Interview by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Harvard 2013) charts the complex and shifting meaning of sexual violence in the United States. It is unique in focusing on the legal and political, rather than personal and experiential, dimensions of American rape culture. Centering on the era of “suffrage and segregation” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Estelle Freedman argues that political power and social privilege have shaped legal and cultural definitions of rape. Race was central. Specifically, white claims to racial supremacy were bolstered by male sexual privilege. Moreover, race often served to splinter plausible biracial coalitions among women. The twin, and rarely intersecting, movements to advance women’s rights and African-American civil rights were both crucial to the redefinition of rape to include black women as victims and white males as perpetrators. Activists against segregation and for woman’s suffrage from the 1870s until the 1930s, Freedman found through review of countless press and policy sources, both worked to enact a more just legal definition of rape, though these movements rarely collaborated and at times worked at odds with one another. Still, their hitherto largely unstudied efforts re-imagined the very boundaries of citizenship that persist today.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela:  What led you to write Redefining Rape?

Estelle Freedman: There are really two backstories. One goes back to 1975, when I read Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will — a journalistic, feminist and very influential account of the way that rape has been pervasive historically and has contributed to gender inequality. Against Our Will has a lot of history in it, exploring rape throughout slavery and war, for example. I was very struck, as someone who was just getting her PhD and doing women’s history, by the question of why historians had not written about rape, and over time I thought about the research opportunities. But in truth, I put it on the backburner for many years. In the 1980s, when I was writing Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, and I was reviewing the emerging literature, I found very little on rape. We were beginning to get studies of prostitution and homosexuality and certainly of reproduction and birth control, but there was very little on the subjects that would become important in Redefining Rape. That is, outside of Jaqueline Dowd Hall’s work on southern white women who in the 1930s were organizing against lynching and who recognized the racialization of rape, and studies of lynching in the Jim Crow era, but not a whole lot more. I was surprised, but I kept saying, “I want to write about this and I am not sure how to do it.”

And I realized (the second back story) that one of the reasons I hesitated — and that the book I wrote doesn’t focus on the personal experience of sexual violence — was my resistance to writing about the victimization of women. I just had written about women in prisons and prison reform, a difficult subject, especially as I recognized how many problems that earlier reformers had identified remained or had gotten worse. So the idea of writing about the experience of sexual violence was hard for me, until I began teaching an interdisciplinary course in feminist studies at Stanford. That class really forced me to read, and think, and teach about sexual violence and to delve into this material that was clearly disturbing to the students, and I realized was personally disturbing to me as well. I wanted to find ways to frame the subject so that it was not just disempowering. And one of those ways was, of course, to talk about resistance and political movements and change. I’ve always been interested in social reform movements, and my way to look at this issue was to search for those historical moments when there were efforts to change the meaning and treatment of rape. Very specifically, as I mention it in the book’s acknowledgements, I have to credit Malvina Reynolds, the wonderful radical singer/songwriter from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I was listening to her song, “The Judge Said,” written about an incident in 1977 when women in Madison, Wisconsin organized to recall a judge who had let several young male rapists off with a slap on the wrist. I became historically curious about when feminists in the past had tried to hold the criminal justice system responsible – had they? What was the prehistory of the feminist anti-rape movement? All of these things fed into this sort of light-bulb moment, which was: I am not writing about the experience of sexual assault but about mobilizations in response to rape.

By the time I made this decision, thankfully, a half dozen or more social historians had been mining local and state police, court, and prison records, producing important works, that, along with those by legal historians, helped me initially map enough of the subject to build on. I am indebted to their work, which fills my footnotes. But I wanted to write about what I thought of as the “politics of rape,” not the social history per se. Soon I realized that my focus would be efforts to change the legal and cultural definition rape.

NMP: A primary analytical frame of your book is race and how the politics of racial inequality structure the definition of rape in the era you study. Is the chief “redefinition” to which your title refers about race? Could you say more about the title?

EF: The subtitle is the clue here: “in the era of suffrage and segregation.” The two movements I am most concerned with are those committed to securing women’s rights and those committed to securing racial justice. I ask specifically how the issue of rape related to questions of equality. In the 19th century and into the 20th century, the dominant definition of rape was the “black stranger rapist.” A huge part of this work is asking how does a racial justice movement — against segregation, against Jim Crow, against disenfranchisement — how does it tackle the myth of the black male rapist? Another huge part of redefining rape is the inclusion of black women as victims. During and after slavery they had been defined as always available, always immoral or promiscuous, no different than prostitutes. The parallel story concerns how women’s rights movements, the suffrage movement, and second-wave feminism identified rape as one way that women were disempowered.

