How did we get to feminism so white?

Michelle Moravec
9 min readJan 7, 2018

Digital History and The Standard Narrative of the History of US Women’s Liberation

presentation at AHA 2018 from the first chapter of my book that uses digital history to challenge the origins, key concepts and periodization of the history of women’s liberation .

Slide 1

As Rosalyn Baxandall noted nearly two decades ago (slide 1), the origin narrative of women’s liberation has become a historical truism due, in no small part, to Sara Evans’ enormously influential history Personal Politics. The lynchpin in Evans’ argument is the reading of Sex and Caste at the December 1965 SDS Rethinking Conference which she describes as “the real embryo of the new feminist revolt.” Drafted in the fall of 1965 by Casey Hayden, a charismatic white southern SNCC worker and founding member of SDS, and co-signed by her friend and SNCC worker Mary King, Sex and Caste was sent privately to thirty-two women. Evans’ thesis is as one historian noted “one of those rare scholarly arguments that has persisted virtually unchallenged for more than two decades” although I would argue that in fact both participants and scholars have challenged it repeatedly.

What has happened is that Evans’ careful and nuanced argument has become a stock narrative, stripped of the details, particularly by authors outside history. Several consequences flow from the repetition of the standard account of the origins of women’s liberation, most significantly it anchors women’s liberation in white women’s emotional responses to work in a movement to end racism. Evans describes Sex and Caste as “express[ing] Casey Hayden and Mary King’s pain and isolation, as white women in the movement.” This has had profound consequences for contemporary feminism, which is where we as academic feminists anchor our own origins.

slide 2

Who gets left out and why? Evans’ conducted extensive interviews with movement participants, but did not rely on the very early periodicals to emerge from women’s liberation. Analysis of those texts (slide 2) reveals individuals and titles that appeared frequently and Tracing the fate of those authors and documents in mass-market anthologies and subsequent popular and scholarly histories illustrates how the complicated history of the relationship between civil rights and the new left and women’s liberation has been narrowed down to one document.

slide 3

A list of names frequently appearing in these periodicals (slide 3) confirms that Hayden and King were not widely written about. In fact, no single author was. Historians need to give up the dream of one great written work that influenced women’s liberation. What we have are particular discourses in each periodical. Theorists most frequently mentioned were male; it is difficult to overstate how much radical women fought to justify the idea that they were oppressed. They did this in the language of the left, which was Marx and Engels. Some periodicals are very local (Tooth and Nail), some (Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement) were reporting on events of the movement, but based on what women said or did not what they wrote.

slide 4

To get to influence in text I culled the names of the most frequently mentioned individuals who also appeared in at least half of the periodical titles (slide 4).

slide 5

I then limited the list to activists who had authored a text about women’s status in the movement (slide 5).

So how did these individuals fare historically? Who remains and who got excluded at various moments that enshrined the history of women’s liberation?

slide 6

The first level of historicization occurred by participants themselves. Five mass market anthologies published in 1970 can be read as attempts to piece together a coherent narrative of the ideas of women’s liberation. A reader of these anthologies would not have found Hayden and King, but rather a group Rosalyn Baxandall highlighted so long ago, Patricia Robinson’s black women’s group (slide 6).

slide 7

Here we have evidence that not only did the black women’s group consider itself part of women’s liberation, as witnessed by their submission of an essay to Lilith and by the appearance of their essay on a list of literature sold by Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but also activists in women’s liberation recognized them as important participants, as witnessed by their inclusion in three of the five anthologies (slide 7).

The first to be excluded from this history is white civil rights movement activist Lyn Wells. Her extended class analysis in American Women: Their Use and Abuse and suggestion that women meet both in autonomous group and remain in the new left organizations was the side that lost, an argument familiar to readers of yet another influential history of women’s liberation Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad (1989).

slide 8

Which gets us to the next level of historical interpretation about women’s liberation, monographs. In four often cited works, our six authors have disparate fates depending on the interpretation of individual authors (slide 8).

  1. What does this tell us historiographically?

Historians like to write about people who left texts. Jo Freeman, who by her own admission left the movement (she was forced out) after only a few years, appears as quite prominently because she edited a journal, left many primary sources in the form of essays, and published one of the first histories of women’s liberation. Thus she appears both as a historical source and as a historical subject in all five works.

2. Why are Hanisch & Robinson’s fates so different?

Neither Hanisch nor Robinson appear in the 1975 history by Carden (slide 8).

The fate of these two historical actors reveals the “interested” nature of origin stories. In Evans’ account, Robinson, who she interviews, appears only in the footnotes. Her connection to women’s liberation is to have “provided counsel and support to a number of New York feminists in 1967–8 as women’s liberation groups began to form.” Her upstate New York group is not mentioned as part of women’s liberation.

