It is day three of a week long series of articles dealing with white supremacy and/or white skin privilege in the USA. Today we take a look at the history of lynching...and the role of white women. Although white women most certainly had less power than white men, they still were active participants in the realm of lynchings. White women were also often given as an excuse for lynching. Stories of black men victimizing the "purity and sanctity" of white women were very often given as the reason for lynchings in the South...and in the North. While the primary target of lynchings were black men, white women were also kept in line by conforming to the white supremacist and patriarchal notions about them...and by the very real consequences those notions had for black folks.
PBS noted at its website:
As noted in an article by Margaret Johnson at Slate, historian Crystal N. Feimster in her book "Souther Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching"
...tells us that white women allegedly raped by black men were often allowed to choose their attackers’ punishments and frequently helped mutilate, burn, and shoot the newly hung bodies. Instead of being called unwomanly for their public role in the bloodshed, female lynchers were praised as exemplary protectors of the race. As late as 1934, white women and children still attended lynchings as enthralled spectators, prompting the New Yorker to run this chilling illustration by Reginald Marsh. White women’s groups didn’t formally acknowledge that most lynchings had nothing to do with rape until after women won the vote, for which they had long felt in competition with black men.
The story of Rebecca Latimer Felton who died in 1930 at the age of ninety-four, a writer and tireless campaigner for Progressive Era reforms, especially women's rights, and who was the first woman to serve in the US Senate is an ugly example of the contradictory and often racist nature of the type of women's movement she represented. New Georgia Encyclopedia writes:
Felton was also known for her conservative racial views. In an 1897 speech she said that the biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of black rapists. "If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts," she said, "then I say lynch a thousand a week." She condemned anyone who dared to question the South's racial policies; when Andrew Sledd, a professor at Emory College, did just that in an article published in 1902 in the Atlantic Monthly, she was instrumental in forcing his resignation from the school.
It is important to note that all that I have just written is not merely a part of long ago history. As the post below will argue, this "defend our women" theme has not gone away. A quick peek at the trial of George Zimmerman makes this absolutely clear. Feminist Jessica Valenti, writing at The Nation, concerning the juries verdict and how all those white women jurors viewed the case says,
...white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.
In regard to Juror B37 comments of why she felt that Trayvon Martin got what he deserved Valenti adds:
This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears. As Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out here at The Nation and on MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, defense attorneys stoked this fear deliberately and broadly.
To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.
They carefully made Martin—the victim—into that not-so-faceless bogeyman. Now, I don’t know what was in the jurors’ hearts—but the story the defense told and that juror B37 parroted is not a new one. It’s a story that ends with fear trumping empathy and humanity.
Lauren Rankin continues with this them at PolicyMic:
This kind of racist paternalism, the idea that women need to be protected from violent black men, underwrote much of this trial and was reflected in Juror B37’s deeply troubling words. Juror B37's comments reflect Defense Attorney Mark O’Mara’s racist bait that Trayvon Martin was an inherently suspicious, criminal, and perhaps violent character, simply because he was black, and that white women like her and defense Olivia Bertalan were better off because Zimmerman did what needed to be done to protect them.
Never mind that George Zimmerman is the one with a history of domestic violence, who was charged with assaulting a police officer, who has been charged with felonies and misdemeanors multiple times. In that altercation, Juror B37's word reflect a construction of George Zimmerman as the “protector” of white womanhood. George Zimmerman seemingly racially profiled, shot, and killed a young black teenager, and Juror B37 seemingly saw nothing wrong with that because white women continue to internalize, normalize, and implicitly perpetuate the myth of black aggressive masculinity.
“Defending white womanhood” has long been a racist ploy to demonize and criminalize black men. Black men have been perceived as inherently violent and overly sexually aggressive for centuries. The stereotype of the brute black man, terrorizing white women and respectable communities, has been used to demonize and criminalize black men since the dawn of this white supremacist nation. The Scottsboro Boys. Ronald Cotton. Brian Banks. Emmett Till. The list of black men falsely accused or killed for violating the norms of decency against white women is as long as it is tragic, and it is not a problem solely of the past.
It is also important to remember that some white women were active in anti-lynching activities as well. For example, during the Great Depression Jessie Daniel Ames, a Texas suffragette, organized a "revolt against chivalry" which linked the anti-lynching campaign with the battle for sexual emancipation.
Jacquelyn Hall writing for the Institute for Souther Studies tells us about the Anti-Lynching Association with which Ames was associated,
The social analysis of the Anti-Lynching Association began with its perception of the link between racial violence and attitudes toward women. Lynching was encouraged by the conviction that only such extreme sanctions stood between white women and the sexual aggression of black men. This "Southern rape complex," the Association argued, had no basis in fact. On the contrary, white women were often exploited and defamed in order to obscure the economic greed and sexual transgressions of white men. Rape and rumors of rape served as a kind of folk pornography in the Bible Belt. As stories spread, the victim was described in minute and progressively embellished detail: a public fantasy which implied a group participation in the rape of the woman almost as cathartic as the lynching of the alleged attacker. Indeed, the fear of rape, like the fear of lynching, functioned to keep a subordinate group in a state of anxiety and fear; both were ritual enactments of everyday power relationships.
"The women," Ames proudly reported, "traced lynching directly to its roots in white supremacy."
The following is from Racism Review.