Sex and Caste at 50

praxis and philosophy

A close comparison of A Kind of Memo with Hayden's other writing from this period reveals how deeply the document bore the imprint of her homegrown philosophy and praxis as they evolved from her involved in SNCC, SDS, and the YWCA.(1) Two pieces in particular, written just before and a bit after A Kind of Memo, offer insights into Hayden's thoughts about the direction the movement should take. The first,  "Organizing Chicago's Southern Whites" in SDS Bulletin, described Hayden's experiences working in ERAP during the summer of 1965.    "Raising the Question of Who Should Decide," published in a special issue of The New Republic, explored power in the New Left.   The pieces share with A Kind of Memo a common approach, applying lessons from the freedom movement to other areas.  They also rely on a similar rhetorical style, noting problems, raising questions and relating issues to power systems that reflected a distinct approach to organizing.
In Organizing Poor Whites in Chicago, questions revolve around identity, leadership, and coalitions.  Problems such as solidarity, building organizations, and unfamiliarity with the philosophy of nonviolence emerge. Although "the system" treats poor whites in the North better than Southern blacks, the "power structure" is still equally unyielding to their demands for change. Ultimately, Hayden "question[s] whether students can organize on a large scale in poor white areas on the pattern of Southern movement work."    
A Kind of Memo focuses on problems of women in the movement --  their work, in personal relationships, and institutionally. The questions raised concern women's biological difference,  their work, and institutions that shape them.  The system, in this case a "sex caste system" exploits women, dictates work roles, and facilitates women's subordination. The Memo ends with "a radicalizing question" why hasn't "society ... dealt with some of its deepest problems." 
While Raising the Question of who Decides mentions problems, those faced by the poor, the excluded, as well as problems in the "programs" that attempt to address these groups, problems are not labeled as such. Instead, as the title suggests, the emphasis here is on questions - about the mindset of the country, about how to shape society, about what to do next.  The systemic analysis focuses on the distribution of power,particularly between "those on the bottom" and people who control "bureaucracies," the "government," and the economy.   Hayden ends, again, not with a conclusion, but by with a final question "about who decides."  
Beyond the similarity of their approach though, the language of these three documents overlap significantly.  For example, Hayden invokes a pragmatic praxis in all three pieces --  lessons emerge from participation in the movement.  In the Memo Hayden described women who have "learned from the movement to think radically … [and] have begun trying to apply those lessons." She argues in the SDS article  that "people learn from the actions in which they become involved… [to] understand the 'power structure'." Similarly, in the New Republic Piece she observed,  "It's only through trying to create change that we've learned how much change is necessary and how rigid the country is."  (emphasis added)

However, despite the linguistic similarities, subtle shifts in the analysis appear.   Focusing on the relationship between personal lives, power, and institutions illustrates one key shift.   For example in discussing the situation in Chicago, Hayden asserts that "radical demands are those which ask power for a dispossessed group—real power over their lives."  In her analysis of the New Left, she also notes "Being on the bottom means not only that you have no power over the forces that shape your life," but continues to concludes that "no one has real power to shape his own life."  The step that connects these e two positions appears in her analysis of women in the movement, the power of institutions: "We've talked in the movement about trying to build a society which … would try to shape institutions to meet human needs rather than shaping people to meet the needs of those with power," a sentence echoed in "Raising the Question" "rather than people changing institutions to meet their own needs and desires, people through institutions are shaped to meet the needs of those with power."     


1. King acknowledges that Hayden wrote the first draft in her autobiography. However, she indicates that they were "working from notes from conversation … with Dona Richards." [Mary King, Freedom Song (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 456-457.  

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