On Her Birthday: Ida B. Wells – The Feminist Wire

On Her Birthday: Ida B. Wells

Last Saturday marked Ida B. Wells’ 149th birthday. On July 16, 1862, a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation and three years before the Thirteenth Amendment, the journalist, editor, anti-lynching campaigner, suffragist and feminist was born in Mississippi. The timing is important because of where it places Wells in the traditions of anti-racist and feminist activism. Although periodizing these struggles is never easy, the fact that Wells was too young to remember slavery or experience first-hand the abuse it entailed sets her apart from most of the campaigners that came before her. Her authority was not bolstered by the tales of personal uplift that Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth could tell. Her name was not made in defiance of slavery or wartime action like Frances Harper, Harriet Tubman and Martin Delany. She belonged instead to a generation that had little experience of slavery, or was born in its immediate aftermath; the generation of W. E. B. Du Bois, T. Thomas Fortune, Margaret Murray Washington, Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune. In many ways, Wells—who protested segregation on public transportation before Plessy vs. Ferguson was passed; who confronted lynching more directly than any other campaigner; who condemned the exclusion of African Americans from the 1893 Worlds’ Fair; who helped found the first national Women’s Club; and in 1913, who founded the first black women’s suffrage club—was arguably more radical and less compromising than all of them.

Wells made her separation from slavery clear in her autobiography; her knowledge of it came from her parents only. Her mother “used to tell me how she had been beaten by slave owners and the hard times she had as a slave.” Her father’s only reference to slavery came when her parents’ former mistress asked to see the family. His answer exhibited some of the militancy that Wells would make her signature: “I never want to see that old woman again as long as I live. I’ll never forget how she had [Wells’ mother] stripped and whipped the day after [the master] died, and I am never going to see her…she could have starved to death if I’d had my say so.” The apple fell close to the tree.

While she did not remember slavery herself, her earliest memories were nonetheless framed by some of the phenomena that Du Bois defined as attempts to make African Americans “slaves in everything but name” during Reconstruction. Her father, like many slaves, had no property with which to achieve financial independence. After emancipation, he initially remained apprenticed as a carpenter to his former master, a man who used his economic power as leverage to prevent his apprentice from voting Republican. (Wells’ father refused, only then setting up shop on his own.) Moreover, Wells knew from an extremely young age that the words “Ku Klux Klan” meant “something fearful, by the way my mother walked the floor when my father was out to a political meeting.” Because the Thirteenth Amendment didn’t end racial and gender oppression any more than a presidential proclamation freed any slave, many of injustices Wells protested were no less powerful than those her predecessors encountered. But if Wells was one of the first of the new generation of black activists that did not have access to the credibility and rhetorical devices that experience of slavery gave others before her, the strength of her voice was all the more impressive. If we accept that emancipation saw continuation of exploitation of African Americans by more diffuse and less easily identified means, we must give credit to Wells for seeing beyond the obvious.

Indeed, few contemporaries had a critical eye as keen as Wells’. Arguably her most famous work, her campaign against lynching, reveals just how perceptive she was. A single paragraph she wrote in the Memphis Free Speech (a paper she part-owned—a rare if not unique achievement in itself for a black woman at the time), hit such a nerve among unreconstructed whites Southerners that she was exiled to the North, her life forfeit if she returned to Memphis. In response to the lynching of three black men in May 1892, and the justification given for it, she argued that

“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

In these two sentences, Wells punctured the façade upon which a significant part of Southern racial and gender hierarchies relied. Not only did she state outright what most now consider common knowledge—that the myth of black rapists was just that: a myth. She also realized, perhaps better than anyone before, what white men had to gain from the performance of chivalry that lynching supposedly constituted. When whites lynched black men, the act obviously policed the color line. Just like the Klan violence Wells remembered, it was meant to intimidate the black community into concession to economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement. It helped form the de facto counterpart to the de jure segregation being written into the law books of Southern states. It demonized African Americans, seeking to control them and justify further control. All of this Wells knew, and wrote constantly to help others know.

What set Wells apart from other critics of lynching though, was her awareness that “Southern justice” policed the gender line too. Because although we might read Wells’ concerns over “moral reputation” as an indictment of those white women in consensual interracial relationships who supposedly cried rape when discovered, we might read it another way. It is to white Southern men, after all, that Wells urges caution. Wells’ claim that aspersions were cast on the white woman’s character provided a foil for the kind of feminine victimhood that lynch mobs used to justify violence. By suggesting that white men, and not black men, were guilty of corrupting white women, Wells hinted—albeit within a typically Victorian discourse of moral decline—at the gender oppression at work in vigilante violence.

Wells realized better than any contemporary that lynching reified a gender hierarchy. White women were constructed as perpetual victims by the anxiety over black rapists, always reliant on the so-called chivalry of “gentlemen.” In Wells’ opinion, this “protection” came at another price: the loss of a virtuous reputation that was paramount among middle-class Americans, and the purported justification for of murder. Wells further exposed the double standard of gender violence when, as Mia Bay says, she pointed out that “similar violence… was never used to protect women on the other side of the color line.” Indeed, Wells “interspersed her discussion of lynching with brief accounts of white men who raped African American females.” With this simple rhetorical comparison, Wells made clear that it was not rape itself, but the gains to be made from accusing black men, that motivated Judge Lynch. She even highlighted the insecurity that largely underlay white male violence, appropriating the language of chivalry to question the fitness of American men on a national scale. Her claim that “No nation, savage or civilized, save only the United States  of America, has confessed its inability to protect its women save by hanging, shooting, and burning alleged offenders” was a well-aimed blow, to be sure. No deconstruction of lynching, before or after, was ever as thorough.

