Desiring Citizenship: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Wells/Willard Controversy

Article excerpt

The debate between Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) and Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) concerning the horrors of lynching in the 1890s was also, and l argue fundamentally, about the expansion of citizenship. A rhetorical analysis of this public argument, which spanned nearly a decade and took place before national and international audiences, offers a glimpse into how sexual desire, race, and gender functioned as mutually constitutive categories of identity in turn-of-the-century struggles for suffrage. Keywords: Frances E. Willard, Ida B. Wells, suffrage, lynching, sexual desire, nineteenth-century reform

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On October 23, 1890, the Voice, a temperance publication based in New York, interviewed Frances E. Willard, (1) the second national president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), about the "race problem" in the South. Willard, a "Northern temperance woman," who had "spoken and worked in perhaps 200 ... [Southern] towns and cities," offered her perspective as a sympathetic expert-outsider to the region ("The Race Problem" 8). Beginning with the declaration, "I am a true lover of the Southern people," Willard shared the harsh reality of Southern life with her Northern audience: "The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt." She asserted, "The grog shop is its centre of power. The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment so that [white] men dare not go beyond the sight of their own roof-tree" (8). In statements such as these littered throughout the interview, Willard attributed the South's racial problems to one categorical culprit: the drunken black beast rapist, in so doing, she tapped into the cultural capital of this mythical figure, which was frequently invoked to deny the ballot to black men following Reconstruction. In characterizing black men as drunken threats to the safety of the white home, more pointedly, Willard extended central aspects of the "lynch-for-rape" mythology, a justificatory narrative propagated by white supremacist Southerners who defended the act of lynching black men by claiming that it was retributive punishment inflicted for the rape of white women. (2)

Ida B. Wells, (3) a renowned journalist and anti-lynching crusader, began challenging Willard's characterization of black men in 1891, and continued to publicly refute her racist remarks until Willard's death in 1898. Various speeches, letters, newspaper articles and pamphlets, in addition to several interviews given by the women in both the United States and the United Kingdom, comprise the dispute. Reconstructing the fragments of this larger controversy as they developed over space and time reveals several significant points. Although their exchange is ostensibly about the practice of lynching, the Wells/Willard controversy also features competing claims concerning white women's sexual desire and hence her gendered identity as either a morally superior, passive victim of abuse or a willing participant in interracial sexual desire and activity. In this sense, the Wells/Willard controversy underscores the way in which race, sexual desire, and gender identity mutually constituted one another in turn-of-the-century reform campaigns for women's suffrage and black men's full enfranchisement. Willard's campaign for women's suffrage, for instance, reveals that the competing gendered identities Wells and Willard fashioned for white women, which featured either the presence or absence of sexual desire, directly influenced white women's as well as black men's claims to citizenship. In Willard's case, she could not concede to Wells that white women willfully participated in acts of miscegenation without threatening the premise that women's moral superiority formed the basis for their right to vote. For Wells, on the other hand, the argument that white women were consensually involved with black men supported her contention that the lynch-for-rape mythology, which effectively barred black men from political assertion, was a subterfuge masking Southern white men's efforts to retain exclusive rights of full citizenship. …