- Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation by Estelle B. Freedman
As Estelle B. Freedman demonstrates in her masterful new book, efforts to change the definition of rape belong to the history of American citizenship and political reform. The book expands upon the intersectional approach [End Page 329] that distinguishes several of the most notable recent monographs on the history of sexual violence, weaving the politics of race, sex, nation, and class into a complex tapestry.1 Freedman finds that efforts to redefine rape have oscillated between efforts to demonize African American men while “protecting” white women, at one pole, and campaigns to defend men (African American and white) from the “rape lie” of the duplicitous woman, at the other. Yet the story Freedman tells breaches this binary opposition, integrating the voices of African American women, explaining the racial and ethnic contexts that shaped responses to sexual violence against men and young boys, and grounding all of these events in their social and political contexts. Freedman synthesizes a vast secondary literature, integrates considerable new research, and advances a brilliant interpretive framework. The result is a book that every historian of the history of sexuality should read. Every US historian should read it, too. It is that important.
Freedman’s narrative illustrates how intrinsic debates about rape have been to American politics. Since the early nineteenth century, reformers have contested the definition of rape as “a brutal attack on a chaste, unmarried white woman by a stranger, typically portrayed as an African American man,” to encompass nonconsensual sex among acquaintances and spouses, whether violent or not (1–2). Because the American legal system excluded women and African Americans from voting, serving on juries, and holding office for so much of the American past, she explains, “white men who seduced, harassed, or assaulted women of any race” had little fear of prosecution. These formal exclusions enabled a narrow rhetoric of citizenship: “The constructions of black women as always consenting, white women as duplicitous, and black men as constant threats all justified the very limitations on citizenship that reinforced white men’s sexual privileges” (2). Freedman finds that it was the narrowing of the definition of rape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that prompted greater protections for women within a legal system that narrowly circumscribed women’s citizenship rights. Over the ensuing decades, responses to sexual violence shifted among efforts to protect (usually white) women’s claims of sexual assault, white men’s fear-mongering about African American men’s supposed proclivity for raping white women, efforts to defend African American men who had been wrongly accused, and campaigns to protect African American women and give voice to their protests. These efforts occurred without a central reform organization or a coherent national movement. Yet through her reading in newspapers, legal and medical journals, the papers [End Page 330] of reformers and reform organizations, appellate court decisions, and more, Freedman constructs a coherent narrative that traces “overlapping analyses of female sexual vulnerability and male aggression” (9). Over the course of the twentieth century, the definition of rape expanded and contracted, but it ultimately grew to encompass statutory rape, marital rape, incest, same-sex rape, and date rape.
Freedman’s chapters are exemplars of depth and concision. While the bulk of the book focuses on the “era of suffrage and segregation,” from Reconstruction through the 1930s, introductory and concluding chapters encompass the role of sexual assault in European colonial encounters with Native Americans in the seventeenth century, at one end of the chronological spectrum, to the “Central Park jogger” case from 1989, at the other.
The fruits of this approach are most apparent in the book’s final chapters, which span the antilynching crusades at the turn of the twentieth century through the infamous case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine African American youths wrongly convicted of raping two white women aboard a train in Alabama in 1931, with eight of the nine sentenced to die. Freedman lucidly...