Women and the Civil Rights Movement (by Emily Yang)


In this lesson, students will learn about how gender played a role in the perceptions of freedom within the Civil Rights Movement, analyzing and understanding how different groups were affected by these perceptions.


The activities in this lesson will help students understand women’s roles within the Civil Rights Movement. The lesson will ask students to think analytically as they read and analyze primary source documents and find meaning within them. Moreover, students will engage empathically with the documents through a role-play activity. Next, students will gain experience and skill in working with others, as they discuss and share within groups the outcomes of their role-play experiences. They will then gain public speaking skills by presenting their conclusions from the group discussions to the class. Overall, using their prior knowledge on the Civil Rights Movement and the information within this lesson plan (see “Introduction”) as context, students will discover some of the complexities of the idea of “freedom” within the Civil Rights Movement, and that there is more to history than the possibly idealized version they have learned of so far. This lesson plan should take either one or two class periods, depending on the abilities of the students.


Different members of the organizations of the Civil Rights Movement, while all fighting for rights for black Americans, still had very different definitions of “freedom,” largely split along gendered lines.


  1. How did the men in Civil Rights organizations like SNCC view and treat women?
  2. What were the differences between male and female views of the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement?
  3. How did both white and black female participation in the movement affect the dynamics of groups like SNCC?
  4. How were the chains of patriarchy similar or different to the chains of racism during the movement?


  • Male chauvinism: the beliefs and attitudes of men who think that women are inferior to men and do not deserve equal treatment
  • Patriarchy: a social system governed by men, in which men have authority over women and children
  • Paternalism: the policy or practice of people in positions of authority restricting the liberty or autonomy of subordinates for the subordinates’ supposed benefit
  • Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA): a coalition of women of color working toward abolishing racism, imperialism, and sexism that grew out of SNCC’s Black Women’s Liberation Committee


During the Civil Rights Movement, equal treatment toward all members involved was often overlooked in the push for racial equality. In particular, women, both black and white, were barred from all of the benefits that were being fought for within the movement.

First, it is important to recognize the stereotypes placed upon women during the Civil Rights Era that affected how others treated them. To mainstream America, white women were pure, and this purity was to be maintained by a lack of association with black men.[1] Sexual relationships between white females and black males were especially forbidden.[2] Meanwhile, black women were considered seductive and dirty.[3] In order to gain respect from American society, black women needed to maintain a façade of extreme propriety. For example, Rosa Parks had her past as a defiant race activist erased so that she could serve as the figurehead for the Montgomery bus boycott.[4]

Black women also faced pressures from stereotypes when they tried to take on leadership positions. In particular, they were often stereotyped as strong and castrating; historically, black women have been barred from positions of leadership so as not to threaten the masculinity of black men.[5] As a result, black female leadership potential was underutilized, as many felt that “males can rise only to the degree that black women are held down.”[6] Black women also found themselves stereotyped as the black mammy, expected to take on responsibilities outside of their formal roles by comforting and counseling others and not given the opportunity to lead.[7]

During the Civil Rights Movement, many women were excluded from leadership and activism when many in the movement began to hold the “revolutionary objective of reclaiming ‘black manhood.’”[8] Some men (and some women) in the movement even felt that focusing on issues related to women would be a distraction from the main goal of black liberation.[9] Moreover, the majority of the black females who were able to gain prominence in the movement were connected to men as the “lovers or partners of black male revolutionaries or prison intellectuals.”[10] As a result, black women were rarely considered political allies with black men but rather consorts, unable to gain important positions within the movement without the presence of a black man beside them. Black women were even criticized for “robbing the brother of his manhood, as if [they] were the oppressor.”[11]

Even one of the most celebrated heroes of the movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., was guilty of being a male chauvinist. First, he resisted allowing women to take on leadership positions within his own organizations.[12] Next, he failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of women that worked for the same causes as he did, finding it unnecessary to become allies with radical women.[13] Moreover, he did not see it fit for women to participate in activities other than household and childrearing duties, believing that it was right for his wife to stay at home while he fought for civil rights.[14] Placing the bonds of patriarchy upon the women he encountered, King did not factor in the importance of women into his struggle for civil rights.

