What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.
Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published. In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears … Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)
Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.
Looking back from our perch a hundred years after American women got the right to vote, it’s easy to wonder why it took so long. Allowing women to vote did not cause an upheaval in politics. Neither the fears of frivolous “petticoat rule” nor the hopes for a new, uncorruptible electorate proved true. The political parties continued to nominate men and push for positions that were pretty much the same as the ones they had supported for generations.
Some women had predicted a new, more just society would be brought about by giving women more rights. Lucy Stone, an early suffragist, wrote “I believe that the influence of women will save the country before every other power”. Things did not work out that way. Learning more about the women who worked on suffrage helps us understand the mixed motives and beliefs that shaped events.
Jane Grey Swisshelm was one strong believer in women’s right to vote who expected far less of women than Lucy Stone did. Swisshelm thought women were not ready to enter the main arena of politics. She suggested that they earn the vote slowly by proving they were capable of exercising the right wisely in a local setting. “Women should not weaken their cause,” she wrote, “by impracticable demands. Make no claim which could not be won in a reasonable time. Take one step at a time…and advance carefully.”
Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in 1815 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father and sister died when Jane was eight years old and she grew up in poverty as her mother struggled to support the family. When she was 20 years old, Jane married and moved to Kentucky with her new husband. Here she first encountered slavery and was horrified by the cruelty she saw around her. She was especially outraged by a neighboring slaveowner who impregnated his female slave and then sold his children into slavery.
Jane’s response to what she saw in Kentucky was to write articles for the local press. As the popularity of her articles grew, she decided to start her own paper, but soon discovered some of the disadvantages of being a woman in the business world. The editor for whom she had been writing immediately asked whether her husband approved of Jane working. Then he said she would have to work in the office with him. The idea of working with a man in an office was scandalous, but the editor was a careful gentleman. They worked in the same office together for ten years, but whenever Jane was there, he drew up the shutters so the room could be seen from the street; and he never offered to walk her home or anyplace else unless he was accompanied by his wife. Jane played her role by deliberately not dressing fashionably and trying to play down her attractiveness. The first copy of her paper Pittsburg Saturday Visiter (She deliberately used an old-fashioned spelling of the word.) was printed on Jan. 20, 1848. It soon gained many readers and Jane moved on to bigger things.
Many of Swisshelm’s articles were about abolition and the struggle over the Fugitive Slave Law. She wrote to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers in the country. He hired her to go to Washington and write dispatches for his paper, so she became the first woman to sit in the reporter’s gallery of the United States House of Representatives.
As Swisshelm’s work as a journalist continued, she became a force in anti-slavery circles as well as a part of the women’s rights movement. She was strongly interested in women’s economic rights, an interest brought about in part because her husband claimed that he had a right to the property she inherited from her mother. The couple divorced in 1857 and Jane moved to Minnesota with her daughter to pursue newspaper work. Working in St. Cloud, she campaigned against a local politician, Sylvanus Lowry, who owned slaves despite the fact that Minnesota was a free state. Eventually the quarrel became so bitter that Lowry raised a group of followers who burned her newspaper office and destroyed her business.
Swisshelm was always a strong supporter of freedom for slaves and justice for free Blacks, but her feelings for other groups were not so strong. She did not believe that Indians native to Minnesota had any right to the territory and deplored the fact that they resisted the incursion of settlers. When the Dakota Indian War broke out in 1862, she was appalled at the slaughter of several hundred settlers by the Indian “savages” as she called them. The Indians had been promised money for the land they gave for settlement, but Swisshelm saw no reason why they should be paid. She called for the extermination of all Indians who resisted the incursions of white settlers and she travelled to Washington D.C. to urge Lincoln to punish the Indians more. In recent years many Minnesotans have called for the removal of all monuments and tributes to Swisshelm because of this blot on her record.
Swisshelm’s trip to Washington led her to volunteer as a nurse during the War and she served until the war ended and she got a government post. Afterward she started a newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but when she printed articles critical of the new president, Andrew Johnson, she lost her job and her newspaper.
