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Redefining Rape

Redefining Rape

Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation

Estelle B. Freedman

ISBN 9780674088115

Publication date: 10/05/2015

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Rape has never had a universally accepted definition, and the uproar over "legitimate rape" during the 2012 U.S. elections confirms that it remains a word in flux. Redefining Rape tells the story of the forces that have shaped the meaning of sexual violence in the United States, through the experiences of accusers, assailants, and advocates for change. In this ambitious new history, Estelle Freedman demonstrates that our definition of rape has depended heavily on dynamics of political power and social privilege.

The long-dominant view of rape in America envisioned a brutal attack on a chaste white woman by a male stranger, usually an African American. From the early nineteenth century, advocates for women's rights and racial justice challenged this narrow definition and the sexual and political power of white men that it sustained. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, at the height of racial segregation and lynching, and amid the campaign for woman suffrage, women's rights supporters and African American activists tried to expand understandings of rape in order to gain legal protection from coercive sexual relations, assaults by white men on black women, street harassment, and the sexual abuse of children. By redefining rape, they sought to redraw the very boundaries of citizenship.

Freedman narrates the victories, defeats, and limitations of these and other reform efforts. The modern civil rights and feminist movements, she points out, continue to grapple with both the insights and the dilemmas of these first campaigns to redefine rape in American law and culture.


  • Freedman shows how, since the country’s founding, ideas about sexual violence have traditionally been informed—and enforced—by and for a ruling class of white men. She also outlines the history of anti‐rape movements that challenged white supremacy and male supremacy. The presentation of these disparate movements, which were often at odds with one another despite having seemingly similar goals, is among the most fascinating aspects of Freedman’s narrative… Throughout history there has been no cohesive anti‐rape movement, and Redefining Rape makes the reasons for that clear. By cataloguing the many disparate critiques of the popular definitions of rape over time, Freedman has placed a largely invisible history of anti‐rape reform in the broader context of ongoing struggles for social equality in the United States… For anyone interested in undertaking intersectional, anti‐racist feminist action against sexual violence, Redefining Rape has a lot to offer. Freedman does a great service in providing a historical account of where we came from, how we got here, and lessons for how to do it better in the future.

    —Annie Shields, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • 2014, Winner of the Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize
  • 2014, Winner of the Darlene Clark Hine Award
  • 2014, Joint winner of the Emily Toth Award


  • Estelle B. Freedman is Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History at Stanford University.

Book Details

  • 416 pages
  • 5-11/16 x 8-13/16 inches
  • Harvard University Press