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Women Were In It From the Beginning

Historians see SNCC as a seedbed of the women's liberation movement, but the women in this book remember SNCC as a nurturing family which taught them skills and gave them a breadth of experience that they had not found elsewhere. "Working with SNCC was an empowering and egalitarian experience," one editor writes. No one has memories of being demeaned and only a few of being restricted in any way because of their sex. One wishes they could compare their experiences to those of SNCC men to see if there was any difference.

For example, Dottie Zellner writes that when she first met Jim Forman, executive director of SNCC, he asked her "Can you type?" Not in this book is the question Forman first asked of Julian Bond, which was "What can you do?" (I heard Bond tell that story at Forman's memorial service). At the time, the different assumptions about male and female capabilities captured in these different questions was so embedded in the culture that no one questioned them, and, years later, apparently they still don't. Instead, Dottie recounts that Forman's "greatest gift was the ability to immediately match each person's skills to the organization's needs."

Forman put Bond in charge of SNCC communications. After Dottie (not yet married to Zellner) earned her stripes as a typist, Forman realized that she could also write and let her assist Bond. Indeed Forman assigned several women to the communications office, with the result that this book has excellent descriptions of how SNCC got the word out to the press about what the movement was doing.

The belief that the women's liberation movement was rooted in SNCC dates from a paper on "Women in the movement" presented at a SNCC conference in the fall of 1964. One of 30 to 40 papers submitted for discussion, it was authored anonymously. Two of the authors — Mary King and Casey Hayden — later became known when they published a somewhat different version. Two more — Elaine DeLott Baker and Emmie Schrader Adams — acknowledge their authorship in this book. According to the editors, the women who submitted this paper were all white, though we don't know how many there were.

The paper began with a list of "gender inequalities ... all concerning black women," derived from observation and informal discussions among women after several "demonstrated in the office, protesting the expectation that women would always perform certain secretarial tasks." Hayden and Adams insist that the paper really wasn't about women in SNCC but about the larger culture. "The openness of SNCC, ... the invitation to critique the organization ... provided the arena."

The abundance of first-person stories make this a very valuable book from which future historians of the civil rights movement will learn much. But someone still needs to explain what was it about SNCC that fostered a feminist perspective.

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