So what should we think of Jane Grey Swisshelm? She was undoubtedly a reformer who supported many good causes, especially abolition and women’s rights. But she was also a cantankerous voice against other good causes, opposing rights for Native Americans, and quarrelling with other suffragists over how women should gain their rights. Much of what we know about Swisshelm is found in the autobiography she published in 1881 called Half a Century. It has recently been republished and is available as a free Kindle book on Amazon. If you read the book it will introduce you to a strong, brave, but maddening woman who argued and fought her way through many of the most troublesome issues of the 19th century. Women’s suffrage, like many reforms, was finally won not by heroic angels, but by a mix of women with strengths and weaknesses that both helped and hindered their cause.
Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.
July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.
Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:
Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.
Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.
Today I am announcing a new way for you to use some of the ideas you’ve read about on Teacupsandtyrants.com over the past several years. Some of my readers have mentioned that they like to go back to earlier posts to find titles and authors of books I’ve mentioned. Some have used the blog as a source of ideas for books to read with their reading groups.
As a help for anyone who wants to read on a particular theme, or to suggest one to a reading group, I’ve decided to pull together a few booklets of suggestions. The first themed booklet is now up on my blog home page (on the right at the top). The booklet is a pdf file (leaders voting rights.pdf) that you can download and print or use online. Titled Waging War for Women it is designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. As I write in my introduction:
2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. It is time to look back at the lives of six of the most outspoken and radical women who brought us this victory. The women’s lives span the years from the beginning of the country until the early 20th century; the group includes white women and African Americans, immigrants and American born; some were Quakers, one an atheist, others followed various religions. What distinguishes them is that they all fought actively to make life better for women. They refused to be silent. They rejected the limited role given to women. It took more than one lifetime to win the vote, but they never gave up the fight. Meet the warriors:
Ida B. Wells
I hope you and your friends will enjoy reading these introductions and the books that are mentioned. In months to come I hope to post other booklets on other themes growing out of the ideas presented in teacupsandtyrants.com
Throughout history, women have seldom started wars, but it is surprising how many women have played important roles when wars come to them. Florentia Sale, for example, was a Victorian-era woman whose journal helped the British to navigate a tricky situation in Afghanistan in 1842. After that war ended, the journal became a bestselling book and it remains today an enduring record of a brave and clever woman.
Florentia Sale was born in Madras, India, in 1790. into a family of British civil servants. Like many British civil servant and army families of the time, her father and his family spent very little time in England. At the age of 19, Florentia married a British army officer, Sir Robert Sale. Most of the rest of her life was spent in farthest reaches of the British empire. All of her ten children were born abroad and spent most of their lives outside of England. Florentia was already a grandmother when her life was changed by one of England’s most unnecessary wars—the first Anglo-Afghan War.
The British entered the Afghan War because they were afraid Russia might be planning to invade India through Afghanistan, although the Russians had no such plan. Both British and Russian leaders apparently misunderstood which ruler the Afghan people would accept, or perhaps they didn’t care, but each country pushed support for its own choice. The British Army and the British East India Company, which fought beside them, invaded Afghanistan. As usual, the armed forces were accompanied by many women and children. When the British moved into Kabul, the citizens rose against them. On November 2, 1842, Lady Sale describes in her journal “This morning early, all was in commotion in Kabul. The shops were plundered and the people all fighting.” The British decided to retreat.
A large number of hostages, most of them women or children, were taken by the Afghans to ensure that the British would leave. Lady Sale was one of them. This group was to be marched to Kandahar. The march was long and slow and it started during a cold Afghan winter. Conditions were not comfortable, but Florentia made the best of them. The group walked for several days with only a few stops and no access to the clothes and supplies they had packed for themselves. When they finally were reunited with their belongings, Florentia describes how good it felt. “We luxuriated in dressing, although we had no clothes but those on our backs; but we enjoyed washing our faces very much, having had but one opportunity of doing so since we left Cabul. It was rather a painful process, as the cold and glare of the sun on the snow had three times peeled my face, from which the skin came off in strips.
Wars moved slowly in those days and various envoys from the British came and went from the Afghan camp, although they could do nothing to free the hostages. But Lady Sale was able to send letters including pages of her journal to her husband, to let him know where the hostages were and how they were being treated. Parts of her journal were published in London newspapers so even as she was living through the hostage crisis, she became famous. Dubbed the ‘soldier’s wife par excellence’ by The Times, Lady Sale was also known as ‘the Grenadier in Petticoats’ by her husband’s fellow officers.