This history also involves redefining rape to include acquaintances, not just strangers, and to include white men, not just black men. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the white women’s movement was chipping at these issues, which were fully developed in the late 20th century. I want to emphasize, and I do in the book, these are parallel and rarely intersecting movements in that black women and men were working on race and gender and white women were largely dealing only with gender. One intersection of the movements for suffrage and against segregation, though, is that they both recognized the ways that white men used rape to maintain their political as well as sexual privilege.

NMP: Both given the nature of the topic and your extensive work as a social historian, one of the most impactful aspects of Redefining Rape is its emphasis on legal and policy documents rather than on personal narratives. Why did you make this decision?

EF: One of the major frameworks of the book is that sexual violence is not merely a personal trauma; it is an issue of politics, power, and public policy. And I wanted to bring the personal into the history of politics, citizenship, and law — a trend I’ve seen within women’s history over the decades: moving from personal experience to politics and also taking that feminist phrase, “the personal is political” writ-large… political movements, and getting laws passed, trying to change the Constitution, and also trying to change culture.

NMP: Your book provides such rich analysis of “the era of suffrage and segregation” and illuminates the roots of important problems that so clearly persist today. For that reason, this book concludes on a very different note than No Turning Back, which ends much more optimistically. How do you think these narratives coexist?

EF: Where they intersect is that I talk about sexual violence in No Turning Back, and my argument that there is “no turning back” is optimistic in the sense that it suggests that even though we still have these problems, people around the world are mobilizing against rape and other forms of sexual violence. That is, they are no longer taken simply as “that’s a woman’s lot.” So, in that way these two books intersect. The end of Redefining Rape also talks about how we now have an anti-rape movement, which we didn’t have before. Even the anti-rape efforts I analyze were usually subsumed under women’s rights, suffrage, racial justice, anti-lynching. But now both in the U.S. and around the world we have a consciousness about the problems of sexual violence that we didn’t have before. So, I don’t think the endings of the two books are as oppositional as it might seem at first.

NMP: Female chastity is so central to the definitions of rape even as chastity has been racialized. Black women, you show, were considered unchaste and therefore considered unable to be raped. Can you say more about this? And, are there legacies of this fetishization of chastity as a requirement for a charge of rape to be taken seriously, even as we live in an age of greater sexual expression?    

EF: Female chastity is central and it is raced. But I want to be clear that white women who had in any way a diminished reputation — whether by their class, their family’s reputation, or if their general behavior was not seen as virtuous, whether they had sex or not — any of these conditions could greatly diminish a women’s standing if she made a claim of rape. All women were held to a standard of chastity. White women, however, had a much better chance of meeting that standard, of being presumed to have met it, especially if they were middle-class or elite. African-American women had a much higher barrier to being seen as chaste. Under slavery they had been available to white men because they were owned, and white women and men denied they were assaults by attributing them to a lack of morality on the part of the victims. If they are understood as promiscuous they were always available because they don’t have any virtue to defend.

That legacy continued after freedom, and it became part of the establishment of white supremacy, either through the direct sexual terrorizing of women during Reconstruction and afterwards, or through white men claiming access to black women and, despite formal legal grounds to charge rape, making it impossible for them to do so. Sometimes black women did bring charges against white men, but usually the only successful cases involved the rape of girls or really young women (whether by black or white men). But for adult black women, the assumption that they did not have any virtue to defend was a way of reinforcing white supremacy: not only by making black women available sexually but also by denying their male kin — their fathers, their husbands, their brothers — from defending these women. Black women and their families were defamed very easily. All of this contributed to the denial of citizenship to black men and black women: black men who were treated like rapists and black women who were deemed to be immoral did not deserve citizenship because they didn’t have the self- control considered necessary to be self-sovereign, to be a citizen, to contribute to rational discourse, to be expected to follow the law. Rape myths thus helped justify disenfranchisement and segregation.

