Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900–1940
- Mara KeireMara KeireDepartment of History, Oxford University
In the United States, the history of sexual assault in the first half of the 20th century involves multiple contradictions between the ordinary, almost invisible accounts of women of all colors who were raped by fathers, husbands, neighbors, boarders, bosses, hired hands, and other known individuals versus the sensational myths that involved rapacious black men, sly white slavers, libertine elites, and virginal white female victims. Much of the debate about sexual assault revolved around the “unwritten law” that justified “honorable” white men avenging the “defilement” of their women. Both North and South, white people defended lynching and the murder of presumed rapists as “honor killings.” In courtrooms, defense attorneys linked the unwritten law to insanity pleas, arguing that after hearing women tell about their assault, husbands and fathers experienced an irresistible compulsion to avenge the rape of their women. Over time, however, notorious court cases from New York to San Francisco, Indianapolis and Honolulu, to Scottsboro, Alabama, shifted the discourse away from the unwritten law and extralegal “justice” to a more complicated script that demonized unreliable women and absolved imperfect men. National coverage of these cases, made possible by wire services and the Hearst newspaper empire, spurred heated debates concerning the proper roles of men and women. Blockbuster movies like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Book of the Month Club selections such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright’s Native Son joined the sensationalized media coverage of high-profile court cases to create new national stereotypes about sexual violence and its causes and culprits. During the 1930s, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and moviemakers increasingly emphasized the culpability of women who, according to this narrative, made themselves vulnerable to assault by stepping outside of their appropriate sphere and tempting men into harming them.