Elevate Difference

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching

Southern Horrors explores the racial and sexual politics of the Post Civil War South predominantly through the political writings, speeches, and lives of two prominent female figures of the era. Feimster describes the period through Rebecca Latimer Felton, a white woman from the stately plantation class, educated and raised during antebellum south, and Ida B. Wells, a the daughter of former slaves, raised during the reconstruction era.

The author begins by describing the two women’s origins and how they came to rally around the issues of rape and women’s protection. “Protection”, in this context, is what would be, in modern times, included in the definition of women’s suffrage. It was a push for women to obtain the right to own property, have a bank account, inherit estates, and seek justice for wrongdoings or violence done against them. Both Felton and Wells were revolutionary in their own ways, challenging and breaking through the gender norms and expectations of the era. However, their experiences were staunchly different and in many ways based solely upon their racial identities.

I found it intriguing that Feimster chose to follow both a white woman and a black woman to describe the sexual and gender violence embedded in early twentieth century politics. The strategy definitely helped to paint the entire picture of the conflicting struggles of the Southern reconstruction. On the one hand, there was a push to preserve traditional Southern norms; on the other, pressure from the black community for inclusion and equality.

Both women were particularly fascinating, especially in their approaches and ideologies. Wells highlighted that the threat of rape and sexual assault was used as a tool of control, a justification of violence against women, and a way to maintain white male supremacist power. She was a radical voice and decades ahead of her time; her ideas were characteristic of activists of the women's movement in the United States in the 1960s. Felton started her political career by advocating for rights and protection for all women, regardless of race or class, but later completely switched her views to better appeal to the male audiences and supporters.

My initial reaction to Felton’s shift in politics was outrage. I was terribly disappointed, though not surprised, in her neglect and discarding of black women’s issues. I saw a parallel of second wave feminist activism and marginalization of women of color in Felton’s shift. Her lack of conviction was frustrating and left me wondering how history may have been altered if she had held true. The text also discusses more general ideas of Southern white masculinity, black masculinity, the convict leasing system, the politics behind lynching, and both women’s involvement in and victimization of lynching.

I admire and respect the way in which Feimster presented the two women. Her analysis of the events was critical and highly thought provoking, and I often found myself sitting lost in thought after finishing a chapter. While not a leisurely read, it was enjoyable overall. There was quite a bit of material to process and think about, and I often found myself wishing I had someone to discuss it with.

While it is relatively easy to find people to discuss the issues of race and class in the South in general terms, to really engage in the material presented proved more difficult. This book would be an excellent basis of discussion on early women’s movement and the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. It also presents many hidden histories of the South, which can be shocking and intense at times.

Written by: Liz Martin, February 7th 2010

thanks for this review. i'm eager to read about 2 vastly different perspectives.