In early 2008 I got an e-mail from Francesca Polletta, Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Irvine, asking, "You know that Waveland memo we've been working off and on for years, how do you feel about doing a paper with me for the Organization of American Historians (OAH) conference in Seattle in next spring?"
I first met Francesca when she was finishing her doctorate in Williamstown in 1994. One of my movement colleagues, who was doing an interview with Francesca as background for her dissertation, gave Francesca my name. I can't remember why I was in western Massachusetts at the time, but I remember Francesca driving down from Williamstown to interview me. It was a delightful conversation as well as the beginning of an intellectual relationship and personal friendship that helped me see the movement apart from my personal experiences, and through that insight, to better understand the woman who emerged from the flame of the movement.
Francesca and I met several times over the course of the next decade, in New York, when she began teaching at Columbia, and in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we roomed together during the 30th reunion of the founding of SNCC. In July of 1997, Francesca approached Casey and me about working with her on re-visiting the women's memo, based on our conversations with her about its origins. The following year Francesca outlined her approach to the emergence of women's consciousness as rooted in the memo. We began by reviewing a sheaf of articles that chronicled the historiography of the memo, and then set up a weekend session at my home in Denver, where the three of us explored the thinking and the personal experiences that went into the writing of the women's memo. The transcripts of our conversations that weekend were a great help to me when I sat down to write my section of the OAH paper, as were Francesca's deep understanding and critical analysis of social movements.
In this paper, I expand on a previous account of my personal motivation in writing the memo, which first appeared in the chapter I authored in Hands on the Freedom Plow (see Document 99); one of the paragraphs in the paper was taken entirely from the chapter. What I added in this paper was my understanding of why the memo resonated with the broader population of young American women.
By a strange set of crossed wires Francesca didn't attend the Seattle conference. Her last round of e-mails to me went to the wrong address, which Francesca interpreted as my inability to finish my sections of the paper (not an unreasonable conclusion). When we finally figured out the miscommunication, Francesca had already cancelled her trip and made other commitments. As a result, there I was, totally outside of my element, on a three-person panel, reading our paper to a room of feminist scholars and historians. The response to our paper was incredibly supportive. Several people approached me afterwards, asking probing questions and inviting me to continue my involvement with this intersection of civil rights and feminist thinking.
That's when I met Kitty Sklar, with whom I eventually teamed for this project. We didn't figure out till later that we were from the same class at Radcliffe, but it was clear from the beginning that we were kindred spirits. One of my hopes for the outcomes of this project is that Kitty, Francesca and I will figure out the logistics to be in the same room at the same time, some day in the near future. In the meantime, I look forward to Francesca's continued analysis of the origins of the women's movement in the civil rights movement, informed by her discipline in sociology as well as her incredible insight into how individuals interact with and create the broader currents of history.
(Elaine speaks of her experiences.) I guess this is where I begin to speak. The one issue that kept on arising when we got together--and the "we" in this case is the group of women who wrote chapters for the book, "Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Struggle"--the demon that we were always cautioning each other against, reminding each other about, was that in looking back, we had to be particularly vigilant not to depict ourselves in the past as knowing more than we actually knew at the time. Let me tell you, this is hard, even if you look at revisionism as the work of Satan himself. It is tempting to give oneself a greater wisdom or a more significant role in events, when in reality you can never be sure of the actual sequence of events. So with humility, and with caution, I proceed.
For me, going south was more of an adventure than it was a moral imperative. I was a fledgling feminist, a product of the 50s who, almost magically, had been given the opportunity to spend a year in Israel, where I observed what looked to me like an alternate universe, one where women exuded confidence, equality, and a matter of fact relationship with their sexuality. When I arrived in Mississippi in the summer after my junior year at Radcliffe, my exterior broadcast the message that I was a "free thinker", a woman of the world, although inside I was still that little girl with a woman's body and an adolescent's arrogance and certainty about the world. My entry into the civil rights struggle was through a contingent of Harvard and Radcliffe graduate students who came south to teach summer classes at Tougaloo College, outside of Jackson. Through a grant from the Field Foundation, we would teach summer classes for permanent Tougaloo faculty while they used the time to work on advanced degrees in northern colleges and universities.
Having the Harvard/Radcliffe imprimatur and the legitimacy of Tougaloo College placed me in a special relationship with the veterans of the civil rights movement who gathered in the state during the summer and fall of 1964. It was not a subservient relationship between the leadership of SNCC and CORE and the cadre of white volunteers, which has been described in other accounts of Mississippi "summer projects". When SNCC staff members Casey Hayden and Jesse Morris came to Tougaloo in May of 1964 and asked me to help design an interview protocol that could be used in the summer, what I saw was their deep sense of commitment. Months later, I was still in Mississippi; their movement had become my movement.
