A recurring question in the discourse of the intersection of the Waveland Memo, "the Position of Women in the Movement," and the emergence of feminism is how to interpret Stokely Carmichael's quip, "the position of women in the movement is prone." Was the remark a "putdown" or a clever play on words? This e-mail exchange was part of a 2014 discussion by women activists and scholars about the provenance of the memo and Stokely's remark. The whole e-mail exchange can be found on the civil rights movement veterans' website.
Women, SNCC, and Stokely
An Email Dialog, 2013-14
An Email Dialog, 2013-14
Thanks, Chude, for inviting me into this conversation. I see a number of different issues here: the clarification of the two memos that are seen as integral to the emergence of second wave feminism, the comment by Stokely, and the question of sexism in the movement.
In terms of the two women's memos, I was indeed involved in the writing of the memo titled "the position of women in the movement" (position paper #24, often referred to as "the Waveland memo"). I wrote about my involvement and what I understood as the motivation for that involvement in my chapter in Hands on the Freedom Plow. Sheila was also correct in saying that I wrote a position paper (position paper #27) for the Waveland meeting prior to the writing of this memo, but the focus of that position paper was my personal frustrations with SNCC politics, and not with the position of women in the movement. I'm copying Casey on this conversation in hopes that she will provide further information on the provenance of the Waveland memo.
I see Stokely's comment in a much more nuanced way. Stokely was known for his wit, but there was often an edge to his humor. I was there on the dock at Waveland when the comment was made. I don't want to speculate on what was behind the remark, but I don't think it's a great leap to see the changing roles of women and the sexual tensions of those years as contributing to what bubbled to the surface as a spontaneous and playful remark. The fact that the remark was "highjacked" as a motivation for the women's movement is, in my estimation, silly, but neither do I see it as a completely innocent joke. I don't remember my reaction, but I am dead certain that I did not laugh.
On the issue of sexism, what I experienced was an incredibly non-sexist and empowering environment with respect to the movement's willingness to give women serious and heavy responsibilities in both daily activities and leadership, and a genuine interest in listening to and soliciting women's opinions. On the other hand, it would be ingenuous to think that sexism could have been so easily and completely vanquished. The movement gave us a lens to challenge the norms of society. For me, the central message of the Waveland memo is this--the unconscious habits of treating women in ways that we now acknowledge as sexist were continuing to play out despite the movement's genuine, revolutionary and deep commitment to democratic equality.
I have been ruminating on these issues over the past few years and am currently working on collecting and clarifying my thoughts, with the encouragement of my dear colleagues from those times as well as some newer ones that have entered my life.
Thanks. Joyce. I helped compose the women's paper at Waveland, even typed it, because I understood it existentially and theoretically. But I didn't initiate it, nor did it represent my experience in SNCC. Inside our Movement, our family, I thought we transcended all that. Your statement about what it was like to work within such an atmosphere speaks for me.
Thanks, Chude. You are almost right about the authorship of the Waveland women's paper authors. Emmie Schrader Adams was also in the group writing it.
Thanks. Elaine, for including me. And thanks for addressing all that. I'll say a word about the provenance of the papers.
I was living in the house which Bob [Moses] had arranged for me, Helen O'Neil and Doris Derby to rent just outside the gates of Tougaloo College while we were working on the Literacy Project the previous fall. Emmie and Elaine, ex-Radcliffe, incisively intellectual, well traveled and bold, arrived the spring of '64 and gravitated there, as many in COFO did; it was a safe place. Mary came over for the Summer Project and moved in, too. We had been roomies in Atlanta, both having worked for Ella Baker on a Southwide Human Relations Project sponsored by the National Student YWCA.
One of the Y's missions was to relate to "the changing roles of men and women." Mary had just been part of some women's sit in at the Atlanta SNCC office. The four of us, and many others, talked women's rights in the kitchen of the Literacy House before, during, and after the summer. We wrote the paper at the SNCC staff meeting at Waveland, after Freedom Summer, 1964. We didn't title our paper, just calling it "SNCC Position Paper," but the staff at Waveland prepared a numbered list of papers with author's names, so folks could be sure they got them all. Number 24 is listed as "SNCC Position Paper (name withheld by request) (women in the movement)," hence the source of Kwame's pun. He sure took the lid off that topic.
I've written about all this, and the subsequent paper, below, in Deep In Our Hearts and in Hands on the Freedom Plow.
In the fall of 1965 I drafted a second document, and Mary and I met at her family's place in Virginia, where we completed it, typed it on stencils, ran it off onto blue paper and mailed it to perhaps 40 women friends from SNCC and SDS. We called it "A Kind of Memo." Dave McReynolds later published it in Liberation magazine, under the title "Sex and Caste", a reference to our argument. It asked women to talk to each other about being women, in order to support each other and establish a stable core for the whole multi-issue Movement, which was already fragmenting.
Little did I know.