Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

9

CIVILIZATION, THE DECLINE OF MIDDLE-CLASS MANLINESS, AND IDA B. WELLS’S ANTI-LYNCHING CAMPAIGN (1892-94)

Gail Bederman

Gail Bederman explores the connections of gender, class, and race in her interpretation of Ida B. Wells, black reformer, whose campaign against lynching hinged on her challenges to prevailing rhetorics of manliness. First, Wells countered the stereotype of the black rapist - the African-American man as the emblem of uncontrolled lust and sexual violence - with evidence of white men’s abuse of black women. Then she portrayed lynching as the work of cowardice, debunking white apologists who depicted lynching as manly defense of white women’s purity. Wells’s rhetoric embodied a shrewd understanding of contemporary discourses of masculinity, Bederman argues. Using Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition as a cultural text, Bederman interprets the images of manliness and the middle-class racial ideals that it included. By the late nineteenth century, she argues, definitions of middle-class manhood were threatened by social and economic shifts; in response, ideals of manliness drew more heavily on a notion of civilized white men in contrast to racial “others.”

Bederman concludes her essay by challenging critics of poststructuralist theory who have argued that it directs us away from political action and political understanding. On the contrary, Bederman counters, Wells’s campaign shows that the analysis of discourse may serve the cause of social change.

* * *

For, if civilization means anything, it means self-restraint; casting away self-restraint the white man becomes as

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