By definition, Martin Luther King Day both celebrates the end of racial segregation and reminds us of a past this country can never live down. For feminists, a particularly painful aspect of that past is the segregation of the early fight for women’s suffrage. With her new book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lyching , historian Crystal N. Feimster provides an opportunity to better understand the lack of sympathy between black and white suffragists and how lynching spurred both to the political activism that eventually won women the vote.
Feimster tracks white mob violence-and women’s views of it-from the end of the Civil War to the early 1930s through the perspectives of two prominent suffragists, black journalist Ida B. Wells and white activist Rebecca Latimer Felton. Both used lynching as a platform in their fight for women’s voting rights, but in very different ways.
Felton, a plantation daughter and lifelong segregationist, began to speak out for women’s rights after watching Confederate soldiers abandon Southern women to defend themselves against oncoming Union troops. She began her career lobbying white men to quit their drinking and philandering-mostly with black women-and protect the white women raised to depend on them.
Instead of heeding this criticism, white men began directing public attention to black men’s supposedly rabid appetite for raping white women. As Feimster demonstrates, Southern newspapers of the period gave ample coverage to incidents of black men raping white women but seldom mentioned cases of white men raping anyone, white or black, in the rare cases that women dared report. White men then used the myth of rampant black-on-white rape as a primary justification for lynching.
Ida B. Wells made a name for herself challenging that myth. Her pamphlets Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), from which Feimster borrows her title, and A Red Record (1895) exposed how few lynchings were actually related to rape. But for many years, her claims went unheard among white women, in part because women played a powerful and empowering role in many lynchings. For contemporary readers, this section of Feimster’s history is the most disheartening and important. Under the unfortunate heading “Ladies Who Lynch,” Feimster tells us that white women allegedly raped by black men were often allowed to choose their attackers’ punishments and frequently helped mutilate, burn, and shoot the newly hung bodies. Instead of being called unwomanly for their public role in the bloodshed, female lynchers were praised as exemplary protectors of the race. As late as 1934, white women and children still attended lynchings as enthralled spectators, prompting the New Yorker to run this chilling illustration by Reginald Marsh. White women’s groups didn’t formally acknowledge that most lynchings had nothing to do with rape until after women won the vote, for which they had long felt in competition with black men. And the federal government never passed any of the nearly two hundred pieces of legislation introduced in Congress between 1900 and 1950 to protect African Americans from mob violence.
There are places where Southern Horrors could be tighter, and it’s odd that Feimster mentions the 19 th amendment only in passing, instead making Rebecca Felton’s appointment as the first female U.S. Senator, a historic but basically honorary event, the climax of her narrative. Still, this account leaves us with a sense of what made the fights for racial equality and women’s suffrage so complicated and contentious. We’re left, too, with an appreciation of the gumption both Wells and Felton showed entering a political fray resistant to their participation and unable to conceive of changes that seem so obviously necessary in hindsight.