Book of the week: Southern Horrors

Sexual violence was rife in the 19th-century US, as Mary Evans discovers

December 3, 2009

Southern Horrors is the history of two 19th-century women, Rebecca Felton and Ida Wells, who, in rather different ways, campaigned in the southern states of the United States against sexual violence towards women. From that brief comment it might be assumed that the women had shared views and experiences of the world. In this case, nothing could be further from the truth, since Felton was the white daughter of a prosperous slaveholding family, while Wells was the black daughter of slaves.

In their lifetimes, Wells became famous for her campaigns against lynching, while Felton achieved notoriety for demands that the white public should "lynch a thousand (black men) a week". But Crystal Feimster's fascinating study encourages us not to stop at a point where our stereotypes about the post-bellum South are confirmed.

It is certainly the case that the two women acted in ways that conform to our taken-for-granted expectations, but they also departed from these patterns, and Feimster's account challenges us to think again about race and sexual politics.

The social world and the politics in which we can place these women is that of the southern US in the years after the end of the Civil War, a world in which many issues about race, class and the authority of the state had been left entirely unresolved. E.L. Doctorow's 2005 novel The March gives something of the flavour of those times, with confusion, furious antagonisms and hatreds becoming the everyday reality for millions of people. Among those many conflicts (and the conflict that is the central concern of this book) was that of sexual politics: in particular the construction, Feimster argues, of the "black rapist", the "powerful political tool for violently maintaining white male supremacy while also denying African-Americans their rights as citizens".

So far, so sadly familiar. But what Feimster does with this material is to study the ways in which two very different women "marshaled narratives of rape and lynching for their own political empowerment". In the case of Wells, it is not difficult to place her work within a spectrum of other 19th- and 20th-century campaigns for civil rights; she stands in the great tradition of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs. The case for seeing Felton as a defender of women's rights is more difficult: in the first pages of this book, it is hard to see her as anything other than a white woman defending privileges of race and class.

Then we read on and learn that although lynching in the southern states was certainly a mob punishment generally directed by white men against black men, the same form of punishment was inflicted by the same people on transgressive white women. One of the most startling statistics in Feimster's study is the fact that "between 1880 and 1930, whites who took the law into their own hands killed at least 26 white women".

These women, such as an unfortunate woman called Mrs West, whose story is cited here, were the victims of unproven accusations of various crimes, from murder to (in the case of Mrs West) the charge, in the words of a local newspaper, that "she was far from good-looking".

It is in the context of events such as these that it is possible to begin to see the nature of the possible alliance, if not exactly sisterhood, between Felton and Wells. Both women were protesting about violence: the violence by men against women and the refusal of communities to offer protection. But Felton clearly remains a problematic heroine: she continued to divide the female population in terms of race even as she became more involved in campaigns for women's suffrage. She campaigned tirelessly for white women's right to vote, and for a recognition of the violence and cruelty that white women often faced, while arguing vehemently against suffrage and civil rights for African-Americans.

Despite fates such as that of Mrs West, it is impossible to come away from a reading of Feimster's book with the impression that all women, white or black, were equally vulnerable to various forms of attack. White women, whether rich or poor, were protected by their race in ways that black women were not. Feimster does not attempt to challenge this account of a historical reality.

But two things do emerge clearly from her rich and detailed account: the first is that the politics of sexual violence were not just a matter for the southern US, and the second is that of the frailty (nationally) of legal processes. The idea of the long arm of the law was not one that had much credence in the US of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is this sense of uncontrolled community violence that is so much part of this narrative. In the 21st century we often remark on the enthusiasm with which individuals in the US engage with the law; reading Feimster, it is a form of activity that all of us would enthusiastically support.

Yet this part of the narrative of Feimster's study is not given, perhaps, the emphasis that it deserves or that a discussion of its implications might merit. Very few societies have been free from lynch mobs (or such later versions of this phenomenon as figurative lynching through the invasions of the media), but the scale of the acceptance of the practice (rather than simply the practice itself) is perhaps something worth considering in terms of the later history of the US. The work of Rebecca Felton and Ida Wells engaged with the implications of a form (although not a unique one) of sexual politics, and Feimster's account should be rightly acclaimed as testament to these projects.

But at the same time there is a powerful case for taking this work further: to consider the making of a social and political psyche that believed in the right of a community to combat - without recourse to a framework of law - the punishment of what was constructed as evil.

The genesis of both interventionist politics and litigious enthusiasm do not lie solely in the sexual politics of the 19th-century US. Nevertheless, the conflicts and the struggles that Feimster so powerfully recounts contribute to the making of a national history and a civic culture.

Furthermore, the women at the heart of this book acted because of feelings of vulnerability, a personal and social experience that is central to the lives of millions of human beings. Yet, as this book demonstrates so well, reactions to this perception are not always generous to others.

THE AUTHOR

Crystal Feimster, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a proud "Southern girl".

Although she tells herself that her work grows primarily out of her intellectual interests, she admits that her upbringing in North Carolina, "the heart of Ku Klux Klan territory", does have a lot to do with her current research.

"When I think about being an African-American in the rural South, I think 'what a drag' - but I am extremely proud to be Southern. It isn't this horrible backward place that we all imagine."

The media play their part in perpetuating the myth of the South as "conservative and backward", she says, complaining that this "erases the reality of what it means to be black in the South."

This myth, she is quick to point out, extends to those in the North, as well. "There's a sense that you must love the North because it's this liberal place - but it just means the racism is more subtle."

An avid reader, Feimster says that given the choice between a history text and a novel, she would pick a novel every time: "History is work."

While teaching at Boston College, Feimster developed a passion for the Boston Red Sox baseball team, which she has tried to pass on to her three-year-old son. However, she says: "Despite our every effort, he has resisted. He keeps saying, 'I like the Yankees'."

Feimster is also a keen knitter who describes herself as a big fan of "stitch and bitch" groups. She sometimes manages to combine her pastime and her profession by knitting discreetly while she takes in a lecture.

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching

By Crystal N. Feimster

Harvard University Press

336pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674035621

Published 26 November 2009

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