Civil Rights Movement: From Race to Gender



The Civil Rights Movement is perhaps one of the most prominent and impactful movements in American society. The clear objective of the Civil Rights Movement was to end the inequitable and discriminatory actions that were subjected upon African- American individuals; to completely and utterly wipe out racism that was targeted towards them. African Americans experienced major hardships and strife before and during these events. Some of these atrocities ranged from violent acts of beatings, bombings, lynchings, etc. The spark for the Civil Rights Movement began in 1955 with Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, in segregated Alabama no less. Spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other different leaders another well-known figurehead is Malcolm X, who had an aggressive approach with the Civil Rights Movement. The charges of the protests and boycotts lasted over a decade from 1955-1968; it was undeniable that race inequality was by and large the main issue within this time, alongside the issue of race. However, even though Civil Rights had a foothold on race issue, there were even a handful gender issues that were also deep inside the Civil Rights Movement. 

Unknown-2.jpeg Rosa Parks in Montgomery Bus

The Women’s Rights Movement occurred alongside the Civil Rights Movement, since most of the men led the charge in the protests there was still some inequality among with what the women especially women of color could do. “Gender inequality was a key issue during the 1960’s.Aside from being unequal to women in general; it was especially difficult for black women during this time (Cohen).” The women of color not only had to deal with racism, but sexism as well.



An analysis from Jennifer Holladay about Dr. Martin Luther King being chauvinistic, she quotes from a book by Michael Dyson; “He believed that the wife should stay home and take care of the babies while he’d be out there in the streets (Holladay et. Dyson).” Further in is that the sentiment was not just limited to King, it was also agreed upon by other black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement as well. 

In 1963 in the Women’s movement, the leader of the N.O.W National Organization of Women, Betty Friedman published her book the Feminine Mystique. The book was paramount in the push for Women’s Rights, but the one key thing that it failed to grab attention to was the inclusion of black women, it focused more on the social norms of the white girls in the 1950s and 1960’s society. “White girls were socialized to marry and then live vicariously through their husbands and children (Holladay).” Even though the book perpetuated the system with its provocative content of gender issues it still had no effect within the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. One would add that it was difficult for black women to see any kind of change their communities. 


Unknown-1.jpeg Unknown-5.jpeg  from left to right: Dorothy Height (1912-2010) and Anna Arnold Hedgeman (1899-1990)

However, that sentiment slightly changed that same year with March on Washington. The March was perhaps one of the most pivotal points in the Civil Rights Movement because of the thousands of U.S. citizens of various racial backgrounds gathered at the nation’s capital. (Cohen). Although the March on Washington was geared towards the issue of race the one thing it did do was acknowledge Rosa Parks. Although she was a prominent figure in the spark to the Civil Rights Movement like the rest of the other women activists there is little recognition for them. Two other female figureheads in the Civil Rights Movement were Dorothy Height and Anna Arnold Hedgeman.

These two women led the National Council of Negro Women. According to Height women would ask gender related questions, men often felt that women were sidetracking the movement’s focus on race (Joseph). It is clear enough that race was more important than gender equality as the bottom line; Height, Hedgeman, and other female activists knew just how important the March was, but they also recognized the importance of having a black female representation at the March as well. However, what was to be expected was the reluctance of the black male leaders when to allow women to speak. Since the movement’s inception black men were expected to lead while the black women supported (Joseph). Those expectations were rampant in the ideas of the men in charge as well as doing the clerical type work too. If any of the women were to go against it, they were met with a fate of being ostracized by both black and white men. 

Unknown-3.jpeg   Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (1944- present)

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons another female activist was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for Mississippi. She stated “One of the things we don’t often talk about is sexual harassment that often happened toward the women…There is not going to be sexual harassment of any of the women on this project or any women in this community. (Cohen.” She was one of few women in the Student Committee who fought for women’s rights within the Civil Rights Movement; she is an example of how she was making a change that is quickly overshadowed by what the men are doing.

Despite the popular idea that the men were the ones in charge of leading in the Civil Rights Movement, as it turns out the movement itself in a sense was a deviation of the social norms to begin with. What is more is that roles by both men and women were an example. “Many of the Civil Rights organizations were male- dominated; however some allowed and encouraged female leadership and participation (Joseph).” While some men were not keen to this idea neither were some women, but again those were the very few that had conformed to the preexisting gender norms already. In Tiffany Joseph’s essay Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement, she connects the Social Movement Theory with the Civil Rights Movement by delineating it into three categories: Charismatic Movement, Resource Mobilization, and the Political Movement. 

images.jpeg Dr. Martin Luther King giving his famous “I Have A Dream” speech

In the Charismatic Movement theory it is noted that usually it is charismatic leaders such as Dr. King makes an effort to mobilize the masses and inspire them with his speeches of non-violent protests. Due to the societal gender norms, these leaders were mainly black men in South. The South was not ready for women leaders, black women leaders (Joseph). This fact of the matter gave women the more informal leadership positions; i.e. organizers and the community (Joseph). With that in mind it only served as a way for the women to utilize their ability of care and support of not only the leader but the masses that followed by the essential means. This did not displace the black women from leading; rather it was an alternative in leading by a different capacity. “To exclusively apply charismatic movement theory in Civil Rights Movement would discount the activism of thousands of men and women…the charismatic movement is good to start a movement but not sustain it (Joseph).”

images-1.jpeg button made for the March on Washington

The second theory is the Resource Mobilization. This theory was applied extensively throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Those resources include money, people, organizations, communities, etc. the whole gamut of properties within the movement. Gender roles were applied as well, women would have to raise funds using traditional feminine qualities like bake sales or selling dinners (Joseph). Black men and women had different kinds of networks to get their resources. Most of the time these resources would benefit the men in the grand scheme of things considering their power within, nevertheless women’s part was informally affected. 


The third theory is the Political Process theory. To the Civil Rights Movement the U.S. government is considered the established party member (Joseph). The actions of the Civil Rights Movements like the sit-ins and boycotts caught the attention of the government and in this the Civil Rights had received legislative recognition. “This allowed the movement to receive political leverage in challenging the racist status quo (Joseph).” Ultimately this theory is not great in defining challenging the gender norms rather that women were alongside it. 

0*6S1AHzARs-dR0USk..png Women in the front lines protesting 

In conclusion, gender roles within the Civil Rights Movement were kept at the same level as it were in the society of the 1960’s, but it did not necessarily prevent women from stepping up despite the odds that were stacked against them. Gender roles were still being shifted in a ways throughout the 1960s era; black women in some regards were slowly rising from the typical roles they were expected to maintain. Although it was even harder for black women to achieve the same status, they had to work twice as hard if not even harder to be on equal terms with their black male counterparts and white female counterparts. The 1960s proved to be a time for people of color and women that they could rise to the occasion to get their voices heard. One thing that is true is how the efforts of black women did go unnoticed and overshadowed by black men (Cohen), not to mention the harassment behind it all. Nevertheless, what they fought for during the Civil Rights also made an effort to spur on the questioning of gender equality that was so prevalent; be that as it may their efforts would eventually pay off two-fold.


Sources Cited:

  • Cohen, Jerri  Women during the Civil Rights Movement” Web
  • Holladay, Jennifer “Sexism in the Civil Rights Movement: A Discussion Guide” Web. July 7, 2009. Web
  • Joseph, Tiffany “Freedom Now! Student Work- Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement: 1960-1970. Web


image source(s):

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s