Digital Historiography and Origin Stories of Women’s Liberation

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This chapter explores a dominant story that academics tell about a historical document identified as playing a key role in the development of US women’s liberation, Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo by Casey Hayden and Mary King. The goal of this inquiry is not to provide a more accurate history of the origins of women’s liberation, but rather to explore what other stories the dominant account overshadows.

Origin Stories

Casey Hayden drafted A Kind of Memo to address her concerns about the freedom movement to other female participants. Her friend Mary King helped her to edit it and appended her signature before the document was mailed to thirty-five women in November of 1965.  Hayden and King recall a resounding silence in response to the Memo that is at odds with its central position within scholarly histories.

Although Hayden and King left social movement organizing immediately following this event, their missive took on a life of its own. Passed hand to hand in mimeographed form, it found its way into the packet of materials distributed at the December 1965 “rethinking” conference organized by SDS; Retitled Sex and Caste it reached an even wider audience in the New Left when it appeared in the April 1966 issue of Liberation.[1]

For over a decade, the Memo remained on the periphery of both movement activism and scholarly analysis of it.  In 1979, Sara Evans revived the document, reprinting the published version as an appendix in Personal Politics and positioning Hayden and King’s Memo as the bridge connecting civil rights and women’s liberation. In this account of the origins of women’s liberation, the Memo functions to legitimize women’s autonomous organizing on their own behalf. Rather than women’s liberation emerging from Friedan’s unhappy housewife, this account locates the impetus for feminism in white women’s experiences of sexism in the civil rights movement and the New Left.

Anecdotal evidence exists to both support and to contravene the position A Kind of Memo has come to occupy in the stories we tell about the origins of women’s liberation.  While some women, like Heather Tobis, reportedly realized it was time to address the “women question” after reading a copy of the memo, others like Roxanne Dubar recalled as late as 1969 that they had never even seen a copy of the Memo, a frustrating effect of what she described as a “kind of movement elitism” that kept “so much within its own ranks. [**]

Digital Historiography

Focusing on patterns and repetition in the early literature of women’s liberation reveals discursive frames around A Kind of Memo prior to Evans’ work. After exploring this context, digital analysis of early women’s liberation movement periodicals and anthologies is used to identify authors who produced documents that were more likely to be discussed than A Kind of Memo. These documents support a different story, one which reveals a continual interplay between civil rights and women’s liberation and involves black women.  As Katie King has pointed out, origin stories are “interested stories, all of them,” and thus this re-framed origin narrative is intended to encourage a concomitant re-imagining of the stories we tell about women’s liberation.[*]


Digital analysis of texts published between 1967 to 1978 suggests that the relatively limited discussion of A Kind of Memo circulated via three “viral” sentences that emphasized the identity of its authors, its affective consequences, and its position of primacy among documents analyzing systemic sexism.  Consequently, the origins of women’s liberation have been rooted in whiteness, occluded the contributions of black women, and conflated primacy with influence.

Analysis of google books and JSTOR offered only twenty-one mentions of A Kind of Memo from 1966 to 1978.  However, very quickly, patterns began to emerge through the frequent repetition of three sentences.

The first viral sentence appeared in an essay by Linda Seese (figure 1).

In the fall of 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white women from the South who had been very active in SNCC and ERAP for years, wrote an article on women for the movement in the now-defunct journal, Studies on the Left.[2]

Screenshot of Reveal Digital Independent Voices

When anthology The New Woman: A MOTIVE Anthology of Women’s Liberation reprinted this essay, its emphasis on the identity of the authors,”two white women” spread.  An almost identical sentence appeared in the blockbuster anthology Sisterhood is Powerful

In 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white women who had been active in SNCC and other civil-rights organizations for years, wrote an article on women in the Movement for the now-defunct journal Studies on the Left.

In 1970, Marlene Dixon’s essay explaining women’s liberation to the readers of Radical America emphasized the affective consequences of A Kind of Memo

Casey Hayden and Mary King rousing a storm of controversy for their articles in Studies on the Left and Liberation

The essay appears in yet another popular anthology, From Feminism to Liberation, spreading the notion that controversy in the Left was the key aspect of A Kind of Memo.


Results from Google Books

Finally, in 1973, a footnote in Jo Freeman’s essay on the origins of women’s liberation emphasized the primacy of A Kind of Memo.

A Kind of Memo,” by Hayden and King (1966, p. 35) circulated in the fall of 1965 (and eventually published), was the first such paper.

While Freeman also notes that women’s liberation did not emerge as an autonomous effort until 1967, by emphasizing the “first” paper “on women, when Freeman’s essay was reprinted in academic sociology texts, this conflation of primacy and influence was solidified through repetition.

