#MeToo, Networks of Complicity, and the 1920s KlanBreaking News
tags: racism, womens history, Ku Klux Klan, Me Too
Mara Keire teaches at the University of Oxford and is currently researching a book, Under the Boardwalk: Rape and Popular Culture in New York, 1900-1930. This essay elaborates on a forthcoming contribution, “Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900-1940,” to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.
The public outing of predatory men has changed public discourse about sexual assault. With the #MeToo movement, women and men have started publicly naming themselves as survivors of sexual coercion, destroying stereotypes of what victims of harassment and rape look and sound like. They’ve exposed the millions of dollars that companies have paid out to people targeted by abusive men, and challenged the second silencing intrinsic to nondisclosure agreements. This outpouring of stories, and the ensuing public debates about veracity, reputation, and culpability, have expanded popular discourse from an exclusive focus on rapist and raped, harasser and harassed, to a wider examination of the networks of complicity that destroyed victims’ careers and protected serial predators. Focusing on networks of complicity means reframing the narratives we tell about sexual assault. Instead of just focusing on victims, we can also see how perpetrators used their connections to escape punishment. We can better understand how men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Larry Nassar exploited their professional standing to prey on women and girls for years. Then, having abused these women, they took away victims’ voices through payoffs, non-disclosure agreements, and, in the case of Hollywood, their ties to the tabloids. With these insights into the institutional protection of predators, historians can re-evaluate past scandals to address explicitly the networks enhancing men’s power and the conditions that complicated women’s attempts at survival.
As unlikely as it may seem, the 1920s Klan and its demise merit just such a reconsideration in the wake of #MeToo. The Klan is infamous for the promotion of white supremacy and violence against African Americans; however, the Klan’s extensive networks of patriarchal power also enabled abusive men to prey on women. The 1925 rape of Madge Oberholtzer by Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson of Indianapolis is one such example.
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