Second-Wave Feminism in the American South, 1965-1980

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In the late 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism transformed American society, creating new legal rights for women, remaking gender roles, and altering women's position in the economy. Although largely omitted from popular and scholarly accounts, Southern women played critical roles in the second wave. At the grassroots, they engaged in a wide array of feminist activism, from establishing credit unions to opening health clinics, from suing discriminatory employers to opening rape crisis centers, from challenging sterilization abuse to building lesbian community, and from setting up feminist businesses to organizing domestic workers. Their initiatives included efforts to place women in non-traditional jobs, campaigns for political office, and court cases that established reproductive freedom and mandated equal pay. In restoring Southern women to the history of second-wave feminism, the dissertation suggests that the movement was far more widespread than has previously been acknowledged.

While drawing on evidence from throughout the South, the dissertation devotes particularly close attention to Atlanta, Georgia, Chapel Hill-Durham, North Carolina, and Austin and Dallas, Texas, all places where feminists were especially active and the sources are especially rich. It demonstrates that Southern women of widely varying backgrounds engaged in feminist activism, but only rarely in organizations that crossed lines of race and class. More commonly, they mobilized in coalitions that preserved separate identities and agendas while addressing common grievances. The women's movement in the South may thus be characterized as multiple movements that overlapped at times, if only in limited ways, and moved along parallel tracks at others.

Southern feminists confronted daunting obstacles, including their region's long history of racial injustice, social and economic conditions that lagged behind those of the rest of the nation, a weak welfare state, and entrenched political conservatism. The need to circumvent hostile state and local authorities led some Southern feminists to turn to the federal courts as a more promising arena. In so doing, they launched a number of landmark legal cases that transformed the lives of all American women. Ironically, feminists in the most conservative region of the nation became the vanguard of the women's movement.