Throughout her long ordeal, Lady Sale stood up for her rights and for the well-being of her fellow hostages. When the Afghans and the British forces were negotiating the terms of ransom for the hostage women and children, Lady Sale protested “against being implicated in any proceedings in which I have no vote.”
Cold weather was not the only difficulty the women had to overcome. Many of the younger women were wives of British officers and during their nine-month-long ordeal, four babies were born to add to the list of hostages. None of this seemed to bother the indominable women who coped with weather, childbirth and earthquakes without losing hope.
Even as she observed the war and bargained with soldiers, Florentia continued to pay attention to the beauty of the countryside. In April she wrote “I saw plenty of amaryllis in bloom; as also of the Persian iris (the orris of the druggists), which quite scented the air with a perfume resembling that of mingled violets and wall-flowers.”
After nine long months, the hostages were released. Nothing had been gained by the war. In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir about this disastrous war. He wrote that it was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.
Now that Christmas and the other gift-giving holidays are over, it is time to look back on the gifts we received and savor them. For me, this was a very book-heavy year. One of the books I received was a collection of essays and reviews by Ursula Le Guin called Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016). The essays cover a wide range and reintroduced me to several writers I had read in past years but had not revisited. To start the year off, I decided to go back to some writers I remember enjoying years ago. One was May Sarton, a favorite of earlier years, who has faded from public notice since her death in 1995. She is well worth revisiting.
Reading Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) now is like revisiting another world. I felt as though I was watching an old movie; cigarettes are lit every few pages, people drink cocktails before meals and wine at dinner while wives uncomplainingly cook and serve meals to preoccupied academic husbands. At Harvard, where this story takes place, students revere their professors, male students humbly call for the female students at their dormitory doors, and the suicide of a literary scholar is front-page news across the country.
But behind the propriety of this quiet life, political issues are as divisive as they are today. The time is the late 1940s and the scholars are deeply involved in the postwar struggles between Russia and the West. Sarton mentions the tremendous shock to American intellectuals caused by the suspicious death of Jan Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. His death—which could have been either suicide or murder—led to Czechoslovakia’s fall into Russian-style communism. The disillusionment of American liberals at the country’s fall from democracy is a potent force in this story.
A dramatic clash at a quiet meeting of the local Civil Liberties Union signals the beginning of a painful confrontation between the close-knit group at Harvard. Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature, refuses to sign a letter certifying that all the leaders of the group are free of Communist taint. His refusal leads to arguments and threatens long-standing friendships. When Cavan commits suicide, his friends and students try to discover why they could not understand his pain and were unable to help him.
Most of the story is told through conversations between friends of Cavan and his sister who comes from California to arrange his funeral. The contrast between academia and the world of successful medical doctors appears very sharp. How much does family background and childhood experiences influence Cavan’s political ideas and personal decisions? Every reader will have to decide individually. Sarton includes a postscript chapter covering the day five years after the suicide when unforeseen political changes shed new light on the feelings of Cavan’s old friends and the direction of the country.
Faithful Are the Wounds is more relevant than ever in these times of clashing political loyalties. Reading about a different but equally bitter historical period in our country helps us to understand what is going on now. Sarton wrote a story that many readers will think about long after the reading is finished.
As 2019 fades away into the past, surely the best news about what has been accomplished this year is the story of Greta Thunberg and her crusade to make people aware of the climate crisis. Thunberg sailed across the North Atlantic to speak to world leaders about those changes and how they will affect young people. Government leaders listened politely, young people mounted parades and protests, but almost no government or individual did anything to confront the crisis. Young people heard her voice, but the older people who control the world seem to be deaf to it.
If world leaders could not hear the protests of young people, they might at least look across the world to see some of the reasons for the protests. Australia has been suffering from massive wildfires and days of record-breaking high temperatures. Antarctica is losing ice at triple the rate of only five years ago. Whether it is heat or cold that you worry about, both are growing more extreme. The thousands of people who have been displaced by changes in the climate will swell to millions. And those people will keep moving as their homelands become unlivable.
