Social change happens when people work together. Yet, we all have heard the stories about one heroic figure responsible for a significant historical shift. Women’s herstory month has made me reflect on how these stories often leave out or minimize women’s contributions. In reality, the “sheroes” of our social movements usually have an army of people working with them to make change happen. And oftentimes, those people who put in countless hours doing thankless tasks are women. Even when a woman rises to prominence, her leadership and strategic savvy is often discounted.
I’d like to call for a revision of our social movement narratives so that women’s historic roles are taken seriously. For example, I grew up hearing that Rosa Parks sat down at the front of the bus and refused to give up her seat merely because she had tired feet. After her arrest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott broke out and sparked mass action that developed into the civil rights movement. This has become a national myth.
The real story is very different. Rosa Parks, a seamstress, didn’t spontaneously “revolt” against segregation one day because her feet hurt. A group of women in Alabama, the Woman’s Political Council (WPC), led by Jo Ann Robinson–an English teacher at Alabama State College–had been planning a bus boycott for months. Parks was a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was a trained activist at the time of her arrest. She–along with Septima Clark (the founder of the Freedom Schools) and Martin Luther Kind Jr.–had attended the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a leadership training center for workers rights and racial equality. In other words, Rosa Parks and other women were deeply involved in the strategic analysis and planning that made the bus boycott successful.
Refusing to move was not her first act of civil disobedience on a bus. Parks had also been ejected from a bus years earlier – by the same driver – for refusing to pay her fare at the front of the bus and then get off and enter at the back, a practice that often allowed the drivers to leave passengers behind who had already paid before they could re-enter the bus at the rear.
When Parks, a well-respected person within the community, was arrested this time it provided the perfect opportunity for the WPC. That night, Robinson, along with a colleague and two students, went into the University of Alabama under the pretense they were mimeographing tests. They ran the mimeograph machine throughout the night, producing 52,500 flyers calling for the bus boycott. Students played a key role in helping distribute the flyers, dropping them off at schools, businesses, beauty parlors, barber shops and factories.
When the church ministers received the flyers, and discovered that the women and students in the community were organizing the boycott, they decided it was time for them to follow their lead and mobilize their congregations. While the ministers were the public face of what we know today as the civil rights movement, it was initially conceived and spurred on by a highly organized group of women who had been working for this change—and training for it—for many years.
There is history and there is myth, and then there is herstory. The knowledge that social change happens collectively has always been reassuring to me. It reminds me that you and I don’t have to do it alone.