Sex and Caste at 50

1964 v 1965

The 1964 Waveland position paper offered a comparison of women and Negroes to describe to a resistant audience the severity of the discrimination experienced by women in SNCC.    One third of the content of the Waveland paper (by word count) is devoted to examples of this discrimination and the comparison between “the Negro” and “the woman problem” provides the organizing structure for subsequent discussion.  White paternalistic attitudes towards Negroes are compared to assumptions of “male superiority.” “White supremacy “and “male superiority” are depicted as similarly “widespread and deep rooted” and as having the same “crippling” effects.  The position of “women in SNCC” is analogized to that of the “token Negro.” The centrality of “Negroes …in the economy of the cotton south” is referenced in regards to “women [as]… the crucial factor that keeps the movement running on a day to day basis.”  A final example relates women “unaware and insensitive” to the discrimination they face to “Negroes who don't understand they are not free or who want to be part of white America.” The paper ends with the hope that “sometime in the future the whole of the women in this movement will become so alert as to force the rest of the movement to stop the discrimination,” not only for the good of women, but because “much talent and experience are being wasted by this movement.”

“A Kind of Memo” began with women talking to other women about the problems they face.  While the Memo references “some parallels … between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society,” it relies on a second analogy, between sex and caste in order to emphasize the outcomes of a “system” that “uses and exploits women.” Caste was used in the freedom movement to reference a  hierarchy of skin color that went far beyond legal segregation. [1]   In particular, caste as a system functioned to normalize this inequality.  As Hayden noted, even people who are aware of the “implications of the racial caste system” cannot sometimes see “the sexual caste system” attributing it instead  to ‘biological differences,” or “the ways things are supposed to be.” These comments captured the applicability of caste to the situation of women, which were not “institutionalized by law,” but reflected in pervasive assumptions that translated into women’s subordinate roles, and therefore lay “beyond legalistic solutions.”

The sex caste system permeated the lived experiences of people, from work in the movement to their most intimate relationships with others. Therefore, while the Waveland paper documented many instances of discrimination in the movement, A Kind of Memo pointed out only that “The caste system perspective dictates the roles assigned to women in the movement, and certainly even more to women outside the movement” (emphasis added).   Just one sentence of A Kind of Memo offers examples “ranging from relationships of women organizers to men in the community, to who cleans the freedom house, to who holds leadership positions, to who does secretarial work, and who acts as spokesman for groups.” While Hayden was sympathetic to individuals who felt the impact of discrimination, she saw these instances as occurring within a bigger system.

Instead, the second half of A Kind of Memo sketches out an approach that women in the movement might take, not to ending sexism in the movement, but to call the movement back to its radical roots. 

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