Meanwhile, two yellow-haired men, one in Britain and one in America swell up and bellow at the world to stop turning and retreat backward. Denying climate change and the global changes it will bring, they long to return to a patchwork of tiny national states huddled behind flimsy walls. Like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop its incoming tides, the forces of change won’t listen or care. Bob Dylan was right when he told us half a century ago, “the times, they are a-changing”.
But there are still signs of hope in the world. We still have young people like Greta Thunberg and her followers. And we still have the voices of writers who remind us of our shared humanity. Two books that I’ve read in the last month are especially hopeful. One is Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey, and the other is Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena. Both of them are meditative works that tell of journeys—the kind of journeys that writers and artists have been taking for centuries. Where would we be without individuals who can share their thoughts with us?
In Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith tells us about a trip across the country from California to New York and back again. She travels through dreams and reality, as she thinks about friends who are dying and people both living and dead who are still part of her life.
A Month in Siena also tells of a journey. Hisham Matar goes to Siena to look at paintings and at the city. His trip comes after other trips he has made to his native Libya attempting to discover what happened to his father, a political activist who disappeared into prison years ago. Both the centuries-old paintings he absorbs and the people he meets in the city make it possible for him to connect with the world he lives in and shares with us.
Both Smith and Matar give us a humane view of how people can meet one another and share feelings and ideas. Perhaps the best news we can find as 2019 ends and the new decade begins, is that books and art survive. Perhaps they will help us all to confront the inevitable changes coming as the century grows older.
Born into a wealthy Quaker family in 1885, Alice Paul followed their long tradition of service to the community. After her early education at a private Quaker school, she graduated from Swarthmore College, which her grandfather had helped to found. Next she moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, hoping to discover how she wanted to spend her life. After trying social work in New York City for a year, she decided that would not be her route. Instead she traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics.
While in London, she met Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, two leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading suffragette organization in the UK. Both of the Pankhursts recognized Paul’s talent for giving speeches and for organizing. Soon she was invited to join a deputation of women to visit Prime Minister Asquith. The contemptuous response with which the group was met—the women were barred from entering Parliament to present their petition and were threatened with arrest—converted Paul into an enthusiastic supporter of votes for women. She soon agreed to join Christabel for a tour of Scotland and northern England.
As Paul soon learned, the tactics of British suffragettes were far more confrontational than anything American women had tried. In June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop staged the first women’s hunger strike by refusing to eat until she and the others were granted status as political prisoners. Dunlop soon grew weak from hunger and authorities were afraid to keep her in prison and so released her early. Other suffragettes realized that the hunger strike was an effective weapon to draw attention and support to their movement.
When a group of suffragettes, including Paul, were arrested after attempting to disrupt a speech by Lloyd George, they were arrested and ordered to pay fines or go to prison. All of them chose prison. They were denied status as political prisoners and ordered to change into prison uniforms. When they refused to comply, they were stripped naked by female guards. This, of course, led to a hunger strike. As the women grew weaker and visibly lost weight, authorities feared that a death would reflect badly upon the government. Finally, doctors were brought in to forcibly feed the women through tubes inserted into their noses. After five days of this, Alice Paul was released; others were freed during the next few days. All of the women were weakened by the ordeal and Paul suffered for years afterward from the physical effects of the force feeding.
Now completely dedicated to the cause of suffrage, Paul decided it was time to return to America and work for the cause there. She sailed back home in 1910 to the great relief of her mother who had been fretting for weeks over when she would return. Instead of plunging immediately into suffrage work, Paul decided to re-enroll in the University of Pennsylvania to work on a doctorate. While she wrote her dissertation on women’s legal status in the United States, Paul also spoke to Quaker groups about her suffragist activities. She soon joined the American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and became an influential member.
Although NAWSA had chosen to fight for suffrage on a state-by-state basis, Alice Paul advocated attempting to pass a federal women’s suffrage amendment as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had advocated years earlier. A major factor in choosing to aim for the state-by-state was to keep the support of Southern states, many of which wanted to maintain their repression of all African American voters, both men and women.
Alice Paul’s first major project was a suffrage parade held on March 13,1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Suffrage groups from all over the country sent representatives to Washington to participate in what was planned as a triumphant march up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. Paul worked hard to ensure that the parade was given permission to use that major street, despite attempts by the DC authorities to move the group to a less conspicuous location. Eventually Paul got her way and even obtained the promise of the police commissioner to keep other traffic off the parade route.
