African American and white women involved in the civil rights movement never represented a homogeneous group. Different women had different tools with which to exercise their influence and effect change.
African American women stood stalwartly on the front lines of the civil right movement, but they often did not hold formal leadership positions and are consequently not always visible in photographs and other historical documentation. These women organized via their churches, in their homes, and throughout their immediate communities, taking advantage of their traditional gender roles and domestic space. In many cases, therefore, the opportunities available involved positions that supported the activities of male leaders; in other instances, however, women taught citizenship classes, attended mass meetings, and canvassed for voter registration, enhancing their ordinary activities to encompass the movement’s needs.
Class also played a determining factor in black women’s experiences and activism. Vera Pigee, a Clarksdale beautician loyal to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other self-employed women could spend considerable time and resources organizing and planning, as Pigee did in her work with the group’s Youth Councils and as secretary of the local branch. In contrast, Fannie Lou Hamer, a displaced sharecropper with a greater sense of urgency, found her voice in the direct-action-driven Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Many black women found motivation for their activities in their religious faith, putting their bodies on the line, endangering their families and friends, and suffering the same indignities and dangers as black men. Many of the women associated with the movement went on to work with poverty programs such as Head Start or ran for office: Victoria Gray Adams, for example, ran for the US Senate on the Freedom Democratic Party ticket, and Unita Blackwell of Mayersville became Mississippi’s first black female mayor.
Unlike their black peers, white women in the civil rights movement rarely felt physically imperiled. Their involvement stemmed from a sense of empathy with the plight of African Americans and from a strong desire for social, legal, political, and economic justice, often cultivated by educational or religious institutions. In particular, northern white women lived and worked with African Americans during the 1964 Summer Project, with many of these volunteers returning to college in the fall. Some of these same women went on to found the women’s movement shortly thereafter, as their politicization manifested itself in other struggles for equality.
White women from Mississippi also participated. Most of them came from middle-class families and joined the movement via student activities or religious institutions. Hazel Brannon Smith questioned the morality of segregation in her newspaper, the Lexington Advertiser, while Jean Cauthen did so via her Clarksdale radio show. Both women suffered harassment. Others, among them Barbara Barnes, the president of Young Women’s Christian Association operations in Jackson, mediated institutional integration quietly, and Jane Schutt served on the state’s first US Civil Rights Commission Advisory Committee until her husband’s job became threatened. Such women’s involvement risked their economic, social, and political standing in white society.
- Bernice McNair Barnett, Gender and Society (June 1993)
- Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer (1965)
- Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, eds., Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement (2001)
- Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990)
- Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, eds., Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965 (1990)
- Constance Curry et al., Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (2000)
- Paula Giddings, From Where and When I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984)
- Debbie Z. Harwell, Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964 (2015)
- Jenny Irons, Gender and Society (December 1988)
- Tiyi M. Morris, Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (2015)
- Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1930 to 1970 (2001)
- Vera Pigee, Struggle of Struggles (1975)
- Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights (1997)