Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Denied but Empowered: Women Respond to Marginalization at the March on Washington

I had no idea that the founding of the National Organization for Women grew from the immediate and strategic response of women civil rights leaders to the marginalization of women during the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs.  

Anna Hedgeman (who'd directed a civil rights campaign for March organizer A. Phillip Randolph) vociferously advocated for women to be included as speakers during the march - and was denied. Here's an excerpt from Hedgeman's letter to Randolph included in an article about women's involvement with the March from the Anna Julia Cooper Project:

...she prepared a letter to Randolph that she read aloud at the final meeting of the Committee on August 16, 1963. Her letter begins:

“In light of the role of the Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of the Negro man in this culture, it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.”

Anna Hedgeman

In the letter, she proposes that Randolph’s proposed remarks on women be delivered by a woman, suggesting Myrlie Evers and Diane Nash as possible speakers.

While no woman ended up giving a speech, her advocacy for women’s inclusion led to Daisy Bates being allowed to provide brief remarks, in which she gave awards to five other black women in the movement and made a pledge “to the women of America” to be active in fighting for civil rights and equality. It also resulted in Rosa Parks being presented onstage, “almost casually,” Hedgeman notes, and the inclusion of women on the dais.

Apparently the night after the march, Hedgeman, Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women) and other women held a meeting that led to a series of events resulting in founding of the National Organization for Women. More insight from an interview that journalist Gwen Ifill conducted recently with historian William Jones: 

Gwen Ifill: Before she died, I interviewed Dorothy Height about that day. And she writes about it in her book.
And it became clear that women were marginalized on that stage and didn't even speak at the March. How did that happen? Women were certainly the foot soldiers of the movement.
William Jones: That's right. And they were really central to organizing the March and organizing all of the demonstrations of the civil rights movement.
A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and other leaders believed that women shouldn't be in positions of -- as spokespeople of the March.
Gwen IfillIt was that -- it was that up-front?
William JonesThey were very -- well, they were pretty forward about it.
There's an interesting -- a really interesting story is that Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was the only woman on the organizing committee of the March and who had worked very closely with A. Philip Randolph since the 1930s, she went to Randolph and she said, you know, you really need to invite a woman to be in the official leadership of the March.
And she suggested Dorothy Height. And A. Philip Randolph didn't answer her, but several weeks later, he went -- they went to a meeting, and Anna Hedgeman found that she was still the only woman in the leadership of the March, and she really -- she wrote a very angry letter to Randolph protesting this.
Dorothy Height (far right)

Some people suggested actually picketing Randolph when he was preparing for the March. And Hedgeman and Dorothy Height and other women decided to not make an issue of it right at the March. But then, the night after the March, they actually called a meeting at the national headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, which was the organization that Dorothy Height headed.
And at that meeting, they actually planned a series of meetings that, as I explain in the book, actually culminated in the formation of the National Organization of Women. And it really became a catalyzing moment in the rebirth of a feminist movement in the United States.
Gwen IfillAnd women of color were behind it, which is -- gets lost.
William JonesThey were at the center of this, yes.
Gwen IfillWhich gets so lost.
Daisy Bates

One of the best things about all of the media coverage surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is the increased visibility of little known stories surrounding the historic event that led to specific and long term impact. This level of reporting makes me so proud to be a journalist. I've learned a great deal and am continuously appreciative of those who are telling these stories. Even more important, I am forever indebted to those who made brave sacrifices for me to continue the work they started. 

Here are a few articles that will provide you with a great deal of information on the role of women during the march as well as those who made contributions to the progress of civil rights. 

Unsung SHE-roes: The Top 8 Female Civil Rights Activists You Should Get to Know (YWCA)

50 Years Ago, March on Washington Had More Radical Roots Than Remembered Today (PBS NewsHour)

While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers' (NPR) 

The ERA and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington (Feminism 2.0)

Women of the March on Washington Slide Show (

When You Remember the March on Washington, Remember Anna Hedgeman (Anna Julia Cooper Project)

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