At the last minute, suffrage delegations from the various states were told that their groups should be separated by race with African Americans at the rear of the procession and white women up front. This was an effort to keep the support of Southern states, but the order was ignored by a few marchers including Ida B. Wells who triumphantly walked at the head of the Illinois delegation with the white women. There is some confusion about whether or not Alice Paul supported the segregation decision.
Despite all the planning, the march did not go as expected. The event was led by mounted suffrage leaders, most notably Inez Milholland riding a white horse, a scene that was described by the New York Times as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country”. Despite their promises, the authorities provided no police protection and people crowded onto the street holding up the parade and preventing women from moving. Police stood by doing nothing. Finally National Guard troops and Boy Scouts as well as some male volunteers were able to clear the street and allow the women to finish their march.
The 1913 procession was a triumph for the suffrage women. More than half a million people are estimated to have watched it, but the stain of the segregated march has lingered. The event is a sad comment on the contrasting event led by Lucretia Mott in 1838 during which the women of both races linked arms and walked together out of a Philadelphia meeting to evade hecklers in the group.
The 1913 march succeeded in bringing suffrage to the forefront of publicity, but years of continuing agitation and political maneuvering were needed before a national suffrage bill was finally passed in 1920. You can read more about Alice Paul’s long fight to get votes for women in Alice Paul: Claiming Power (2014) by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry.
Although born into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells lived most of her life as a free woman. Her parents successfully navigated their new freedom and her father became a skilled carpenter. Unfortunately, both parents died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and Ida, as the oldest of their eight children, struggled to hold the family together. She moved with her young siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was able to find work as a schoolteacher. Eager to express her ideas about race relations as the South adjusted to the post-Civil War society, she gradually assumed a role as journalist. The African American press was flourishing, and she found an eager audience for her articles. Unlike most of the earlier suffrage leaders, she gained fame through the written word rather than through public speaking.
The years during which Wells was establishing her professional life, were difficult years in Nashville and throughout the South. The transition to a world without slavery was long and painful. The high hopes of abolitionists that former slaves would be integrated into society, were destroyed when white Southerners refused to recognize anyone of African descent as an equal. The reconstruction era was one of the most painful periods in American history and Ida B. Well’s life was shaped by the bitterness of the postwar years.
As a well-educated and respectable teacher, Ida B. Wells expected to be able to move around her community freely on the growing network of trains being developed during the 1880s. Unfortunately, many white Nashville citizens did not want African Americans to travel in the railroad cars with them. Wells’s first major clash with authorities occurred in 1884 when she tried to use her first-class railroad ticket in a ladies’ car along with many white women. The conductor ordered her to leave the car; she refused. He called reinforcements and it took three men to roughly pull and push Wells out of the car and off the train.
Refusing to accept such treatment, Wells sued the railroad. She won her case and was given $500 in compensation, but that judgement was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled that the railroad had a right to decide where travelers were allowed to sit. Wells was ordered to pay court costs. From that day on, she was determined to spend her life trying to ensure equal rights for all Americans.
As the former Confederate states fought to keep white men in power, they turned to illegitimate forms of control. Lynching became one of their major weapons to maintain white supremacy. When the owners of an African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched, Wells wrote an editorial in which she urged her people to leave the city. “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” The article outraged many readers and Wells’s newspaper office was burned to the ground in retaliation. Wells soon followed her own advice and left Memphis to move north. She never returned.
In the years that followed, Wells embarked on a major anti-lynching campaign. In 1892, she published a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. This was followed by an expanded examination of lynching in The Red Report, which included pages of statistics documenting the extent of the practice. She soon became a leading voice against lynching. Along with other African American leaders, she campaigned for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law to end the practice.
Despite her efforts, Wells found little support in her campaign to persuade Americans to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Finally, she decided she needed support from England and other European countries. In 1894 she traveled to England on a speaking tour. Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was also touring England at the time. Because the WCTU was one of the few women’s groups that accepted women of all races, Wells hoped that the two of them could work together to build support for the anti-lynching campaign. Unfortunately, Willard focused her efforts far more on temperance than on stopping lynching and she refused to join enthusiastically in Wells’s campaign. The two had a memorable and well-publicized argument with the result that the WCTU never passed an anti-lynching proposal and Wells’s impact on English liberals was not as successful as she had hoped.
