Stanford historian examines the politics of sexual violence

Through a study of the changing definitions of rape, Stanford professor Estelle Freedman finds that political power and social privilege create complex perceptions of sexual violence.

On Aug. 19, 2012, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri discussed "legitimate rape" during a television interview as part of his bid for Senate.

L.A. CiceroEstelle Freedman portrait

Stanford historian Estelle Freedman traces the definition of rape in her latest book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.

The term ignited a political firestorm, inviting a denouncement from President Barack Obama, who declared that "rape is rape" and there was no need to "be parsing and qualifying and slicing" the term.

But parsing, qualifying and slicing the term has been going on for a long time. It was only last year, for example, that the FBI broadened its narrow definition of rape for the first time since 1927, to include non-forcible rape and the rape of males.

These incidents were only more recent manifestations of a political tug-of-war dating to the beginning of American history: what does "rape" mean and who gets to define it?

Contrary to what many think, the decades-long story is not one of progressive liberalization, but rather "one of repeated contestations over power, played out through sexual categories, laws and prosecution," says Stanford historian Estelle Freedman.

Freedman, whose research centers on the history of women and feminism, traces the definition of rape in her latest book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.

Drawing upon centuries of archival material, including legal documents, periodicals and political cartoons, Freedman reveals how attitudes toward sexual violence were influenced by gender and racial politics, well beyond courtrooms and legislatures.

"I look beyond the formal legal category of rape to ask what forms of sexual violation or assault became subject to redefinition and when," she explains, "including the more recent naming of marital rape as a crime – a concept that even most suffragists and feminists did not address before the 1960s."

"This is the first book," Freedman adds, "to look at the long history of rape throughout the United States, from the colonial period to the present, and to place politics at the center of the story."

In colonial America, rape was seen as a threat to marital reproductive relations, and often exacted the harshest of penalties. According to a 1699 Massachusetts law, Freedman notes, rape was a felony punishable by death.

In 1894, Justice T.J. Simmons of the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had intercourse with a 10-year-old girl because 10 was the age of consent in the state. But Simmons also observed that "the age of consent in many States is higher than in this State, and should be made higher here; and a committee of ladies" was petitioning to do just that. Georgia would ultimately raise the age of consent, but not until 1918, and then only to 14.

In 1918, the anti-lynching Dyer Bill was proposed in Congress. It was attacked by many Southerners who believed lynching curtailed interracial rape. The bill would "make rape permissible," Sen. Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas warned, and "allow the guilty to go unpunished if that rape should be committed by a Negro on a white woman in the South." It did not pass.

In these examples and others, Freedman found, the prosecution of sexual violence was all about gender, race and power.

"You have to look at these historical issues inside and outside social hierarchies," she said, because "none of them exists in isolation."

A complicated definition

The word "rape" (from the Latin raptus or rapere, originally referring in British law to the nonsexual crime of violent theft) has always been complicated.

"At its core," Freedman notes, "rape is a legal term that encompasses a malleable and culturally determined perception of an act."

"A central argument of my book," she said, "is that not only sexual but also political privileges have relied on the legal and social construction of rape."

Women, racial minorities and disenfranchised classes have continually struggled for political access to voting rights, jury service and due process of law in order to influence this perception. The attempts of these groups at reform were often bold and provocative.

For instance, in 1871 Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a satirical article for a suffragist newspaper addressing women's self-defense against "gentlemen." She recommended that "every young girl should… always carry a small pistol… [and] be accompanied by an immense Newfoundland dog whenever she is in danger of meeting her natural protector."

Women, she argued, should learn to protect themselves.

In 1911, the Chicago Defender, a Northern black newspaper, covered a sexual assault in Portland, Ore. under the provocative headline: "White Gentleman Commits Rape: That's All Right – It Was on a Colored Girl – Permitted by the United States Government and the Confederacy." The headline drew attention to the fact that assaults on black women and assaults by white men too frequently went unreported.

Protest against sexual violence of all kinds involved many demographics across the United States. Yet, as Freedman discovered, there was no national organization during this period devoted to addressing sexual violence. "This tells us something about the times," she says.

Intimate subject matter

Freedman began her graduate work in history in the early 1970s during the rise of "new social history" when scholars began to look at understudied groups, such as women, racial minorities and later lesbians and gays.

"Second-wave feminism as well as the sexual politics of the 1970s and 1980s certainly influenced the questions I asked about gender and sexuality in the past," she explains.

At first, she wasn't interested in the history of sexuality.

"I just didn't think the research could be done," she says. How, after all, could you document such a private topic? But she and others found that diaries, letters, sex surveys and other materials offered the potential for reconstructing an undiscovered history.

Soon thereafter, Freedman says, "I was eager to map this field," a task she undertook in Intimate Matter: A History of Sexuality in America, co-authored with John D'Emilio.

Her first book, Their Sisters' Keepers: Women's Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930, showed that while women's prisons were originally opened to handle the unique needs of female prisoners, including motherhood, women were often incarcerated for crimes that men never would have gone to jail for.

"These women were thrown in prison for things like public drunkenness and streetwalking, called 'crimes against morality' or 'crimes against chastity,'" she explains.

Today, Freedman says, many of her undergraduate students are engaged with "related issues in their own historical era" such as sexual violence, reproductive rights or same-sex marriage, and "are looking to the past to understand them."

Justin Tackett is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,