Mothers Have Led the Anti-Sexual Violence Movement

A mother and a daughter during a demonstration in solidarity for the right to abortion in the U.S., organized in Amsterdam, on May 7, 2022. (Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Mothers of survivors, as well as mothers who are also survivors, have advocated for change in the face of sexual violence. Through resilience and advocacy, three notable examples—Lucy Tibbs, Oleta ‘Lee’ Kirk Abrams and Tarana Burke—have played pivotal roles in shaping the movement.

Lucy Tibbs: Among the First to Testify

In 1866, Lucy Tibbs was pregnant with her third child. Her home was broken into and she was raped and robbed, all in front of her children. This was part of the Memphis Massacre—a three-day massacre in Memphis, Tenn., led by a white mob, including police and firefighters. It resulted in 46 Black residents dying, 285 injured, over 100 robbed, and five reported rapes. In total, 91 homes, eight schools and four churches were burned. 

Tibbs survived the massacre but her brother, a Union soldier, was killed. A month later, she chose to publicly testify about what she witnessed and suffered. While testifying, she was interrogated about the rape by the United States House Select Committee. She also had to provide her name and full address, thus exposing her to tremendous risk of retaliation

The house was full of men. I thought they would kill me.

Lucy Tibbs

Tibbs, along with the four other women who were raped during the massacre, were the first victims of sexual violence to testify publicly. Their congressional testimony played a critical role in shifting views on sexual violence and increasing support for legislation to protect the civil rights of newly emancipated Black people through the passage of the 14th Amendment

As a mother of two pregnant with her third child, Tibbs was one of the first people to take action against sexual violence. By advocating for herself, her family and her community she made a massive impact against sexual violence. Years later, another mother followed her lead. 

Read Lucy Tibbs’ testimony documented by the United States House of Representatives in Volumes 223-224 of House Documents.

Oleta ‘Lee’ Kirk Abrams: The First U.S. Rape Crisis Center

(Courtesy of Bay Area Women Against Rape)

In 1971, Oleta ‘Lee’ Kirk Abrams found out her daughter had been raped while attending Berkeley High School. The police kept her daughter at the police station and did not allow her to call or see her family. Then at the hospital, she was separated from her family again and kept waiting for over an hour. When she finally saw a doctor, he made jokes and did not check her for pregnancy or venereal disease. 

“She was treated like a piece of meat. There was no compassion, nothing that helped deal with the emotion,” Abrams said.

Abrams was so enraged, she joined together with two friends and founded Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR)—the first rape crisis center in the United States. The center had a two-part goal of “establishing a place where survivors of sexual violence could receive the quality counseling and advocacy they need, and to provide community education around these issues.”

Today, the center provides a 24-hour rape crisis hotline, counseling, educational programs, and survivor advocacy services to thousands of survivors. 

By advocating for her daughter and taking action in her community, Abrams had a massive impact in the anti-sexual violence movement. Bay Area Women Against Rape was the first nonprofit dedicated to sexual violence and it inspired many more.

Tarana Burke: #MeToo

#MeToo founder Tarana Burke on June 22, 2022, in Cannes, France. (Richard Bord / Getty Images)

In 2006, Tarana Burke created #MeToo and shared her story as a survivor. Burke was an activist and advocate many years before #MeToo. In 2003, she founded Just BE Inc., a nonprofit focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color. She did this while raising her child.

Burke frequently speaks about motherhood and sexual violence. “We don’t talk enough about how difficult it is for parents of survivors of child sexual abuse. That’s a difficult, difficult place to be,” she said.

“My daughter was sexually assaulted at 5. I knew in my body when it happened. I could sense it. I felt it.”

Burke said her child didn’t tell her about it until they were 11. 

Our children so desperately don’t want to get in trouble, that they end up feeling complicit in their own abuse. It’s what happened to me, and it’s what happened to my daughter.

Tarana Burke

Burke explains that she and many other parents often try to protect their children by teaching them things like, ‘don’t walk away with strangers,’ and ‘don’t let anybody touch your private parts.’

“I think we fail to add the caveat that if any of those rules are broken, it’s not your fault. It’s never the child’s fault.” 

“From 5 until 11, I kept asking the wrong questions: ‘Has anybody ever touched you? Has anybody ever put their hands on you?'” she continued. “My daughter consistently said ‘No,’ because she thought if she said ‘Yes,’ then it would also reveal that she broke a rule. … Our children so desperately don’t want to get in trouble, that they end up feeling complicit in their own abuse. It’s what happened to me, and it’s what happened to my daughter.” 

This experience pushed Burke to develop comprehensive trainings, workshops and educational materials for parents. These lessons have been used by thousands of parents across the country and beyond

As a mother and a survivor herself, Burke shows how important it is for mothers of survivors to advocate for their children. Her dedication to addressing sexual violence with her child and her community has grown into international action.

Burke, Abrams and Tibbs are a few of the many mothers of survivors and survivors that are mothers who have long been leading the movement to end sexual violence. 

Today, we thank mothers for their work leading the movement to end sexual violence. For far too long, they have had to protect themselves, advocate for their community and lead the national movement. We must all take responsibility to end sexual violence.

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Omny Miranda Martone is an anti-rape activist and the founder and CEO of the Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA), a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing sexual violence systemically. Martone's work has been recognized by the United Nations, the Clinton Foundation and Echoing Green.