Combined these three sentences created an enduring narrative  – women’s liberation emerged from the first white women’s controversial analysis of women in the movement.

While Hayden’s analysis doubtlessly encapsulated many insights that drew individuals to women’s liberation, the document itself is barely mentioned in the first periodicals of the nascent movement and it does not appear in the mass market anthologies that widely disseminated the ideas of women’s liberation.

If A Kind of Memo was not the influential document that scholars have taken it to be, at least within movement periodicals, then what others that were might be identified with digital approaches?


Digital analysis of periodicals from the earliest days of organizing women’s liberation in the US identifies other authors and documents that were more frequently mentioned than Sex and Caste.[3]  Looking at issues of six periodicals published between 1968 and the end of 1969 provides a window into who and what was influential in the nascent movements for women’s liberation.

data visualization of the relative sizes by word count of the six periodicals in the research sample
Size by word count of the six periodicals used for this digital analysis. VWLM = Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, No More = No More Fun and Games, Notes 1 & 2 = Notes from the First Year and Notes from the First Year, Women = Women: A Journal of Liberation



Thirteen activists names appeared in more than three of the six periodicals (figure X above) .[4]  Five women were both involved in civil rights movement and authored a well-known document providing a pool of potential parallels but also alternatives to Hayden and King’s Memo. These five documents are hardly unknown to scholars; accounts of women’s liberation generally include several of them. What digital analysis illustrates is the context of their influence at the inception of the movement.

Patterns of words that frequently appear in the text close to the discussion of these authors and their documents offers a way to digitally analyze the context in which they appeared.

In the fall of 1968, Jo Freeman authored the Bitch Manifesto, which circulated in a mimeographed format before it was published in Notes from the Second Year.  Freeman, like Casey Hayden, landed in Chicago after involvement in the civil rights movement, but she continued into women’s liberation to become the founder and editor of the majority of the seven issues of Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a short-lived nationally circulated newsletter. Collocation results for Joreen, Freeman’s pen name, offers this context; as editor she appeared as the contact for the publication and thus the city of her mailing address “Chicago” and the words from the title “women’s” “liberation” appear prominently, as does the document title “Bitch” “Manifesto”.


In this small body of texts, it is dangerous to overemphasize collocations, most of the word patterns appear only once or twice, but the context that emerges around “Bitch Manifesto” is that of women’s experience. In many ways, the BITCH Manifesto is the “long, angry essay” about women’s experiences of sexism that a Kind of Memo has been described as.[5]  Freeman also relies on a comparison of sex and race, but in far more vitriolic terms. Freeman described “social structures which enslave women” and argued that

Like the term “nigger,” “bitch” serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people who do not conform to the socially accepted patterns of behavior.

“Towards a Female Liberation Movement” also known as the Florida Paper, was authored by two women, like A Kind of Memo.[6] i Beverly Jones drafted the first section and then completed at the urging and with the assistance of Judith Brown, a CORE activist, in time to be presented at the Thankgsiving 1968 first national conference on women’s liberation in Sandy Springs, MD. “Towards a Female Liberation Movement” contained an analysis that amplified one point made in A Kind of Memo, arguing that “There is an almost exact parallel between the role of women and the role of black people in this society.”


Unlike Freeman, who was as well-known for the publication she edited as for the document she authored, collocation results for Brown and Jones (figure 2, above) indicate that they were almost exclusively linked to their document in these periodicals. The title words “Female liberation” appear, as do unusual words from other documents of this era, such as “kinder” from Naomi Weisstein’s Kinder. Kuche, Kirche .  Collocation analysis suggests that Brown and Jones largely appeared within the context of lists of literature or resources.






[**] Tobis quoted in Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, Roxanne Dunbar, Outlaw Woman

[*] Katie King, Theory in Its Feminist Travels: Conversations in U. S. Women’s Movements

[1] Michelle Moravec, Revisiting “A Kind of Memo” from Casey Hayden and Mary KingWomen and Social Movements, March 2017.

[2] This account contained several errors. The essay did not appear in Studies on the Left. Hayden was involved in ERAP, but King was not.

[3] Corpus includes Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Lilith, No More Fun and Games, Tooth and Nail, Notes from the First Year and Notes from the Second Year, Women a Journal of Liberation through the end of 1969.

[4] Named entity recognition was used to extract names that provided the basis for a frequency list that was manually compiled.  Individuals were identified as activists within the movement as opposed to historical figures or contemporaneous individuals who were peripheral to women’s liberation.

[5] Peter Filene, Him/Herself

[6] Unlike a kind of memo Brown and Jones labels their contributions as part 1 and part 2 attributed to individuals.  Part 1 Written by Beverly Jones [did it circulate on its own Toward a Female Liberation MovementPart I. New England Free Press, 1968.]

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