Echols’s interest in the split between white women in the new left and those moving into women’s liberation explains the increased position Carol Hanisch assumes in her account as she was in groups that were central to this debate and in fact wrote about these issues. While Echols notes “Of course, from the early days of the movement there were black women like Florynce Kennedy, Frances Beale, Cellestine Ware, and Patricia Robinson who tried to show the connections between racism and male dominance,” her work only discusses Kennedy in depth as she was part of the New York City feminist scene.

By the time we get to Rosen’s work, which is most similar to Carden’s in that it seeks to give an overview of this history, Hanisch and Freeman take up space as historical actors and as authors, while Robinson appears in text once, the remaining time in footnotes.

3. What happened to the south?

slide 9

As Hayden becomes more prominent from 1975 to 2000, the other southern women become tangential (Jones/Brown) or disappear (Wells). In part this reflect a geographical tilt in historical narratives (slide 9). Despite Evans’ extended argument about the origin of women’s liberation with women in the south, that part of her argument has come in second to the white identity of Hayden and King. Subsequent authors have focused on the east coast, the New York City groups in particular, and more recently the west coast.


A brief example of how we might re-center the history of women’s liberation beyond Hayden and King.

More than simply excluding certain authors and activists from the origins of women’s liberation, the work done by anchoring it with Hayden and King keeps the connections between women’s liberation and civil rights within a safe confines of a gentler sort of language of “race relations” as Ruth Rosen describes it. Hayden and King’s memo rather modestly suggested that parallels existed between the “treatment” of women and of blacks. The subsequent documents highlighted by this digital analysis show that over time those parallels became more specific analogies that were then expressed in outright appropriations of blackness that equated sex and race.

Freeman in The Bitch Manifesto for example argues Bitch functions “like nigger” and appropriates the slogan “black is beautiful” to “bitch is beautiful” The Florida paper’s central point applies the insights of black power to women’s liberation arguing “People don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles” and does so by relying on a rhetorical strategy that assumes race and sex are interchangeable, not analogous. Woman are “some man’s nigger” prominent new left women are described as “exceptional niggers,” and women who are married are the same as blacks who seek integration.

slide 10

While white women’s use of racial epithets is the most jarring example of appropriation, the most widespread was surely the language of slavery. Although master/slave dialectic of Marx was part of the rhetoric of the new left, the linguistic context of slave in these documents was race-based (slide 10).

This left black women arguing on two fronts, against black men in the movement but also implicitly countering white women’s discourses of racial appropriation. Robinson’s group pointedly noted “we were the real niggers in this society — oppressed by whites, male and female, and the black man too.” Their rhetoric and strategy reached back historically to draw careful and precise conclusions about the status of contemporary black women that originated in racialized slavery

While analogies to third world women are discussed and condemned by both Evans and Echols, the appropriations of blackness are not.

slide 11

Feminism so white has been an acknowledged problem for historians of women’s liberation for many decades (slide 11). I have argued that the perpetuation of a stock narrative inevitably roots women’s liberation in white women’s feelings. Despite much fine writing that challenges this standard origins of women’s liberation in Sex and Caste, textbooks, monographs, and popular histories continue to replicate it. Consequently we have a history of women’s liberation anchored in whiteness that lays claim to civil rights as an origin point, but that has not analyzed sufficiently the way analogies shifted to a highly racialized language of appropriation. And the kicker is digital analysis of early participants own writings and anthologies indicates that Sex and Caste is not deserving of the central place it has come to hold. It might have influenced some early participants in women’s liberation, but they themselves did not rely on it as they developed the ideas of the movement, at least not in the early print sources analyzed here.

So lets just stop perpetuating this standard narrative. If you teach US history, stop locating the origins of women’s liberation with Casey Hayden and Mary King. Instead read, cite, and teach Patricia Robinson or early essays like Black Womanhood by Black Panther Judy Hart from July 1967 or Frances Beal’s 1968 draft of the Black Women’s Manifesto or her proposal that same year for a SNCC women’s caucus.

Don’t just talk about white feminists at the big moments of 1968; Flo Kennedy was a prominent figure at the Miss America Protest. Cellestine Ware was a co founder of New York Radical Feminists in 1969 and author of 1970 monograph Womanpower. Seek out Mary Ann Weathers’s essays that appeared in No More Fun And Games, or pieces by Maxine Williams and Myrna Hill members of both Redstockings and the Third World Women’s Alliance who wrote for The Militant.

Telling this history will mean more than a single sentence has to be devoted to to the topic and the account won’t be quite as dramatic or tidy as the one that pivots on Hayden and King, but feminism so white has to end somewhere. Let it begin with you.

Building on earlier digital history projects

Revisiting “A Kind of Memo” from Casey Hayden and Mary King (1965)

Revisiting “A Kind of Memo” from Casey Hayden and Mary King (1965), Women and Social Movements, 21, 1 (March 2017).

The Historian’s Altmetrics: How can we measure the impact of people in the past? LSE Impact Blog, August 13, 2015



Michelle Moravec

Historian doing corpus linguistics, Feminist writing about politics of women's culture, historying digitally #writinginpublic