As publishers, with our list forever in mind, there’s an involuntary reflex to filter all the day’s news through the books we’ve worked on. Sometimes that’s welcome; it’s nice to see it validated that the Press’s books are relevant to events in the world. Other times, as with Estelle Freedman’s Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, not so much. From Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” to congressional Republicans debating rape’s definition while attempting to tighten requirements for federal funding of abortions, to Dr. Phil’s noxious Twitter poll on the meaning of consent, to the dismissal of countless survivors and acts that don’t satisfy the classic definition of rape, one need barely be attuned to notice the ongoing cultural and political battles over the answer to what may seem a simple question: what is rape?
As Freedman shows, the question is hardly new. Today’s debates about sexual assault, and the role of race and class within these debates, have a long prehistory in the US. The definition of rape, Freedman demonstrates, has been central to sustaining gender and racial injustice—and contesting its definition has been central to activists’ pursuit of greater equality.
Beginning her story in the 18th century, when many women, especially enslaved and non-elite women, had little or no legal recourse when sexually assaulted, Freedman traces the work of suffragists, black activists, and their allies to redefine rape. By expanding the definition of sexual assault to include women of color and non-elite and sexually experienced women, by raising the age of consent, by combating street harassment, by agitating for the prosecution of coercive sex, and by fighting lynching, activists sought to achieve civic equality for women and for people of color.
As Freedman explains in the video below, across our whole national history of debating its definition, the politics of rape have always been bound to questions of power and justice.