While women were often oppressed within the groups they joined, they were not complacent with their positions of inferiority. For example, what started out as the Black Women’s Liberation Committee , a women’s caucus within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, evolved over time into the Third World Women’s Alliance, a group that believed that “the different forms of oppression in the lives of black women (and other women of color) could not be separated.”[15] However, it is important to note that, while women struggled to gain their rights, they did not all face the same issues. Women of color often struggled to survive as a result of the economic inequities they faced, whereas white women merely sought reform over the gender roles placed upon them.[16]

Contrary to the idealized, mainstream version of the Civil Rights Movement, gender played a large role in how the members of the movement were treated. Splits along racial lines between women further disrupted how different women were seen and treated throughout that era.



In the beginning of the class period, tell students that the topic for the class will be “Women and the Civil Rights Movement.” Project the glossary words and definitions onto a screen or hand them out to the students, and have the students briefly discuss with partners what they predict the relation between the glossary words and what they have previously learned about the Civil Rights Movement will be.

Next, have students learn the material covered in the “Introduction” section of this lesson plan. This can be done with either a short lecture or having the students simply read the paragraphs within that section, depending on the teacher’s preference. Note that it is crucial for students to receive this contextual information to be able to understand the next parts of the lesson.

Have the students read the two primary sources, starting with “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Position Paper: Women in the Movement” and following with “Sex and Caste.” Be sure not to rush students, as it may be surprising for students to learn about these new aspects of the movement.

Students should then be asked to write a journal entry as though they were black women working in SNCC. Guide them through this process by asking them the following questions beforehand (or projecting the questions onto a screen as they write): What kinds of problems do they face as women in SNCC? How do they feel about the way they are treated because of their gender? How do they feel about working with white women? How do they compare sexism to racism? What are their goals as members of SNCC? How do they define freedom? They should answer these questions in their journal entry using an analysis of the primary source documents, as well as contextual information they were presented through the “Introduction” section or prior knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ask students to write a second journal entry as though they were black men working in SNCC. Guide them through this process by asking them more questions: How do they treat women in SNCC? Why do they treat women as such? What do they think when they hear complaints about “women’s issues”? What struggles do they find most important? What are they working toward as a member of SNCC? How do they define freedom? Once again, the questions should be answered by analyzing the primary source documents and contextual information they have learned.

Once the students have completed their journal entries, have them get into groups of 3-5, separating groups by gender. Within these groups, students should go around in a circle and share the main points of their first journal entry, and then their second entry. After the sharing process is complete, students should have a collaborative discussion within their groups, comparing and contrasting how black females and black males within the Civil Rights Movement felt. The main points the students find during their discussions should be recorded on a poster.

Once the small group discussions are complete, have the class come back together as a whole. Ask the students to take note if there are differences between what the male and female student groups will say. Then, have each group present their posters, sharing the main points that they learned from each other while talking in groups.

Upon closing the class, remind the students that, even though they have learned that gender barred women from attaining all of the freedoms that were fought for during the Civil Rights Movement, the work that groups like SNCC did was still valuable and helped push society toward racial equality.


Crawford, Vicki L., Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Gore, Dayo F., Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard. Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Holsaert, Faith S. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Rose, La Frances. The Black Woman. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980.

Ward, Stephen. “The Third World Women’s Alliance: Black Feminist Radicalism and Black Power Politics,” in The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, Peniel E. Joseph, ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.


  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
  • Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

[1] Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] Rhetaugh Graves Dumas, “Dilemmas of Black Females in Leadership,” in The Black Woman, La Frances Rodgers-Rose, ed. (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980), 204.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 207.

[8] Stephen Ward, “The Third World Women’s Alliance: Black Feminist Radicalism and Black Power Politics,” in The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, Peniel E. Joseph, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 124.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] Joy James, “Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency,” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 140.

[11] Ibid., 154.

[12] Dyson, Michael Eric, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free Press, 2000), 200.

[13] Ibid., 208.

[14] Ibid., 213.

[15] Ward, “The Third World Women’s Alliance,” 135.

[16] Ibid., 135-136.

3 thoughts on “Women and the Civil Rights Movement (by Emily Yang)

  1. Despite the fact that women were on the front lines of the 1960s civil rights movement, the media continued to portray women as vapid housewives preoccupied with chasing dirt and debating the well worn topic of “ring around the collar”. For an illustrated look at this, visit http://wp.me/p2qifI-1Dn

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