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Where Were the Women in the March on Washington?

How men in the Civil Rights movement erased women from its ranks.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

In 1944, the black press had dubbed activist Anna Arnold Hedgeman the “young feminist” in Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s circle, but nearly twenty years later, in 1963, she had made little progress in convincing him of her right, and other women’s right, to exercise full leadership in the black freedom movement. Why, she wondered, were men so obstinate? Why did women pose such a threat? “Suffice it to say that the male would be better advised to spend less time mourning the loss of his superiority and more time working in partnership with women,” she wrote.

For years, Anna Hedgeman had been thinking and talking about the discrimination women faced, delivering lectures and keynote addresses with titles like “Why Women Walk Two Steps behind Their Men,” “The Role of the Negro Woman,” “Women and the New America,” and “Equal-Unequal.” She had depended on her network of professional women in government, labor, and religious and civil rights organizations to help her surmount the obstacles she faced trying to realize her personal and professional goals, and knew how much women had accomplished on behalf of civil rights despite being denied significant leadership roles. She was not naive enough to think it would be easy to get men to open the march leadership to women, but she was determined to see it happen.

Hedgeman and her African American female friends and associates had for years been trying to make people think about what Mary Church Terrell called the “double handicap of race and sex.” In so many circumstances—pregnancy and childrearing, inferior employment opportunities segregated by sex as well as race, the exigencies of aging in difficult economic circumstances—black women’s experiences differed from black men’s experiences. Nevertheless, African American women had formed the backbone of civil rights and church work for much of the twentieth century; as Hedgeman saw it, they had fully earned a voice in national decision-making.

To Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women, gender-based slights were petty and routine, but the march was too important an event not to push for at least one woman as speaker. Height believed that Hedgeman, the “doyenne of American Negro women,” as Pauli Murray called her, should speak, but the men refused. They provided a variety of excuses: the list of speakers was already too long; it would be too difficult to select one woman; if they did choose one, others would be jealous. It never occurred to them that they could have included more than one woman, and the idea that women alone suffered from jealousy would be laughable to the women watching the male leaders jockey for status and recognition.

The back and forth continued, but the men remained unmoved. Women were featured as singers, recruited as marchers, and relied on as organizers, but they were not granted a speaking voice. A week before the march, Hedgeman again pointed out during a planning meeting that not a single woman was listed as a speaker on the program. A compromise was proposed: A. Philip Randolph would say a few words about African American women’s contributions to the struggle, then invite a group of women to stand and take a bow. Hedgeman listened with a deepening sense of frustration. Clearly, male civil rights leaders, including those who had counted on Hedgeman’s skills and hard work over many decades, had great difficulty moving beyond their belief that women were second-class citizens. Historians have too often followed their lead, finding it remarkably easy to leave African American women out of the civil rights histories they helped shape. And historical treatments of the second wave of feminism in the United States continue to give short shrift to these early moves by African American women toward gender equality.

Hedgeman offered to poll black women to find out who they thought should represent them, and she finished by pointing out that she had been on board since the committee’s first meeting, and any proposal she put forward should receive “reasonable recognition.” The administrative committee agreed, and its “reasonable recognition,” a Tribute to Negro Women, resulted in a plan to have one woman stand to make a few remarks then invite several other women to stand and be recognized. Hedgeman felt she had no choice but to accept the compromise. Along with her suggestions of Myrlie Evers and Diane Nash Bevel, the committee added Rosa Parks, who had sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott—though it was not general knowledge outside these circles of women until years later that she had done it deliberately; Gloria Richardson, the head of the Cambridge Movement in Maryland, the only major grassroots civil rights campaign outside of the South; Daisy Bates, newspaper publisher, Arkansas NAACP director, and Little Rock Central High School desegregation leader; and Paris Lee, mother of nine and widow of slain voting rights activist Herbert Lee.  
Hedgeman was not appeased, but she was quickly caught up in the remaining march details.

In the end, the men had their way. They not only banned women from speaking but grouped the women to be honored during the march with the wives of the male civil rights leaders, directing them to march together, separately from and behind the men. Coretta Scott King later remembered how unhappy she was at being separated from her husband. “It had been my great wish to march beside him,” she wrote, “not from any desire to share the spotlight, but because I wanted the joy of being with him on this special day.” Hedgeman did want women to share the spotlight and found these slights a denial of their full humanity. “Negro women, like all women,” she wrote about the experience, “must find ways of securing adequate respect for their work, and their potential as fellow members of the human family.”

