Image courtesy Elyse Butler

In the decade of the 1970s, heterosexual Americans invested in “yes.” But if “girls [women] can say yes,” from what relative position of power and choice did they do so? From what position of consent? As the new sexual ethic pushed sexual politics out the bedroom door and into nearly every corner of American life, feminists and women’s advocates insisted that if new rules were to emerge from the transition, they ought to protect women from the more pernicious aspects of the sexual revolution.

If female self-determination and the consent it implied meant anything, they surely meant freedom from sexual assault. Nothing defined the “peril” in the ever-present tension between pleasure and peril, and discounted women’s consent, like rape. An act of violence with the power to humiliate, injure, and impregnate its victims, rape could also produce a corrosive and deadening sense of guilt and shame. Blaming women for rape was part of a timeworn worldview that deemed women temptresses—their skirts too alluringly short, their manners too provocative, their pasts promiscuous. The inherent violence of sexual assault was too often belittled by men as nothing more than a schoolboy’s prank, a lover’s impulse, or the deranged lust of a deviant.

Susan Brownmiller, author of one of the most powerful books on rape, Against Our Will, admitted that before writing the book, she had long thought of rape as “a sex crime, a product of a diseased, deranged mind,” and believed that the women’s movement “had nothing in common with rape victims.” That view was impossible by 1975.

The notion that women “wanted it,” “asked for it,” or secretly “liked it” shaped male and in some cases female responses to rape. Feminist Susan Griffin famously called it “the all-American crime,” alleging that it was the most frequently committed but most widely ignored crime in the country. Few Americans in the 1960s would have denied that rape was criminal. But equally few would have recognized it as an issue of women’s equality with men. By the early 1970s, however, white women’s liberationists and black and Latina feminists made sexual assault as central to the women’s movement as reproductive rights.

Helen Rawson was raped by a man she met at a play reading. Filled with both disgust and shame, she blamed herself. As recounted in Diane Russell’s 1975 compilation of women’s rape stories The Politics of Rape, a trip to the local police station discouraged her from filing charges. Did she want her sexual history discussed at trial? Did she want to be portrayed as having encouraged her attacker? Did she wish to be accused of exaggerating “rough lovemaking” into a claim of rape? Not worth it, Helen decided. Having had “someone deceive me, brutalize me, rape me,” she buried her fury and later admitted tellingly that “the bulk of the anger was directed at myself.” No single woman’s experience with sexual assault is representative, but Russell’s stories gave human voice to the raw statistics that antirape activists increasingly carried with them to meetings with legislators, law enforcement of cials, and journalists.

Even by themselves, those statistics told a compelling story. Between 1966 and 1975 reported rapes tripled in the United States, a stunning rise only partially attributable to the increased reporting encouraged by the women’s movement. Still, most experts estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of all rapes were never reported to the police. A Seattle study revealed another dimension of the problem: fewer than half the rapes reported in that city were committed by strangers. Most victims knew their assailants. Research in Philadelphia showed that rape was also overwhelmingly an intraracial crime; sensational cases aside, white men tended to rape white women, black men black women. Rape was consistent with a segregated America. And the reality remained that nationwide less than 10 percent of rape prosecutions resulted in convictions. Antirape activists thus faced a profound dilemma: how to account for a crime punishable in most states by twenty years or more in prison but treated with cavalier indifference by local police and criminal courts, utterly misunderstood in the wider culture, and rarely successfully prosecuted? “All too often,” a study of rape in Prince George’s County, Maryland, noted, “the rape victim is treated at best as an object, a piece of evidence, and at worst, as a criminal.”

Histories of the antirape movement typically begin with the first rape speakout, sponsored by the New York Radical Feminists in 1971, where white women, for the first time outside the intimate space of consciousness-raising groups, talked openly about the experience of sexual assault. The speakout led to the New York Radical Feminists’ Rape Conference and the founding of New York Women Against Rape. An electric charge that ignited the nationwide rape awareness movement, the speakout inspired the formation of dozens of antirape groups across the country. Women in countless consciousness-raising groups, National Organization of Women branches, lesbian organizations, and radical feminist cells began to break the silence about the trauma and guilt of sexual assault.

