Girl Power: Feminist Music of the 1990s

By: Alex Sutton

The 1990s saw the resurgence of the feminist movement, often referred to as the third wave of feminism. Emerging in the mid-1990s, the third wave was a reaction and opposition to the stereotypical images of women as passive, weak, and virginal figures. Rebecca Walker is credited with coining the term the third wave in her 1992 article, “Becoming the Third Wave.” Writing in reaction to the testimony of Anita Hill, in which she accused Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, of sexual harassment, Walker sought to accomplish what the previous two waves of feminism had not. “So I write this as a plea to all women, especially the women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to re-mind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger” (Walker). In her article, Walker also stressed the idea that the third wave of feminism was not only a reaction, but a movement in itself, “I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (Walker).

The third wave of feminism aimed to change the traditional view of women in society by redefining both women and girls as assertive, powerful, and in control of their own sexuality. The third wave paved the way for important social progress in the treatment of women and established the idea of girl power, which came to  permeate all types of media, particularly music. The music of female artists in the 1990s came to embody the third wave of feminism. With songs that challenged and confronted the traditional stereotypes of women, female artists played a key role in redefining what it meant to be a woman. “In this realm, female artists have ventured to celebrate girlhood as a means of fostering female youth subculture and of constructing narratives that disrupt patriarchal discourse withing traditionally male rock subcultures” (Wald, 588). The feminist music of the 1990s allowed for women to reject conventional stereotypes, take control of their sexuality, and challenge the patriarchy in American society. (“In Praise”).


4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up?”, 1993, dir. Morgan Lawley. 

The song, “What’s Up?”, by the band 4 Non Blondes was released in 1993. Since its release, the song has become an anthem for women against patriarchal oppression. In the song, the female narrator speaks of her struggle to succeed in a world dominated by men. The second verse of the song states, “I realized quickly when I knew I should that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man, for whatever that means.” The narrator of the song calls attention to the fact that males are the dominant gender in society, holding the power in their “brotherhood” while women are largely excluded. The song continues to narrate the challenges women face in trying to thrive in a world created for men, “I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray. I pray every single day for a revolution.” This verse illuminates the song’s feminist-perspective and the hope for equality; the narrator prays each day that there will be a revolution to make a society where both genders are equal. Additionally, the use of institution implies that the way women are treated is systematic, and that the system is stacked against them.

The chorus of the song brings into question the futility of women’s struggle against the patriarchy, “and so I wake in the morning and I step outside and I take a deep breath and I get real high, and I scream from the top of my lungs what’s going on?”. In the chorus, the narrator releases her pent-up emotions and grapples with the question of what is going on in society. In this song, the 4 Non Blondes brazenly call out the patriarchy and the constraints it places on women. They also highlight the question of what women are to do about this issue and the ultimate futility of their actions.

No Doubt, “Just A Girl,” 1995, dir. Mark Kohr.

One of the most icon feminist songs of the 1990s was “Just A Girl,” by No Doubt.  Gwen Stefani, No Doubt’s front-woman, lead the band of men, promoting the cultural visibility of women within rock music. “Just A Girl” questions the antiquated gender roles that continued to torment women in the 1990s and the idea of girlhood.  In the song, Stefani takes on the persona of a “little girl” who needs protection, mocking the conventions of patriarchal girlhood. Sarcasm is employed throughout the song as a feminist strategy to combat the view of women as helpless and innocent. The chorus of the song states, “cause I’m just a girl, oh little old me. Don’t let me out of your sight. I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights.” While highlighting the idea that women need to be protected, the song brings into question the cost of this safety. In order for girlhood to be protected, women must forfeit their rights and be subordinate to men. One of the reoccurring lines throughout the song is, “oh, I’ve had it up to here.” Stefani, representative of most women, is exasperated with conventional female stereotypes and is openly deconstructing them. (Wald).

