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Women Were In It From the Beginning

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
Published by Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 616 pp

A review by Jo Freeman

a primarily african american crowd stands behind barracades, in the foreground is a policemanOf 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 US 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."

* The current Mayor of Hattiesburg is Johnny Dupree, an African-American who was also the Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Mississippi last fall. 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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