After 1972, ordinary women took up the fight against rape with remarkable swiftness and muscle. The first rape crisis centers were established in Seattle, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., that year, followed quickly by centers in Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, and New York. By the end of the 1970s there were more than four hundred rape crisis centers in the United States. Groups such as Berkeley Bay Area Women Against Rape, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Women Against Rape in Chicago, Seattle Rape Relief, and dozens of others, many drawing on the youthful energy and organizing resources of college-age women, emerged as vocal advocates of law reform, women’s self-defense, and an empowered vision of female sexuality. Within a few years of its founding in 1972, for instance, Seattle Rape Relief offered a rape hotline, crisis counseling, legal advocacy, and programs with local hospitals, law enforcement, and schools. Susan Brownmiller, a member of the New York Radical Feminists and the author of one of the most powerful books on rape, Against Our Will, admitted that before writing the book, she had long thought of rape as “a sex crime, a product of a diseased, deranged mind,” and believed that the women’s movement “had nothing in common with rape victims.” That view was impossible by 1975.

Antirape activism had a different history among African American women because rape was embedded in racial as much as sexual politics. It had been woven into the fabric of American racial narratives and was inescapably part of the history of white supremacy. Since the turn of the century, the black rapist mythology had rationalized the terror of white rule in the South. Hundreds of years of white men’s sexual exploitation of black women meanwhile remained an unspoken subject. Because rape, women’s subordination, and racial terror were inseparably linked, the arena of sexual assault proved to be one of the most challenging for feminists of all racial backgrounds in the 1970s.

Because of this history, black women experienced the “all-American crime” as a component of both male supremacy and white supremacy. Beginning in the 1950s, African American women in the black freedom movement had begun to grow more aggressive in pursuing legal action in rape cases in which the perpetrator was white. In 1959, twelve years before the first white-led rape speakout, more than a thousand African American women on the campus of Florida A&M University protested the rape of Betty Jean Owens by four white men. Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and other black freedom activists increasingly called attention to sexual assault in the civil rights era. And Fannie Lou Hamer, who rose to national prominence during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, made clear, in sentiment if not in words, that “the personal is political” when she spoke about her own and her grandmother’s sexual abuse at the hands of whites and connected that abuse to white supremacy.

Black women’s political encounters with rape in the postwar decades left them facing painful ironies. In politicizing rape first as an interracial crime of white supremacy, they found that intraracial sexual assault, at the hands of men in their own communities, received far less attention. Forced to defend themselves against white attackers and black men against false white accusations, black women found that their sexual abuse at the hands of black men was seldom discussed as a political issue.

Rape law in the majority of U.S. states in the 1960s exposed female victims to a process nearly as frightening and psychically violent as the attack itself.

Black feminists were to change that, but doing so took time and courage. During the seventies well-known writers such as Angela Davis, Michele Wallace, and Frances Beal, and less heralded women working in local communities, women such as Brenda Eichelberger in Chicago and Nkenge Toure in Washington, D.C., made sexual assault, as well as other forms of sexual and domestic abuse, a core concern in the larger project of asserting black women’s value in American society.

Though at times only dimly aware of black women’s thinking about rape, white women’s liberationists likewise cast rape as a fundamental women’s issue. To them, rape was not a specific problem for some women but a universal problem for all; it was not an isolated “carnal” event but an embodiment of the constant threat of violence that underlay male social power. For radicals like Brownmiller, Russell, and Catharine MacKinnon, rape represented the perverse combination of pleasure and violence (and pleasure in violence) that was elemental to patriarchy. Women’s groups used rape awareness to highlight broader questions about the ways their bodies were subjected to male gaze and power: from comments on the street and groping at work to sexual pressure from husbands or boyfriends. Rape was no marginal crime committed by the deranged or desperate, but the presumed right of friends and neighbors, husbands and boyfriends, of ordinary men. It was, in the words of Barbara Mehrhof and Pamela Kearon, “the most perfect of political crimes… communicated to the male population as an act of freedom and strength.”

