Crystal N. Feimster examines the racial and sexual politics of the postbellum South through the biographical lens of two prominent women activists, Rebecca Latimer Felton and Ida B. Wells. Grounding the historical narrative in the lives of these two women, Feimster traces the shifting political landscape of the late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century South and shows how black and white women negotiated a place in politics. She argues that as women forced their way onto the public stage in the aftermath of the Civil War, they "marshaled narratives of rape and lynching for their own political empowerment" (p. 5). While Felton and Wells took up separate charges throughout their lives—Felton was a spokeswoman for the protection of white southern womanhood and Wells the leader in antilynching campaigns—Feimster points to how both drew on the antislavery feminism of the Grimké sisters and provided foundations for interracial antilynching and women's-rights campaigns in the 1930s. Southern Horrors, one of only a few books that compare the lives of black and white women activists, shows how race and gender influenced the access of southern women to and uses of a public stage.
Drawing from the autobiographies, diaries, editorials, and speeches of Felton and Wells, Feimster begins the book by detailing the early experiences of the two women. Felton grew up in a wealthy, slaveholding family in De Kalb, Georgia, where she was provided all the accoutrements of a respectable southern lady. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Felton began to question the idea of chivalry and the ability of white men to protect southern womanhood. Wells was [End Page 437] born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to slave parents just a few years before emancipation. Wells's parents would attempt to enact their newfound freedom; yet by the time Wells was a young woman, her parents' entrance into politics had been stymied, and she had witnessed the violent upheavals of the Reconstruction years that led to segregation and to white men regaining control of politics.
In subsequent chapters, Feimster shows how the women's activist careers unfolded. She also examines how, in the turbulent politics of the South, women had to carefully negotiate their claims for women's empowerment and racial equality. For instance, Felton began her female protection campaigns after learning about the rapes of black female convicts, arguing for the protection of all women regardless of race; however, as she became more deeply entrenched in southern politics and as southern politics became more enveloped by white-supremacist ideology, Felton gave up her interracial concerns in favor of sole protection of white womanhood, even if it meant giving up legal justice for black men. Wells also developed her stances on lynching and rape with an eye to contemporary politics, yet she did so without sacrificing one race of women for another. Rather, Wells understood keenly and often wrote about the "contradictions that lay at the heart of white Southerners' justification of lynching: victims of lynching were seldom black men accused of rape, nor were they always men" (p. 158). Through exhaustive research of newspaper accounts of rapes and lynching, Feimster further analyzes the dizzyingly complicated sexual politics of the South. In one particularly compelling, if jarring, chapter, she recounts the lynching of black and poor white women between 1880 and 1930. With this beautifully written history, Feimster adds much to our knowledge of southern black and white women's attempts to carve out a place in the white supremacist politics of the South, and she significantly deepens our understanding of sexual and racial politics that structured the Jim Crow South. [End Page 438]
Jessica Wilkerson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.