Mobility, Women, and the West
One day in April of 1984, a historian named David Garrow awaited the arrival of a sixty-eight-year-old Los Angeles woman he had never met. She was divorced, a retired college professor, an African American. He had contacted her by telephone, offering to come to see her, but she insisted on driving to the place he was staying, picking him up, and taking him to her home. There, she showed him a typescript, more than two hundred pages long, detailing her recollections of momentous events some thirty years earlier. Her name was Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, and as president of the Montgomery, Alabama, Women's Political Council, she had, in 1955, helped to set events in motion for the public transportation struggle that sparked the black freedom movement in the American South.
I argue here that both western and women's history must begin to take seriously the significance of geographical mobility. Feminist geographers and historians have for more than a decade asked how gender is implicated in, and reconstituted by, the organization of space. Historians have also documented movement of women into, through, and around the trans Mississippi region. Numerous studies of women on the Overland Trail trace changes, and continuity, in gender patterns among westering European Americans. But there are many other examples of scholarship dealing with women on the move, including work on changes in the lives of indigenous women in groups that moved from the Midwest onto the Great Plains, or from the Great Basin of Nevada onto reservations. We also see women in motion in Mexican migration to the United States, in Asian immigration and Japanese American relocation, among migrant farmworkers and military wives, on the part of cowgirls and women in wild west shows, in the African American exodus to the Plains after the Civil War, and among middle class
women drivers. Still, spatial mobility as a category of analysis in western women's history has yet to be theorized fully or employed systematically.
I think it is time we stopped envisioning women's history as a narrative chiefly about attempts to establish geographical stability (what might be called "home on the range"), and begin to accord itineracy the historical importance in western women's lives that the record suggests is necessary. At the most mundane level, for an endless and turbulent stream of reasons, women move around more than they stay put. Geographical mobility, or limitation of such mobility is, I argue, a significant factor in all history, including women's history, western history, and western women's history. And, dialectically, gender often acts as a force structuring mobility.
In an effort to drive home (ahem) the significance of geographical mobility to history in general, and to western women's history in particular, I want to tell a story about a woman whose mobile personal history makes the whole category of "western women" suspect. I will take some analytical cues from theorists who have been interested in exploring the significance of space and time to history, from Martin Heidegger to Anthony Giddens. I see geographical mobility as one form of space-time relations in a larger set of possible reconfigurations of human presence and absence, a set of relations implicated not only in the movement of bodies in space, but also in such things as the publication of autobiographical writing, the electronic reproduction of words, sounds, and images, and variously mediated dramatic reenactments of life stories.
I want to call attention to the politics implicit in what I do. I tell this story, of course, not as an objective observer, but in order to highlight the significance of physical motion in women's lives. I recognize that, in talking about travels, impediments to mobility, and transformations of presence and absence in the life of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, I lay claim to some kind of relationship with the woman whose words I write down and interpret. I initiate a very one-sided relationship, given the fact that I am physically present, at the moment of writing, and she is physically absent—not here to answer back, retelling her own story in her own way. I am the author of this article. I'm white; she is black, and my senior by nearly four decades. Marking our differences, I insist that we have something complicated, but important, in common, as persons gendered female, moving through late twentieth-century American space. Invoking her presence by citing and interpreting her words, I tread today what Donna Haraway has called a "very fine line between the appropriation of another's (never innocent) experience and the delicate construction of the just-barely-possible affinities, the just-barely-possible connections that might actually make a difference in local and global histories." With the intent to recognize the commonalities and connections a world of humans in motion hides, but makes possible, I will tell and speculate about the story of a twentieth-century woman, an
African American, an activist, and, maybe or maybe not, a western woman. Significantly, the story begins outside the West, in the heart of the American South.
Personal mobility can be considered a hallmark of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson's life. Born to landowning black farmers in Culloden, Georgia, in 1916, the youngest of twelve children, Robinson graduated from Fort Valley State College and moved to Macon to take a teaching job. There, she was married briefly to a man named Wilbur Robinson. Five years later, she moved by herself to Atlanta to enter the graduate program in English at Atlanta University, and upon earning her M.A. took another job at Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas. A year later, she received a better offer from Alabama State, a historically black public college, and moved to Montgomery in 1949, at the age of thirty-three.