As with abortion, the attention brought to rape by women’s liberationists led to calls for legal reform. Rape law in the majority of U.S. states in the 1960s exposed female victims to a process nearly as frightening and psychically violent as the attack itself. Local police departments and hospitals were ill equipped, both practically and temperamentally, to address the physical and psychological needs of rape victims. They had no rape or trauma counselors, no specically trained police officers, no medical procedures for obtaining evidence or for testing women for pregnancy and venereal disease. Some hospitals refused entirely to treat rape victims; sexual assault victims were known to take expensive cab rides in a desperate search for hospitals where they could be treated. If they led criminal charges, women faced enormous, often humiliating hurdles. Most courts required “corroboration” of the assault, and in every state a woman’s full sexual history could be used by the defense. Finally, judges issued stringent “cautionary instructions” to the jury—that rape was an easy charge to make, was difficult to prove, and required more careful scrutiny than other cases—that presumed, in the words of one California reformer, “the rape victim was lying because she was a woman.” In sum, health care institutions gave little comfort to the victims of sexual assault, and the justice system offered little hope of successful prosecution.

Yet as swiftly as it had transformed the abortion debate, the women’s movement reconfigured political discussions of rape. In 1972 and 1973, a fast-growing network of activists, women’s legal theorists, and sympathetic elected officials in Washington, D.C., New York City, Seattle, and various California cities began drafting rape statutes to replace existing state laws. NOW established a Task Force on Rape, with Mary Ann Largen its director. Largen had herself been the victim of an attempted rape several years earlier. The disregard of doctors and law enforcement officials she encountered had propelled her into the antirape movement in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. She had joined the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, worked rape hotlines, and engineered some of the first efforts to change the legal definition of sexual assault, from a “carnal” act to a violent one. Once in charge of NOW’s task force, she began working closely with Maryland senator Charles Mathias, a political ally who introduced a bill in 1973, drafted with Largen’s assistance, to create the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape. Two years and one presidential veto later the center was established, its mission to support and coordinate research and law reform at the state level.

With one eye on Congress, Largen turned to the individual states, where she began working with local NOW rape task forces. Antirape movements, driven by young women entering the movement for the first time and by established activists with resources and political connections, had advanced quickly in California, Michigan, Iowa, New York, and Washington State. In California the northern and southern regional branches of NOW, working with Largen in the national office, forged a broad coalition of women’s organizations and law enforcement officials to press for two major new rape laws in 1974. The legislation’s sponsor, the state senator Alan Robbins from Los Angeles, attributed passage of the bills to the women’s organizations that “had worked tirelessly” to change public attitudes. A New York law passed the same year. It “breezed through the legislature,” according to one antirape activist, “and the legislators gave all the credit to the women’s movement.” Iowa, Michigan, and Florida followed with similar laws in 1974. In three years, between 1971 and 1974, the women’s movement, now well organized at the state level, starting virtually from scratch, produced broad changes in law and public attitude.

The focus on rape law reform, however, was not universally hailed among feminists and women-centered activists. Many radical and African American feminists worried that the antirape movement had edged too close to an alliance with law-and-order conservatism. The D.C.-based Feminist Alliance Against Rape, for instance, charged that “encouraging women to prosecute a rape” would only “reinforce the legitimacy of the criminal justice system,” a system that, the group added, “convicts primarily poor and non-white men.” As they watched some of the most vehement antirape groups escalate their rhetoric—calling for castration for rapists, for instance, or insisting that only a .38-caliber pistol was sufficient protection from men on the prowl—more temperate feminists wondered if the “woman as victim” paradigm was stoking a culture of fear, contributing to the crime panics and racial backlash on which conservatives capitalized in the early 1970s. Confronting such charges in 1972, Brownmiller was defiant: “O.K., so it’s a law-and-order position. We never said we were for anarchy.”

The law-and-order dilemma was nonetheless real. Studies consistently showed rape to be a predominantly intraracial crime, but sensationalized cases continued to replay the racialized rape narrative entrenched in American history. Calls for “law and order” had become a hallmark of conservative politics in the early 1970s, and white feminists risked being drawn into assuming that reactionary position. Observing the racial and sexual dynamics in Washington, D.C., the sociologist Nathan Hare complained that “the black woman is getting raped while the white woman is doing the screaming.” Hare accused white feminists of using a “rape scare,” which played on that racial narrative, to advance their political project.

