Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

In the latter part of eighteenth century, publications from Ida B. Wells-Barnett-"Southern Horrors' (1892) and 'A Red Record" (1895) were both forceful blows against mainstream white male ideologies of the time. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holy Springs, Mississippi.

Even though her parents Elizabeth Warrenton Wells and Jim Wells were freed from slavery as a result of the Civil War, they remain on the plantation as employees of the master-her mother as a cook and her father as a skilled carpenter. According to Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998), the Wells family remained on the plantation until "the white builder tried to dictate her father's vote-a common practice of coercion by white employers towards black employees-Jim Wells resisted, [and] promptly mov[ed] his family off the builders property, buying his own tools, and opening his own carpentry shop (p. 151)."

Wells-Barnett's education, like her mothers started at the now Rust College and ended it 1876 when both her parents fell fatally ill as a result of yellow fever (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998). She was now left with the responsibility of taking care of her five younger siblings. Wells-Barnett now determined to keep her family together migrated to Memphis and took a job as a schoolteacher.

Upon arriving in Memphis were teaching salaries were higher than Mississippi, Wells-Barnett found out that even though there was a stronger demand for literate individuals to teach, there was a stronger need for qualified ones. According to Salley (1993), because she needed qualifications in order to teach, she enrolled into Fisk University and gained her qualification in under a year.

While returning to Memphis from a teaching convention in New York, she was met with racial provocation for the first time while traveling by railway. It has been said that Wells-Barnett was sitting in her usual car (the "ladies car") when she was ordered to move to the "smokers car" by the conductor (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998). Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998) further stated that Wells-Barnett refused the conductors order: A decision that led to a court proceeding. Even though she won the case and headlines read, "DARKY DAMSEL GETS DAMAGES," the decision was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and reversed. She was ordered to pay court frees in the amount of $200; however, she was offered a settlement out of court by because she refused to follow the conductors order based on principals.

Wells-Barnett's teaching career ended upon her "dismissal in 1891 for protesting about the conditions in black schools (Salley, 1993, p.115)." During her time as a school teacher, Wells-Barnett along side other black teacher was said to have gathered and "shared writing and discussion on Friday evening, and produced a newspaper covering the week's events and gossip (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.151)." The newspaper was officially established and published and distributed under the name "Memphis Free Speech and Headlights" throughout the black community a year after she was dismissed.

. It has been said that her motivation to become a social analyst was the results of her involvement with the "Memphis Free Speech and Headlights" -as the editor and columnist under the pen name Lola and as part owner. Unfortunately, her printing press was destroyed and she was run out of town by a white mob (Sally, 1993).

After Wells-Barnet was run out of Memphis she eventually settled in Chicago and became associated with the "Chicago Conservator." It was here she met and married Ferdinand Lee Barnett in 1895 (Salley, 1993).

As mentioned earlier, because of Well-Barnett's racial identity her theory was very well shaped by the events unfolding within her community as experience by the first generation after emancipation (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998). According to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998): "This community took as one assumption that white dominance and its accompanying doctrine of white supremacy had to be confronted. American social Darwinists were giving doctrine of white intellectual legitimacy to whites, which at this time meant Anglo-Saxon, imperialism abroad and supremacy at home, providing dogma such as that in James K. Hosmer's-'Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom' (p. 159)."

Wells-Barnett's social theory is considered to be a radical non-Marxian conflict theory with a focus on a "pathological interaction between differences and power in U.S. society. A condition they variously label as repression, domination, suppression, despotism, subordination, subjugation, tyranny, and our American conflict. (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.161)."

Her social theory was also considered "Black Feminism Sociology" (BFS), and according to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998) there was four presented themes within the theory: one, her sense of the project of social analysis and of a method appropriate to the project; two, her model of the social world; three, her theory of domination and four, her alternative to domination.

Although those four themes were present in her theory, one could assume that the major theme above the four was the implication of a moral form of resistance against oppression, which is not farfetched seeing that oppression was the major theme in her life.

Wells-Barnett's contribution to the field was so significant that her work "predates or is contemporaneous with the now canonized contributions of white male thinkers like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, George Simmel, and George Herbert Mead, as well as the contributions of white women sociologist like Adams, Gilman, Marianne Weber, Webb, and the Chicago Women (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.171)." Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998) further commented on her contributions as well as the contributions made by another historical African-American woman, Anna Julia Cooper, as both contributions which claims can be made fourfold: "First, as a general social theory created through the lens of race relations...; second, Cooper and Wells-Barnett were not lone voices, but part of an enormous, segregated tradition of social analysis by African-Americans-including a rich discourse by African American women...; third, Cooper and Wells-Barnett create a social theory morally and passionately centered in a standard of justice derived from Judeo-Christian religion and American demographic and republic claims...and fourth, Cooper and Wells-Barnett produced a theory of the intersection of race, class, and gender which adds a vital strand to the feminist tradition of sociology (pp.171-172)."

It is also safe to say that because of these reasons Wells-Barnett rejected the Darwinist ideology of the survival of the fittest and accepted the idea of equilibrium as a social good.

Her theories also centered on legal issue pertaining to African American suffrage of the time. According to Wells-Barnett, even though the legal system is a source of order, "the import corollary that the legal system will work only if public opinion supports its working (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p. 172)." Wells-Barnett criticized Washington's policies for not protecting black against lynching. "Wells-Barnett wrote exposes documenting the crime of lynching across the south...[she] calls for antilynching legislature (Marable and Mullings, 2000, p. 121)."

According to Marable and Mullings (2000), the black feminist movement was both dramatic and subtle but the contributions made by Ida B. Wells-Barnett will always be remembered. "Wells-Barnett died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, a week before nine black youths who came to be know as the 'Scottsboro Boys' went on trial for the alleged rape of a white woman traveling as hobos on a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama (Salley, 1993, p. 116)."


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