I think it was this relationship to the leadership of SNCC, new in terms of having arrived only a month before Freedom Summer, but operating more as a veteran because of having arrived in Mississippi before Freedom Summer, that lent itself to the insider/outsider relationship that Francesca described. I shared the actions and passions of the present, but without the allegiances and experiences of the past.
My expectations were that I would be treated as an equal. I had little firsthand knowledge of the injustice and the anguish of racism, and was totally unprepared for the nuances of the interpersonal relationships of black and white civil rights workers. I had all the qualities of a rebellious adolescent--arrogant, self-righteous, outspoken and innocent at the same time, magnetized by the strength of the ideas and the character of the individuals who were ready to
give their lives for these ideas. These were my co-workers, my idols, and on occasion, my lovers.
I was not part of the hierarchy, nor did I defer to it. On the contrary, I was energized by the notion that the people on the front lines were the ones who should decide. "Let the people decide" was not an SDS chant yet; it was the working philosophy of a social movement for justice. But, there was already a hierarchy in place that determined the definition of the "people" in the phrase, "Let the people decide". There was an unspoken understanding of who should speak up at meetings, who should propose ideas in public places, and who should remain silent. I had been told from co-workers had had come before me that it wasn't always like this, that the beloved community had operated at one time in a space beyond race and gender. But that reality was gone before I arrived. Perhaps that is where I differed from the long time veterans--I was a relative newcomer, unfettered by the deep loyalties of the past. I was ready to challenge the espoused values of the present in terms of what I saw, and what I saw was contradiction between the espoused values of radical egalitarianism and unwritten rules of the organization.
What I saw was not the traditional hierarchy, it was a hierarchy based on considerations of race, the amount of time spent in the struggle, dangers suffered, and finally, of gender. I described what I saw as the hierarchy in the sporadic notes that I kept at the time--black men at the top of the hierarchy, then black women, followed by white men, and at the bottom, white women. Women, black and white, had an enormous amount of operational freedom, they were indeed the ones that were keeping things moving as the leadership debated the direction the movement should take in the post-freedom summer reality, but there was little public recognition of that reality. The ideological conflict and the leadership crisis that characterized the fall of 1964 shifted the focus away from the field. In that context, I was allowed to do the work, important work, to take on a fledgling farm co-operative in a rural part of the state, but at the same time, I felt invisible as a person.
In the midst of this ideological impasse, the call went out to SNCC staff to submit position papers for the Waveland retreat. I had been staying down the road from the Tougaloo Literacy House, about a half hour outside of Jackson, in a little one-room shotgun house called, "Photo House", named for the SNCC photographers who used it as their home base as they moved from project to project. Most days I road back and forth to the Jackson COFO office with my female co-workers from Literacy House. SNCC field workers stayed at Literacy House on their way to and from different projects, but the core residents of Literacy House during that period of time were several white women. The underlying tone of the exchanges was light, a blend of gallows humor and intellectual banter. We passed around books--Lessing, DeBeauvoir, and Freidan, along with Friere and Camus. Emmie Schraeder and Casey Hayden were the two women whose brilliance I found intoxicating. Mary King, and Theresa DelPozzo participated in the discussions, the laughter and the comraderie, but it was Casey's clear intellect and Emmie's outrageous adventures on the fringes of revolution in North Africa that riveted me and resonated with my own questions about gender in this most perfect and imperfect of all worlds, the beloved community of SNCC.
The truth was that the beloved community had all but closed its ranks by the fall of 1964, or at least to whites. Black Power had not emerged in manifesto format, as it would a year later, but
the dynamics that propelled a separatist ideology were in operation. In the arena of social dynamics, nowhere was this more apparent than in relationships between black men and white women. There were still a few open inter-racial relationships between black men and white women, but these were becoming less visible, and viewed less a challenge to racism than a weakness on the part of black men. The term used by black SNCC workers to describe these relationships was "backsliding", the derogatory code for black men whose once open relationships with their white co-workers were no longer acceptable. Black power was beginning to codify the relationships of blacks and whites. Tensions were amplified by the constant threat of violence, the apparent failure of our political efforts and the crisis in direction.
My relationships were no exception. It was understood that black men and white women did not display their personal relationships in public. Black men and white women who might find a way to share a night together when circumstances allowed, would still conform to the daytime standard of professional communications and routine pleasantries. These were relationships that had no place in the new rules of race, politics and gender. The black co-worker who worked side by side with me during the day, dared not, or chose not to show affection or acknowledge what we shared in private, under the penalty of social disapproval and loss of authority. This was the backdrop of the Waveland position paper, the emotional reality of women whose personal lives were fused to their political lives, and whose personal ties to the men in their lives were disallowed by the political reality of the fall of 1964.
