African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement Discussion Response

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  • Robnett argues that African-American women often served as “bridge leaders” in the CRM. In your own words, explain what she means by “bridge leader.” How is “bridge leadership” different from the way that leaders had typically been understood by social movement scholars? What was the role of women “bridge leaders” in the CRM—what did they do?

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African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization Author(s): Belinda Robnett Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 101, No. 6 (May, 1996), pp. 1661-1693 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 29-12-2018 16:32 UTC JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to American Journal of Sociology This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization1 Belinda Robnett University of California, Davis Through an analysis of gender in the civil rights movement, this article illustrates that the conceptualization of social movement leadership requires expansion. This study concludes that an intermediate layer of leadership is critical to the micromobilization of a social movement. This intermediate layer provides a bridge (1) between the social movement organization(s) and potential adherents and constituents, (2) between prefigurative and strategic politics, and (3) between potential leaders and those already predisposed to movement activity. The latter illustrates that mobilization does not always occur in a linear fashion (i.e., formal leaders mobilize and recruit participants). In the case of the civil rights movement, this intermediate layer of leadership was the primary area for women's leadership. INTRODUCTION A central concern of social movement theorists is the process of micromobilization or the ways in which individuals come to participate in movement organizations and identify with its issues and goals. To this end, numerous studies have established the importance of institutional and/or interpersonal networks for successful movement mobilization (e.g., Morris 1984; Freeman 1975, 1979; O'berschall 1973; McAdam 1986, 1992,1993; Klandermans and Oegema 1987; Snow, Zurcher, and Eckland1 I would like to thank Verta Taylor, Judith Stacey, Fred Block, Mayer Zald, Aldon Morris, and Myra Marx Ferree and especially the AJS reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. Funding was provided by the Rackham Dissertation Grant, the Center for the Continuing Education for Women Scholarship, and the Program on Conflict Management Alternatives Dissertation Grant, all from the University of Michigan; the American Sociological Association Minority Dissertation Fellowship; and the Wellesley College Mary McEwen Schimke Dissertation Scholarship. Support was also provided by the University of California Davis, Faculty Research Grant and Faculty Development Grant. Address correspondence to Belinda Robnett, Department of Sociology, University of California, Davis, California 95616. E-mail: bbrob ? 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602/96/ 10106-0005-$01 .50 AJS Volume 101 Number 6 (May 1996): 1661-93 1661 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to American Journal of Sociology Olson 1980; Snow et al. 1986; Curtis and Zurcher 1973; Fernandez and McAdam 1988; Gould 1993; Rosenthal et al. 1985; Walsh and Warland 1983). For example, Morris's (1984) well-known account of the civil rights movement emphasizes the important links and interpersonal ties among ministers, which were critical resources in mobilizing community and student support. Such ties and networks were mediated through preexisting community institutions and organizations. Through these me- diated structures, interpersonal networks were formed. While Morris's work has contributed significantly to our understanding of the processes of movement mobilization, it is important to further our understanding of the processes by which the formation of mobilization potential is cultivated. Klandermans (1988) points out the need to analyze the processes by which consensus is formed and action is mobilized within social move- ments. As Klandermans notes, structures alone cannot mobilize individuals to act. Potential constituents must be convinced of the legitimacy of participation. They must be persuaded to act. Snow et al. (1986) discuss the essential processes necessary for persuading potential constituents to join a movement. In doing so, they outline four social psychological processes necessary in the recruitment process. First, frame bridging in- volves providing those who are already predisposed to one's cause with the necessary information to persuade them to join the movement. Second, the process of frame amplification emphasizes the compatibility of the movement's values and beliefs with those of the potential constituents. This also involves persuading individuals that their participation is essential and that the movement goals can be achieved. Third, frame extension occurs when the movement extends it boundaries to include the interests of potential recruits. These interests are not necessarily a part of the movement's goals but serve as a means of increasing support. Finally, there is frame transformation, which requires that individual frames be changed entirely or in part to achieve consensus with the movement's goals. These four processes have received a great deal of social movement research and theoretical discussion; however, three areas of research have received scant attention. First, the significance of the social location of movement carriers has been generally neglected. We do not yet fully understand how mobilization takes place in day-to-day community work, and we do not know who is likely to do such work, although identity has been discussed in the context of developing collective identity, group consciousness, and solidarity (see, e.g., Snow et al. 1980; Klandermans 1986); however an analysis of who is likely to succeed at the techniques needed to persuade potential constituents to join a movement has been 1662 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to Gender and Leadership neglected. Consequently, the significance of "who" is doing what type of micromobilization for a movement has been left unanalyzed. Recently, scholars have begun to