Sex and Caste at 50

Not a New Movement Manifesto

After mailing the Memo, Hayden left Mary King's family cabin in Virginia and travelled to New York City where she re-united with some of the women from the Tugaloo Literacy House.  Her life followed the path of what became known as the counterculture, but she continued to work in different ways, helping to found the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco.  In the 1980s she reunited with Elaine DeLott to run an oral history program in Denver, Colorado, and worked in the administration of movement veteran Andrew Young when he became Mayor of Atlanta.[1]
Meanwhile the message of the Memo had landed in an unexpected place.  White women in SDS picked it up at the “Rethinking Conference, held in Champaign-Urbana in December 1965. New Left Notes reported respectfully in the January 28, 1966 issue that "women came together to talk about problems of women in the movement."[2]  An statement "On Roles in SDS" was endorsed by the National Council mirrored the language of A Kind of Memo in several ways, in particular referring to "honest and open discussion" as the first step, however it stopped short of calling for the radical questioning of the Memo.[3]

Hayden has recently gone on record as never intending to stimulate the women's liberation movement.  

In this paper [A Kind of Memo], we reject the notion of a separate movement for women's rights as infeasible, but in point of fact that was not my interest.”[4]

 Hayden's writing from the fall of 1965 reveals that her focus was formulating a radical critique of systemic power relations.  She had already seen the problems inherent in organizing women's separately in Chicago.  Hayden reflected in 2014 that she "saw women's discovery of ourselves and each other through honest interchange as a potential stable core for our visionary Movement, now rapidly disintegrating into special interest groups."[5]  A divided movement could not affect the radical change Hayden envision.

As the women's liberation movement developed, it did so along lines that were inconsistent with Hayden's life and ideals.  In 1987 she reflected on the movement's belief "that women are trapped by and need to be liberated from their childbearing function, their biology."[6]

Why not take biology, the body, as positive and see the problem in the society, the culture's attitude toward birth? No one talks about labor much anymore, and never about labor as a source of value and seldom about labor as in bearing children. Both are undervalued and their place in the rewards of the culture are not reflective of the truth of their value to the experience of being human. Anyone who is present at a human birth, and especially the conscious mother, knows a great secret. Freedom is not a question of the control of the birth function (although certainly that is useful to have at our command) so much as recognition and dignification and reward of this function and the child-rearing function that follows from it. This line of reasoning carries one into deep waters, of course. We used to think like this all the time, these radical approaches with astounding implications.[7]

The disembodied aspects of women's liberation were in marked contest to the embodied praxis of Hayden's philosophy.  However, it also contradicted her belief that women's ways were superior to men's, what she described in 1988 as “nurturing (what I consider radically feminine).”[8]  While Hayden has not chosen to debate scholarly interpretations of her life, it would be a mistake to think that she is not aware of the labels of cultural feminism or gender essentialism.  She sees her beliefs as most similar to womanism.

I didn't have that language, but I think now that I saw SNCC then as womanist, feminist with a black twist. I'm not arguing for this position, but that is how I observed SNCC to be at the time.  … It was womanist, nurturing, and familial, springing from the underlying philosophy of nonviolence, which was neither western nor patriarchal.[9]

Although she did not participate in the movement for women's liberation, historiographically Hayden stands as one origin point for the movement. A Kind of Memo is not reprinted in the earliest anthologies of women’s liberation, and the earliest histories of women’s liberation also largely ignore the Memo.[10]  Only after Sara Evans' Personal Politics did it start to appear in anthologies and histories. Indeed A Kind of Memo now occupies an almost mythological position in scholarly narratives of women’s liberation creating a documentary bridge that moves white women from participation in civil rights to a movement of their own.  However, Evans’ book, which is a complex discussion of women’s participation in the civil rights movement and the new left, has been reduced quite frequently to a single message, that a movement to end sexism arose  from women's experiences of sexism in those movements.   That remains a controversial conclusion and one refuted by most of the female participants in the movement.[11]

Neither Hayden nor King got involved in the women's liberation movement; nor did Elaine DeLott or Emmie Shrader who helped to write the 1964 paper. While some scholars have cited burn out as the explanation for their absence in the movement, that seems simplistic at best.    For Hayden at least, a movement based on sex alone was insufficiently radical.  Her commitments lay with those at the bottom of society, and race and class crossed sex in ways that were too important to be subsumed.  Recalling her recruitment to sit-ins by Diane Nash, Hayden wrote "She talked about how the enemy is never personal, that the systems and the attitudes of racism, sexism, and so on are the enemy."[12]

 When Hayden writes about the connections between the Memo and the women's liberation movement, she doesn't point to parallels between women and blacks, or to sexism in the movement.  Instead, she first recounts her lengthy organizing history, which she describes as integrating "intellect and sweat labor" an approach she attributes to Ella Baker's example.[13]  

"In this way, the women's movement traces back to Eila Baker. She is behind it. as she was always behind the scenes. [14]    

Similarly, when writing about the intellectual roots of the Memo, Hayden rejects de Beauvoir and Friedan, the authors often cited as inspiring modern feminism in the U.S. (and sometime even credited by scholars with inspiring Hayden herself) and instead emphasizes the influence of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  Hayden saw in Lessing “a woman of the left” who also “view[ed] her life in the same compartments as I viewed mine.”[15] Lessing’s description in The Golden Notebook is an apt characterization of the divisions reflected in the Memo.

Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone about groups in other countries.  It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness.[16

Perhaps the seed of truth in the accepted historiography about A Kind of Memo may be found here. Looking back, Hayden observed “when we trusted in ourselves we could afford to distrust and question everyone and everything else,” which led to, as she wrote in the Memo,  “think[ing] radically about the personal worth and abilities of people whose role in society had gone unchallenged before.“[17]  Thinking radically mean both that women would have to “trust… inner feelings” and above all to “question.”  Only together, in community, was this possible. As Hayden said in a 1965 SNCC staff meeting,

"Society thinks we're crazy because we present a reality the country thinks is crazy. I think we're sane because I have a group that thinks like I do."[18]


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