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.
Freedman’s narrative is not simply relevant; it provides a sophisticated understanding of why rape is something we have been debating for centuries… This book is an ambitious and highly successful project. In clear prose filled with riveting anecdotes and powerful stories, Freedman recounts the story of rape, its wounds, its discontents and our as-yet-incomplete march to its end.
[Freedman] does more than merely chronicle the distressing history of racism in the U.S. between the 1870s and the 1930s. She is engaged in a meticulous analysis of the responses of various civil rights movements to pervasive sexual violence against women, girls and young boys… Even when the rape of black women was acknowledged, it was in the context of the harm done to black men’s pride: lynching (of men) rather than rape (of women) became the symbol of African American subjugation. By focusing on protest against oppression, Freedman gives readers an intellectually complex exposition of racial politics in America.
This stunning U.S. history demonstrates that power and privilege fundamentally shape the meanings of rape—its legal definitions, cultural representations, and human impact. Focusing especially on 1850–1950, Freedman argues that rape and citizenship are inextricably bound. Contests over who may—and may not—claim protection from sexual violence and accusations of rape illustrate this. Connections to broader histories of racial, class, and gender injustice drew attention to activists’ work, and Freedman deserves praise for critically examining their different attitudes and aspirations. She also astutely acknowledges regional differences in legal constructions, representations, and experiences of rape and sexual violence. Insightful critiques of sodomy laws, male youth, and men of color distinguish this book… This important, timely work should draw a diverse readership.
Freedman’s compelling account of the journey to define rape in America reveals that whoever controls the meaning of rape and of sexual violence controls our future and freedom. It is a crucial book.
Redefining Rape is a brilliant, vitally important, and richly textured history of the shifting definitions of rape in America, and of the relentless challenges that black and white women waged to protect their humanity and to own their bodies. Freedman perceptively traces the self-defense mechanisms women developed in order to sustain a culture of activism and resistance.
Freedman eloquently demonstrates that changing understandings of who is likely to rape, and who is likely to be the victim, have been at the core of the troubled histories of racial and gender injustice. Read this remarkably important book to understand the enduring sexual politics of our own time.
This is an unsparing and revelatory study. As she tracks evolving views of what constituted rape and who was to blame, Freedman illuminates American inequalities—of class, age, gender, and especially race—from wholly unexpected angles. A must for anyone concerned with equity in the American polity.
- 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
- 416 pages
- 5-11/16 x 8-13/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
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