Wells’ resistance to both racial and gender inequality reveals a sophisticated political philosophy. A committed campaigner for the rights of both women and African American regardless of gender, she never sacrificed one group for the other, or the black women who inhabited both. She apparently understood what scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw have termed the “intersectionality” of oppression. As her anti-lynching campaign shows, she was keenly aware that sexism, racism and other forms of oppression were mutually constitutive and reliant. While she would have agreed with Elizabeth Cady-Stanton’s assertion that “The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex… It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way,” unlike Cady-Stanton, she would not have printed the racist views of George Francis Train in her newspaper, nor would she have warned that the Fifteenth Amendment meant that “the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish with their low ideas of womanhood” would “dictate the moral codes” for “American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement.” While Wells may have accepted the contemporary association of true womanhood with “respectability,” she never saw that respectability as a purely white domain. Her own battle for suffrage excluded nobody. While Cady-Stanton ended her friendship with Frederick Douglass and his support of African American rights, Wells co-authored with him (as well as Irvine Garland Penn and her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett) a brilliant, but often ignored, pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893).

We must not see, as some white suffragists did, a black woman’s race consciousness as a concession to gender inequality. But at the same time, we must acknowledge that black women were often constricted by what Patricia Ann Schechter has called a “gender division of labor in activism.” She was excluded, as all women were, from prestigious organizations like the Alexander Crummell’s American Negro Academy. This might explain why Wells, though recognized more than many, is not often elevated to the ranks of renown alongside the likes of Du Bois (who was a key member of the ANA) in the historical memory of black activism. (Wells also claimed that Du Bois removed her name from the list of original NAACP founders). It also reveals why much of Wells’ later campaigning took place in Women’s Clubs that were often dismissed at the time (and sometimes still are) as a mere public exhibition of private domesticity, rather than a site of legitimate activism. But no such separation can be made. Well’s club work, particularly her creation of the Women’s Era Club, offered women, especially black women, a public forum from which to build much desired political identities. Furthermore, her newspaper work—writing, editing and ownership—paved the way for the next generation of black women public intellectuals, like Amy Jacques Garvey and Jessie Redmon Fauset, to make their names as socially aware authors. Her feminism went further than suffrage—the press allowed her to defy all attempts to confine her to a private sphere. It is fitting that she is still most remembered for the courage of her journalism.

Wells’ life is testament to the need for unflinching defiance in the face of oppression, of the need to attack that oppression in all its forms simultaneously, and need for analytical faculties that can locate the less obvious, but no less powerful, motives behind it. To me, and doubtless many others, she is the ultimate example of the power of dedicated social criticism. She knew the value of writing, education and social consciousness. In a time when the printed page increasingly loses out to “news” networks that are driven more by desire to entertain or mislead than report with accuracy; as public education and the critical thinking it fosters is valued less and less; and when social welfare is the first item on the fiscal chopping block, the need for a voice as uncompromising and clear as hers grows desperate. To those who value Wells’ legacy, some of her words remind us of how best to preserve it: “the people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”



In addition to my article on Ida B. Wells, the works of some important scholars deserve greater attention, particularly for the feminist perspective they provide.  Hazel V. Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: the Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford University Press, 1987) was fundamental in rehabilitating the place of Wells in the historical record. The work done by Wells’ daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, in securing the publication of Wells’ autobiography, and allowing Wells’ own voice to be heard, was equally important. Finally, Paula J. Giddings’ work, especially her recent autobiography Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (Harper Collins, 2009) has also directly explained and confronted Wells’ ommission from the pantheon of African American and Women’s leadership. Giddings notes that even among her fellow campaigners, Wells’ work was often not given due credit, and that this tradition has continued after her death:

 “the oversights could be explained, in part, by her reputation as a ‘dififcult woman’. Wells was certainly that, even when taking into account the double standard applied to assertive, independent women…On the other hand, history books are filled with the names of combative and highly individualistic people.

“I concluded that Wells’s was the victim of those same progressive movements of which she was part. Predominantly white reform organizations could never subscrive to her views about race; those with race based agendas such as the NAACP, the NACW, and to a lesser extent the Urban League, could not accommodate her views regarding leadership and class.”

As Giddings points out, despite their differences, the NAACP even built on the work already done by Wells regarding lynching, and arguably only gained prominence when they did so. It is all the more ironic and unfair then that this organization “marginalized Wells-Barnett’s contributions, even while it adopted her strategies and perspectives.”

These actions explain why Wells has often been overlooked in the history of African American and Women’s activism, but credit must go to Duster, Carby, and Giddings for managing, in Giddings’ words again, “to render the full testament of a life, which like a restless ghost, seeks its rightful place in history” (7-8). In thanks for her significant contributions, and in remedy of how those contributions are often untold, it is worth wishing Ida B. Wells a happy birthday.

I am grateful for the comments of Profs. Michele Wallace and Hortense Spillers in bringing my attention to these issues.

Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

Mia Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida. B Wells (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009).

Patricia Ann Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).