White female Southern States Activists in the American Civil Rights Movement of 1950s and 1960s

Clara Sophie Höhn (Dissertation)
Email: clara-sophie.hoehn@philhist.uni-augsburg.de



Since the 1990s, research literature on the American civil rights movement has increasingly included gender-related topics. Nevertheless, historiography and collective memory are still often dominated by triumphant, predominantly male leaders. Especially the anti-racist activism of white women and women from the southern states of the United States has so far been addressed by only a few scientists. There is a long tradition of anti-racist engagement of white women in the Southern States from the 1830s until today. The few works that exist on this topic focus primarily on the engagement of white activists who were active in the 19th century. or early 20s. They were born in the 19th century and were politically active.


There are, however, numerous other white Southerners who as young women gained their first political experiences in the 1950s and 1960s and undauntedly and vehemently stood up for the rights of their black fellow citizens. These include Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Sue Thrasher and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. Little attention has been paid to the role and experiences of these women, and their quite remarkable contribution to the success of the civil rights movement has remained largely unknown to the public.


The dissertation should be a contribution to closing this research gap. The overarching questions are: how can women as white female activists be located in a civil rights movement primarily dominated by black comrades-in-arms? What internal and external conflicts caused her presence as white women in the civil rights movement? What roles did they take on, what influence did they exert on events and what experiences made in this context had a lasting effect on their own lives?


What is genuinely new about this dissertation, apart from its concentration on a certain cohort of white Southern women born after 1940, is the analytical approach and methodology of the study. The work will increasingly focus on the intersectionality of race, whiteness, gender, class and culture. An aspect that was neglected in previous investigations. Due to the close interaction of the above-mentioned constructions of difference, which was more closely examined in the dissertation, white women took a separate position in the ideology of the Jim Crow System, which emphasized their activism. The glorified image of her white femininity was long considered the most important symbol of white racist rule, which was violently enforced for centuries. As a result, white activists broke deep-rooted traditions and taboos with their political commitment, on which the foundations of the social and legal norms of the southern states were based. This insight is essential in order to be able to correctly assess the commitment of white women in the civil rights movement. In addition, the project will work intensively with Belinda Robnett's concept of bridge leadership and, by juxtaposing the testimonies of black and white activists, will analyze developments and trends within the civil rights movement that have so far only been known from one-sided perspectives.


In conclusion, the dissertation presented here intends to visibly locate women in the American civil rights movement, contrary to the marginal position of white activists articulated in current historiography. Furthermore, the work aims to emphasize the great methodological-analytical potential of intersectionality for historical studies in general and the historiography of social movements in particular.