In the music video for the song,  the band members arrive at a building where Stefani enters the ladies’ bathroom, while the rest of the band enters the men’s bathroom. The ladies’ room is clean, bright, and well decorated, with two older female attendants. In contrast, the men’s room is dirty, dark, and lacks any decorations. Stefani begins to sing in the ladies’ room while the men play their instruments in their bathroom. Other men and women begin to enter their respective bathrooms, with the men using the urinals and the women checking their makeup. The setup of the music video is illustrative of the gender divide in society. Women are kept separate from men in a dainty bathroom with attendants, seen applying makeup, a traditional stereotype about women’s femininity. 

Later in the video, the men make their way into the female bathroom, where everyone then begins to dance together. The fact that it is the men that are able to travel to the other bathroom is extremely important; it highlights the issue of women’s imprisonment and lack of mobility. The women were unable and restricted from moving around freely, however, the men were able to go wherever they pleased, illustrating the societal constraints placed on women’s freedom. Additionally, in the music video Stefani is seen defying the image of an innocent girl by wearing a cropped shirt and baring her midriff. Her decision to wear an outfit that is “sexual” gives Stefani control over her own sexuality and sexual agency, demonstrating that women are not simply virginal figures devoid of sexuality.

Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know,” 1995, dir. Nick Egan. 

Released in 1995, Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill was a cultural earthquake. One of the singles from the album, “You Oughta Know,” was an aggressive, hard-rock song portraying Morissette as a vindictive and scorned ex.  In the song, Morissette is  bold and unapologetic, calling out her ex-boyfriend for his mistreatment of her and the fallout of their breakup. She asserts herself and does it bravely, defying the conventional stereotype that women are weak and passive figures.  The song is notable for the raw emotion that Morissette expresses. Unlike other female artists of the time that had feminine, gentle voices and sang melodic ballads, Morissette’s voice broke the mold. Her voice was unique and unpolished, full of energy and sincerity that more resembled bands such as Nirvana than traditional female singers. (Zaleksi). 

“You Oughta Know” was Morissette’s ballad that spoke out about and fought back against sexism and societal oppression. Instead of being portrayed as the passive scorned ex-girlfriend, Morissette unabashedly called out her ex, and men in general, “and I’m here, to remind you of the mess you left when you went away. It’s not fair, to deny me of the cross I bear that you gave to me.” Instead of letting her ex-boyfriend get away with his actions, Morissette openly admits that she was broken after their breakup, however, her boyfriend did not care. Throughout the song, Morissette wonders how important she was to her ex. Questioning how women are often treated as insignificant to men, Morissette sings “cause the joke that you laid in the bed that was me and I’m not gonna fade as soon as you close your eyes, and you know it.” Morissette makes it clear that she will not allow her ex-boyfriend to make a joke out of her, rather she will hold him accountable for what he has done. Rebelling against the stereotype of women as weak and passive, Morissette proves that women can be assertive and powerful, giving women a loud and proud voice.

Additionally,  Morissette is unapologetically in control of her sexuality.  Throughout the song there are several sexual explicit lines, “is she perverted like me? Would she go down on you in a theater?”. In opposition to the idea that women are non-sexual beings, Morissette unashamedly takes control of her sexuality and owns it. “You Oughta Know” demonstrates that women, like men, have sexual desires and needs, tearing down the sexual constraints placed on women at the time. Instead of being sexualized by men, Morissette, like other feminist artists of the time, took control of her sexual agency and proved that women were not the virginal figures they were perceived to be.


Additional Sources:

“In Praise of ‘90s Feminism That Was Before Its Time,” Huffington Post,  17 May 2015.

Wald, Gayle, “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth,” Signs, vol. 23, no. 3, 1998, pp. 585–610. 

Walker, Rebecca, Becoming the Third Wave,” Ms. Magazine, Jan. 1992, pp. 39-41. 

Zaleski, Annie, “Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was a Powerful, DIY Feminist Statement,” AV Club, 5 May 2015.


