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)

She was even willing to court white Southern women, at the expense of blacks, even though her parents had been abolitionists. ” ‘Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs,” Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. “The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.”

That statement and others incensed Wells. She was angered even more by the fact that Willard was considered to be a friend within the black community, in part because some of the WCTU chapters had accepted black women as members. But the WCTU president “unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive,” Wells said in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice.

Giddings, who wrote the biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions, says that Wells knew that in order to bring change, she needed to expose the truth: that too many white liberals were doing nothing to oppose crimes against black Southerners. She was also pushing to gain financial and political backing from the British people.

“Wells always understood that one of her most difficult challenges was to get the liberals in line,” said Giddings. If Wells failed in Great Britain, “all could be lost.”

Wells Takes Her Case Across the Pond

Wells laid the groundwork for the anti-lynching crusade in 1893, when she arrived in Great Britain for the first time. British Quaker Catherine Impey, an activist and publisher who supported racial equality, invited Wells to speak at churches and other gatherings.

Wells was also interviewed by British news publications. Just about everywhere, she was asked why she had traveled so far. Her response: “Our country remains silent on those continued outrages. It is to the religious and moral sentiment of Great Britain we turn.”

While many of the British believed that lynching was a scourge in the U.S., they had a hard time believing that women like Willard could ignore the problems. They even heralded Willard as the “uncrowned queen of American democracy.”

Wells had to find a way to dispel the myth. She finally got her chance to take on Willard during a second visit to Great Britain for the anti-lynching campaign. Willard was in England as the guest of Lady Henry Somerset, head of the British temperance movement. Both women were invited to speak before British temperance advocates on May 9, 1894.

Wells had to be strategic in her speech, said Crystal Feimster, assistant professor of African-American studies and American studies at Yale University, in an interview with The Root. “Wells saw that if she could nail Willard down, she would be able to harness a huge political force in the U.S.”