It is commonly thought, by historians as well as the general public, that change comes about through the writings and actions of intellectuals and outstanding leaders. The War of Independence, for example, is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and men of their ilk. The same is also true for the Civil War, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and other significant transformations in American society. Prominent leaders are emphasized, while the rank-and-file are considered as so many sheep led docily by their superiors. This is an easy, understandable method of comprehending why change has occurred despite the resistance of entrenched powers, but is it true? Perhaps change has come from the bottom up, not from the top down. Recently historians, using this perspective, have begun to reexamine various movements and forces for change in American history, focusing on grass roots involvement by many individuals rather than the influence of the few and the famous.
Sara Evans’ Personal Politics is written from this perspective. For her the women’s movement has not been a product of the leadership of a handful of leaders, but rather from the activities of many in the rank-and-file of the civil rights and new left movements. For her, it is not Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, and the other founders of NOW or the editors of MS who should be credited with forming women’s liberation, but Ruby Doris Smith, Anne Braden, Casey Hayden, Mary King, and their numerous, generally unknown, contemporaries. Similarly, the women’s movement did not spring from intellectual tracts and publications, but from the day-to-day struggles of these women in activist, essentially male-dominated left organizations. Of particular interest is the author’s comparison of the more open and tolerant civil rights struggle with the essentially rigid new left.
By the 1960’s, American women were faced with a growing dilemma: they were told to accept willingly their “natural” role as wives and mothers, yet they were increasingly forced to obtain employment and lead independent lives. By the early 1960’s, change was definitely evident, particularly among professional women, who founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1965. Yet for Evans, these professional women did not extend their critique of society far enough; they did not speak to the needs and problems of the average housewife who was frustrated and confused. It was the “radical young feminists,” the subjects of the book, who spoke and acted “to transform the privacy and subjectivity of personal life itself into a political issue,” the necessary prerequisite for a broad, significant women’s movement.
Southern white women were the first to link racial and sexual exploitation, starting in the 1920’s and 1930’s with their involvement in the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the antilynching campaign; but these groups both had limited goals. More activist women appeared in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, such as Virginia Durr in Alabama, Anne Braden in Kentucky, and Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling in Georgia, who served as important role models for the younger women emerging in the late 1950’s. Perhaps surprisingly, these young women were also heavily influenced by organized religion, particularly the YWCA and Southern campus ministries. The Methodist Student Movement, for example, encouraged criticism of contemporary society and a searching for alternatives, including the questioning of segregation. From this springboard, they became active in the leading civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and particularly the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). White men and women worked with black men and women in the exhilarating but dangerous struggle to integrate the...
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