Join Our Ranks: Labor Unions in the 1890s and 1990s

By Alex Sutton

The 1890s and 1990s saw the developments of new technologies in both eras radically changed the nature of the workforce and the economic structure in the country. Both decades saw an increased importance placed on industrialization and the production of goods on a large scale. Companies were able to monopolize on these new innovations in order to profit and benefit from these changes. While this new advancement in production served to benefit those in charge, it ultimately made the workers the victims of change.

Focusing on productivity, companies exploited their workers and increased their control over production. Workers faced terrible working conditions, pay, and treatment. In both the 1890s and 1990s, workers fought to gain back their rights and better working conditions. Each decade placed great importance on unions and engaged in numerous strikes to boycott their treatment. The rights of workers became a major issue in American society and drew the nation into the discussion. Dispelling the belief that innovation would benefit everyone, workers brought to light the realities of working conditions.

The grievances expressed by workers in the 1890s and 1990s were different, however, the outpouring of the workers’ outrage highlights the similarities between the two decades. Fighting to earn better treatment and gain a more equal voice, workers in both eras joined labor unions in order to achieve their goals. While individual workers felt alone and at risk, unions could provide a communal organization for individuals to have their voices heard.

In 1842, the case Commonwealth v. Hunt asserted that it was not illegal for workers to organize a union or try to compel recognition of that union with a strike. This ruling was essential to the establishment of labor unions that could become permanent institutions with legal rights. (Nelles). However, the struggle for the right to unionize continued due to resistance by corporations and divisions within the workforce well into the 20th century. Examining news articles from both decades reveals that workers’ grievances focused on workers’ conditions and rights and the important roles that labor unions played in both the 1890s and 1990s.


“Labor’s Rights and Wrongs: Interesting Argument in the American Railway Union Suits”

On May 11, 1894, the Pullman Strike began when 4,000 workers employed by the Pullman Railroad Company walked off their jobs. After the Panic of 1893, George Pullman, the company’s president, decided to cut the workers’ wages by twenty-five percent without introducing corresponding reductions in rent for company housing. This financial burden made it nearly impossible for workers to pay for their housing and food, leading to a delegation of workers presenting their grievances to George Pullman to no avail. (Bassett).

Thirty-five percent of the workers at the Pullman company were members of the American Railway Union, which supported the strike. Eugene V. Debs, the president of the ARU, encouraged railroad workers to boycott the handling of Pullman cars nationwide, causing the strike to have 250,000 workers involved at its peak. The strike was eventually ended in mid-July when a federal injunction was issued and President Cleveland called in the federal national guard to suppress what was deemed an illegal strike. Citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the injunction forbid any interference with the mail. Debs, along with four other ARU leaders, was arrested and jailed for conspiracy and ignoring the injunction following the strike. (Bassett).

The government brought a case against the American Railway Union, branding the Pullman boycott as a conspiracy in restraint of trade under the Sherman anti-trust law. The defendants’ laweyer, S.S. Gregory, argued that the injunction cut off ARU leaders from communicating with their subordinates and impeded the workers’ right to strike and have leaders to advise them. He also argued that the Sherman anti-trust law was unconstitutional; it was meant to address oppressive businesses and monopolies, not allow the federal government to interfere in labor strikes. George also noted the importance of the trial, stating, “thousands of persons here, as well as all over the country, are watching this case.” (“Labor’s Rights”). Ultimately the prosecution dropped the charges, however, the precedent set by the injunction would have lasting effects on union strikes in the future.

The Pullman Strike and its resulting legal case demonstrate the importance and focus on workers’ rights and unions to those in the 1890s. The strike represented the first time the federal government used an injunction to break a strike, ingraining the idea that the government and the courts would support big business rather than the workers. The industrialization of the workforce during this decade ushered in an era of horrendous working conditions and the decrease in workers’ rights. The Pullman workers’ demands are exemplary of workers’ demands of the time. Calling for a brotherhood of equals rather than being treated as children in a paternalistic relationship, Pullman workers sought to gain more direct control of autonomy. Through creating a fraternalistic relationship,the workers hoped to better their conditions and situations. (Addams).

