Empowering Women Fundamental Rights Politics

Division in Social Movements: How to prevent a movement from collapsing

SNCC protest button

As I reflect on the political movements that are emerging in America, I’m reminded of something I learned long ago in one of my undergrad sociology classes: That within movements there can be division amongst members. And, whether we like it or not, these subtle “common-law castes” can tear a movement apart.

Let’s not forget, the social movements today are all fighting for the same thing–fundamental human rights. The right to equal treatment, equal pay for equal work, access to information, access to education, access to healthcare, the right to exist without being shot by police. It’s important that these disparate movements always see what they have in common. After all, it is the numbers of people that are called to action that define whether or not a movement will succeed.

The Civil Rights Movement

John Lewis SNCC

The last large-scale movement we had in this country was the Civil Rights Movement. One of the leading organizations in the movement was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which Rep. John Lewis was chairman from 1963-1966.

SNCC, according to its 1960 Statement of Purpose, was based on a foundation of nonviolent “integration of human endeavor,” whereby “courage displaces fear; love transforms hate.… Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overcomes injustice.” Influential in the Freedom Rides, SNCC was a diverse organization, made up of black and white, men and women.

Sex and Caste

Casey Hayden
Photograph of Casey Hayden, crmvet.org

However, on November 18, 1965, two female members of SNCC, Casey Hayden and Mary King, distributed a “Kind of Memo” among the group titled Sex and Caste. The memo illuminated and enumerated some grievances that they had (and wanted to discuss and work through) as women. They wrote:

“There seem to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole…. [Many women] in the movement seem to be caught up in a common-law caste system that operates, sometimes subtly, forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them.”

Further, they state:

“Many people who are very hip to the implications of the racial caste system, even people in the movement, don’t seem to be able to see the sexual caste system…. They respond with … statements which recall a white segregationist confronted with integration.”

The women felt discriminated against and dismissed both personally and professionally, with more women bearing the brunt of cleaning and secretarial work, while men were in leadership, and speaking for the group. These women, inspired by the radical thought of the movement itself, felt ready to challenge the notion of traditional gender roles, but struggled with “trying to break out of … deeply learned fears, needs, and self-perceptions.”

Sex Caste Casey Hayden Mary KingWhen they brought up these grievances, the women found that their thoughts fell on deaf ears with the men either responding defensively or laughing, causing the women to feel silly.

In their “Kind of Memo,” Hayden and King wrote about the need for a safe space to discuss such issues. In an America where women were supposed to feel satisfied that they could work in a subordinate position AND have the honor and pleasure of bringing children into the world, they, unfortunately, did not find that safe space.

This division among the Civil Rights workers led directly to the Feminist movement, women fighting the fight for and by themselves.

In my opinion, the Civil Rights movement accomplished amazing things, but it ended too soon. If the “sexual caste system” wasn’t pervasive within the group, the fight could have been extrapolated onto the female population as well. But not everyone was ready to fight for such change.

Implications for Today

It’s important to remember that there are many in today’s movements that have different grievances. Like Angela Peoples (of GetEQUAL), the African-American woman at the Women’s March who carried a sign stating “White Women Voted for Trump.” She has a legitimate grievance. White women did vote for Trump, 55% of them (while 94% of black women voted for Clinton). Whether it makes a white woman uncomfortable or not, this is a fact. Embrace these facts. Discuss them. Come together.

This is not to say that the women’s movement should bow to pressure from those pro-life (anti-choice) “feminists” who say that they were not included in the march. There are principles which need to be upheld. Getting wishy-washy on issues surrounding choice now would be akin to fighting for Civil Rights along with people who would fight for the equal rights of black people, but only if it didn’t include (say, for example) using the same water fountain, or only if it was for equal rights for light-skinned black people.

The fight is for fundamental human rights. Let’s not forget that ALL people—black, white, gay, trans, young, old (the list goes on)—deserve this.

It is important to remember, however, that when we are being inclusive of everyone in our fight, being inclusive of those who are not fighting for ALL of these rights would detract from the power of the movement.

Read more about sexism in today’s resistance movement here.

Any thoughts? Please share and comment below.

Janette DeFelice, MD, MA is a writer currently focusing on how the changing environment affects our health. Her essay collection Resistance Essays from the Heartland and her new novel Delia Rising: A Ballet in Three Acts are both available now. She has also published at Be The Change Mom, ChicagoNow, and Medium.com. She holds a Doctor of Medicine degree from Chicago Medical School and a Master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago, where her major essay was Hegel and Ibsen: The Evolution of Consciousness in Ibsen’s Prose Play Cycle. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Indiana University. A former professional dancer, former adjunct Humanities professor, and former lecturer in Medical Clinical Skills, as well as a mom of 9-year-old twins, she currently finds herself at a career/life crossroads at which she is trying to figure out how to use all aspects of herself (her art, her medical and scientific knowledge, her philosophical explorations, her interest in popular culture as a teaching tool, and her unique perspective) for the good of humanity.

1 comment on “Division in Social Movements: How to prevent a movement from collapsing

  1. Reblogged this on Dispatches from DeFelice and commented:

    Shared from my other blog.


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