Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Leisa Meyer


This dissertation examines the feminized and racialized strategies of women organizers in the struggle for freedom. The lives of Lucy Randolph Mason and Ella Jo Baker suggest much about the ways in which women reject and change traditional leadership roles in order to create, build, and maintain the momentum of mass movements. Both women believed in the fundamental necessity of local people determining the responses to their oppression. This work, therefore, is an attempt to offer a description of Mason and Baker's organizing strategies and leadership styles, a description which can be read as a manual for creating social change.;Each woman functioned from a particular position---of privilege and/or protection---yet both chose to devote their lives to the struggle for racial and economic justice. Mason used her position as a Virginia aristocrat to reform the South, acting as a liaison between those who suffered and those in positions of authority she believed could assist them. Unlike Lucy Mason, Ella Jo Baker used her invisibility to organize working-class people because she was aware that politically active black voters threatened power structures. Each woman offers a glimpse into the contested world of women's activism and leadership---contested because it was largely prohibited by social conventions which privileged white males. Whether white or black, privileged or poor, each woman lived in a culture that proscribed leadership and activism for women. Given these prohibitions, each woman chose a path of leadership and organization that used her life experience as a strategy for social change. They each used tools provided by their specific vantage points for challenging racism, ultimately fashioning complementary archetypes for creating social change. The women were "neither bedecked nor bebosomed," as Ella Baker declared, meaning they both refused to remain constrained by any construction of women's work or identities that limited them to a pedestal, a kitchen, or a bedroom. Instead, they used prescribed roles to help undermine a system of racial supremacy that continues to haunt us. They show concretely that organizers are made, not born. We, too, can learn to change oppressive systems.



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