Like many academics with out-of-town family, Robinson planned to spend Christmas break that year with relatives, in this case, in Cleveland, Ohio. Few Americans traveled by air in 1949, but Robinson was a notably mobile woman. Unlike most African Americans of the time, she owned and drove her own car. She was, moreover, willing to go to rather elaborate lengths to make sure that her automobile was safely stored while also managing to get herself and her baggage to the airport on time. "One of the men students loaded my suitcases in my car for me," she recalled, "and I drove at a leisurely pace out to the airport, checked my luggage for a trip to the East, then returned to the college campus, locked my car in a garage, made my way to the nearest bus stop, and waited for the short ride to a friend's home. We were all going to the airport together. I had never felt freer or happier."
Racism has always structured American space, although space has never imbibed race in a rational or orderly way. Most African Americans did not then, and still do not, take for granted the freedom to move unimpeded through space, let alone the right to enjoy public support of personal mobility. Still, learning the racial ways of space requires substantial local knowledge. The more African Americans moved from one place to another in the United States, the more arbitrary, esoteric, and varied the forms of racial rules that they would encounter. Segregation practices also changed over time. In Mobile, during the 1940s and 1950s, passengers were seated on a first-come, first-serve basis. In Macon, Georgia, and elsewhere, blacks were expected to seat themselves from the rear of the bus forward, while whites were to sit from the front toward the rear until all seats were taken. At one point in the Montgomery struggle, white leaders proposed that buses have "flexible" whites only sections to be designated by a moveable sign saying "white" on one side and "colored" on another, a practice abandoned in the city decades earlier.
That winter morning in 1949, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson got a rude awak-
ening. The Montgomery city bus she planned to ride had only two passengers on it as she boarded—a white woman sitting in the third row from the front, and a black man near the back. Lost in thoughts of the holiday to come, and unaware that local conventions of transit segregation in Montgomery called for the first ten rows to be reserved for whites, Robinson took a seat in the fifth row. The driver leaped to his feet and hustled back to confront Robinson. "He was standing over me saying, 'Get up from there! Get up from there!' with his hand drawn back. . . . I felt like a dog," she wrote. She stumbled off the bus in tears, and cried, she said, "all the way to Cleveland." Then she got mad. When she returned from her vacation, she called a meeting of the Montgomery Women's Political Council.
Historians have demonstrated that African American women faced down discrimination on public transportation from the moment such transit systems first appeared in the United States. Interestingly, the first reported incident of black women's resistance to unfair treatment occurred in San Francisco in 1866, when the wealthy abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant sued the city's trolley company after she had been denied a ride. The Montgomery Women's Political Council, an organization of black professional women, had been founded in 1946, when the local chapter of the League of Women Voters refused to integrate. The WPC was already well aware of incidents of harassment by Montgomery bus drivers against black passengers, especially women. By 1953, the WPC had collected some thirty complaints against the bus company. Between 1950 and 1955, Robinson and other WPC members met regularly with the mayor of Montgomery, persistently protesting a pattern of abusive behavior ranging from obscene language and general rudeness on drivers' part toward black patrons, to buses that stopped at every block in white neighborhoods but only every two blocks in black areas, to drivers who made blacks pay at the front, then get off the bus to re-enter at the back door, often leaving before the black passenger was back on board. Worst of all, since 70 percent of passengers were black, reserving some ten double-seats for whites often meant that black passengers were standing over empty seats. Over several years, a host of black civil rights and civic groups repeatedly brought their concerns to the mayor and city government, but got nowhere. By 1955, the mayor told a delegation from the Women's Political Council that if bus patrons "were not satisfied, they could always drive their own cars!"
Little did Mayor W. A. Gayle dream of becoming a prophet. On December 1, 1955, Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks, riding home on a city bus with a full bag of groceries, defied local segregation ordinances by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Parks was, of course, not the first African American in Montgomery to challenge either the legal or the social practice of bus segregation; she was acting on behalf of a community of civil rights activists who had for some years sought the "right" person
to test the segregation ordinance. As a middle-aged, professionally skilled, prominent African American woman, her gender, age, and class figured, alongside race, in the decision to make hers the test case. Jo Ann Robinson noted the significance of gender when she invoked Parks's right to be treated like a lady: she "was a woman, and the person waiting was a man."
