Revisiting "A Kind of Memo" from Casey Hayden and Mary King (1965)

Documents selected by
Michelle Moravec
Rosemont College
March 2017


In November of 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white women active in the southern freedom movement, mailed "A Kind of Memo" to a circle of friends and colleagues. "A Kind of Memo" focused on problems of women in the movement--in their work, in personal relationships, and institutionally--that were created by what they called a "sex and caste" system. The piece was originally drafted by Hayden and then shared with King. Casey Hayden has pointed to the Memo as her "last action as movement activist."[1] A year after the end of her participation in the Mississippi "Freedom Summer" as a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hayden found herself in the fall of 1965 in a difficult situation. Her work in Chicago the previous summer had left her all too aware that "whites organizing whites" was more complicated than simply taking SNCC strategies North. And her efforts at organizing women inside a project sponsored by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were buffeted by gendered conflicts in the community and the project.[2] Yet, changes in SNCC made it difficult to consider returning to the South.[3]

Although Hayden and King left the movement after writing "A Kind of Memo," it quickly passed from hand to hand in mimeographed form. In 1979, historian Sara Evans credited the document with inspiring feminist ferment in the New Left; the document entered historical narratives as the bridge that connected civil rights and women's liberation.[4] Yet, despite the Memo's iconic status, its widely reprinted version is not the original. The only version heretofore known to scholars and students of American feminism is an edited version published by Liberation, a magazine of the War Resisters League, in April of 1966. This essay and the accompanying original version of the Memo shed new light on that iconic moment in the history of American feminism.

In the summer of 2015, anticipating the 50th anniversary of "A Kind of Memo," I began searching for an original copy of the document. Casey Hayden had lost all her personal papers in a fire years ago. I searched the digitized papers and finding aid for Mary King's papers in the Wisconsin Historical Society to no avail. Amanda Strauss at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and Kelly Wooten at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture at Duke University looked in likely places, without success. However, in May of 2016, Wooten sent a follow-up email that prompted me to search the web again for an original copy. To my great delight, a listing appeared in the finding aid for Judy Richardson's papers at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Duke University. Wooten scanned the contents of a folder, promisingly labeled "'A kind of memo' from Casey Hayden, Mary King, 1965" and emailed them to me.

As I scrolled down the first page of that document and saw the list of recipients, I immediately knew that the document was at the very least a photocopy of the original 1965 letter. The archived document is four pages long, typed, double spaced, and printed on blue paper, which is how Casey Hayden recalls distributing it. Since Richardson is listed as a recipient, it seems highly likely that this is one of the original copies mailed by the authors.[5]

Using Juxta Commons, a digital collation tool, I compared the archival copy with the published Liberation version in order to pinpoint differences between the two versions. Based on this analysis, I conclude that alterations in the published version, which I will call "Sex and Caste," have affected the dominant historical interpretation of the audience, argument, and purpose of the original, here referred to as "A Kind of Memo." Precisely who made these changes is not clear. Wendy Chmielewski of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection kindly consulted the papers of the War Resisters League, sponsor of Liberation, and the papers of its editor, David McReynolds, at the time of the Memo's publication. However, the archives cover the period only to 1960.[6] Neither editorial papers nor correspondence there revealed precisely who made or authorized the changes.

The original Memo's list of recipients, omitted from the published version, indicate that the document was meant to be read by a small group of SNCC insiders. A closing section, also omitted from the published version, illuminates the authors' intentions to promote discussion of women's issues within the freedom movement. Changes made in the published version have led to an interpretation of "Sex and Caste" as an attack on SNCC by white women who wanted more power for themselves or who sought to organize women separately. That reading is not supported by the original version.

Audience

"Sex and Caste" appeared in Liberation with a note that the document had been "sent to women in the peace and freedom movement." Close inspection of the thirty-two women listed as recipients on "A Kind of Memo" reveals that they were overwhelmingly women with a shared history in the freedom movement. Sixteen black women, twelve white women, and one Latina all had strong ties to SNCC. Only three white women among the addressees were active in SDS and ERAP.[7] Thus "a Kind of Memo" should be understood not as a document circulated to women active in a broad range of radical movements of the mid-1960s, but as an internal communication meant to be read primarily by women with histories in SNCC with the aim of spurring creative change within the freedom movement itself.

The Memo in this regard is similar to documents Hayden and King had authored in prior years. In the fall of 1964, in response to a request from SNCC chairman Jim Forman that staff members submit position papers for discussion at a retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, Hayden, wrote a "Memorandum on Structure." (Document 45: [Casey Hayden (aka Sandra Cason)], "Memorandum on Structure," November 1964) At that same meeting, King offered a Working Paper on communication strategy. (Document 47: Mary King, Position Paper #28, "Communications Section," November 1964) Twenty-six other papers were submitted for discussion, including an anonymous entry on the position of women in SNCC written by Elaine DeLott Baker, Casey Hayden, Mary King and Emmie Schraeder Adams. (Document 43: (name withheld by request), Position Paper #24, (women in the movement), November 1964) When mailing their Memo, Hayden and King could therefore reasonably expect that the recipients would recognize the document for what it was, a written communication typical of the way that SNCC members proposed strategies, policies, or other ideas for consideration by other members.

