A Brief History of Sexual Violence Activism in the U.S.

In the past year, survivor-activists and allies have effectively put sexual violence on the national agenda, spurring White Housecongressional, and state-level policy action. Movement leaders have worked tirelessly to make this happen, namely, Wendy MurphyAlexandra BrodskyWagatwe WanjukiAnnie E. ClarkLaura DunnAndrea PinoS. Daniel Carter, and Dana Bolger. These leaders have created awareness and momentum through hands-on survivor assistance, lobbying, petitions and the creation of new organizations (e.g., Know Your IXEnd Rape on Campus, and SurvJustice). But this is not the first time activists have organized around issues of sexual violence in the U.S. Current efforts are the fourth peak of organized work that started over a century ago. We briefly describe the first three peaks in this blog post.

The First Peak

As Gillian Greensite, director of rape prevention education at UC Santa Cruz, wrote in 2009, “The history of the rape-crisis movement in the United States is also a history of the struggle of African American women against racism and sexism.” The first peak of organized activism occurred after the Civil War. During slavery, black women were often at the mercy of white men since the rape of slaves was both common and legal, and many masters raped slaves to produce more slaves. An estimated three-fourths of black Americans in the U.S. today are descendants of at least one white ancestor, including First Lady Michelle Obama. In spite of President Lincoln’s prohibition against rape during the war, soldiers raped women of all races across the South, but especially black women. “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property,” wrote Yale professor Crystal Feimster in a 2013 New York Times op-ed.

After the war, the industrializing North developed a modern criminal justice system, but in the South, vigilantism was used as informal law enforcement to maintain former slave hierarchies. With slavery outlawed, many white men reestablished racial control over black men through lynching and over black women through rape. Between 1882 and 1968, approximately 4,000 African Americans (mostly men) were lynched, and countless women were raped. The Reconstruction Era from 1865 to 1877 was especially violent when the Ku Klux Klan and other terror organizations raped black women and burned black homes and churches with alarming regularity.

The earliest organized anti-rape efforts can be traced back to 1866 when a group of African American women testified before Congress that a white mob had perpetrated gang rapes during the Memphis Riot. This riot took place over three days during which time white policemen and civilians rampaged through black neighborhoods, injuring 75 people, killing 46 African Americans and raping at least five black women. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Smith testified that seven white men, including two police officers, broke into her home and raped her and her friend, Frances Thompson. Both women (along with others) testified before Congress, but in the end, their perpetrators were not punished. In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams and other activists formed black women’s clubs in response to this unceasing post-war sexual violence. Their work laid the groundwork for future organized activism against different forms of violence.

The Second Peak

The second peak of activism led up to the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was a leading anti-rape activist a decade before she refused to sit at the back of a city bus. In 1944, she formed the Committee for Equal Justice to fight sexual violence against women. She and other activists were galvanized by the experience of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old mother who was raped by seven armed, white men on her way home from church. Activists also fought back when 15-year-old Flossie Hardman was raped by her boss, the owner of a grocery store. When he was found “not guilty” after five minutes of jury deliberation, African American shoppers put him out of business with a boycott. According to historian Danielle McGuire, these anti-rape efforts were pivotal in launching the Civil Rights Movement.

The Third Peak

Other women of color and white feminists joined anti-rape efforts in force in the 1970s, and this new coalitional movement effectively raised public awareness of the issue. Writes Greensite, “The plight of Inez Garcia in 1974, Joanne Little in 1975, Yvonne Wanrow in 1976, and Dessie Woods in 1976, all victims of rape or assault who fought back, killed their assailants, and were imprisoned, brought the issue of rape into political organizations that had not historically focused on rape.” The first rape crisis centers opened in 1972, and the Feminist Alliance Against Rape (FAAR) was formed in 1974. In 1975, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will acknowledging the systemic role of rape in maintaining the social order, a conclusion African American activists had arrived at a century earlier. Activists organized consciousness-raising groups and speak-outs, and successfully lobbied to make it illegal to rape one’s spouse and to consider a survivor’s previous sexual activities during trial. They also implemented more equitable legal definitions of “rape” and better enforcement of rape laws, and they vastly expanded governmental support for prevention. Their sustained efforts culminated in passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, the first national law requiring law enforcement to treat gender violence as a crime rather than a private family matter. Then-Senator Joe Biden led the charge to pass VAWA, and the law was reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and again in 2013 over Republican opposition to extended protections for Native American, gay, lesbian and transgender survivors.

The first anti-rape efforts on college campuses also started during the third peak. Campus activists collaborated with community rape crisis centers to provide advocacy, support services and self-defense workshops. Students effectively lobbied for one of the first campus-based rape crisis centers at the University of Maryland in 1972, a women’s studies program and rape crisis center at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and campus-wide prevention programs for the University of California system in 1976. Campus rape received media attention for the first time in 1985 when Ms. published “Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic,” featuring the groundbreaking research of Dr. Mary Koss. Most Americans still conceived of rape as an act perpetrated by strangers, but Koss’ three-year study of over 7,000 students at 35 schools showed that most sexual assault is committed by an acquaintance or friend. In 1988, Robin Warshaw published I Never Called It Rape, a book with personal stories that confirmed Koss’ data-driven findings. The Clery Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and requires colleges and universities to report rape and other crimes in a daily crime log and an annual report. Prevention programs were established on many campuses during the third peak, including annual events such as Take Back the Night, the Clothesline ProjectThe Vagina Monologues, and Denim Day USA.

The Fourth Peak

The fourth (contemporary) peak of anti-rape activism has once again put sexual violence on the national agenda. This peak was enabled by attorney Wendy Murphy’s expansion of Title IX, the rise of social media allowing for networked activism, and the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education. Activists today are using powerful new tools—Title IX and Clery complaints, group lawsuits and social media campaigns. These efforts are the latest in the long struggle against sexual violence that African American women initiated more than a century ago.

Photo from SlutWalk NYC courtesy of Flickr user Dave Bledsoe licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


About and

Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
Baillee Brown is a Politics senior at Occidental College.