Academic journal article Lilith: A Feminist History Journal

Speaking out against Rape: Feminist (Her)stories and Anti-Rape Politics

Academic journal article Lilith: A Feminist History Journal

Speaking out against Rape: Feminist (Her)stories and Anti-Rape Politics

Article excerpt

In 1970, Susan Brownmiller was a young woman journalist who had recently become involved in the women's liberation movement through her participation in the New York Radical Feminist consciousness-raising group, 'West Village I'. She also held the following opinions regarding rape:

   I knew what rape was, and what it wasn't. Rape was a sex crime, a
   product of a diseased, deranged mind. Rape wasn't a feminist issue,
   rape was ... well, what was it? (1)

Six years later, she would publish Against Our Will, widely credited as the founding text of feminist anti-rape theory, in which she famously declared that rape was 'nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear'. (2) Brownmiller came to the latter definition of rape through her quest to 'discover the truth and meaning in our own victimization'. For this she turned to history, asserting that, 'critical to our study is the recognition that rape has a history, and through the tools of historical analysis we may learn what we need to know about our current condition'. (3) While the scholarship and politics of Against Our Will have been subjected to numerous and compelling critiques, the work retains canonical and even foundational status within feminist anti-rape politics. (4)

Brownmiller's conception of history as central to her project was by no means unique, and indeed, the reclaiming and rewriting of history was an important feature of second-wave feminist politics more generally. (5) The historian Joan W Scott has written eloquently of the significance of history for second-wave feminism in her article, 'Feminism's History.' Referring to the 1974 women's history collection, Clio's Consciousness Raised, she speaks of a feminist historian's desire to emulate the muse of history. She writes:

   Like her, we wanted to tell edifying stories whose import went
   beyond their literal content to reveal some larger truth about
   human relationships--in our case about gender and power. Like her,
   we wanted to be recognized as the just source of these stories,
   although for us there was no classical myth to authorize the claim.
   Like her, too, we wanted all of history as our province: we were
   not just adding women to an existing body of stories, we were
   changing the ways the stories would be told. (6)

The desires described by Scott can be seen in Brownmiller's attempt to tell the universal feminist story of rape, one that could encompass the reality of 'all women', and her use of traditional historical sources such as archives and legal records to do so. However, as Scott writes, Brownmiller did not just wish to tell a new story, but rather to both change the ways stories would be told, and to recognise victims of rape as the just source of these stories.

In this article I want to use Brownmiller's work as a starting point to explore the significance of history making and (her)story telling in feminist anti-rape politics. These strategies and practices of (her) story telling have been an essential part of anti-rape activism, constituting survivors, theorists, and activists as (her)story tellers and makers. From Reclaim the Night marches to feminist testimonials, feminist anti-rape activism has been primarily and fundamentally concerned with women's story-telling Similarly, key feminist reforms and campaigns have focussed on increasing the ability of women to speak out about violence in various forums, whether highlighting obstacles to women's testimony in the legal domain or attempting to remove the social stigma to 'coming out' as a victim of sexual assault. (7) While these practices have been bound up in the substantial successes of the feminist anti-rape movement, they are also deeply implicated in its contradictions and failures. In particular, the attempts by women such as Brownmiller to tell universally true women's stories have nurtured their own silences and erasures. …

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