Redefining Rape

via The Hairpin


Estelle Freedman’s new book Redefining Rape begins in the nineteenth century, when the definition of rape in America coalesced around a particular, narrow paradigm: a violent, usually black, male stranger physically overpowering a young, virgin, white woman. This template was not only culturally dominant but also, to some extent, codified in law. Several Southern states specified “white” before “woman” in the legal definition of a rape victim, or imposed harsher penalties if the victim were white. In New York and other states, a woman could prove rape only if she had shown the “utmost resistance” to her assailant—ideally, resulting in physical wounds. If she had not fought “so hard and so long as she was able,” a New York judge wrote in 1874, “must it not be that she is not entirely reluctant?”

Redefining Rape traces the history of efforts to expand and reconfigure both legal and cultural definitions of who could be raped, who could rape, and in what types of scenarios. “When I started working on this project,” Freedman says, “I thought of it as the prehistory of the anti-rape movement of the late twentieth century. But I found that anti-rape movements did not begin in the 1960s and ‘70s. There are important antecedents that we need to know about, which we can look back to for both positive and negative legacies.”

I talked with Professor Freedman about her book and how her historical research relates to today’s continuing debates over the meaning of rape.

Sara Mayeux: One chapter in the book is called “Smashing the Masher.” Who exactly was the “masher”?

Estelle Freedman: The “masher” was typically a white man who hung around on street corners or near public buildings and ogled, annoyed, or otherwise harassed women on city streets. There was an explosion of interest in the problem of the masher in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the white press, and then in the next two decades, during the Great Migration, in the black press.

SM: What were some of the proposed solutions?

EF: Well, in the beginning, men were called on to protect women. The context for the masher problem is the increased presence of women in public space, particularly unescorted women, who are doing things other than traveling from a private domestic place to another private domestic place. You have not only working-class women going to earn wages but also middle-class women who are out shopping, going to department stores, to downtown hotels to have tea. They’re moving in public space and some of them are professional workers.

So the responses originally were that men should protect them. But then there was this interesting, increasing emphasis on women protecting themselves. Women defending themselves, fighting back physically, reporting these men to the police. Sometime before World War I and escalating in the 1920s, there were calls to appoint policewomen, sometimes called police matrons, particularly to protect women on the streets.

There was a large range of behaviors that defined these “mashers,” from simply whistling and ogling and calling out propositions, to also following a woman, trying to get her to go on a date or to go for a walk in the park or to go on a boat ride. And it could escalate to men who assaulted or laid hands on her. And certainly in the case of African-American women, who had historically not been safe on the street from white men’s attentions, there was a thin line between calling out, “Hey, baby, will you go with me,” to forcing a woman to go with him, or presuming that every black woman was a prostitute and of course wanted to go with a white man.

SM: There are some unfortunate recurring tensions throughout this history, one of which was that white women activists were often working on a different track from their African-American counterparts, ignoring at best if not exacerbating the different sexual vulnerabilities of African-American women.

EF: Yes, I was struck by the fact that—even though, within the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century, so many leaders and members had been abolitionists and had pointed to the sexual vulnerability of enslaved women as one of the evils of slavery—in their own movement, they pretty much ignore African-American women. And one of the reasons it was so hard to pass those laws in the South is that white male southern legislators said, explicitly, this is going to be a law that lets black girls accuse white men.

The women who were working for those reforms, though they weren’t drawing a color line per se, they were ignoring the racialization of rape and the lynching of black men. And, in many cases, white women reformers bought into the Southern rape myth. Frances Willard, the president of the [Women’s Christian Temperance Union], is the famous example. When Ida B. Wells tried to get the WCTU to oppose lynching, Willard managed a kind of mild critique which suggested, “Yes, lynching is bad, and it would also be good if black men didn’t rape white women because that encourages lynching.” She did not recognize, as Wells did, that most lynchings had nothing to do with rape.

The white women’s club members often bought into not only the myth of the black male rapist but also the idea that black women didn’t have moral virtue to defend.

So white women focused on gender inequality, where black women were unable to separate their gender inequality from their race. The laws were passed, seduction laws and age of consent laws, but it was harder for black women to use those laws, because they all rest on a requirement of prior chastity; the white women’s club members and people who supported these laws often bought into not only the myth of the black male rapist but also the idea that black women didn’t have moral virtue to defend. And that’s where the black press and the black women’s clubs came in. They really started waging this cultural war to say that black women arevictims of rape, and white men rape, and white men harass black women—to really change that definition of who could be a victim, whether of mashing or of sexual assault more generally.

SM: Historically it seems a lot of these women’s movements were defining their goal in terms of casting a wider net, or making it easier to punish or imprison a wider range of men for rape and other sexual crimes—

EF: Not just to punish and imprison, but I think to warn them, “You can’t get away with it.” To set limits and give leverage to women so that white men didn’t just assume that they had sexual access to their acquaintances or to young women, and all they had to do was claim that the woman had consented and that would be that.


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One thought on “Redefining Rape

  1. Sounds like a really interesting book. Thanks for sharing it.

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