Battles for Control: The White Patriarchy Revisited

During the Post-Civil War Era, the white patriarchy faced new threats to its dominance. In response to these threats, it engaged in different “battles” to maintain power.  In Tuesday’s readings, we were introduced to the battle over language: the battle between “Free Lovers” and Victorian moralists; the battle of the white middle class. For Thursday, we read about the battle between white patriarchy and black men, black women, and white women to maintain their racial and sexual hierarchical power. The commonality between this week’s readings is the theme of the white patriarchy’s battle to maintain their power: in the battle over language, the Free Lovers argued that Victorian moralists dominated society through their control of language; in the battle for racial and sexual hierarchy, white men wanted to suppress any sense of manliness in black males, assert the treatment of women as objects, and specifically assert the view of black women as sexual objects.

As Angela discusses in her blog post “Race Suicides and Homicides,” white southerners used “physical violence to “promote” their cause” of maintaining the racial hierarchy, and this physical violence was largely through lynching (  At the base of maintaining the racial hierarchy, white southerners would undermine the masculinity of black men, and they did this in gruesome ways. An example of this is in William H. Stallings statement on Ku Klux Klan lynchings, in which he details one man who was “taken out into the woods, a hole dug in the ground and a block buried in it, and his penis taken out, and a nail driven through it into the block” (Stallings, 154). This horrible mutilation is a symbol of removing manliness from the victim. As Jacquelyn Dowd Hall highlights, “lynching served as a tool of psychological intimidation” aimed at black males, and violent acts such as this sent a terrifying message to black men (Hall, 330). The hierarchy was largely about keeping black men out of political and economic power, and violent assertions of lack of manliness was a major tool used to do this.

I would take this idea of hierarchy a step further and argue that they were also maintaining the dominance of their gender. In addition to physical violence, white southerners used sexual violence. This sexual violence was used as a tool to both undermine black men’s manliness and assert dominance over black women. Black women, in contrast to white women, were deemed inherently sexual. As Hall puts it, “the fear and fascination of female sexuality was projected onto black women; the passionless lady arose in symbiosis with the primitively sexual slave” (Hall, 333). So, black women were attacked based on their race and gender.

The white patriarchy also asserted dominance over white women, and this manifested itself differently depending on what class women belonged to. Middle and upper class white women were “the forbidden fruit, the untouchable property, the ultimate symbol of white male power” (Hall, 334). Objects to have power over rather than individuals. On the other hand, working class white women were not protected as middle to upper class white women were. Hodes writes that “white women whom Klansmen and their sympathizers judged to be lacking in virtue were subject to abuse ranging from insulting language to rape,” and this usually fell on women of the working class (Hodes, 410).

In a very different way, the battle over language during the Post-Civil War years also concerned white male control. For one, the leaders of the Free Lovers included women such as Angela Heywood who called out this issue as one that had always been controlled by men. According to Battan, Heywood “was inspired by her belief that a new language would equalize the relationship between men and women” one in which “the dialogue…had always been lopsided, in favor of men” (Battan, 259). Heywood argued that men had always had the advantage in this debate of speech. This is supported when Battan notes that the people empowered to speak in public about sexuality were “clergymen, physicians, and moral reformers,” professions mostly associated with men (Battan, 234). This Victorian sexual ideology was led by moral reformists such as the politically influential and socially powerful Anthony Comstock, for example. Heywood and other free thinkers saw their fight as one in which power needed to be taken from the dominant elites who controlled education and censorship, and ultimately the behavior and morals of society.


Battan, Jesse F. “The Word Mad Flesh,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexualitiy, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 252-264.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Mind That Burns in Each Body,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality ed. Ann Sintow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1983) 328-346.

Hodes, Martha. “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War,” in Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 3, No. 3, Special Issue: African American Culture and Sexuality (University of Texas Press, 1993) 402-417.

Stallings, William H. “William H. Stallings Testifies About Ku Klux Klan Lynchings, 1871,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexualitiy, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 154.


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