Now, the second part of your question was whether we continue to fetishize chastity as a requirement for prosecuting rape. Technically you no longer have to prove you are virgin; I don’t believe any state still has a chastity requirement, although some older laws may still be on the books somewhere. But I would say that in the court of public opinion, and even in the legal courts, a reputation for being sexually active can still undermine a woman’s power as a prosecuting witness. For example, all of these cases in which what she wore — what kind of clothing, was it provocative — represent a legacy of the question “is she chaste?” I think that in a lot of the cases coming up now, when women are asked if they had been on a date, or had a boyfriend or if were already sexually active, many people still have the reaction of “well, what do you expect? This comes with the territory – that’s what you are going to have to put up with.” The assumption remains that “once you’ve given it to him, you can’t take it back.” These attitudes suggest there is definitely a legacy.

NMP: Your work has helped to define the fields of the history of sexuality, gender, and women, and now sexual violence as well. Where do you see this historiography going?

EF: On historiography, I really hope that this book encourages other scholars to explore the history of sexual violence, not just in the United States but comparatively, to try to discover other connections to social movements and to use it as a framework to go further. There are so many sources in the law and in the press, and in the papers of the reformers, but we haven’t conceptualized the material in terms of the history of sexual violence. And also, there is so much to be said about the late 20th century. I included this history in my last chapter, which is in a way an extended epilogue, and there are some young scholars doing this work now. But I know there is a lot still to be done. Again, I feel very grateful to all the scholars whose work is cited in my notes.

NMP: Rape has never been more in the mainstream American news than now, from Emma Sulkowicz’ campaign to the NFL. Why do you think this is the case?

 EF: I think this gets back to your question about whether there is a more pessimistic ending in Redefining Rape than in No Turning Back. We are now paying attention to inequalities in the treatment of sexual violence. Because of the anti-rape movement in late 20th century, because of the larger feminist movement, there has been certain amount of education, and expectation, that young women have access to education, to jobs, to the ability to move freely in the world, to self-sovereignty. We have a confluence of expectations of self-sovereignty and empowerment, possible means to enforce laws on the books, and also a political will to put those laws to use, and I think that has led to what is happening on campuses now.

About the NFL, I could use the framework of campus violence. As with the Clery Act, sometimes a particular case can mobilize a law, which then sits there but does not comes into play until there is that political will, plus these younger activists making claims. I think that in sports in general there have been a couple of egregious cases in the last few years that have led to new scrutiny. Clearly Penn State and Steubenville come to mind, but I don’t think it’s just football. Once you get that closer scrutiny, I think people began to look more closely at other issues, including domestic violence, and including the culture of violence within sports and the sense that “these heroes can do no wrong.” I think that in campus and athletic settings, either dramatic cases or the laws have been there before but there hasn’t been the political surveillance, from the federal government in particular, but now there is.

NMP: I also think it bears mention that so far we have only been talking about women as victims of rape. Yet you talk about the increased vulnerability of boys as well. How is that inclusion part of “redefining” rape?

EF: That’s right, and another thing that I had not thought was going to be more than a side bar but became a whole chapter in the book: the recognition of the sexual vulnerability of boys. I think this is another of the legacies of the past.

The child-saving movement at the turn of the 20th century contributed to an initial concern about sexual abuse of both girls and boys. At the same time, the emergence of the identity of the modern homosexual troubled ideas about male-male sexuality and brought closer attention not just to the vulnerability of children but even to consensual sex. Relations between adolescents and slightly older men became a problem as homosexuality became more visible as an identity. Both a protective and a stigmatizing impulse led to this initial concern about boys’ sexual vulnerability, which emerged initially in the early 20th century and revived in the late 20th century.

NMP: How has the project of researching and writing Redefining Rape affected your teaching? 

EF: I have to say that the project of teaching influenced the writing of Redefining Rape. It was the initial influence, because my teaching in Feminist Studies allowed me to think through and work through some of my resistance to writing about the subject. And my students really taught me about how pervasive sexual violence remains in young people’s lives. And I think teaching also allowed me to confront my own experiences and my fear of victimization, of writing about victimization, and enabled me to find a way into writing more about empowerment and change. So that was really important. And then I began teaching a class on the history of sexual violence as I wrote the book and student papers influenced me, discussions influenced me… Since the book came out I’ve taught the class twice using it, and it’s been a wonderful experience. By reading the book students know what I think, they have a framework, and then we are able to go further and consider new topics that I didn’t write about. I was able to add a section on rape and war, which I didn’t talk about in the book because there wasn’t a movement against wartime rape in the time period I was writing about. But I think historians are now finding a lot of material about this subject – another new direction in research. And in teaching I hope to open up more space to contemporary topics and to be more comparative, looking outside the US.


