educated women who had been marginalized by their own society. She wanted to understand how being confined to the home had undermined their sense of self and self-worth, until Friedan told them about “the problem that has no name.”

She began by reading the numerous letters Friedan received after publication of her book, and some that Friedan wrote herself. She also went through oral histories and did interviews of women who had read and been moved by the book. The bulk of her book is based on this research, as she relates the stories of women whose lives were changed by reading Friedan’s book. Some of them thought that Friedan had literally saved their lives.

The women who paid the “price of privilege” were mostly white and middle-class, but Coontz devotes a chapter to African-American and working class women. She criticizes Friedan for ignoring the African-American experience, but acknowledges that it was a different experience. She points out that overall, black women faced different problems and had different priorities; only a few found that Friedan’s book had something to say to them.

Working class women were also left out of the book; Coontz reviews the many studies done on such women to explain why. Essentially, less education led to lower expectations and lower expectations led to greater satisfaction with what they had. The college-educated women that Friedan wrote for – and about – expected more out of life; society’s insistence that such expectations were unhealthy created its own social pathology.

Betty Friedan’s book was successful because it explained something than needed explaining, and did so in compelling language. “The book was a journalistic tour de force,” Coontz, concludes, “combining scholarship, investigative reporting, and a compelling personal voice.” It was also well promoted by its publisher.

The book’s success generated many myths, some fostered by right-wingers and some by Friedan herself. Among these, that Fridan was herself “just another unhappy housewife” when in fact she was a successful free-lance writer, who got her start working for labor and left-wing publications. Coontz argues that Friedan hid her past in order to avoid being discredited by professional anti-communists looking for red influence behind every dissident idea.

While The Feminine Mystique certainly didn’t jump-start the women’s movement, it was able to ride the wave of female discontent that jelled into organizational protest in the mid-1960s. The book’s success and Friedan’s celebrity made it easier for the nascent movement to attract press attention and thus attract members. The movement would have happened without Betty Friedan’s book, but it happened faster with it. For that Coontz and every other feminist is grateful.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You? Registering Black Voters One Soul at a Time, South Carolina, 1965

The Second Freedom Summer

By Jo Freeman

A review of
You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?
Registering Black Voters One Soul at a Time, South Carolina, 1965
by Sherie Holbrook Labedis
Roseville, CA: Smokey Hill Books, 2011, xviii, 187 pp.
You can buy this book directly from the author, through her webpage at

Most people have heard of Freedom Summer, when a few hundred mostly white college students went to Mississippi in 1964 to try to break white opposition to local blacks becoming voters, to run freedom schools, and generally to defy Southern racial practices.

Few know that there was a second freedom summer in 1965. The first Freedom Summer was run by a confederation of civil rights organizations, though SNCC took the lead. The organizations went their separate ways in 1965, dividing up the states so they didn’t overlap or compete.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, best known as Dr. King’s organization, brought between three and four hundred young people to six Southern states for a project called SCOPE – Southern Community Organization for Political Education. Expecting the Voting Rights Act to pass in June, its purpose was to get local blacks registered to vote.

However, the VRA didn’t become law until August 6, so the young volunteers had to deal with numerous county boards of registrars, some more willing than others to process long lines of aspiring voters, and various state laws limiting who could register.

Sherie Holbrook was in her freshman year at Berkeley when the march on Selma caught her attention (and that of a lot of others). She signed up with SCOPE and in June went from Berkeley, California, to Berkeley County, South Carolina. Her book is about that summer, based on a journal she kept, her memories, interviews with people she worked with, and photographs.

It was like going to a foreign country. Local blacks spoke a Gullah dialect – a patois of English and West African languages handed down over time – which she didn’t understand. She hadn’t known any black people in the rural California town she was raised in and had never seen the poverty and sheer neglect of people’s needs that she saw in South Carolina.

There were lots of new experiences she had to adjust to: sharing a bed, eating fatback, being stared at as she walked down the street, children who wanted to feel her blond hair, watching a hog killed for dinner, and white Southern hostility.

Being a civil rights worker sounds glamorous, but it’s mostly drudgery punctuated by fear. Most days were rather routine – going door to door in oppressive heat and humidity talking to people “one soul at a time.”

Many people were afraid to register; standing in line at the courthouse is a public act; a list of registered voters is a public list. A lot were apathetic; they’d been told so long that voting wasn’t for them that registering just didn’t seem like something they needed to do. Some were illiterate and couldn’t meet the minimal requirements to register.

Then there’s the fear. The black elementary school down the block from the Freedom House where Sherie and her project workers lived was set on fire; a fire truck came but no water was available to put out the flames. Less than two weeks later, a black church only a little farther away was firebombed by two white men in a truck. The message was clear: GET OUT.

One day two different groups tried to integrate local eateries in the county seat. The one Sherie entered was immediately closed and everyone told to leave. As she drove off with her co-workers two cars followed and eventually ran her off of the road. The whites in those cars got out, smashed the windows of her car, dragged two black guys out of the project car and beat them up.

The other group at a different restaurant was ignored by the management when they occupied two tables, but not by the patrons, or one particular patron, who was big enough and strong enough to throw each of them out the door as they endeavored to stay non-violent. One white, female civil rights worker was thrown through the plate glass door, ripping open the skin of her thigh. At the local hospital the white doctor stitched her up, then yelled at her to get out and never come back.

It’s always easier to write about the causes of fear than every-day drudgery, and the author’s descriptions of these scares and others make her summer sound exciting – in both senses of the word. She does this as though she’s writing a novel; her account of these events is gripping. But in the long run it’s the drudge work that counts.

That drudge work produced some sweet moments. One that Sherie cherishes still was when Rebecca Crawford learned how to write her name. Another was taking 150 people to the courthouse to register to vote on the only registration day in July. Or when local blacks packed the courtroom to see that one of them got a fair trial, before being thrown out by the magistrate who didn’t want to be part of “a show.”

There were also some comic moments, such as when the FBI showed up to investigate the church burning, and the South Carolina police asked the project workers what they did to cause someone to burn down a church and a school. Or when the sheriff arranged for them to be served in one of the restaurants they had been thrown out of to avoid a threatened lawsuit.

At the end of the summer she left wondering if she had accomplished anything. The obvious success of taking several hundred people to be registered that summer was outweighed by her guilt over the church and school burnings. That summer had left a permanent impact on her life; what had it done for the people she worked with? These questions were on her mind when she returned to South Carolina a few years ago to talk to the people she had worked with (some of whom she had stayed in touch with over the years) and find out what they had done with their lives.

She came away reassured that the summer project had made a difference. At the very least it gave local blacks a sense of hope, a feeling that others cared about them, and a belief that change was possible. “Once we got the votin’ fever” one said, things just had to change.

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