Skip to content

Through the Eyes of Men

Memorials to white women are the South's other statue problem.

To “Our Mothers,” “Our Daughters,” “Our Sisters,” and “Our Wives” proclaims the nineteen-foot high Monument to the Women of the Confederacy, which fronts the Mississippi State Capitol in place of the expected, chin-lifted heroic statue of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. As four Deep South states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day once again this month, the region does so, as always, backdropped by the South’s network of monuments to white women. It’s the South’s other statue problem, in fact.

Along with being cast in bronze in 1917, Mississippi’s Beaux Art sculpture is cast in more elusive ways. The Mississippi monument, like those of five other states of the former Confederacy, is a testament to Neo-Confederate males and the footing they reasserted in their world—it’s nothing new for white men of privilege to assume ownership of the question of what women are of value and why.

Erected between 1912 and 1926, the white women’s tributes—several cast by Tiffany Studios in New York—had an official purpose of honoring white women’s Civil War sacrifices. The United Confederate Veterans took up the idea of a public-art tribute at its 1896 meeting. The monuments’ story tracks how white men not only regained a political grip over the South post-Reconstruction, but of their deepest selves. The loss had brought on both slavery’s downfall and a region-wide sense of masculine shame that pierced the Southern white male psyche for generations. An exaggeration? Almost a century later in 1948, William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust that every white Southern boy at fourteen wondered about how he would have performed in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg when “it’s all in the balance.”

In raising monuments specifically to women, the men’s group articulated the kind of woman it saw worthy of public tribute: white, passive, and in need of male protection.

The women’s monument drive was one more step in the resumption of the white masculine gaze over Southern society. Area women’s associations had been erecting conventional memorials for years. “Every man in the South knows that the monuments erected everywhere to the Confederate soldier have been planned and the money raised for them by women,” said Macon, Georgia mayor Bridges Smith in the journal Confederate Veteran in 1905. By stepping in, the men’s group joined the effort to revise history and idealize away the memory of the Civil War’s true cause as well. In raising monuments specifically to women, the men’s group articulated the kind of woman it saw worthy of public tribute: white, passive, and in need of male protection. “Fair hands, unused to toil,” had been left to fend for themselves when their men marched away, explained the initial United Confederate Veterans resolution. The monuments are creations that reflect women through the eyes of men. Consider the engraved text of the Mississippi memorial’s base which praises women as exemplary mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.

At the Mississippi State Capitol’s entrance—participants in the 2017 and 2018 women’s marches in Jackson had to navigate around it—the looming memorial features a lyrical-looking young white woman turned eastward toward a Confederate soldier. Without the engraved words on the base, the fact that the three-figure monument is a tribute to the woman of the trio is hazy. The woman is relegated to a corner. The mythical figure of Fame and the figure of the male soldier face viewers head on, but not the woman. The collapsed male soldier nearly spans the monument’s width, claiming the space. His fingers extend, as if in mid-grasp. The female directs her attention on him. She’s a male wish-fulfillment bit player.

Earlier, the veterans backed off of a committee-approved design of an autonomous woman. “Not a Woman Militant,” reported The New York Times in 1909. That year the veterans “rejected a design for the monument to the women of the Confederacy because the sculptor had created a militant woman, armed, belted, and waving a flag. It was agreed this was not a fitting memorial to the gentle, tender, and devoted women of the South,” stated the Times report on the UCV convention in Memphis.

The monuments spoke to more than a shrunken view of Southern women, of course. The statues are relics of the South’s history of lethal subjugation of its black citizens. Murdering black men in the name of the ultra-veneration of white women evolved in post-Reconstruction times—not sooner. The regional myth that white Southern women were vulnerable to black male rapists was fundamental to post-Reconstruction rhetoric. Lynchings became associated with alleged acts of sexual aggression by black males.

“White supremacists are saying if we don’t get back in power these are the stakes of our struggle,” said Jason Ward, author of Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century and a specialist in post-Civil War racial politics. “It’s that the world will be flipped on its head. Your families will not be safe, and if you don’t stand up to it, and get in line with us, you’re not really a real man. It’s about sex. It’s about gender. It’s about what role white women should play. It’s about what role white men should play.”

The myth of the threat of the black male rapist gave the white male an enhanced role as the necessary protector of white women and Southern society.

The myth of the threat of the black male rapist gave the white male an enhanced role as the necessary protector of white women and Southern society. He had a responsibility to make the community safe. An added plus was that the rape-threat claim was possibly the sole premise for deflection of Northern and British censure as the white South reestablished its power. Prospective outside investors could be persuaded not to judge harshly the white return to domination if the rape claim were true.

The rape fear had not been raised in earlier Southern history. In slavery times, lynching an enslaved black man for the alleged rape of a white woman was practically unheard of, according to Frederick Douglass and others. An owner stood to lose property, after all. In fact, from 1836 until 1856, three hundred white people were lynched in the South, most often abolitionists, according to several historic accounts. 

