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  • Patriarchy Revisited:Gender, Race, and Sexual Violence
  • Estelle B. Freedman (bio)
Sharon Block . Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 296 pp.; ill.; tables. ISBN 0-8078-3045-3 (cl); 0-8078-5761-0 (pb).
Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown . The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. 388 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-674-01020-5 (cl); 0-67401020-5 (pb).
David Peterson Del Mar . Beaten Down: A History of Interpersonal Violence in the West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. 300 pp. ISBN 0-295-98260-8 (cl); 0-295-98505-4 (pb).

In her influential 1975 feminist analysis of rape, Susan Brownmiller deplored the lack of theoretical and historical literature on sexual violence. "Critical to our study," she wrote, "is the recognition that rape has a history, and that through the tools of historical analysis we may learn what we need to know about our current condition."1 Historians have gradually answered her call. Among Anglo-American historians, for example, Linda Gordon, Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck, and Nancy Tomes have provided accounts of domestic and interpersonal violence; Anna Clark, Karen Dubinsky, and Judith R. Walkowitz have explored legal and cultural accounts of rape; and Stephen Robertson has recently expanded the literature to include sexual violence against children.2 A growing historiography on sexual violence, not only in North America but also internationally, now ranges from microhistorical accounts of individual crimes to regional, national, and comparative studies.

The three books under review here illustrate a central theme that recurs throughout this literature: how sexual violence and its prosecution support both patriarchy and white supremacy. Sharon Block's study provides the most comprehensive and sophisticated study of rape in U.S. history to date. Block's survey of the legal treatment and cultural depiction of rape throughout early America contributes especially to broadening the definitions of rape and understanding the historical process of its racialization. Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown's close analysis of the trial [End Page 154] and punishment of Ephraim Wheeler, accused of rape in 1805 by his teenage daughter, teases out the public response to "incest" in early-nineteenth-century Massachusetts, emphasizing conflicts over capital punishment. Shifting the terrain to the Pacific Northwest on the border between Canada and the United States, David Peterson Del Mar explores interpersonal violence beyond the family, including corporal punishment in schools, assaults in all-male settings, and the use of force both within and between Native cultures, European settlers, and black and Asian migrants.

Block located over nine hundred cases of rape in both northern and southern legal records, personal papers, and newspapers between 1700 and 1820. Because she looks beyond court records, which tend to overrepresent violent attacks by strangers, Block is able to provide a more textured account of the dynamics of sexual power and to expand the scope of historical inquiry beyond the narrow, Anglo-American legal definition of rape as sexual relations forced upon a woman, against her will, by a man other than her husband. The continuum of sexual relations she maps ranges from consent to coercion to violent assault. Block uncovers interactions that today would qualify as rape but at the time remained outside the realm of prosecution, such as coercive acts in which women technically consented, but only under duress. These include an incident described by the Virginia diarist William Byrd in which a woman would have been ravished if, in Byrd's view, "her timely consent had not prevented the Violence" (21). The cultural construction of sex as an act between an aggressive male and a desiring woman who merely performed resistance gave white men wide protection from prosecution. By exploring sexual assaults never reported to the authorities, Block offers insight into women's hesitancy to press charges lest they themselves suffer blame for sins of illicit sexual relations, including fornication (during courtship) or adultery (even if forced to have sex outside marriage).

Like Karen Dubinsky's comparison of court cases and newspaper accounts in Ontario, Canada, Block's study shifts the focus from stranger...


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