Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching

Article excerpt

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. By Crystal N. Feimster. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. [x], 314. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-03562-1.)

In June 2005 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to pass an antilynching law in the first half of the twentieth century despite the introduction of almost two hundred such bills. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who sponsored the resolution, singled out the chief engine behind the antilynching law, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. "To her," Senator Landrieu remarked, "we owe a great deal of gratitude" (p. 233).

In this elegantly written monograph, Crystal N. Feimster examines Ida Wells's tireless efforts to protest and expose the heinousness of extralegal racial violence in the postbellum South and to garner national and international support for measures intended to challenge white mob violence against African Americans. Wells, the daughter of Mississippi slaves, ridiculed the double standard of white men who raped black women with impunity while lynching black men whom they falsely accused of assaulting white women. Her efforts at publicizing racial injustice, however, often elicited criticism from more conservative black leaders who recoiled from Wells's assertiveness, her unwillingness to "[know] her place" as a woman (p. 103).

The other principal in this work, Rebecca Latimer Felton, daughter of a wealthy Georgia slaveholding family, also faced criticism from more conservative members of her race for doing much the same as Wells had: speaking up about racial and sexual violence. Felton is best known as the first female U.S. senator, albeit symbolically and only for a day in 1922, and for delivering a speech in 1897 in which she notoriously supported the lynching of alleged black rapists of white women, unequivocally demanding, "Lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary" (p. 127). Feimster's strategy of pairing the public lives of these two very different southern women--one an African American advocate for black civil rights, the other a white supremacist--forces the reader to consider the heart of the author's argument: that despite pursuing differing agendas, both women recognized the vulnerability of women in a society in which sexual and economic protection hinged on men's ability and willingness to protect them. Both women deduced that only through greater political empowerment and engagement, namely through suffrage, could women achieve much-needed reforms including protection from sexual violence. Though taking very different paths, Felton and Wells arrived at the same conclusion.

A number of significant works about the life and contributions of Ida B. …

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