On the night of Parks's arrest, Robinson and others went, about midnight, to their offices at Alabama State (a perilous move, considering the general notion that black women should not go about alone at night in southern towns). There, they drafted a letter of protest, calling for a citywide one-day boycott of the bus lines. They mimeographed tens of thousands of notices of the proposed December 5 action, invoking the notion of feminine dignity insulted, and also making themselves present where they had not before been, with the printed declaration, "Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail . . . The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or your mother."
They delivered their leaflets (by private car) all over town, to "schools, businesses, beauty parlors, beer halls, factories." On December 5, 1955, black taxi drivers charged passengers only ten cents a ride, and some two hundred private automobiles joined forces to transport Montgomery's black bus riders. In a mass action "comparable in precision to a military operation," 90 percent of Montgomery's bus riders stayed off the city line. This would prove to be only the first day in thirteen months of stalwart protest, confrontation, negotiation, and perhaps most unusual of all, independent, alternative volunteer mass transit. Operating out of forty-three dispatch and forty-two pick-up stations, 325 private automobiles arrived every ten minutes between the hours of 5 and 10 A.M. and 1 and 8 P.M., with hourly pick-ups during the rest of the day. Many Montgomery residents, black and white, also gave rides on a more haphazard basis. As contributions arrived from around the nation, the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association and local churches purchased station wagons, hired drivers, and bought gasoline.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott blasted the first hole in the wall of de jure racism in the American South. Jo Ann Robinson was there every mile of every day, editing the MIA newsletter, organizing car pools on an unprecedented scale, preparing the defense of those ride pools when segregationist officials tried to prohibit them, herself offering rides to boycotters day after day. When, a year into the boycott, the Montgomery Police Commissioner joined the White Citizens' Council, Robinson re-dedicated herself to the struggle in a highly symbolic way: "I put my car in the garage and walked. . . . I suffered with my colleagues and peers."
The car (a Chrysler) suffered too. One night, the police came by her house and threw acid on it, and Robinson experienced the automotive body
damage as a kind of combat wound, proof of valor to be displayed with pride. "I kept that car . . . until 1960, after I had resigned from Alabama State. It had become the most beautiful car in the world to me. I turned it in for a new one only when I moved to California, for I did not think the Chrysler would hold up through the deserts I had to cross."
In 1960, segregationists in the Alabama legislature launched an investigation of "subversives" and forced a dozen of Alabama State's most outspoken faculty to resign. Robinson taught briefly at Grambling, but soon decided to move to be near friends in Los Angeles. She was wise to buy a new car, since she made the journey across the Great American Desert long before the interstate highway system had made reliable roads commonplace in the South and West. And though the move to Los Angeles took her further than she had ventured before, it was certainly in character for a woman who had already made a living in four states—Georgia, Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana. Robinson had again and again seized the opportunity to move from one place to another, to get away from a bad situation, and seek a better one. But just as surely, she did not take mobility for granted. If her experience in the bus boycott had taught her the importance of contesting geographical constraints based on race, she also knew the ways in which gender, as an economic, occupational, and intellectual structure, impeded women's power to move. She avowed that her professional achievements, something women didn't generally have, gave her courage to leave. As she recalled, "I had been less afraid than most women, because I knew I could get teaching positions elsewhere." Robinson taught English in the Los Angeles public schools, where she worked until her retirement in 1976, remaining active in civic and social work. After she retired, she did what good Angelenos at least aspire to do, investing successfully in real estate.
Jo Ann Robinson started out life as a southerner, but a notably mobile citizen of that region. She became involved in the cause that, in her words, "gave me courage" as a middle-aged professional, contributing to the Montgomery Bus Boycott struggle her eloquence as well as her political savvy and energy. The story of her life, thus, can be read as a dramatic narrative that crests in the 1950s, in the southern United States. During the period of her life deemed most significant by historians, she was at the center of a conflict that, more than virtually any other in American history, demonstrated the race, class, and gender politics of the interconnected domains of public space, personal mobility, and human dignity.
