Book Review: Estelle Freedman's "Redefining Rape"

By Doctor Comrade

Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013) 

Estelle B. Freedman’s monumental work Redefining Rape analyzes the significance of shifts in the definitions of the word “rape” throughout American history that reveal historical constructions of “who is entitled to sexual and political sovereignty and who may exercise fully the rights of American citizenship.”[1] By tracing several sexual violence reform movements, racial equality movements, and women’s rights movements, Freedman demonstrates that constructions of sexual violence pervaded public life and citizenship through the immunities enjoyed by white men and the limitations on citizenship defined by those white privileges. Underlying these anti-violence campaigns was the observation that “white men’s freedom to be sexually violent or coercive lay at the heart of their political power.”[2] The implications of those powers included white supremacy, paternalism, and restrictions on civil and legal rights, which all impeded de jure and de facto equality for African Americans and women of all classes.

Redefining Rape is an extension of Freedman’s earlier work on sexuality, women’s liberation, and feminist studies, including books such as Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (co-authored with John D’Emilio), Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition, and Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930. Redefining Rape has won several awards, including the Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize from the Western Association of Women Historians and the Darlene Clark Hine Award from the Organization of American Historians.

In essence, Redefining Rape is the history of reform movements that attempted to undermine the sexual privilege of elite white men. Her argument is contingent on the changing meanings of several key terms, including rape, consent, and sexual sovereignty. In the case of rape, she argues that it encompasses “a malleable and culturally determined perception of an act” and that who could be legally accountable for a rape depended on class, race, and social position.[3] Yet the definition of rape shifted numerous times for a myriad of reasons from colonial America to the present, and continues to be a term in flux. For example, Freedman dissects the complicated relationship of sexual relations and consent. In the early nineteenth century, only “forcible rape” was considered rape, and in order to prove accusations, a woman had to show that she had been virtuous before the assault and clear signs that she resisted to the maximum extent.[4] Consent complicated the trials because men could use it as a defense in which impure women had seemingly consented because they had engaged in illicit sex prior to the alleged assault. Therefore, the burdens of proof rested on the accuser, who had to prove that she had “a chaste past, a violent assault, and a valiant but unsuccessful struggle that culminated in penetrative sex.”[5] The virtue of the woman, not the lasciviousness of her rapist, was on trial.[6]

Movements that sought to expand the political and economic power of women also targeted rape as an impediment to their liberation. Early suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued that expanding political rights would grant women the power to determine the laws and more fairly prosecute acts of sexual violence.[7] Other campaigns sought equality for African Americans and black women that would undermine the racially two-tiered system for prosecuting rape.[8] On one hand, elite whites believed that black women were merely sexual objects, both from a legacy of slavery that had made them sexual property and because of cultural attitudes that black women were incapable of withholding consent due to their sexual improprieties.[9] On the other hand, rape was used to justify disenfranchisement of black men and the terrorism of lynching. Constructions of the black male rapist permeated Southern white political discourse and drew a line between black men and the contemporary ideal of civilized (white) manliness of self-control and respectability; demonization of black men “provided powerful ideological support for these southern economic and political practices, while lynching effectively suppressed the possibility of widespread protests against them.”[10]

The focus on chastity of women, the sexualization of the black female body, and the demonization of the black male body reified distinctions of citizenship, and these distinctions form the backbone of Freedman’s argument. Freedman convincingly argues that citizenship was defined in terms of sexuality. The gender ideology of the chastity of white womanhood disempowered women by reducing their legal status to victims in need of paternal protection, which post-Civil War suffragists would challenge on the grounds that men could not politically and economically represent women.[11] Later feminist reformers would insist on the complete sexual sovereignty of a woman over her own body, which challenged the moral claims that women were incapable of self-governance and therefore citizenship.[12] The sexualization of black women deprived them of agency and consent in sexual relations, especially with elite white men, which reflected “deepening ideological resistance to granting moral status to black women.”[13] The demonization of black men reflected white fears of political upheaval that would unseat white supremacy; casting black men as rapists was a convenient justification for disenfranchisement as well as a potent means by which to deny them the moral standing on which citizenship depended.[14] The pattern that Freedman makes exceedingly clear is that the deployment of rape became a question of political sovereignty and moral culpability: feminists argued that men used rape to reinforce their own political standing, while white men used rape to inhibit both women (as victims and seducers) and African Americans (as immoral seductresses or deviants). And although she does not spend as much time on gay men, rape was used to demonize homosexuality by insinuating that gay men lured young boys into sexual deviance, which further reinforced the power of the elite white, and in this case heterosexual, man.[15]

Though broad in both chronological scope and source material, Freedman’s failure to evaluate the role of non-black and non-white women is a major weakness of the book. Freedman only briefly addresses the sexual conquest of Native American and Hispanic women and does not cover Asian women at all.[16] She also focuses almost exclusively on female victimization, which marginalizes broader definitions of rape, particularly of men by men. Moreover, her discussion of male homosexuality is couched either as the heteronormative demonization of homosexual men or the victimization of boys.[17] Furthermore, in her periodization of the book, Freedman jumps from antebellum America to Reconstruction, excluding crimes committed during the Civil War by Union and Confederate soldiers, examinations of which might clarify ideological or cultural schisms between northern and southern society and there different racial regimes.

Redefining Rape is a foundational book for the study of sexual violence in American history. Tracing the discursive evolutions of terms like “rape” and “consent” reveals the underlying cultural norms surrounding citizenship and morality. Freedman’s nuanced, detailed, and meticulously-researched observations about the nature of sexuality also successfully uncover the intersections of race and gender that helped disenfranchise women of all races, as well as create justifications for violence against African American men.


[1] 11.
[2] 1–2.
[3] 3, 5.
[4] 21.
[5] 27.
[6] 50.
[7] 53.
[8] 48.
[9] 75, 81, 85–87, 114.
[10] 94, 124.
[11] 126, 53.
[12] 6, 42.
[13] 80.
[14] 91–95, 230.
[15] 169, 189.
[16] 18–19.
[17] 168.