Ida Wells-Barnett was born to be a fighter against injustice. She was born a slave, but the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and her family while she was still just a baby. After the death of her parents from yellow fever, she fought to keep her family together. She fought to gain a tertiary education even while working as a school teacher to support her family. And she fought to keep her place on a train, even as three white men manhandled her to throw her off the train (to the applause of the white passengers). She went on to fight for gender and race equality for the rest of her life.
What makes Ida so interesting is that she kept on fighting even after marriage and the birth of her children, and even when her life was threatened. In an era when women were known as ‘Mrs Henry Jones’, Ida kept her maiden name and hyphenated it to her husband’s name. However, these days, her suffragette activism is overshadowed by her human rights activism. She fought long and hard to educate the world to the evils of mob lynching, flagging its use to continue to subjugate the black population now that they were no longer slaves.
Ida believed in underlining the truth with facts, using numerical data to back up her claims. Ida listed fourteen pages of statistics concerning the lynching atrocities from 1892 to 1895. She also wrote up graphic accounts detailing lynching done in the American South. When she moved to Chicago (for reasons of personal safety) she helped set up African American women’s reform organisations, and helped prevent the segregation of Chicago schools. She travelled to Europe twice to educate the world about the horrors of Lynch law. Even in her last years, she fought on, running for public office just a year before she died of kidney failure.
As a writer and a feminist, I can’t help but admire Ida’s personal bravery and determination. I don’t think I would remain so steadfast if I was under the same type of constant battering of racism and sexism that she faced during her lifetime. In my eyes, this makes her the perfect model for a Steampunk Heroine. She makes the Plucky Girl stereotype look like a two dimensional paper doll.
In fact, I have a lot of objections to the Plucky Girl stereotype, starting with the name. What kind of word is ‘plucky’? It seems to me to be in the same family as the word ‘little’, which is always used to diminish rather than describe – just think of the usage in the ‘little’ woman or the ‘little’ lady. Now substitute Brave and Determined Woman for Plucky Girl … see the contextual change in meaning? ‘Plucky’ is always in the ‘I like a girl with spirit’ territory. I prefer my female characters to punch anyone saying that in the nose. Hard. Hard enough to break that nose.
No one over the age of eighteen should be referred to as a ‘Plucky Girl’.