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  • "Crimes which startle and horrify":Gender, Age, and the Racialization of Sexual Violence in White American Newspapers, 1870-1900
  • Estelle B. Fredman (bio)

Rape is a troubling and elusive subject. As a crime it has been defined in Anglo-American law as the carnal knowledge of a woman by force and against her will (and, until recently, by a man other than her husband). Conflicting accounts of "force" and "will," however, make rape a prime example of the difficulty of fixing "truth" in light of multiple perspectives on an event. As feminist theorist Sharon Marcus has argued, rape is as much a linguistic as a physical act. 1 The history of rape, then, consists in large part of tracking the changing cultural narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime of forceful, unwanted sex and whose accounts will be believed. These rape narratives also have political import. In the late nineteenth-century United States, they served to shore up white male privilege through constructions of dependent women and dangerous African Americans, groups that remained excluded from full citizenship rights because of their alleged incapacity for self-government.

The abundant reports of rape, outrage, ravishment, and seduction in nineteenth-century American newspapers offer rich cultural clues to the popular dissemination of these narratives of sexual violence. While recent studies of criminal justice records reveal racial patterns of prosecution and [End Page 465] punishment for rape, most Americans neither read nor observed police and court proceedings. 2 At one time they learned about rape from sermons, broadsides, ballads, and gossip, but in the nineteenth century the secular press increasingly popularized stories of sexual assault. As print media expanded with the proliferation of the daily "penny press" and entrepreneurial publishers encouraged sensationalistic storytelling to entertain readers, violent crimes culled from police ledgers, including routine coverage of rape, made front-page news. 3 Far from a taboo subject, sexual assaults regularly appeared in the press, confirming one of Michel Foucault's central insights into the expansion of sexual discourse in the nineteenth century. Newspapers shaped the subject of "the rapist" in articles about men who were never caught or brought to trial as well as through stories about those who were convicted, appealed, or were killed in executions, revenge killings, and lynchings. 4

Several historians have noted the critical role of newspaper accounts of rape in establishing gender and racial norms. In colonial Massachusetts, as Thomas A. Foster explains, press coverage of rape emphasized the threat [End Page 466] to patriarchal order posed by transient and marginal men who assaulted women. According to Sharon Block, print culture during the Revolutionary and early national periods also represented rape as an affront to men as protectors of women. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's path-breaking work on the antilynching movement reveals how mass media spread brutal images of African American men murdered for allegedly assaulting white women. Drawing on Ida B. Wells's analysis of lynching reports in white newspapers during the 1890s, Gail Bederman contrasts press portrayals of a primitive black male rapist with the trope of the sexually civilized white male. Historians also interpret the lessons imparted to women through newspaper narratives of rape. Reading the sexual scripts surrounding the case of Jack the Ripper in late-Victorian England, Judith Walkowitz detects cautionary tales about the dangers of city streets for women. Historians Anna Clark and Karen Dubinsky argue that from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries the fear of rape undermined women's autonomy in England and Canada by creating female dependence on men as protectors. For this sexual "protection racket" to operate and patriarchy to be enforced, only a few men had to assault women, but their crimes had to be widely known and publicly acknowledged, a requirement fulfilled in part by the press. 5

Newspapers also provoked political responses to rape. In the 1880s English editor William Stead's exposés of the sale of working-class girls as prostitutes inspired a breed of "scandal journalism" in which both tabloids and the conservative press publicized the sexual vulnerability of children and adolescents. As in Britain, American social purity crusaders drew upon these exposés to lobby successfully...


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pp. 465-497
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