Title: "Cloaking an Apology for Lawlessness": Ida B. Wells, Frances Willard and the Lynching Controversy, 1890-1894
Author: Amy Hackett
Advisor: Jean Humez
Between 1890 and 1894, as calls to protect the honor of white womanhood abounded in an American society ripe with conflict over race, gender and morality, there erupted a controversy over lynching between social reformer Frances Willard, the president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. Ida B. Wells vehemently protested lynching, arguing that the justification for lynching predicated on the black rape of white women was a myth created by white men as an excuse to lynch black men in attempts to regain political and economic power in the post-Civil War era. Wells also radically contended that white women were engaging in these types of relationships, even seducing black men, deceiving white society by denying that relationships could be consensual, and then standing by while African American men were lynched for rape. Her suggestion that white women might voluntarily engage in sexual relationships with black men, provocatively challenged the concepts of the purity, chastity and morality of white womanhood central to the conceptual framework of the W.C.T.U.
As the president of one of America's foremost social reform organizations, Frances Willard called for the protection of the purity of white womanhood from threats to morality and safety. In her attempts to bring Southern women into the W.C.T.U., Frances Willard accepted the rape myth and publicly condoned lynching and the color line in the South. Wells argued that as a Christian reformer, Willard should be speaking out against lynching, but instead seemed to support the position of Southerners. While Willard strongly refuted Wells' claims and made statements denouncing lynching, she continued to accept the rape myth, denying that white women could possibly take part in sexual relationships with black men. For Willard, accepting Wells' position on voluntary interracial sex would have meant admitting that true white women were not pure, chaste and moral, undercutting the basic conceptual underpinnings of her organization.
This paper examines the lynching controversy between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells as a lens through which to view the broader subject of race relations in white-founded social reform movements, especially the issues of white womanhood, African American manhood, and sexuality in the late nineteenth century America. First, this paper explains Frances Willard's personal and professional background, as well as the early history of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. I focus on how Willard's childhood experiences shaped her understanding of the "woman question" and her interest in education and social reform. I also explore how Willard's political strategy as the president of the W.C.T.U., specifically in recruiting Southern white women and African American women to membership, had consequences for her position in the lynching controversy. Second, this paper focuses on Wells' personal and professional background and how she came to commit her energies to a campaign against lynching. In this section, I focus on Wells' personal experience as a single African American woman in the South, and how she turned to protest of racial discrimination as a central focus of her professional career. In both of the first two sections, I argue that the early experiences of both women shaped their approaches to activism and the values they espoused in their advocacy.
Third, this paper details the lynching controversy itself, providing an analysis of the debate through examining the speeches and publications of Wells and Willard on the lynching between 1890 and 1894. Lastly, this paper attempts to explain why Wells and Willard were unable to come to any agreement on the lynching controversy. Central to this discussion is understanding how Wells and Willard envision protection for women. Willard's and Wells' concepts of protection for women included an implicit stance on white and black sexuality, as well as white womanhood and black manhood, particularly in the context of the debate. Ultimately, Wells and Willard spoke at cross purposes and were unable to see each other's positions.
In this paper, I utilize the speeches and publications of Wells and Willard between 1890 and 1894, which convey their positions on race relations, concepts of womanhood, lynching and rape, to produce a complex picture of the lynching controversy. In order to develop an understanding of Wells' personal history and position on the controversy, I extensively rely upon Wells' autobiography, Crusade for Justice, and Patricia Schechter's recent biography of Wells, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930, as well as other biographical works on Wells. Similarly, I make extensive use of Willard's published journal and Ruth Bordin's biography on Willard, Frances Willard: A Biography, and her book on the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Woman and Temperance, in addition to other biographies written on Willard (although these biographies are quite dated) to explain Willard's background and the history of the W.C.T.U. I also utilize scholarship on Southern sexual politics, lynching and concepts of white womanhood, including works by Paula Baker, Robyn Wiegman, Gail Bederman, Glenda Gilmore and Hazel Carby.
This paper may be of interest to students and scholars of history and American Studies who are examining race relations in white-founded social reform movements in America in the late nineteenth century. This paper is specifically relevant of those examining issues of white womanhood, African American manhood and sexuality during this time. Lastly, this paper may be of particular interest to those focused on examining the link between power and sexuality in the political and social climate of Reconstruction, and the consequences for the African American community.