August 28 turned out to be a perfect day for a march, sunny and warm, not too hot or humid. Before the buses began to pass through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel at the rate of one hundred per hour, masses of volunteers had set up rest areas, a stage, first-aid stations, and food-service areas. The biggest problem was ultimately a good problem for the march to have: the anticipated crowd of a hundred thousand grew to a quarter of a million, and every resource was taxed. People piled off buses and spilled out of trains and assembled on the National Mall.

The meager “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” took place when Daisy Bates stepped to the microphone after an introduction by Randolph, who mistakenly announced she would be giving the women awards. Instead, she announced, “The women of this country, Mr. Randolph, pledge to you, to Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and all of you fighting for civil liberties, that we will join hands with you as women of this country.” She continued the collective female pledge: “We will kneel-in, we will sit-in, until we can eat in any counter in the United States. We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will line-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”

Randolph stood again and introduced the other women, disregarding the decision that Bates was to do that. He called Myrlie Evers’s name, seemingly unaware she was not there. Once corrected, he named the others: Diane Nash Bevel, Gloria Richardson, Paris Lee, and Rosa Parks. A recording of Randolph’s faltering speech is telling. “I’m sorry to report to you that sister Evers could not attend our demonstration because of uh, unusual circumstances,” he says haltingly. “Uh, who else? Will the ... [someone behind him says: Rosa Parks] Miss Rosa Parks ... will they all stand. And Miss, uh [some- one behind him says: Gloria Richardson] Gloria Richardson.” The women on the stage, of course, recognized the irony of the situation. “We grinned; some of us,” Hedgeman remembered, “as we recognized anew that Negro women are second-class citizens in the same way that white women are in our culture.”

When Martin Luther King Jr., the “moral leader of the nation,” delivered the speech for which the day will always be remembered, Anna Hedgeman, like hundreds of thousands of others, was captivated by his poetic, utopian vision. As moved as she was by Dr. King’s speech, Hedgeman was distressed. She felt that King, with his claim “I have a dream,” was detaching himself from history—his history, her history, black history. It made her both sad and angry. She cried a bit and scribbled on her program that she wished he had said, “We Have a Dream,” acknowledging the collective labor, the collective joy and sadness, the multitude of women and men whose dreams had drawn, led, and summoned so many to the nation’s capital that day. Hedgeman included herself in those responsible for making such a hero of Dr. King without teaching him sufficiently. She wanted Dr. King to deliver a bountiful and inclusive vision of justice, one that recognized the full scope of the black experience.

When the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom drew to a close, the male leaders made their way to the White House to meet with President Kennedy. They did not include Rosa Parks or “the rest of us who really were responsible for that day,” Anna Hedgeman noted indignantly; the women were left to find their way home. The cavalier way Rosa Parks in particular was treated troubled Hedgeman, who considered her the pioneer of this phase of the freedom movement. She was weary of seeing Parks represented as a quiet seamstress, tired from long days at work. Hedgeman knew her as a powerful, savvy civil rights leader who sat down on the bus not because she was tired but because she was sick and tired, fed up with the indignities of daily life in the Jim Crow South, and ready to take her activism to another level. August 28, 1963, Hedgeman felt, might reasonably have been called “Rosa Parks Day.”

Despite the  request that the participants leave town immediately following the march, the National Council of Negro Women scheduled a debriefing in Washington for the following day. Their gathering, called “After the March, What?,” began a conversation about the treatment women received both during the march and in the larger black freedom movement. Determined to keep that conversation alive, the NCNW held a second meeting, in November 1963, during which Pauli Murray spoke about the “bitterly humiliating” experiences of the women who had played key roles in civil rights work, only to be given token representation at the march. “The omission,” she told the women assembled, “was deliberate.” Murray, who would later coin the term “Jane Crow” to describe the ways in which racial and gender discrimination had become entwined, urged her colleagues to action. As she put it, “The Negro woman can no longer postpone or subordinate the fight against discrimination because of sex to the civil rights struggle but must carry on both fights simultaneously.”

Even though Murray’s talk had little if any impact on male civil rights leaders, it circulated widely and became a consciousness-raising tool for black women, an early feminist document urging them to think about how their limited roles worked against their own dignity and development, and hindered the black freedom movement as a whole. Anna Hedgeman and her colleagues were not alone in giving much while getting little respect in return; after the march they would be joined by African American women of all ages, now ready to listen to a feminist analysis of their civil rights work. Indeed, the histories of civil rights and feminism in this era are entwined.

Adapted from Until There Is Justice by Jennifer Scanlon with permission from Oxford University Press USA.  Copyright © 2016 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA. ( All rights reserved.