Because the recipients were overwhelmingly SNCC insiders, they would have also understood the broader context in which the Memo was written. By the fall of 1965, SNCC had experienced a crisis provoked by the influx of new members during and after Freedom Summer, by disillusionment over the refusal of the Democratic National Committee to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and by the first stirrings of Black power. Hayden and King, long-time participants in a social movement, addressed other participants in that movement to discuss strategies, to offer analysis, and to provoke debate about what moves should come next--in light of the current crisis.

Argument

Both the published version, "Sex and Caste," and the original mailed document, "A Kind of Memo," contain six main points

Two sections of the published version, "Sex and caste" and "Women and the problems of work," contain the most significant deviations from the original.

Table 1. Comparison of the "sex and caste" section in the original Memo and in the published version. Highlighting indicates where the published version differs from the original.

"A kind of memo:"
----"Sex and caste: There
seems to be many parallels
that can be drawn between
treatment of negroes and
treatment of women. Women
we've talked with often find
themselves within a kind of
common-law caste system that
operates, sometimes subtly,
placing them in a position of
inequality to men in work and
personal situations. . . .
"Sex and caste"
Sex and caste: There seem to be
many parallels that can be
drawn between treatment of
Negroes and treatment of
women in our society as a
whole. But in particular
,
women we've talked to who
work in the movement seem to
be caught up in
a common-law
caste system that operates,
sometimes
subtly, forcing them to work
around or outside hierarchical
structures of power which may
exclude them. Women seem to
be placed
in the same position
of assumed
subordination
in personal
situations too. It is a caste
system which, at its worst, uses
and exploits women
.

Thus, the published version elaborates on the meaning of a "sex and caste" system. Casey Hayden believes that the new title of the document in its published form, "Sex and Caste," was bestowed by David McReynolds, the editor of Liberation. That title emphasizes what in the original was only the first of six points. Editorial changes in the section increased its length by twenty-two percent.[8] The additions (highlighted above) expanded on the concept of women's caste subordination. Changes included the insertion of women's "assumed subordination," and the depiction of women as both used and exploited. Women are described as "caught up" and "forced to work around" systems that "exclude them." The overall effect of these changes is to increase the authors' emphasis on women's oppression and the subordination of women inside the movement.

Table 2. Comparison of "women and the problems of work" section in the original Memo and the published version. Highlighting indicates where the published version differs from the original.

"A kind of memo"
The caste system perspective
dictates the roles assigned to
women in the movement and
certainly even more to women
outside the movement. Within
the movement, questions arise
in situations ranging from
relationships of women
organizers to men in the
community, to who cleans the
freedom house, to who holds
leadership positions and acts
as spokesman for groups.
Other problems arise between
women with varying degrees
of awareness of themselves as
lower caste or who see
themselves as needing less
control of their work than
other women, and there are
problems with relationships
between white women and
black women.
"Sex and Caste"
The caste system perspective
dictates the roles assigned to
women in the movement, and
certainly even more to women
outside the movement. Within
the movement, questions arise
in situations ranging from
relationships of women
organizers to men in the
community, to who cleans the
freedom house, to who holds
leadership positions, to who
does secretarial work
,
and who acts as spokesman for
groups. Other problems arise
between women with varying
degrees of awareness of
themselves as being as capable
as men but held back from full
participation
, or between
women
who see themselves as
needing more control of their
work than other
women demand. And there are
problems with relationships
between white women and
black women.

Additions expanded this section of the published version by fifteen percent. The depiction of women as "being as capable as men but held back from full participation" strengthens the implication that inequality between the sexes is the key problem about women's work and about women's power in the movement, whereas the wording of the original gave relatively more weight to the complexity of "other problems."

