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.

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