Ida B. Wells “Other” Crusade
We have just seen a very difficult ruling by the Supreme Court. Today, I am looking back through history at Ida B. Wells and her other fight with white feminists and conservative women.
Most people know Ida B. Wells-Barnett for her anti-lynching crusade. Her pamphlet Red Record and the many, many articles in newspapers across the nation and in her own newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, and the many speeches and lectures in the United States and Great Britain helped shine a light on one of America’s most heinous racial crime. The rash of lynchings that spanned across the United States totaled in the thousands from the end of the Civil War until well into the 1900s.
Let me say this: though the bulk of the lynchings occurred in the American South, lynching is killing anyone without due process of the law and it became a horrific American nightmare after the Civil War. Before the emancipation of African American slaves, which was actually1865, though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, lynching occurred mainly in the United States’ West and white men were its main victims. After Black men entered the capitalist system as competitors rather than free laborers, the extralegal method was used to control them. While the overwhelming amount of victims were men, Black women were lynched as well. And while we think of lynching victims as being hung, lynching is any extralegal killing. Sometimes, victims were tortured for hours, mutilated, burned alive, castrated, and even decapitated. Almost 5,000 people were lynched in the United States total. Some historians try to place an exact total, but meticulous records were not kept for the mob rule of Black people and I will refrain from placing an exact number here. Various people and civil rights organizations fought lynching in many different ways. For example, from 1920 until 1938, the NAACP flew a devastating flag. It simply said, “A man was lynched yesterday.”
Yet, the anti-lynching crusade is not the major focus of this blog post. I know. I know. I want it to be, too! It’s fascinating stuff! Ida B. Wells was one bold woman. She was a gun advocate, journalist, mother, an astute business woman, and a teacher at one point. She sued the railroad of Tennessee in a lawsuit that stripped bare the intent of “separate but equal” law in America years before Plessy vs. Ferguson, though Wells’ lawsuit is overlooked by history.
Okay, I promise, Reader, that I am getting to the point of the blog. For those of you who have read before, you know how I do. For those of you who have stumbled upon my humble page, hang tight. I am a professor who had a Tuesday/Thursday rotation for YEARS. I can be rather long-winded. I am going to wrap it all up nice and neat. I promise. If you want to learn more about lynching, find it here in an excellent article by the NAACP and their fight: https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/history-lynching-america
The point of this blog is that Ida B. Wells had another, equally forceful crusade that no one talks or writes about much. While attacking white supremacists and lynchers, she attacked white women and white feminists for their role in upholding white male supremacy.
Wells’ attack was two-fold. First, she attacked the more conservative white women who aspired to the tenets of something called The Cult of True Womanhood or the Cult of Domesticity. I would like to define that more fully in this blog, but Barbara Welter wrote that signal essay: https://english.hku.hk/staff/kjohnson/PDF/WelterBarbaraCULTWOMANHOODinAQ1966.pdf
“True Women” were upper-middle-class women who stayed in the home, away from the public arena of politics and worked to make the home pleasant. As a matter of fact, the gateway for women into education was through home economics. Some women’s educations consisted of “finishing schools.” Women learned needle-point and how to nurse their sick children and how to properly fold a napkin. At this time, a woman’s education was expected to contribute to the well-being of the home. Universities as prestigious as Cornell only admitted women as home economics majors at one point. “True women” were expected to be submissive to husbands, never work outside the home, and to pray for the wayward souls and natures of their menfolk.
To this, Wells crafted an “alternative” version of womanhood. Wells defined what she called, “nobler womanhood.” In an op ed titled, “The Model Woman” penned for the New York Freeman, published February 18, 1888, Wells directly confronts the Cult of True Womanhood. Wells implies that Black women are faced with too much work for such frivolity as embodied by the Cult of True Womanhood: “Nor is the stiff, formal, taught girl the ideal. The field is too broad and the work too great, our people are at once too hospitable and resentful to yield such one much room in their hearts.” The noble woman works inside the home and outside of the home in order to uplift her race. She has impeccable manners and works to erase the stigma of immorality from Black people in the public.
Wells admits that such a woman does not exist: “This type of Negro girl may not be found so often as she might, but she is the pattern after which all others copy.” Most people do not know this, but Wells attempted fiction as well. Her fictional characters were model, noble women. “A Story of 1900, (1886)” and “Two Christmas Days: A Holiday Story(1894)” feature single women who model the behavior of Wells’ noble women. The first is a teacher who realizes that her position is to do more than impart academic facts, but to be a moral leader for her students. The second story directly attacks the Cult of True Womanhood by demonstrating that a woman is in no way responsible for a man’s wayward behavior. The leading lady’s love interest, the only Black lawyer in Memphis, is an alcoholic. She is not responsible for his alcoholism and cannot simply pray him away from drink. He, an adult male, must desire to restore his own health. Eventually, the man moves away to the West (a popular migration destination at the time) and the leading lady proposes marriage to her love (a daring move even for our time, don’t you think?)!
While Wells criticizes those white women who aspire to the Cult, Wells was unafraid to attack white feminists for their racism. Unabashedly, Wells reports to her British audiences that there are almost no Black members of the Young Women’s Christian’s Association and the Women Christian’s Temperance Union. And while she mentions Susan B. Anthony in at least one of her writings, Wells EXPLICITLY points out that almost all of her financial support is from Black people. This angers many whites, but Wells did not care.
Okay, this comes directly from my own publishing notebook.