Sex and Caste at 50

1964 SNCC Position Paper on Women in the Movement

Part of the difficulty in interpreting A Kind of Memo is its frequent confusion for or conflation with an earlier historical document that overlaps in authorship and in theme. Given the position this paper has come to occupy in the historiography of the women's liberation movement, it is ironic that for at least a decade its authorship was attributed not to four white women, but to one of the most powerful black woman in SNCC, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. 

In the fall of 1964, in response to a request from SNCC chairman Jim Forman that staff members submit position papers for discussion at a retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, Elaine DeLott, Casey Hayden, Mary King and Emmie Schrader hastily assembled an anonymous, position paper on women in the movement the night before.[1] This paper was not the first time women had raised questions about their roles in SNCC.  In the spring of 1964, a group of white and black women had conducted a sit-in at SNCC’s Atlanta office to protest having to take meeting minutes all the time.[2]  Judy Richardson described the scene in a 2007 oral history drawing on a photograph taken by Danny Lyon.

"we're holding placards reading "Freedom Over Me" and "No More Minutes." Oh no, "No More Minutes Until Freedom Comes to the Atlanta Office." That was Ruby's sign. And you know, we did it half playful, but the other thing was, we're not going to do this anymore." [3‚Äč]

While the 1964 office protest at SNCC's Atlanta office involved both black and white women, by Waveland racial tensions started to strain the bonds between women.  No black women were invited to participate in writing the paper. 

The Waveland paper itself occasioned very little reaction in SNCC at the time.  A summary of the retreated noted only “One workshop felt the need to seriously discuss the role and problem of women, and thus of men, within SNCC, for the problem is deeply rooted as is the problem of race.”[4] Unlike the Memo, the Waveland paper was not circulated outside SNCC and it remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when historian Sara Evans introduced it in her book Personal Politics.   When the document resurfaced in June of 1978, Hayden had little memory of the paper" “I can't honestly say I remember writing all this.”[5]  Hayden found it unlikely that she had contributed much to the paper since, as she explained “the initial documentation section contains many instances of discrimination against women in the movement which I do not remember having compiled from my own experience.”[6]  Mary King has stated that she compiled that list “And I started to gather examples from bulletin boards and staff meetings and memos that were coming across my desk and so on. “[7]   At the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer, in 1995 Hayden recalled "working on that paper with a group of women at night in a room where the mimeograph machine was, all of us gathered around the typewriter. I don't remember much else except that a number of phrases in the piece were mine.”[8]   Hayden described feeling “caught in the middle” when the Paper was composed.   “I had talked with these women as we thought about parallels between being black and women, so I felt some loyalty to them and the issues. On the other hand, I wouldn't have raised the issue in this way, because I didn't feel SNCC limited me as a woman.“[9]

However, many scholars over the years have confused "A Kind of Memo" with the 1964 paper, misdating the Memo to the 1964 retreat, or have conflated the two texts,  positioning the Memo as a revision or sequel to the 1964 paper.  Indeed, both documents start with a comparison between sex and race and each describes problems faced by women in the movement.  However, they diverge in several key ways that suggest that they need to be read separately.

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