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Ms. Magazine
Tuesday, July 26th, 2011
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Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution

by Serena Mayeri

Hard Questions Answered

A review by Pamela D. Bridgewater

You've been in that room. We all have. The room that had the air sucked out of it because someone among the feminists present noted that their differences were not being addressed sufficiently, if at all. No conversation screeches to a halt as quickly as when someone raises the issue of difference, whether it's gender identity, class, ethnicity or religion -- but especially when it's racial. For generations, feminists have struggled with these "Ain't I a woman?" intermoments, bracing themselves for reactions that can range from hostility, guilt and defensiveness to responsibility and alliance building.

Many believe that feminism has benefited over the years from such uncomfortable but productive moments -- the hard questions, the unresponsiveness, the denials, the meaningful engagements. Others say the charge that feminism reflects only the aspirations of privileged, straight white women is unfair and has caused irreparable harm to the feminist political movement. Still others wonder what the fuss is about, saying debates over difference are a natural by-product of a diverse movement.

Mayeri's Reasoning from Race is designed to facilitate these discussions by showing how the pursuit of racial justice affected the legal strategies of the women's rights and social-justice movements of the 1960s and '70s. To illustrate the interconnections, she describes the impact of key figures in the civil rights movement, including voting-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray, who, as an idealistic student at Howard University Law School in the 1940s, coined the phrase "Jane Crow" to describe the impact of segregation on black women in the South.

While serving on the 1961-1963 President's Commission on the Status of Women, Murray outlined a legal strategy for challenging sex discrimination by states. "In civil rights advocacy she found both an effective strategic model and a compelling source of moral legitimacy for the feminist legal battles of her time," Mayeri writes. Murray's thinking drove the legal strategy of the new National Organization for Women -- one of its founders, she cowrote its statement of purpose with Betty Friedan.

Although Mayeri suggests but does not examine Murray's class privilege within the black community, she does explore the impact of Murray's personal life on her activism. Murray struggled with her gender and sexual identity, was the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest and was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. The breadth of her experience likely affected her tactics for challenging the social constructions of race, class, sex and sexuality.

Mayeri, who teaches law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that racial politics' impact on the women's movement was not a coincidence of timing but rather the inevitable result of ideas and individuals colliding at key moments in history. Her carefully crafted reconciliation of racial justice with women's rights offers a template for incorporating race into ongoing feminist debate rather than letting such conversations end in painful silence.

Pamela D. Bridgewater is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She blogs at and hosts

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