The workplace was often the place where pornography, sexual coercion, and even rape intersected. Almost nothing was more common to all women than the experience of some form of unwanted sexual attention at work.

White feminists were not always willing or able to disentangle their antirape activism from right-leaning politics favoring long prison terms and tough public rhetoric. Their racial blinders were sometimes quite real. The difference between Brownmiller and Hare was another instance of the paradox of the era: the politics of identity, which were necessary to achieve greater freedoms and protections, reflected and sometimes reinforced existing racial inequities and thus prevented the emergence of a single reform movement.

Next to the rapist, Brownmiller wrote in The Village Voice in 1971, stood “the goosed… the ogler, the lip-smacker, the animal-noise maker, and the verbal abuser.” Brownmiller’s sliding scale of sexual assault was prompted by an encounter in Greenwich Village. While “handing out some leaflets for the Radical Feminist Conference on Rape” and distracted by a conversation with her female companion, Brownmiller was “goosed” (groped) by a man. Recalling similar encounters in her past, Brownmiller observed that her postpubescent life had been “a long and systematic continuum of humiliation.” On the street, unwanted sexual advances and touching, alongside hostile sexual commentary, jokes, and whistles, constituted an unpredictable form of assault from which there was little protection save individual chutzpah. It was this culture of sexual assault and humiliation that was the larger target of antirape activists.

The workplace was perhaps the preeminent bastion of this culture, outside of pornographic magazines and films. In fact, the workplace was often the place where pornography, sexual coercion, and even rape intersected. Almost nothing was more common to all women than the experience of some form of unwanted sexual attention at work. In 1976 more than 80 percent of nine thousand Redbook readers reported such experiences. What many men sloughed off as harmless “passes,” “jokes,” or requests for a date, women, usually in subordinate positions, encountered as serious barriers to their equal standing at work. “If your boss patted you on the bottom, you traditionally giggled and batted your eyelashes,” one feminist activist admitted. This reality would begin to change as women, rooting their complaints in the principle of consent, took the offensive against what they termed sexual harassment alongside their efforts against pornography and rape.

Building on late-1960s campaigns against sexism in specific industries, in a long and demanding legal fight between 1971 and 1986, feminist activists, attorneys, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission director under President Carter, Eleanor Holmes Norton, created American sexual harassment law. As with rape, hundreds of local groups worked through the courts and in state legislatures, which, combined with federal action, changed the legal landscape. No simple summary can do justice to the complex, variegated, long-term struggle to make all American workplaces safe for and welcoming to women, to rid them of the vestiges of jokes, gropes, slaps, pinches, lures, and stares, not to mention actual pornography itself and brazen demands for sexual favors. But the key, as with so much of the reconstruction of women’s citizenship in these years, was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and its prohibition of employment discrimination based on sex in addition to race. Backed by legal theory developed by feminist attorneys such as MacKinnon, Norton threw the weight of the EEOC behind a revamping of workplace equality law. Sexual harassment, EEOC guidelines specified after 1977, was a violation of women’s rights as workers under the Civil Rights Act. And though it still took a decade, to the surprise of many, the Supreme Court agreed (Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986).

Women’s advocates in the sixties and seventies made their version of “yes” a viable one, embedding it in American culture and law. For a time, the self-regarding misogyny of American culture was placed on the defensive and what emerged were new legal protections for women and a broad set of institutions supporting their sexual self-determination. The antirape movement, including the “Take Back the Night” campaigns, which began in the late 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s, produced a host of new laws, practices, and protections. The result was definitively better than what had stood before. But even these epochal reforms did not fully alter the legal and personal jeopardy that women who led rape charges confronted and the “he said/ said” morass into which they too often tumbled.

Excerpted from ALL IN THE FAMILY: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s by Robert O. Self, published September 18th by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Robert O. Self. All rights reserved.

Robert O. Self is an associate professor of history at Brown University. His first book, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, won numerous awards, including the James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians.

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