These desires spread far beyond just the Pullman workers and were echoed throughout the nation, beginning to gain power. This can be seen in the People’s Party and their platform. In 1892, the party declared the importance of unions, stating “the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual.” (People’s Party, 251). The party also supported returning the power of the economy back to the people themselves, criticizing monopolies and corporate interests.



“The Condition of the Laboring Man at Pullman,” Chicago Labor, July 7, 1894.

The workers at the Pullman company saw themselves as being exploited by Pullman for his own gain. A political cartoon published at the time of the Pullman strike illustrates the oppression that the workforce at the Pullman company encountered. In the cartoon, a Pullman employee is seen being crushed between two weights labeled low wages and high rent. The worker is portrayed as a helpless, powerless man. Additionally, the weights also signify capitalism, monopoly, plutocracy, and wage slavery. The man crushing the employee between the two weights is Pullman, depicted as a large, wealthy man. The difference in the two men highlights that the worker suffers for the benefit of those in charge; the man representing Pullman is heavy-set and well-dressed, showing that he has enough money to  buy food and clothes in excess.


“The Old and the New Labor Unions”

In a 1894 editorial for the New York Times, the actions of Debs and the American Railway Union during the Pullman strike are brought into question. The author sees Debs as a reckless figure whose actions during the strike were appalling and ruinous to his movement. The author believes that by using the boycott as a weapon for the accomplishment of their ends, the union inflicted losses upon the workers by compelling them to go on strike and lose their wages. Additionally, the author explains that it takes months or years for the workers to figure out that the strikes are a losing game and that only a small number actually benefit. (“The Old”).

In opposition to these “old” labor unions, the author promotes the idea of “new” labor unions that would actually benefit their members. These unions would be based in respect for their contracts with the employing companies.  They would, “have legitimate objects, they are managed with some regard for business principles, with a sense of responsibility to the public, and with a decent respect for law and order” (Article). In addition, these unions would mark a new century that would be a brighter era for both workers and their employers. The union would work with the employers to make sure that mutual interests were protected, instead of simply making demands to the companies.  These unions would benefit the general mass of workers rather than a select few, in turn making the community prosperous. Additionally, it shows how the public perceived union strikes at the time as a nuisance and harmful to society. It is also important to note that the New York Times, while becoming more independent and analytical during the 1890s, was historically a Republican-leaning paper. Republicans at the time generally supported business and promoted policies that sustained the fast growth of industries. (“The Old”).

This editorial highlights the desire for brotherhood during the 1890s. While creating a fraternalistic work environment was one of the goals of the Pullman strike, the workers pursued the wrong means in achieving their goal. The belief of the author and many others that unions had to be built out of mutual respect and interest became extremely important for later labor unions. Unions such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Trainmen gained popularity after the Pullman strike. As their names suggest, these unions valued brotherhood and used less “wild” tactics to attain their goals. The labor unions of the 1890s desired better conditions and wages, but also a seat at the table with their employers.


“11,500 Employees Strike At a Major G.M. Factory”

 On September 27, 1994, about 11,500 workers at a General Motors manufacturing complex in Flint, Michigan walked off their jobs. The auto union cited the strain of overtime work as the reason for the strike, with the union-led protest asserting that the strain of keeping up with a robust demand for cars was ruining worker’s health. The union demanded that the auto maker hire more full-time workers to reduce the number of overtime hours that union members are working, stating that the extra work caused repetitive stress injuries. The strike was just one in a series of local labor struggles at General Motors. G.M.was forced to reduce its blue-collar headcount by twenty-four percent since the end of 1990, believing “that the automaker would improve its lagging productivity and profitability by reducing the number of workers it uses to build vehicles.” (Article). These efforts ultimately did not help the company, with its productivity continuing to lag behind that of its domestic and Japanese competitors. (Doron).