Our new feminist consciousness, birthed by the emerging discussions of gender, and emboldened by the expanded arena of responsibility that we assumed for daily operations, faced a terrible contradiction. As we argued in the position paper, it was the women, black and white, who kept the field operations going while the leadership agonized over next steps. And yet, the public face of the organization was self-consciously male. I see the dual pain of being ignored as professionals, and at the same time, being rejected publicly as partners, as part of the fermentation of feminist thought at Literacy House and part of the anger that fueled the Waveland Position Paper. We couldn't speak of the pain, even to each other. But we could bond together as women and speak of the injustices of sexism, where the parallels to racism were clear.
These were the days when emotions bled into politics. The words and logic that I contributed to the Waveland position paper came from my mind, the belief that I had the right to speak came from the SNCC climate of challenge, but the raw emotion that drove me to speak came from my experiences as a white woman in a climate where interracial relationships were disdainfully termed "backsliding," held up as an affront to black women and black culture; where the relationship between myself and a black staff member had to be kept secret from his colleagues in keeping with the political/social conventions of the day. As a woman, I looked around at the work that women and men performed in the movement and saw pervasive gender inequity; but it was the sense of betrayal emanating from my personal relationships that ignited the logic, transforming it from an intellectual argument around gender equality into an emotional assault on the attitudes and practices of sexism. It was not difficult for me to rage against the sexism I experienced and witnessed in the struggle, but my white women friends and I seldom talked of the other, the emotional rejection (whether sexual or platonic) that we felt from the brilliant and courageous men we admired and adored.
(Francesca continues) Why is that story--of women motivated by a feminist consciousness but also by the hurt of being betrayed by the black men with whom they had been involved--why is that story so difficult to tell? In part, we suspect, because it can be too easily assimilated to a story that is familiar but is wrong. In that story, which circulated among observers of the movement beginning in the mid-1960s, SNCC's embrace of a Black Power agenda was motivated by black women's anger at white women for the interracial relationships they were in. The story is wrong at the very least in making Black Power--which reflected SNCC staffers' experience of the federal government's intransigence and the Democratic Party's cupidity, their contacts with African nationalist movements, and their discussions about black identity and consciousness--into a matter of personal pique. The problem, then, is how to tell a different story about interracial sex without it being assimilated to that plotline.
This is the larger point we want to make about narrative, memory, and history. Each of the accounts of the Waveland memo makes sense in terms of the larger stories in which it is heard. Those larger stories, or familiar plotlines, have been enabling and constraining--have made it possible both to recognize elements of the story that were obscure before, and have made it difficult not to assimilate events to the wrong storyline. We can tell a story about the importance of outsiders to germinating new challenges only because scholars have established that oppressed people--insiders--have the wherewithal to recognize and act collectively to combat their oppression. Sara Evans's story of the Waveland memo and her concept of free spaces contributed to making that insight common sense. Now, we can afford to begin to complicate it by looking at the crucial interactions between insiders and outsiders.
For me (Elaine speaking), understanding the unstated sub-text of emotional pain that was at the heart of my contributions to the memo helps me understand why the women's movement resonated so deeply with women who were unrelated to politics. As I think back on the sexual liberation of women made possible by the birth control pill, I see women facing a similar contradiction between a political and emotional reality. The freedom to engage in sexual relationships without the threat of pregnancy was heralded as liberating, and indeed, I don't think there's much disagreement on that point related to men, who no longer had to consider the social and financial implications of an unwanted pregnancy. But I would argue that for women coming out of the decade of the fifties, the emotional toll of casual sex rooted in the separation of sex from personal commitment, created tremendous emotional distress, intellectual confusion and a sense of emotional betrayal that was akin to what I felt when I lent my voice to the writing of the Waveland position paper.
These were the days when emotions bled into politics. As one of several women who authored the Waveland Memo, I see my personal motivation as a blend of the intellectual and the emotional. The words and logic came from my mind, the belief that I had the right to speak came from the SNCC climate of challenge, but the raw emotion that drove me to speak came from my experiences as a white woman in a climate where interracial relationships were disdainfully termed "backsliding," held up as an affront to black women and black culture; where the relationship between myself and a black staff member had to be kept secret from his colleagues in keeping with the political/social conventions of the day. As a woman, I saw pervasive gender discrimination in the political lives of the women and men who staffed the day-to-day operations of the movement; but it was the sense of betrayal emanating from my personal relationships that
ignited the logic, transforming it from an intellectual argument around gender equity into an emotional assault on the attitudes and practices of sexism in a movement that drew its strength from an irreverent questioning of the political and social order.