Personal Politics

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Sara Evans. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. xii. 275 pp. $3.95, ISBN 0-394-74228-1.

Contents

Summary

Sara Evans’ Personal Politics examines how women’s experiences in the civil rights movement and new left politics on college campuses led to a fresh conceptualization of their identity as women and a realization of inequality. Building on the skills they learned as activists in the American south and organizers on college campuses nationwide, the young women who built the liberation movement brought awareness, radical politics, and personal networks together to create the ‘women’s movement.’ In particular, women were reacting against the sexism so ingrained in even progressive social movements and ideologies that relegated them to the same jobs they would face outside of the realm of social activism—teaching, keeping house, and clerical duties. Women’s liberation organizers recognized a similar oppression of civil rights for African Americans and sought to apply parallel methods of organization to create momentum and awareness for themselves.

Evans argues that feminism of the 1960s and 1970s can only be understood within the context of the 1950s, when suburbia became “a female ghetto” (8) and the daughters of those suburban housewives saw that despite low pay and low prestige, women often managed to hold down jobs in addition to family care. This multi-generational view explains the impetus for women to join fully in the civil rights movement and combine those experiences with an awareness of women’s complicated place within American society.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 marked the resurgence of idealism and interest in social change. Through work in the south in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Commission (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), southern white “young women stripped away the social supports of white society…[and] developed a sense of self that enabled them to recognize the enemy within as well—the image of the ‘southern lady’” (43) and had to redefine their identity as women. The 1964 ‘summer of freedom’ marked the high point of northern white student involvement in the civil rights movement which brought both the awareness that women’s work was making a difference in the movement as well as the reality that even within the movement the “social role of housewife had followed them even as they transcended many of their former expectations” (76).

Following the ‘summer of freedom’ and the tensions it revealed—sex discrimination, interracial relationships, the meaning and appearance of femininity—the rise of the black power movement further fragmented growing organizations like SNCC. In 1965 two leading SNCC organizers, Mary King and Casey Hayden, wrote what they described as a “kind of memo” directed to women working with freedom movements that “set the precedence of contrasting the movement’s egalitarian ideas with the replication of sex roles within it” (99) thereby building an awareness of women’s rights outside of the black civil rights movements that would soon tie into the new left agenda forming on college campuses. Within the campus new left movements, particularly the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which Evans argues “represented the essence of the intellectual mode of the early new left and because it subsequently created the conditions for feminist revolt” (109), offered women a similar experience as in the civil rights movement. In SDS, women were also necessary for organizational success, but being forced into lesser roles and being denied credit and leadership.

By 1965, Evans argues that the women’s liberation movement began to realize its potential as small networks of women built a massive constituency around the issue. Their “feminism was nurtured in the contradictions that the intensification of sexual oppression occurred in the same places where women found new strength, new potential, and new self-confidence” (154). Further, by 1965 the counterculture that rejected middle-class mores and began to bring the birth control pill into mainstream culture solidified the foundation of women’s liberation. Throughout the late 1960s, women built a network in which to share their personal experiences to spread the word of women’s oppression and build a movement for their own rights, much like the civil rights and new left movements that had already shaped their awareness.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Overall, Personal Politics compacts a great deal of analysis into a completely accessible written and sized monograph. The primary weakness, though, is its introduction. While it sets the stage chronologically—by describing the housewife culture of 1950s suburbia and suggesting that those daughters saw a conflicted view of that feminine ideal—Evans fails to assert her thesis strongly enough. As a result, the whole book feels like it is building up to an argument rather than making one. As is made clear in the conclusion, Evans does show that women’s liberation depended on five preconditions for organization as learned through the civil rights and new left movements: social spaces that allow women to develop an independent sense of worth, female role models, an ideology that explains oppression and provides a vision for revolt and resolution, the cultivation of a newfound sense of self, and a network to spread that ideology (219-220). However, it would have been better to state these conditions at the beginning so the reader could connect them and understand their larger role.

Evans’ narrow focus on middle-class activists between 1960 and 1964, with some summary of the importance of the 1950s ‘feminine mystique’ and outcomes of women’s liberation into the 1970s, has distinct advantages for building her argument. It allows her to delve into more in-depth analysis of the movement’s organizations, personalities, issues, and documents. At the same time, however, it prompts Evans to give particular events more credit than they might merit.

Finally, of course, is the issue of class. Evans’ view of civil rights, new left, and women’s liberation movements are told from the experience of middle to upper class college educated women, primarily from elite institutions such as Columbia, Chicago, and Berkeley. Therefore, readers of Personal Politics must be aware that they are only reading one narrow piece of a very complex story of cultural, political, and intellectual history.


Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Personal Politics provides a clear analysis of both the civil rights movement and the emerging women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s from the perspective of middle and upper class, college educated women. Sara Evans uses the history of women’s movements and women’s roles to provide a background for her discussion. Historically, women’s movements in the United States have “piggybacked” onto issues involving civil rights. The first wave of feminism during the 1830s and 1840s was part of the larger abolitionist movement and the second wave of feminism during the 1960s was attached to the Civil Rights Movement. Both waves of the women’s movement were initiated by middle and upper class white women.

In 1955, Adalai Stevenson “exhorted Smith College graduates to remember that marriage and motherhood gave them a unique political duty” (5). Stevenson’s reminder sounds remarkably like a revitalization of the symbolic Republican Mother of the early republic! The Republican Mother and the cultural symbol of southern, “white womanhood” reminded women of their proper place in society which yielded no practical or political power. Evans constantly reiterates societal expectations which viewed women primarily as wives, mothers, cooks, and housekeepers, even within the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Activist women mentioned in the book generally accepted the societal expectations, especially in the early years of the movement, even when they disagreed with those expectations.

A major drawback is the lack of a clear thesis statement. Although Evans provides a lot of information regarding the people, places, events, documents and issues within both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, she seems to be building an argument rather than proving a thesis--Blclark 00:34, 6 October 2008 (UTC)

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