The local union was entitled to strike over health and safety issues, work force levels, and the diversion of work to outside, nonunion suppliers. During the summer of 1994, G.M. hired temporary workers to relieve the overtime pressure. However, the union objected that temporary workers were a divisive presence because they were paid far less and received no health or pension benefits. Additionally, G.M. offered incentives to laid-off workers from other parts of the country to move to Flint and work there. (Doron).

The G.M. strike helps to illuminate the issues workers in the 1990s faced. Similar to the 1890s, the introduction of new technology and economic structures revolutionized the workforce. Believing that “new technology was increasing the pace of growth in productivity,” companies sought to become more successful no matter the consequences, particularly to their workers. (Hodgson, 95). Companies declared that increased productivity would benefit everyone, that a rising tide lifts all boats. In reality, however, only those controlling the means of production benefited, while those actually producing fell victim to new innovations and inequality rapidly grew. (Hodgson, 103).

Additionally, workers in the 1990s held a fear of losing their jobs to overseas manufacturers. The 1990s saw a focus on brand-names, and companies aimed at building superbrands. These superbrands, however, were extraordinarily expensive to create, causing companies to seek ways of cutting labor costs. The manner in which companies accomplished this was through out-sourcing production overseas where it was cheaper to manufacture products. Plants throughout the United States began to close as jobs were eliminated and sent overseas. (Klein). This flight of jobs became a major focus for the American workforce during the 1990s and illustrated the problem that workers faced.


U.A.W. Local 651 workers walk from the Delphi East complex along Averill Avenue in Flint, Mich. as they strike on Thursday June 11, 1998.

The image of the G.M. workers on strike displays the importance of labor unions in the 1990s and the support between the workers. It also depicts the diverse group that was affected by the new “innovations” of the 1990s: the employees on strike vary by gender, race, and age. This diverse groups of workers and the size of the union on strike exemplifies the role labor unions played in protecting the workforce in the 1990s.


“Labor’s Opportunity”

In a 1995 editorial for The Washington Post, an opportunity for the revival of labor unions is discussed. The author examines the issues unions are facing, most importantly the enormous erosion of membership and power of the unions. Fewer than one out of six Americans in the 1990s belonged to a union. However, the author believes that the election of John J. Sweeney as president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a sign of optimism for labor unions, “organized labor may now have a historic opportunity before it, although it similarly violates the common wisdom even to hint it” (“Labor’s Opportunity”).

Sweeney, a champion of human rights, promised to invest new money and energy into organizing labor unions and use more confrontational tactics than recently used by unions. Sweeney was able to recruit members that were considered the most difficult to reach, largely increasing the size of labor unions. In addition to Sweeney, the challenges facing the workforce at the time contributed to this new sense of opportunity for unions. Waves of layoffs and corporate downsizing forced workers to realize that they were more vulnerable than they thought. Instilling a sense of solidarity in workers, this circumstances created a new appeal in the idea of collective action to preserve some balance in the market for labor. (“Labor’s Opportunity”).

 This editorial highlights the anxiety and fears that workers faced in the 1990s. During the 1980s, organized labor was damaged by union-busting and shrinking membership, however, the conditions of the 1990s made the revival of labor unions a necessity. A solidarity was formed between workers, allowing for labor unions to strengthen. (Holusha). Job security became a main grievance of the labor unions and one of the biggest motivating factors in becoming a union member. The unions sought to protect current employment levels while companies looked for lower-cost outside suppliers. The 1990s revitalization of labor unions illustrated the power workers had in numbers and their desire for more rights.


 Additional Sources:

Jonathan Bassett, “The Pullman Strike of 1894,” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pp. 34–41.

Doron P. Levin, “11,500 Employees Strike at a Major G.M. Factory,” New York Times, Sep 28, 1994.

John Holusha, “Unions are Expanding their Role to Survive in the 90s,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 1990.

“Labor’s Opportunity,” The Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1995.

