Beyond the Pale – White Southern Female Activists and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968

Clara-Sophie Höhn (Dissertation)





Despite the significant merits of civil rights scholarship, the observation prevails that none of the renowned studies on or memoirs of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) mentioned the participation or influence that White Southern female activists had in its entirety. Instead, if acknowledged, it is usually as wives or girlfriends of prominent male activists as well as bystanders without any considerable influence on historical events. Most early social movement scholarship focused exclusively on great men and elites as movement leaders. This history of the CRM is phrased as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative of the power of democracy and overcoming racism. Since the 1990s, an increasing number of studies have highlighted that especially Black women have played an essential and even groundbreaking role in the social movement, contributing to a more diverse approach to one of the most influential social movements of the 20th century.

Notwithstanding, scholars have paid hardly any attention to White Southern female activism, especially by women born around 1940 who came of age during the height of the CRM in the 1960s. This gap in historiography is astonishing if one considers that contrary to popular perceptions, most early White female supporters of racial equality were White Southern women. Furthermore, in the racial ideology of the South, the glorified notion of White womanhood occupied a peculiar position. At the center of the so-called Southern way of life stood the protection of White women from an alleged imminent danger of Black men threatening their purity and, thereby, the racial integrity of the White South. Therefore, White Southern female activists’ commitment to racial equality challenged deeply rooted traditions on which the Southern states based the foundations of their social and legal norms.

In my dissertation, I concentrate on a cohort of eleven White women with diverse social and religious backgrounds who fought segregation at the height of the CRM from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. The women were born in the South or lived there from early childhood; thus, they internalized the Southern etiquette of race relations, and their life experiences were shaped by segregation. Throughout the first part of my study, I trace the protagonists’ political development, how they gradually broke away from the racist teachings of their parents or extended family, and came to the consequential momentary realization about the inherent wrongs of segregation. Secondly, I focus on the various manners the women chose to assist African Americans in their struggle against White supremacy. Most of them decided to work behind the limelight to not endanger Black activists with their mere presence. As institutional organizers and bridge builders, they established and maintained valuable connections to other activists and organizations, adherents of civil rights, national news agencies, and government officials. Only a few of the study’s protagonists regularly participated in nonviolent direct action campaigns. In these instances, the activists utilized their embodiment of the glorified notion of White womanhood to challenge the Southern racial ideology. Finally, I study the reactions of the activists’ families, the general White public, and law enforcement to the women’s involvement in the CRM. Their relationship with activists of Color, the rising frustration among civil rights activists in the mid-1960s due to the stagnating process of the CRM, and the eventual breakdown of alliances accompanying the rising Black Power Movement conclude my dissertation.

My work draws on a variety of different primary sources, including organizational records, contemporary publications, newspaper articles, ego documents, and oral history interviews. The methodology draws on approaches from women’s and gender history and social movements studies such as intersectionality, Dough McAdam and Becky Thompson’s considerations of high-risk and low-risk activism, as well as Belinda Robnett and Wesley Hogan’s reflections of alternative and unconventional leadership positions within social movements.

Thus, my Ph.D. dissertation contributes to closing a research gap by examining the marginalized role of White Southern women in the CRM and analyzing their diverse participation in the struggle to overthrow the Jim Crow system.