examine the different experiences of men and women activists (e.g., Bridenthal Koontz 1977; Lawson and Barton 1980; Payne 1989, 1990; and McAdam 1992). McAdam, for example, has discussed the importance of deconstructing the experiences of movement participants. He found significant gender differences in the recruitment processes of white male and female participants in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights movement organization. Such a study provides support for the notion that participants are not a monolithic group. Thus it is equally important to analyze the different movement experiences as determined by one's race, class, and gender (see, e.g., Collins 1990; Collins and Anderson 1995; Davis 1981; Zinn and Dill 1994; Moraga and Anzaldua 1981; and West and Blumberg [1990] for a fuller understanding of differential experiences based on race, class, gender, and sexual preference). Indeed scholars of "new" social movements (e.g., Mellucci 1985, 1988, 1989; Pizzorno 1978; Cohen 1985; and Klandermans 1986) emphasize the need to analyze movement groups whose solidarity does not emerge from shared cultural and/or racial experiences. The emphasis upon collective identity as only important to the study of "new" social movements is limiting and problematic (see Gamson 1992). The notion that collective identity is more important for movements that are, for example, nonethnic and interracial, assumes a uniform experience within racial and ethnic groups. It does not take into consideration differences based upon class and gender. Scholars of "new" social movements would, therefore, assume that the collective identity of African-American participants in the civil rights movement was nonproblematic. As this article illustrates, the development and sustenance of a collec- tive identity within the civil rights movement was anything but nonproblematic. Not all African-Americans were eager to join the movement or even knew about the movement. Particularly in rural pockets of the South, any media coverage portrayed the movement as Communist backed. Many rural African-Americans believed that the "outsiders," who were stirring up trouble in their communities, were going to get them killed. Specific methods of recruitment were employed to persuade the masses to risk their lives for the movement. Often, the purveyors of the movement's message were women. The gendered organization of the civil rights movement defined the social location of African-American women in the movement context and created a particular substructure of leadership, which became a critical recruitment and mobilizing force for the movement. 1663 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to American Journal of Sociology This brings us to a second area of research that needs attention. Although social movement theorists often discuss movement leaders, the concept of leadership is generally left unanalyzed. Typically, movement participants are dichotomized as leaders or followers. An analysis of gender has led to a reconceptualization of leadership activities within social movements. Within the context of the civil rights movement, AfricanAmerican women operated as "bridge leaders," who-through frame bridging, amplification, extension, and transformation-initiated ties between the social movement and the community and between prefigurative strategies aimed at individual change, identity, and consciousness and political strategies aimed at organizational tactics designed to challenge existing relationships with the state and other societal institutions (see Breines 1982; Gamson 1992; and Tarrow 1992). The activities of African-American women in the civil rights movement provided the brid- ges necessary to cross boundaries between the personal lives of potential constituents and adherents and the political life of civil rights movement organizations. Finally, the theoretical treatment of movement mobilization has focused primarily upon the mobilization of potential recruits or followers and not upon the dialectical relationships among movement leaders and between movement leaders and followers. Consequently movement mobilization is conceptualized as taking place in a linear fashion in which leaders begin movements and mobilize the masses. As later discussion illustrates, leaders are often mobilized by the masses they will eventually come to lead. Moreover, bridge leaders and followers may eventually amplify, extend, and transform the message of the movement so that it is no longer in congruence with that of the formal leaders. RECONCEPTUALIZING LEADERSHIP IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS Women activists, as bridge leaders, were able to cross the boundaries between the public life of a movement organization and the private spheres of adherents and potential constituents. Such bridging has been implied by Sacks (1988) in her study of union organizing. She discusses the role of "centerwomen," or those "who were centers and sustainers of work-based networks," and links them to union organizing (Sacks 1988, p. 120). As Sacks notes, many of the women she studied operated as leaders but rarely accepted the title as such. They preferred to stay behind the scenes. Moreover, through her study, her own a priori notions of what constituted leadership were challenged. She had conceived of leadership in much the same vein as most scholars. Leaders have been generally defined as those who hold titled positions, have power over members, make decisions on behalf of the organization, and are per1664 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to Gender and Leadership ceived by the public and the state as the leaders. Sacks has challenged these notions of leadership, suggesting that they are too narrowly defined. Likewise, in my study I allowed the women to define who were leaders and to explain what they felt exemplified leadership. Victoria Gray, an activist, provided a response typical of my interviewees: "They, [Ella Baker and Septima Clark, who will be discussed in detail later] were both leaders . . . in the sense of that effectiveness, of the loyalty of those who work with and around them. It was a lot to do with a kind of loyalty and influence that you are able to elicit from the people around you."2 She further suggested that it did not matter whether leadership was exhibited at the local or international level, what counted was the presence