Wells was a fighter, not a politician, and throughout her life she engaged in battles with leaders of the African American community such as Frederick Douglas and especially Booker T. Washington as well as with women’s suffrage leaders. Despite Wells’s importance in both the battle for African American rights and in the fight for women’s right to vote, she was often denied the honor and acknowledgement she deserved.
In 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) planned a massive march in Washington D.C. to mark the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as President. Suffrage leaders from all over the country were invited to attend. Ida B. Wells went as part of the Illinois delegation. To her shock and dismay, the leaders of the event announced at the last minute that only white women would march in the front of the parade. African Americans were asked to walk together at the end of the entire group. Many agreed, but Ida B. Wells refused. She simply did not move back but bided her time and joined the white women as they approached the Capitol. No one objected. Once more Wells had scored a victory by refusing to surrender.
After the 19th Amendment passed and women finally won the right to vote, Wells continued to fight for Civil Rights and women’s rights. There are several good biographies of her, one of the best is Ida: A Sword among the Lions by Paula J. Giddings (2008). Its 800 pages may look daunting, but the book gives a real sense of how long and arduous the fight for justice and equality has been in the United States.
The struggle to
give American women the right to vote lasted more than a century. For the past several
weeks I have been telling the stories of some of the women who fought for this
right—not the women who are most often honored, but the ones who kept up the
fight in spite of being marginalized for belonging to a different race, a
different religion, or a different nationality than most of the suffrage
leaders. Victoria Woodhull was one of those. Her problem in being accepted
arose because she insisted on being honest about her sex life—she believed in a
woman’s right to divorce an abusive or unfaithful husband. She also published information
about the sex lives of some highly respected men.
Born in Ohio in
1838, Victoria Woodhull grew up in an unstable and impoverished family. She
declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put
his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim
healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married,
but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an
alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria
divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in
those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning
to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s
priorities. She had discovered spiritualism and believed in her power to
foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both
sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sex appeal to
earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they
were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage rather
than being punished for it. During the late 19th century at a time when
a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single
slip into adultery, married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy
their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed
the same privilege.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some
tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Victoria
was not the only suffragist who believed that spirits speaking from beyond the
grave gave them ideas for their campaign for women’s rights Spiritualism, which
had started about 1848, the same year the first Women’s Rights Convention was
held, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of
slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it
welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull
first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what
would happen in the future. She believed that spirits spoke directly to her and
guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived
unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on
their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion
with its unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in
spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second
husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through
their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met
Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York City.
Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous
for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice
about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers in 1870. The
unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of
money. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to
enter political life.
The year was 1872, and Victoria Woodhull, the
first woman who declared she wanted to be president of the United States. Her
presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was
legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her
Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right
to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s
provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to
vote, Victoria decided. The argument persuaded some people, especially women;
however, women had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or
Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the
United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s
Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated
Victoria for president, and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known
ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later
said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and Isabella Beecher Hooker, who were firm believers in women’s right to vote, supported
Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be
president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined
for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first
presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue. It was the first one
held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American
Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
The election of
1872 was one of the most tumultuous in American history. Ulysses S. Grant, a
Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans
split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the
Democratic nomination. Victoria Woodhull and her campaign got very little
unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In
the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was
the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sister
had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage
movement, but these respectable women also had secrets to hide. The intrigues
and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives and
families. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was
especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s
strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating,
she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel
managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
believed in sexual freedom, as some of the other suffragettes did, but she
practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political
opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas
Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that
cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements
were cancelled, and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the
desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry
Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This led to her arrest and she spent
Election Day in jail rather than going to vote. Some of the women’s suffrage
leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was
not counted, and she was fined $100 for the attempt.
The 1872 election,
which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights, proved to be a
miserable failure for the cause. It would be more than forty years before women
in the United States finally won the right to vote.
Failing to become
president, however, did not stop Victoria Woodhull’s progress toward a better
life. You can read about her adventures in Myra MacPherson’s 2014 biography, The
Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age