How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote

An 1894 showdown between anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and temperance leader Frances E. Willard revealed the grip that racial resentment had over the American suffrage movement.

Ida B. Wells and Frances E. Willard (Courtesy of the National Women's History Museum)
Ida B. Wells and Frances E. Willard (Courtesy of the National Women's History Museum)

“I am in Great Britain today because I believe that the silent indifference with which she has received the charge that human beings are burned alive in Christian Anglo-Saxon communities is born of ignorance of the true situation. America cannot and will not ignore the voice of a nation that is her superior in civilization.”

In 1893, journalist and early civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells crossed the Atlantic for the first time to deliver that sobering message to Great Britain. She had hoped to sway public opinion about the racial violence that plagued the U.S. The lynching of black men and women seemed to have become a sport among Southern white mobs — reaching a peak of 161 deaths in 1892.

That included the hanging of three black businessmen, one a close friend of Wells, during that year in her former home of Memphis, Tenn. She called for blacks to leave the city “which will neither protect our lives and property.” More than 6,000 black residents left, and many others boycotted white businesses; Wells was exiled.

But the Memphis murders sparked the beginning of Wells’ anti-lynching crusade. Combing through statistics and interviewing eyewitnesses, she conducted the first in-depth investigation into the real reasons behind the lynching of these black men — and many others who were mostly accused of allegedly raping a white woman. She wrote about her tragic findings in a column for the New York Age newspaper and forged the modern-day civil rights movement.  

“Wells was one of those driven people, who never looked to the left or to the right. If something needed to be said or done, she just goes and does it,” said Paula Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor in Afro-American Studies at Smith College, in an interview with The Root. “She doesn’t worry about the consequences.”

Civil Rights, Temperance and Suffrage: An Uneasy Mix

As the nation approached the 20th century, Wells saw that the spate of racial injustice needed to be addressed in a new and direct manner — through outright protest and self-defense. That challenged the nation’s moralistic Victorian attitudes at the time. Such a grounded stance also pitted her against one of the most formidable American leaders within the movement to gain women the vote, or suffrage: Frances E. Willard, national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Throughout much of the 1800s, the women’s alcohol temperance movement was a powerful force in the greater push toward women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, many suffrage leaders — such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — had also championed black equality. Yet in 1870, the suffragists found themselves on opposing ends of the equal-rights battle when Congress passed the 15th Amendment, enabling black men to vote (at least, in theory) — and not women. That measure engendered resentment among some white suffragists, especially in the South.