Southern Horrors is an eloquently written study of Rebecca Latimer Felton and Ida Barnett Wells, two formidable women at the center of Progressive-era reform politics. Although both entered the public sphere as journalists and both advocated for women's rights, they could not have been more different. Felton, the wife of a prosperous Georgian planter and politician, became a vocal defender of white supremacy and lynching. Wells, born into slavery in Mississippi, became arguably the most renowned anti-lynching activist at the turn of the century. Feimster shows, however, that although they operated in vastly different worlds, they launched parallel critiques of white patriarchal power in asserting their right to personal independence. Fears of rape stood at the center of both women's politics; that, in the environment of the New South, women remained vulnerable to male sexual assault informed Wells' scathing analysis of lynching as much it [End Page 1246] shaped Felton's racialist feminism. Although Feimster sketches the biographies of her two subjects, she is most interested in them as case studies to clarify the roles both black and white women played in the sexually-charged racial politics surrounding mob violence. Southern Horrors is thus not really about the practice of lynching or its causes, but rather is about the ways in which imagery of rape permeated both pro and anti-lynching discourses, as well as movements for women's rights in the South.
While there are a number of excellent biographies and historical studies of Wells, Felton is a less studied figure; the only full-length biography of Felton was published 50 years ago. For this reason, Feimster's chapters on Felton are more compelling than those on Wells. Felton's feminism emerged out of the traumas of the Civil War and Reconstruction, traumas which made her distrustful that male chivalry could offer women the full protection they deserved. Of uppermost concern was that, despite their alleged chivalrous obligation to women, men continued to assault and exploit women sexually. Although her primary interest involved the security of elite white women, Felton initially came to the defense of black and white women of all classes. In her first foray into political activism in the 1880s, Felton led a charge against the convict lease system, voicing outrage at the treatment of both black and white women at the hand of exploitative prison guards. That outrage was not bound up in any critique of white supremacy, however; rather, Felton believed that white men who engaged in lascivious or violent behavior were betraying white supremacy.
By the turn of the century, however, any concern Felton felt for black women fell away, as she came to embrace the most virulent strains of white supremacy. In this view, lynching was the necessary defense against white women's vulnerability in the face of black men's propensity to rape and murder. Felton, however, took this pro-lynching discourse, which envisioned women as essentially powerless, and used it to lay claim to women's need for a certain level of political and economic power. In 1908, when Felton began advocating for female suffrage, she cloaked her arguments in rhetoric that played off white women's fears of rape. Feimster argues that Felton was representative of a larger culture of white southern feminism, in which women's demands to be protected in the home led them further into the public sphere. In this light, Feimster examines white women's participation in lynching as an ironic "demonstration of the New Woman's desire for authority and autonomy" (149).
Coming of age in the aftermath of the War and Reconstruction, Wells came to comparable conclusions as Felton about women's vulnerability and the false claims of male chivalry. Her awareness of the ways African-American women had suffered sexual exploitation at the hands of white men before, during, and after the War led to her cutting critiques of pro-lynching discourse and her defenses of black women against stereotypes of brazen jezebels. Feimster misses an opportunity here to delve...