“Labor’s Rights and Wrongs,” New York Times, Sep 28, 1894.

Walter Nelles, “Commonwealth v. Hunt,” Columbia Law Review 32.7 (1932).

 “The Old and the New Labor Unions,” New York Times, July 8, 1894.

Wilmington Race Riots of 1898: The Infusion of Racial Ideology into Politics

By Alex Sutton

In the 1890s, North Carolina saw historical shifts in politics and the emergence of new political parties. In response to the Democratic party that favored banks and railroads over agriculture, white agrarians founded the People’s Party, also known as the Populists. They soon formed an alliance with black Republicans that shared their economic grievances, something that was unimaginable to the white Democrats. The Populist-Republican interracial coalition, known as the “Fusion” coalition, became a major political player in North Carolina. While the economic depression deepened, the coalition advocated for popular control of local government, free public education, and electoral reforms that would give black men the same voting rights as whites. (Tyson)

In 1894, Fusion candidates won a majority in the legislature and won both U.S. Senate seats. The Fusion party was again victorious in 1896, when the alliance retained control of the legislature and elected a Republican governor, Daniel Russell. The victory of the Fusion coalition in 1894 signaled a political change for North Carolina, particularly Wilmington. The horrified white Democrats vowed to regain control of the government. (Kirshenbaum)

The Democratic Party began to conduct a statewide white supremacy campaign of racist appeals and political violence that aimed to demolish the interracial coalition. Instead of focusing on important political issues of the time, such as the economic depression, Democrats had to develop campaign issues that transcended party lines. Culminating in the Wilmington race riot of 1898, the Democrats’ white supremacy campaign led the revolution against interracial democracy. As historian Glenda Gilmore argues, “we can see that the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s and early 1900s injected a vicious racial ideology into the heart of American political culture in a way that we have yet to transcend fully” (Gilmore 10).

Additionally, the federal governments’ refusal to take action during and after the riot illuminates the larger racial and political issues in the nation at the time. During the riot, President McKinley failed to send federal troops to put an end to the massacre, leaving Wilmington’s African American population unprotected. When the riot eventually came to an end, McKinley also failed to provide federal government assistance those who needed it after the terror of the riot. Most importantly, however, the federal government failed to prosecute the perpetrators of the riot. Fearing that an acquittal would undermine the authority of the federal government in North Carolina, prosecutors decided to drop the matter. The federal government’s lack of action demonstrated that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of civil rights would not be enforced. Not until 1957 would a president take action to prove the power of the Reconstruction amendments in the South. The federal government’s failure to act in the face of the Wilmington race riot set a precedence that white supremacists power would be unchecked and that the federal government would not act to prevent racial violence. As historian Joel Willamson wrote, “once the riot had actually occurred in Wilmington,  there was no need for it to happen elsewhere” (Gilmore 5).  The memory of the riot and the terror that it anchored in African Americans allowed for the white supremacists to continue their domination long after the riot had ended. (Gilmore 86-87).

Through infusing politics with hateful racial ideology, white supremacists aimed to gain more support from the white males that had belonged to the Fusion party. Using tactics such as portraying African Americans as conspiring to spread “negro domination” through taking away the white man’s right to autonomy, Democrats illuminated the assumed threat posed to the state’s elites. Additionally, playing on racial fears that African Americans were a threat to womanhood, the white supremacist campaign was able to remake men into killers that were justified in protecting white women at any cost. The tactics used by the white supremacy campaign against the Fusion coalition in 1898 would make racial hatred a facet of politics, greatly damaging interracial coalitions in the future.

To wage their white supremacy campaign, Democrats recruited a group of aggressive, colorful, and dynamic young supporters. Among these new recruits was Josephus Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. Daniels became the Democrats’ leading mouthpiece and a militant voice of white supremacy, using his newspaper to disseminate the hateful, racial ideology that fueled the white supremacy campaign and would become commonplace in American politics.(Prather 22).