Estelle B. Freedman is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University, where she co-founded the undergraduate Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of two prize-winning monographs on the history of women’s prison reform and of No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002), as well as the co-author, with John D’Emilio, of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (3rd ed., 2012). Freedman and D’Emilio’s co-edited anthology, My Desire for History: Essays on Gay, Community, and Labor History by Allan Bérubé (2011), won the John Boswell Prize from the AHA Committee on LGBT History. Her most recent book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (2013), received prizes from the Organization of American Historians, The Popular Culture/American Culture Associations, and the Western Association of Women Historians.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School in New York City. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015) and her writing has appeared in various scholarly journals and popular media such as The New York Times and Slate. Her new research focuses on the emergence of wellness culture in the postwar United States. She tweets from @nataliapetrzela.



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  1. Since it is my topic (the politics of prostitution): I would be curious to know more about the politics of rape towards prostitutes and, today, sex workers. I know that for a long time, prostitutes were considered to be unrapable, because that’s their job. Interestingly, some feminists attempt to re-define “prostitution as rape” comes – in my view – dangerously close to this older view, which was used to deny claims of rape by prostitute women and access to justice. I was wondering if you, or anyone, had more insight on this issue from a historical perspective.

  2. nataliapetrzela78

    Hi Sonja, Thanks so much for reading and for your question. I think my interviewee would be far better suited to answer your question than I, but I will take a stab. I think you bring up another important category of women who have been (and in many ways continue to be) denied respectability and a claim on virtue and victimhood. Despite the attempt to confer legitimacy on prostitution by calling it sex work, today this kind of identity can still cast doubts on a woman in a rape case. Finally, race and an identity as a prostitute interact in various ways; white women might be cast as the victims of white slavery but “ruined”; as you mentioned, blacks really couldn’t be ruined in the same way.

  3. julialaite

    Hi Sonja, I can’t think of anyone who’s written about this historically–but Hilary Kinnell’s book on Violence and Sex Work in Britain discusses its very recent (1990s) history I think. But I think you raise an interesting point that the rape of women working in the sex industry doesn’t tend to be discussed in wider work on rape; and that the discourse of ‘prostitution is rape’ is a dangerous one. I’d love to hear Estelle Freedman’s thoughts on this as well. And if you’d like to write something historical on this issue for Notches, we’d love to receive it!

  4. “Relations between adolescents and slightly older men became a problem as homosexuality became more visible as an identity. Both a protective and a stigmatizing impulse led to this initial concern about boys’ sexual vulnerability, which emerged initially in the early 20th century and revived in the late 20th century.”

    Not having read the book, it’s difficult to comment, but should the stigmatizing of cross-generational relationship be counted as a victory or a failure. Invalidating the sexual agency of young people might be counted as collateral damage in the battle against rape and sexual abuse, but children and adolescents do have sexual interests and motives and to prohibit these inflicts another kind of violence, doesn’t it?

  5. Estelle Freedman

    Thanks for the comments on this interview – and thanks to Natalia for doing it!. About prostitutes and rape: In the nineteenth century, the issue came up primarily in terms of the chastity requirement. Since chastity was often a formal or informal prerequisite for believable rape charges, most prostitutes would not have standing to claim rape. However, even then some jurists questioned whether a prostitute could be raped–for example, if she had reformed her ways. (You can see Hal Goldman’s article in SEX WITHOUT CONSENT for some other early arguments.) I have not looked at this question for the late twentieth century but I suspect that the legacy of the chastity expectation remained strong even if laws changed.
    On cross-generational relations, yes, that is exactly right. Tensions between protection and agency run throughout this history, especially in age of consent laws and the use of sodomy law as a proxy for age of consent.

  6. “yes, that is exactly right.”

    I’m hardly ever exactly right! 🙂

    So yes, where permitted, the age of consent for same sex relations is commonly higher.

    But on proxies, maybe age of consent law is also a stalking horse. The cloistering and marrying of girls translates easily into an age structured definition of a ‘capacity’ for sexual consent.

    Who benefits and how do we untangle it?

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