Crystal N. Feimster, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has made a fascinating side-by-side study of two Southern women
- one black, one white, both suffragettes, both staunch supporters of the rights of women, in particular the rights of women to the sanctity of their bodies and the freedom from the male oppression of rape.
The black protagonist, Ida Wells, was born in Mississippi in 1862, the daughter of slaves. Rebecca Felton was a daughter of slave owners, born in 1835 on a Georgia plantation. Both campaigned against violence towards women and against male domination through rape.
Wells sought to publicize her skepticism of the myth that all lynchings of black men sprang from the crime of rape, arguing (notably in her article “Southern Horrors”) that by postulating rape as the cause, lynching became,
in the minds of white men and women, fully justified. She herself had believed this until she did a study of some notable allegations of rape of a white
Southern female followed by the violent, often savage, slaughter of the accused black male. Wells “introduced a scenario in which black women suffered sexual violence at the hands of white men and black men fell victim to white mob violence for engaging in consensual relationships with white women.” The ideas she propagated were far ahead of her time.
Felton campaigned against rape and for women’s rights, but from the other side of the lynching issue. She herself encouraged white men to prove their worth by taking the law into their own hands, summarily, sometimes with grotesque cruelty, eliminating the alleged perpetrators of rape. According to Feimster, “despite the patriarchal and sexist rhetoric of the black rape of white women and of the lynching mob, white women found their participation in racial violence empowering and essential to the privileges of their womanhood.” Felton, known as a respectable and vigorous supporter of women’s rights, was party to the vicarious blood sport of lynching.
The backdrop of this historical/political work is the Jim Crow South, post-Civil War up to the 1930s, when many black men and women (there is a list of some 200 women in the book) were barbarically murdered by lynch mobs for crimes as vague as “race hatred” or as antiquated as miscegenation (many lynchings of women included mob rape). These vigilante actions were not mere hangings as is often supposed, but sometimes took the form of burning the victim alive or mutilating the body before burning, choking or shooting. Sometimes these barbaric retributions were carried out at the stated behest of the alleged female victim, allowing women to feel a sense of their own political power by encouraging and glorying in the manly deeds of their sons and husbands. The picture painted is grisly, dark and terrifying; our only comfort is that we have as a culture progressed beyond such mob violence.
The dynamic of both black and white women’s frustration at being distanced from the processes of government is starkly portrayed in this thoroughly documented book, shedding new light on the rationale behind the early suffrage movement and the variety of women who battled for parity in the system.