of the aforementioned personal qualities. Her definition of leader- ship as well as those of other respondents indicates that what defines a leader is not his or her position in terms of titles or recognition by the state, public, or international community but the ability to influence others and to have loyal followers. Feminist scholars, of course, have been challenging the basic approaches and theoretical underpinnings of analyses of political participa- tion (see West and Blumberg 1990, pp. 3-35; Jones and Jonasdottir 1988; Smith 1988; and Spender 1983) suggesting that top-down analyses of political participation necessarily exclude women and ignore their significant contributions. In contrast, several studies of women's organiza- tions compared and contrasted organizational structures with varied types of power and leadership (e.g., Freeman 1975, 1979; Buechler 1990). Still other feminists writing about women's organizations have approached the study of social movements through an examination of women's networks (see Ferree and Hess 1985, pp. 94-103) or their separate communities of organization within a movement (Taylor and Whittier 1992). Yet, the notion of bridge leaders (those who provide the brid- ges between prefigurative and strategic politics) is largely undeveloped in feminist as well as social movement theory. Of course, organizational theory has dealt rather extensively with the distinction between formal and informal leadership. These definitions lend greater clarity to the notion of bridge leaders. Etzioni (1961, p. 90) defines formal leaders as "actors who occupy organizational offices which entail power and who also have personal power over subordinates." Informal leaders are "actors within the organization who have personal but not official power over lower participants. The same person may have official power over some subordinates and personal influence as well over others. Moreover, he may be an officer to some of his subordinates, a 2 Interview with Victoria Gray by telephone, February 6, 1990. 1665 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to American Journal of Sociology formal leader for some others, and an informal leader of participants of his own rank over whom he has no official power" (Etzioni 1961, p. 90). In social movement theory, informal leaders are often mentioned among the types of leaders, but typically the position is left unanalyzed in terms of the social construction of these positions or the ways in which these positions develop in terms of social limitations. Several studies have conceptualized informal leadership. Smelser (1962, p. 297), for example, suggests that there are two kinds of leadership, one directed at developing group beliefs and one concerned with movement mobilization, which may be divided into several types of leadership as the movement progresses. Gusfield (1966, pp. 141-42), too, suggests that leadership within an organization is divided into two functions. Yet he suggests, as does Smelser, that these functions may be merged into one leadership position. Anthony Oberschall (1973, pp. 115-17) writes about leadership in terms of Olsen's selective imperatives, which "stimulate" rational individuals to participate in social movement organizations. He articulates the need to "distinguish several levels of participation." Yet, he never elaborates the differences or defines the top from the secondary in terms of tasks performed toward meeting the organization's goals. While Gusfield and Smelser do a better job of elaborating the differences in leadership, we are still left without an understanding of the impact of social categories (i.e., race, class, and gender) on the social construction of movement hierarchy and the effects this has upon the attainment of movement goals. While we are given an understanding of leadership functions and roles, we do not know how informal leadership is constructed, who com- prises the informal leadership, what exactly informal leaders do, or how informal leaders and primary leaders interact. We are left with a view that there are certain roles in social movements that individuals may fill, but we do not gain an understanding of how they are constructed by the hierarchies and power differentials that already exist in society. For example, Barnett (1993) provides a much needed analysis of gendered leadership in the civil rights movement but does so within the context of roles. She suggests that certain leadership roles were viewed as more valuable to civil rights movement leaders than others and that women, along with men, performed many of the most important roles. Although she discusses race, class, and gender as variables affecting the recognition of women's leadership within and outside of the movement organization, she does not fully elaborate the extent to which the power dynamics of these social categories shaped the civil rights movement organizations.3 3 I do not use the term "role" in my analysis of women's positions in the civil rights movement organizations. Sex role theory is ahistorical and does not allow for dialec- 1666 This content downloaded from on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 16:32:13 UTC All use subject to Gender and Leadership Although exact numbers are not available, it is clear from numerous accounts of the civil rights movement (e.g., Crawford 1987; Crawford, Rouse, and Woods 1990; Payne 1990; Robinson 1987; Morris 1984; Giddings 1984; Cantarow and O'Malley 1980; Clark 1986; Barnett 1993; Evans 1979; King 1987; McAdam 1988) that women formed a substantial portion of the participants within the movement. This should come as no surprise since numerous studies document women's involvement in grassroots mobilization (e.g., West and Blumberg 1990; Andreas 1985; Bookman and Morgen 1988; Fainstein and Fainstein 1974; Jayawardena 1986; McCourt 1977; Sacks 1988; Chafetz and Dworkin 1986; Piven and Cloward 1977; Kaplan 1982; Thomis and Grimmett 1982; Tilley 1981; Naples 1992). What has not been provided are systematic analyses of the patterns of their participation and the ways in which constructs of exclusion, such as gender, shaped the development of leadership as well as the organization of social movements. This article illustrates that women, because of their gender, were often channeled away from formal leadership positions and confined to th ...
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