The lesbian identity narrative, an event labeled “A Very Unnatural Crime,” sent shockwaves throughout the south in 1892. A young woman named Alice Mitchell murders her lover a woman named Freda Ward, in broad daylight. The murder rattled a society so new and so blind to the circumstances. The question was how to react to lesbianism. As Duggan questions, “Could a normal woman love and plan to marry another woman? “4 The narrative also corresponds to a sexual triangle, an “erotic triangle. ” A normal, happy couple is torn by the acts of a violent third party.
Through the Mitchell- Ward story, that third party is not a black man, but a white woman, and this would be the ultimate shock. The surprising murder of a white woman by another woman was startling enough but as Duggan says, “the mystery and fascination of the story was generated by the question of her motive. “5 Could a woman truly love another woman, “like a man? ” Also, how would her crime be treated? Young, middle-class, white respectable women were not supposed to act this way. Should the truth be told, the facts of the matter were blatantly obvious, an act of murder was committed.
However this could not settle well with a white male society. If they wanted to maintain their domination over society, this “sexual perversion or sexual abnormality” could not be accepted. They had to rationalize the actions of Alice Mitchell, “create a sympathetic story to explain a murder to a jury of white men. “6 Therefore, they were set on turning a “murder case” into an “insanity case. ” Looking deeper into the issue, had the murderer been a black man or woman and not an elite white woman, they would not receive any attention from the press or anything close to a defense like that of Alice Mitchell.
The lesbian identity narrative was something new therefore it created a high impact on the mainstream press. Newspapers throughout the nation were interested and intrigued by this “sensational,” erotic news story. “Intense, loving friendships between girls were accepted as commonplace- in Memphis such girls were said to be “chumming. ” But passion of the sort that could lead to romantic obsession and murder was considered startling and newsworthy. “7 Despite the intrigue, the local and national press responded to this case differently.
The local press had to be careful in terms of what they wanted the people to read. Duggan states, “The news as reported in the Memphis dailies was thus systematically shaped by the perceptions and assumptions of the prosperous white men who controlled newspaper publishing. Therefore, the news was determined to defend the white home, by this threat of deviant sexuality and violence. To better serve their point, the press focused on the dangers of the Mitchell-Ward case on the white family. The element that truly caught national new attention was the psychological state of this so-called lesbian.
Was this murderer a fiend? Or was she a “maniacal crank? ” The sensationalism of this news story led to many correspondents from around the nation to travel to Memphis and interview the principals. While the local news was set on containment, the national press was determined to thoroughly examine and spread the details of this tragic crime. The lynching narrative held many resemblances to the lesbian narrative in terms of the mainstream press. White stories of black crimes and the lynching of black criminals strengthened segregation and boosted white males defense of moral order.
“Tales of racial rape and lynching began to produce the united whiteness of the modern nation, blurring class lines while entrenching the racial, gendered terms of citizenship so starkly represented in D. W. Griffiths widely distributed 1915 film, The Birth of the Nation. “8 However, on a positive note, the lynching narratives also held value for opposing freedom fighters. Through these false crimes and utter lies, black men and women were able to express their views and their positions throughout the press. Once again, as more and more white men hoped to contain, the truth would slowly leak out.
“In the black press the issues were framed as political and economic. In the white press, white violence acted to contain black criminality. “9 But were these blacks really committing crimes? One woman would answer this question in a controversial response to the white man’s lynching narrative. Ida B. Well’s was determined to extend her advocacy for the truth of political equality and personal freedom. She joined many other black freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass and John Mitchell in opposing segregation, and criticizing white ideals of supremacy.
Well’s focused on a response to the lynching narrative of 1892 in Memphis. Not only did she argue the struggle of “manhood rights” but also she questioned the roles of many white women involved in these rapings. She argued that, “perhaps it is the white woman that is the initiator of these consensual relations. ” Well’s stresses that the narrative and the practice of lynching itself promoted the idea that white women having sex would black men could only be defined as rape. She saw this as an entire swing from reality.
How could a white man not rape a black woman? Yet how is it that a black man repeatedly rapes a white woman? According to the narrative, there is no possibility of choice. It is this argument that led to Well’s banishment from Memphis, as she was given numerous death threats upon her return. The results of the lesbian narrative case were an insult to gender and the freedom of sexuality. Out of fear, the defense for Alice Mitchell denied who she truly was, as seen through her letters, she was a “lesbian woman in love. ” The case denied the existence of lesbianism.
While responding to the questions of the defense, Alice Mitchell answers honestly, and sanely about how she felt about Freda and what drove her to do what she did. Yet the jury and society was blind to this. They saw her words as the words of a “lunatic. ” Through the use of experts and their analysis of Mitchell’s psychological state, the defense was able to manipulate the jury into forgetting about the crime committed. Much like the results of the lynching narrative, as more and more people became familiar with the injustices displayed in this narrative, the more sexual expressiveness and freedom grew.
“Oppositional “lesbian” agents and stories emerged into widespread publicity in the 1920s. “10 As late as 1950, a man named Dr. Cauldwell took the opportunity to respond to the injustices of the Mitchell-Ward case. Cauldwell cites that the physicians who testified in Alice Mitchell’s trial were guided by pseudochivalry rather than by science. Despite the setbacks of the case, Cauldwell “takes pride in the progress made during the past 58 years. “11 Both Dr. Cauldwell and Ida B. Wells’ responses to these narratives hold much value.
As Duggan states, “The efforts of Wells and other antilynching activists did not end lynching, but they did put the practices defenders on the defensive and made it increasingly difficult for northern liberals to accept the lynching narrative and remain silent. “12 Dr. Cauldwell’s analysis sheds light on the rise of understanding the science of lesbianism, a sexual identity “unknown” during the 1890s. Though contextually unparallel, yet simultaneously distasteful, the results of the lynch narrative and lesbian identity narrative contributed to the redefining of American social values and the growth into modernization.
Both narratives fought the long time ideals of white male supremacy. Women intent on becoming more vocal, exploded into the 20th century stronger than ever, with their quest for suffrage, the freedom to expand and explore their sexual identities, and their right to escape the traditional domestic sphere. African-Americans, fifty years removed from the shackles of slavery, were determined to gain political and economic justice. Though the results may have been ignorance or just flat out lies, had it not been for the lynch narrative, the works and efforts of freedom fighters such as Ida B.
Well’s may not hold the same value. The same goes to women reformers in response to the lesbian narrative. The injustices were used as a source of motivation- motivation to let the truth be told, to encourage all those blind to the harsh realities of a white male dominated world. Through all the pain, suffering, sacrifice, and hardships, both narratives positively modernized views on class, gender, sexuality, and race. As Duggan states, “In Memphis in 1892, Alice Mitchell and Ida. B. Wells experienced love and loss and transformed mourning into social action.
“13 Their efforts are clearly recognized. Today, though not exactly sound and harmonious, racial equality and sexual freedom are much more accepted and valued in a democratic society. 1 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 3) 2 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 20) 3 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 20) 4 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 24) 5 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 26) 6 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers.
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 89) 7 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 25) 8 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 40) 9 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 41) 10 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 154) 11 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 197) 12 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 22) 13 Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 31)