This weekend, as it does every once in a while, the epic Prince classic, “Batdance (Vicki Vale mix)” popped up in my head. Actually, just the “Vicki Vicki Vale” portion. Over and over on repeat. After all, Kim Basinger was very memorable as Vicki Vale in the film (and we can all agree that every Prince song is catchy). I used to think she and Lois Lane (Superman) were awesome. Inadvertently, those characters were amazing at demonstrating that women in media could dominate in a male-centric world. What I didn’t know when I was little was that there were real women kicking butt in journalism that could easily have been my cinematic heroes. I’m fairly convinced that films based on Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Nellie Bly’s lives would inspire millions of little girls around the world. If Prince was still blessing us in our world, I bet he would even write a catchy tune about it.
On the chance that your English/History/Journalism/Social Studies/Literature teacher didn’t share the awesomeness of these women, let me help you out a little. There will be a quiz at the end.
I first learned about Ida B. Wells-Barnett through one of those amazing-women-in-history compilation books. Reading it lead me down a rabbit hole (as most books/Interwebz do). Ms. Wells-Barnett was born a slave and was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation (thanks, Lincoln). At 16, she convinced a school system administration that she was old enough to be a teacher and started supporting her family. She first started highlighting the injustices around her when she bought a first class train ticket and was pissed when they tried to remove her to the African-American car. She even bit a guy on the hand when they tried to move her forcibly. She sued and WON! But the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned it and they ruled that she needed to pay court cases. In response she started writing about race in the South. She was a prolific writer and railed against segregated schools. She also wrote extensively about a brutal lynching of three African American men who were pulled from a jail by a mob, who were only in jail after they defended their store from a mob that was angry they were pulling business away from a white-owned store. Her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” infuriated white men and she was threatened regularly for writing about lynchings and speaking around the South. She only moved north after her office was trashed and she was warned about being killed if she returned to the South. Once she settled in Chicago, she focused on inequities in the area until her death.
Ms. Wells-Barnett wasn’t just a journalist. She also was a community organizer. After she moved north, she organized a protest with Frederick Douglass of the World’s Columbian Exposition since they didn’t collaborate with the black community on African American exhibits. She also was involved in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the NAACP and was heavily involved with the National Equal Rights League. I mean, this woman was BUSY. She couldn’t rest when she saw injustice.
Other fun facts about Ms. Wells-Barnett:
- She was one of the first American women to keep her last name and adding her husband’s — the birth of the slashy name
- In 1990, the USPS created a 25 cent post stamp for her (although I asked my local post office for it and they didn’t have it anymore)
- There’s a museum in her honor in Holly Springs, Mississippi, featuring African American history. I haven’t been but it’s on the list!
- She got a Google Doodle (featured above) and I think it’s sooo pretty but I don’t really understand why the boat and car is on it.
- She had some really interesting ideas about marriage and romance. I’m not going to get into but she was so focused on fighting injustice that she didn’t her personal life to get in the way.
- My single favorite description of her is “Word Warrior”. I can not think of a better way to describe her.
I have already started casting this movie in my brain. This post doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg on Ida. She was amazing and once she started fighting for her community, she was laser focused.
*Check out the next post to learn about Nellie Bly*