Raleigh News and Observer

Raleigh News and Observer, November 11, 1898.

In the months leading up to the election and race riots, the Raleigh News and Observer published countless political cartoons demonstrating the threat that the Fusionist party presented to the white population in North Carolina.



A Warning. Get Back! We Will Not Stand It,Raleigh News and Observer, August 30, 1898.

One of the most crucial tactics that Democrats employed during their campaign of white supremacy was appealing to the white man’s masculinity. As discussed by historian Glenda Gilmore, by using the language of “home protection,” Democrats were able to give the discontent a powerful psychosexual charge. By convincing the Populist white man that had valued his class interests over his race interests, opponents of the Fusion party bolstered the idea that the Populist man had allowed for the incubus to become a threat to white women. The belief that white men needed to assert their manhood and protect “family values” became the justification needed for the men to take violent action against African Americans. (Gilmore 76-77). The political cartoon, “A Warning. Get Back! We Will Not Stand It,” published in 1898 depicts the belief of white men that it was their duty to defeat “negro rule.” The arm of the “honest white man” is seen using his ballot to fend of the African American man, symbolizing as his hat states, the “negro rule.” While portraying the conflict in a political light, the cartoon displays the strong moral obligation white men had to keep the black man out of public affairs and governance.



Don’t Be Tempted By The Devil,Raleigh News and Observer, October 26, 1898.

One of the main images used during the White Supremacy Campaign in 1898 was that of the incubus. As discussed by historian Glenda Gilmore, the incubus was created by white politicians in an effort to seize political power, being used as a scare tactic to pull white voters back into the Democratic Party (Gilmore 74). While the incubus was seen as a threat to white women, the representation of African Americans as demonic figures was widespread. As seen in the cartoon, “Don’t Be Tempted By The Devil,” the incubus-like winged devil represents the Fusionist party, particularly the black members of the party. This portrayal played into the racial idea that African Americans were evil, devil like figures out to harm the white population. The devil is seen exerting its influence and control over the unsuspecting white-voter at the ballot box. The vote that the white man is seen casting is “for negro rule,” showing that what the devil wants is for African Americans to gain political control. It also equates a vote for the Fusion party as a vote “for negro rule.” The image would have played into the fear of “Negro Domination” and would have made white mean fear for the safety of their autonomy.



“I Make Them Dance Or I Crush Them,” Raleigh News and Observer, October 12, 1898.

In response to the Fusion coalition’s victories, Democrats formed the White Supremacy Campaign in 1898. Historian Glenda Gilmore argues “what happened in Wilmington was part of an orchestrated campaign to end interracial cooperation, restore white supremacy, and in the process assure the rule of the state’s planter and industrial leaders” (Gilmore 6). Importantly, Democrats targeted white Fusionists as much as African Americans. The cartoon, “I Make Them Dance or I Crush Them,” published in 1898, depicts the Democrats view of the control African Americans held in the Fusion party. In the cartoon, white men are seen dancing in the palm of a hand, labeled on the cuff of its shirt as a “negro.” The hand of the “negro” is illustrated not as the hand of a human-being, but as the hand of an incubus: a demonic, beast-like creature possessing long, claw-like finger nails and hairy hands. Additionally, the cartoon depicts Governor Russell in the hands of his African American electorate, demonstrating that even fusionism was a type of “negro domination” to the Democrats. The cartoon also alludes to the idea that the Fusionist Party would cause white men to become subordinate to black men, rather than being their political equals. Playing on the fear of losing their masculinity, this idea would have instilled fear in the white men, causing them to see Fusionists as an even larger threat.

Additional Sources:

Kirshenbaum, Andrea Meryl, “The Vampire That Hovers over North Carolina: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.” Southern Cultures, no. 3, 1998.

Prather Sr., H. Leon, “We Have Taken a City,” in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, eds. Cecelski and Tyson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 15-43.

Tyson, Timonty B., “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy.” Raleigh News and Observer, 17 November 2006.