During the entire span of the Civil War, a black slave was never accused of raping a white woman. That claim was taken as truth at both ends of the political spectrum, by both Frederick Douglass in an 1894 lecture and by lynching apologist and Yale-educated academic Winfield Collins in a 1918 book. Also interestingly, research has documented that under slavery, white Southerners tolerated liaisons between black men and poor white women, often blaming the immorality of the white woman, not aggression on the part of the black male. 

But in post-Civil War history, the control of black male sexual aggression was held out as the prime justification for mob killings. The statistics didn’t match the rhetoric, actually. Even accounting for the many rape accusations fabricated or based on consensual or exaggerated events, murder outnumbered sexual-related charges in tabulated causes of mob killings from 1889 to 1918. (The NAACP kept accounts on the specifics of known lynchings over the period, published as Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States in 1919.) Yet the accepted public assumption was that lynchings typically happened because a black man assaulted a white woman.

The rape propaganda became an intrinsic part of post-Reconstruction white supremacy and mob killings, in the view of Frederick Douglass. Earlier post-war justifications for black lynchings had usually been based on accusations of the alleged killing of white people or burning towns “but never a word was said or whispered about Negro outrages upon white women.” Once whites regained power, accusations of a general black threat to white power lost credibility, he said. “Circumstances have made necessary a sterner, stronger and more effective justification of Southern barbarism, and hence we have, according to my theory, to look into the face of a more shocking and blasting charge.”

It was a black Mississippi-born woman, journalist Ida Wells, who blasted the idea of the black rapist as white fiction in her pioneering crusade as a truth-teller about lynchings. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women,” Wells wrote in an 1892 editorial in her Memphis newspaper, a column that led to The Free Speech’s office being burned and Wells’s relocation to the North. “The world knows the crime of rape was unknown during the four years of civil war, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one.”

If Ida Wells disputed the South’s bloody myth-making, a white sister Southerner boosted her career by accommodating it. The artistic commission for the UCV design, eventually erected in Mississippi and Tennessee, went to Belle Kinney, the only woman of seventy-five sculptors entering the design competition. Kinney was a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Nashville native. Her design idealizes passive white Southern womanhood, a female needing protection. Ironically Kinney had no interest in living as the mild dependent Southern female that her work idealized. She taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and eventually moved to New York—so did Wells for a time—setting up her studio in Greenwich Village. In Kinney’s fifty-year career, she won numerous significant sculpture commissions, including for works in honor of Union figures as well.

Although the UCV wanted all the former Confederate states to erect a casting of their sanctioned design, four states—Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida— created their own women’s monuments.

The most passive state monument of all was in South Carolina. Created by Frederick Wellington Ruckstull in 1912, the South Carolina tribute celebrates a female bronze figure simply sitting motionless in a chair, spine straight and gazing blankly ahead while holding a Bible and elegant fan. It was during the same era that South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman told the Senate that “when stern and sad-faced white men put to death a creature in human form who has deflowered a white woman, they have avenged the greatest wrong, the blackest crime.” 

The notion of Southern women’s sexual jeopardy figured into the plot of the nation’s first blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation in 1915, which stirred the white South particularly. One critic reported that an Alabama moviegoer shot at the screen at the point in the film when one of the black male characters chased the white South Carolinian character Flora Cameron. The plot leads to Flora Cameron leaping to her death in the name of her chastity.

The trope of the vulnerable white woman threatened by the black rapist has survived for two centuries. It reappears when malevolent white males attempt to justify a racial murder.

The trope of the vulnerable white woman threatened by the black rapist has survived for two centuries. It reappears when malevolent white males attempt to justify a racial murder. The rationalization erupted in the death of Emmett Till in 1955. Sixty years later it was the chest beat of Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country,” he said before pulling the trigger to kill nine Bible-study goers in 2015.  Donald Trump tread in the same psychic territory in 2016 with his incendiary claim that Mexican immigrant rapists prey on the nation.

Inside the state Capitol in Jackson, fronted by the women’s monument, the Mississippi Legislature is forty-seventh in the nation in its number of women lawmakers, 14.9 percent membership. The Legislature’s top 2018 achievement was enactment of the most restrictive abortion law in the country, banning nearly all abortions after fifteen weeks. “I want Mississippi to be the safest place in America for an unborn child,” said Governor Phil Bryant. State restrictions protect the pregnant woman, in fact, Bryant declared.

Safety is a matter of standpoint. While the myth of the imperiled white woman ran through society, the reality of the abuse of black women was little mentioned. “The sexual abuse of black women by white men was the most extensive and gruesome component of this system,” wrote Martha Hodes in her book White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. The white women’s tributes are monuments to that truth as well.

Meanwhile, Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi is today, April 30. The punch bowl-pink roses at the base of the Monument to the Women of the Confederacy are in full bloom. From close up, the roses look ragged, actually. They don’t get the care you might expect.