But lives do not hold still, waiting for their stories to be written as dramas. Ironically, the role she played in organizing the boycott, and in seeing it through to its successful conclusion, made it impossible for her to stay in Montgomery. Neither did the significance of her participation become apparent to most students of the struggle until her memoir was published in
1987. By that time she was more than seventy years old, retired, and living quietly on the Pacific Coast, far from the place of her birth. Even after retirement, she remained active in a variety of civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters and Black Women's Alliance, gave one day a week of free service to the Los Angeles city government, worked in a child care center and in senior citizens' assistance, and played contract bridge.
For more than thirty years, Jo Ann Robinson lived at the Pacific edge of the trans-Mississippi West, and it was from the West that her voice rang across the wire to David Garrow, offering to give him a ride. Wondering how western women's history might come to terms with such a reflective, moving subject forces us to recognize, once again, that lives like Jo Ann Robinson's persist beyond the borders of political events and burst the boundaries of region, demanding respect on their own complex terms.
Can we call Robinson a "western woman"? Certainly, in some senses, we can. After all, the literature of "western women's history" is full of individuals who moved into the West from some other region, many of whom spent far less time in the West, and contributed less of consequence to any western community than Robinson has. Annie Oakley came from Ohio and never actually lived in the West. Isabella Bird, always an Englishwoman, headed into the West by coming east from Hawaii, had her Rocky Mountain adventure, and left the country. Esther Morris, the vaunted "mother of woman suffrage," was a native of New York. Jo Ann Robinson is surely as much a part of "western women's history" as are these canonical figures, and her memoirs can be read as an affirmation of the not yet entirely moribund theme that the West is the place to make a new start.
Still, to claim her entirely for the subfield of western women's history would be to appropriate her life in a cynical and even pathetic bid for scholarly legitimacy; it wouldn't be, in any responsible sense, true. What Robinson's story reminds us is that nobody is only one thing, a statement that is by now a postmodern bromide. More pertinent to my point today, Robinson's picaresque tale returns us to the insights of Chicana and Chicano scholars and others who have argued that the term "West" is itself a totalizing and value-laden example of the link between power and knowledge. Listening to Robinson's story teaches us the particular lesson that female mobility renders suspect the very category of "western women's history." When women move, region may not always be a useful way of classifying or analyzing their lives.
When people of either sex move, moreover, what seems most stable in their identities may be reconfigured. The most salient component of Jo Ann Robinson's identity in 1950s Alabama was her racial status, then termed "Negro" or "colored." I don't wish to argue the silly position that race didn't or doesn't matter in the West, but the significance of migration to African American history, and to transformations of African American identity, is certainly
well known. It is, moreover, a commonplace of western history, as currently practiced, and of United States women's history, as a consequence of the gradual acceptance of work on western women into the canon of American women's history, that conceptualizing of race relations in dualistic, black/white terms distorts the multicultural historical experience of American women. While historians have devoted the most attention to black migration from the Southeast to Northeast in the period between 1920 and 1960, Robinson's story suggests that movement to and through the West offers a fertile field of inquiry for historians of African Americans as well as western historians, as the work of Quintard Taylor, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Shirley Ann Moore, Douglas Flamming, and others demonstrates.
Western history, women's history, and African American history as scholarly endeavors help us understand Jo Ann Gibson Robinson's life. But Robinson's is a story of a woman in motion, and taking mobility seriously forces us to question the stability of our most cherished historical categories of analysis. As we think about the person, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, moving bodily through space, and about her words, reproduced and available to people who will never meet her, who may be born long after she is gone, reacting in unforeseeable ways to her disembodied presence in their lives, we must ask whether the time has come to imagine history anew. David Hollinger has responded to the radical potential of postmodern theory, and the political challenges of multiculturalism, with a call for "postethnic history." Is it perhaps time, as well, for a postwestern history? Jo Ann Gibson Robinson's story, southern and western but not exclusively or wholly either, is remarkable, but in so many ways, far from unique. People who aren't supposed to get around-African Americans, or women, who for whatever reason are supposed to know their place—somehow find room to move. Coming to terms with surprisingly mobile people like Robinson makes me, as a sometime historian of the American West, suddenly conscious of the weight of the western frame, suddenly alert, edgy, and restless.