Intent of the Memo

A closing section, omitted completely in the published version, makes clear that Hayden and King had more modest aims in mind for their Memo than would eventually be attributed by historians to the document. They wanted to generate enough writing about the problems raised in the Memo to assemble sufficient materials for a subsequent publication. Hayden and King also floated the idea of a potential meeting for further face-to-face discussions of the issues within the larger context of their radical activity. Although both Hayden and King left the movement almost immediately after sending out the Memo, one such a meeting was held by women who took the Memo in new directions.[9] Women in SDS, including two of the original recipients of the Memo, met at the December 1965 SDS "rethinking conference" held at the University of Illinois. According to Sara Evans in Personal Politics, the Memo was included in the conference packet, providing "the final impetus" for organizing a "women's workshop."[10] Evans credits this moment as "the real embryo of the new feminist revolt."[11]

The original document read by women at that SDS conference, was positioned as inspiring the second wave of feminism. Yet the published version is the one scholars have consulted in subsequent decades as they wrote histories of the women's liberation movement. Now that the original is available, it can be understood differently from the published version. Conclusions drawn about Hayden and King's motivations should be reassessed in light of the recipients to whom the memo was sent and the authors' explanation of what they hoped to achieve. The original document aimed to discuss with women, largely in SNCC, how they might come together to find ways to continue to work in and strengthen the freedom movement. Women's oppression, status, and power were important issues as they related to the ability of women to achieve this goal. While some scholars have clearly understood Hayden and King's priorities, more than a few have read "Sex and Caste" as an attack on SNCC or as a call for women to organize on their own. Evans's book, which is a complex discussion of women's participation in the civil rights movement and the New Left, has frequently been reduced to a single message--that a movement to end sexism arose from women's experiences of sexism within other social movements. That conclusion has been refuted by most of the female participants in the freedom movement; now the original Memo allows us to understand that the critique of sexism in the freedom movement arose from women's engagement in that movement.

__________________________

Endnotes

1. Casey Hayden, "Only Love Is Radical," in Inspiring Participatory Democracy: Student Movements from Port Huron to Today, ed. Tom Hayden (New York: Routledge, 2015), 65.
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2. Casey Hayden, "Organizing Chicago's Southern Whites," SDS Bulletin vol. 4, no. 2, (1965), forum 5-forum 9, digitized scan from Calisphere website, accessed at http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt4w1003tt.
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3. At an April 1965 SNCC executive committee retreat, Hayden was labeled a "floater," a derisive term for staff members who were viewed as too independent from the leadership structure, although Stokely Carmichael defended Hayden. Executive Committee Meeting, Holly Springs, Mississippi, April 12-14 1965, 11. Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, accessed at http://www.crmvet.org/docs/6504_sncc_excom_min.pdf. In the fall of 1965, Hayden attended her last meetings for SNCC. Notes also reflect that when Hayden challenged SNCC chairman Jim Forman about the "imbalance of power in SNCC" specifically that in order for it to be "radically democratic" he needed to step down, he responded with a statement about the movement needing to be "controlled, dominated, and led by black people." [Mary E. King, Notes; SNCC meeting; Fall, 1965, p. 78. Mary E. King papers, 1962-1999; Archives Main Stacks, Z: Accessions M82-445, Box 3, Folder 2, Freedom Summer Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed on the internet at http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/26004.
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4. Sara Margaret Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
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5. Casey Hayden, email, 2 February, 2014. Women, SNCC, and Stokely An Email Dialog, 2013-14. Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, accessed at http://www.crmvet.org/disc/women2.htm.

Casey Hayden engaged in a generous correspondence with me as I researched the Memo. Her interpretation is different than mine and I want to acknowledge that by including her words here: "I do want to be clear, again, however, that my rationale for writing this memo was to strengthen women inside the radical movements of which we were a part. It was an organizing document, organizing by first eliciting the conversations we'd had before, and building on that. It was occasioned by the difficulty of organizing women inside the SDS project, which was aimed at men who were oppressing the women I was organizing. I didn't know how to raise this issue inside the project at the time. The potential creative alternatives referred to in that last line meant within our movement lives, not in the larger culture directly, not yet. Note here that I saw these women's issues as a way of analyzing and understanding and changing the larger culture, not as a stand alone project for the sake of women's entering the current system in a stronger place. I still hold this view. Mary and I both came from the early SNCC nonviolent era. Mary was more interested in the Women's Movement than I, but went on to make her career in nonviolence, writing and teaching internationally on nonviolence as social change strategy. I remained a devotee of the nonviolence as a way of life, inherent in various mystical and social change paths, especially those devoted to the outcast and the poor, and continued to work as an organizer for the common good, true to the Movement as I had experienced and understood it." Casey Hayden, email message to author, October 18, 2016.
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6. Wendy Chmielewski, email to the author, June 1, 2016.
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7. I consider the crucial, but often ignored, impact of Hayden's experiences in ERAP immediately prior to writing the memo in "Sex and Caste" at 50, http://scalar.usc.edu/works/sex-and-caste-at-50/index.
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8. Casey Hayden, email to the author, October 15, 2015.
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9. King followed her husband to Stanford where he entered gradate school, while Hayden re-united with some of the women from the Tougaloo Literacy House and then followed the path of what became known as the counterculture.
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10. Evans, Personal Politics, 161.
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11. Evans, Personal Politics, 157.
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Copyright 2017, Michelle Moravec

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