From the 1990s and into the 2000s, scholars have produced a number of histories of rape, most of which are legal or social histories that rely heavily on legal-history methodology. Estelle B. Freedman offers us another lens through which to view the history of sexual violence in Redefining Rape. This book analyzes rape reform movements within the context of American political culture. For that reason, Freedmen’s focus is not on the legal definition of rape but on its contested political meaning. Her thesis is that white men have long had a vested interest in how rape is defined and have always sought to maintain a definition that protects their sexual prerogatives. This has meant denying or restricting the rights and freedoms of women as well as ethnic and racial minorities. However certain groups, including social reformers, African American men and women, and lower-class women, have pushed back and tried to redefine rape in ways that afford women, regardless of race or socio-economic status, protections from sexual depredations. Although reformers have had some successes in redefining rape, they often had to forge compromises that watered down changes, resulting in less effective reform. In some cases, the opposition usurped the movement and then used it to advance their own agenda, one that was usually contrary to what reformers intended.
Tracking changes in rape narratives, Freedman traces the political meanings of rape, specifically revealing who can be raped and who can be convicted of rape. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, rape [End Page 688] meant the sexual violation of a chaste white woman by a male whom she did not know. Male rapists tended to be portrayed as strangers, tramps, or elite libertines. After the Civil War, southern white men invented the myth of the black-male rapist to justify lynching and disfranchisement as they continued to propound the notion that black women were promiscuous. White southerners were so successful that rape came to be redefined as the “Negro Crime,” something black men did to white women. Blacks countered with narratives of white men raping black women and proved that lynchings were not typically motivated by rape accusations. After World War I, dispelling the myth of the hypersexual black man became part of the antilynching campaign. The black community did not speak with one voice, however, and did not agree on solutions to the lynching and rape myth problems, which often diluted their efforts. It also did not address the issue of black-on-black rape.
Denied the franchise, white women waged a campaign to raise the age of consent for females. They won that battle over time, but lost the war as early-twentieth-century legal and medical authorities adopted psychological theories that labeled young sexually active females as delinquents and turned adult women into treacherous sexual psychopaths. Freedman states that higher ages of consent resulted in an increasing skepticism that young girls could be raped and this spilled over into cases involving adult women. But courts effectively never believed that healthy adult women could be raped and this sentiment likely trickled down to young females. The 1960s feminist movement revived interest in rape reform with demonstrations to take back the night, challenges to archaic stereotypes and misogynistic psychological theories, and efforts to reform legal rules that discriminated against females who charge rape.
A short review cannot do justice to this well-researched, well-written, and well-argued book. Freedman clearly shows that politics is personal and that political culture has played a large role in the defining and redefining of rape. Anyone interested in sexual politics, past and present, should read this book. [End Page 689]
MARY BLOCK is an associate professor of history at Valdosta State University. She has researched extensively and published several articles and book chapters on Anglo-American rape law. She is currently researching the common law of rape in England from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries and is revising a manuscript on nineteenth-century rape law...