Monday, April 15, 2013

Ida B. Wells-Barnett – Feminist Threat

Before you read this blog post, you need to know that I used to be a teacher. Well, I suppose I still am, given that I have children, I guess I'd better be a teacher. Now that the warning is out of the way, let me let you in on another secret: I don't believe in history months. History is the past from which we all have emerged, and it is of dire importance that all history is taught, in its appropriate context. Teaching science? Don't forget the contributions of all scientists, not just the “popular ones”. Dig deeper and learn something new.

This year was the 100th anniversary of the March, 1913 suffrage parade in Washington that was
staged to coincide with Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. Many woman's groups gathered in Washington to recreate this parade and celebrate how far women have come since the original march. Nice, right? Did you know that the organizers of the march wanted the black women to march in the back?

Let's take a closer look, without the rose colored glasses. Woman's suffrage was not for all women. The National American Woman's Suffrage Association, in order to play nice with the southern women, requested that the black women march in the back of the parade rather than with their state delegations.

Mary Church Terrell, another leader of the black woman's suffrage, agreed to “make nice”. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who bit a train conductor who tried to forcibly remove her from a train car after she refused to leave the ladies' car for a smoker car, refused. This was a woman who had written several pamphlets condemning the practice of lynching and lived under death threats. She was not going to pander to the wishes of a few southern women.

Refusing to conform, she “hid out” until her delegation had passed, then surged into the group of white women – some hostile, some not – and took her rightful place in the Illinois group. According to the timeline on the site, her actions began the integration of the movement. She also had to be protected from the other women in the delegation who were, ah, slightly peeved that a Negro woman dared  march among their ranks, after she had been explicitly told not to.

Now that's bravery.

It is unfortunate that Mrs. Wells-Barnett isn't a more prominent figure in history, especially in the context of women's suffrage and the civil rights movement. Mind you, many of the websites that give biographies of Mrs. Wells-Barnett either gloss over the march, or don't mention it at all. However, a bit of research can reveal how forward thinking and courageous this woman really was, to take on men (black and white) AND white women.

Further Reading:
Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice
Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation

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