Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation: Books

Article excerpt

Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. By Estelle B. Freedman. Harvard University Press. 416pp, Pounds 25.95. ISBN 9780674724846. Published 1 August 2013

Julia Hayden's murder in August 1874 was one more instance of racial bigotry, casual violence and pervasive misogyny. Hayden was a middle-class African American teacher who was preparing to open a school in western Tennessee. For some drunken white men, however, she was just another sexually available black woman. They attempted to force their way into her home and, when that failed, one of them opened fire at the house. Although barracked inside her home, Hayden was killed.

Although Hayden's killing is no longer remembered (indeed, we don't even know whether her assailants were convicted), at the time her murder generated debate in the media. When the New-York Tribune claimed that the young men had assumed that African American women were "wanting in chastity" and had simply erred in this particular case, The Christian Recorder (published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church) was livid. The Tribune had insulted "every colored husband, father, and brother, in the land", it protested.

Both comments are revealing. Debates about rape were not only about female vulnerability, but about tensions between white and black men. For The Christian Recorder, denigrating African American women was an affront to the respectability of African American fathers, husbands and brothers. The Tribune's prejudices reflected tensions in post-emancipation America, where many white men were resentful about perceived threats to their political dominance. Their assumption that African American women were "naturally" promiscuous and that the white men were guilty only of mistaken identity was widely shared. As late as 1918, the Florida Supreme Court decreed that: "What has been said by some of our courts about an unchaste female being a comparatively rare exception is no doubt true where the population is composed largely of the Caucasian race, but we would blind ourselves to actual conditions if we adopted this rule where another race that is largely immoral constitutes an appreciable part of the population."

Estelle Freedman - an exceptionally distinguished scholar of female activism, sexual politics and feminism in American history - does more than merely chronicle the distressing history of racism in the US between the 1870s and the 1930s. …