Estelle B. Freedman: Women’s Long Battle to Define Rape

Estelle B. Freedman , the Edgar E. Robinson professor in U.S. history at Stanford University, is the author of “No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women” and a co-author of “Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America.”

When U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri used the phrase “legitimate rape” to defend his opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest, President Obama fired back, saying that we should not “be parsing and qualifying and slicing” types of rape. Yet for most of our history, that is precisely what Americans have been doing. Our legal definition of rape has evolved over centuries, and clearly, we’re not done fighting over it.

Who ‘owns’ a woman’s body?

In the 19th century, state laws around the country defined rape as the carnal knowledge of a woman when achieved by force by a man other than her husband. According to a principle known as coverture, a husband had authority over his wife’s person and property. Therefore, women could not withhold sex from their husbands. Similarly, enslaved women could not refuse sex with their masters or testify against them in court. After emancipation, the presumption that African American women had no say over what happened to their bodies persisted. For generations afterward, many men had impunity in raping black women....

During the great Northern migration, African American activists condemned lynching and white men’s sexual access to black women. Inspired by crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, members of Northern black women’s clubs insisted that “virtue knows no color line” and implored white men to treat them respectfully. The African American press publicized white men’s sexual impunity. “White Gentleman Commits Rape,” the Chicago Defender headlined a 1911 article, with the subhead: “That’s All Right — It Was on a Colored Girl — Permitted by the United States Government and the Confederacy.”...

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