The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
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The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

When America started caring about rape

Forty years ago, Susan Brownmiller’s landmark book ‘Against Our Will’ took rape out of the shadows

NEW YORK – More than 300 people crammed into a tiny church in Hell's Kitchen on Jan. 24, 1971, and witnessed the building of an idea so intrinsically correct it's hard to believe it was built at a time and place at all.

"We were doing something nobody had ever done before in history,” said Susan Brownmiller, now 80, who took the tickets at the door. “Women talking publicly about rape."

The flier for the rape speak-out at St. Clement's Church, in Spanish on the reverse side.
Susan Brownmiller

Thirty to 40 women testified at the first-ever rape speak-out, organized by the group the New York Radical Feminists. At the time, no one knew how often women were raped. It was a murky crime, committed by depraved minds, tracked only in police blotters, and shrouded in whispers and jokes.

Many of the official speakers were reluctant to take part. They thought their experiences weren't important enough or that making rape an issue would infuriate men. 

"I never could say why I didn't like it," said WBAI reporter Nanette Rainone on air before the event. Talking about violent stranger rape was fine, but rapes involving boyfriends or husbands?

"The only word that comes to mind," she said, "is that there was something ugly in it."

For a year, scattered rape accounts had appeared in the underground feminist press, and there were glimmers of activism. A California group reported that when a go-go dancer hired to perform at a bachelor party was raped by the groom, and then the case was dismissed by police, they left leaflets on guests' cars at the wedding reception detailing, "How Jack and His Friends Play When 'Their' Women Aren't Around."

But for the anti-rape movement, the St. Clement's Church speak-out was the inaugural ball.

"Rape is apparently no respecter of status," observed Gail Sheehy in New York magazine. "The women came in jeans and crepe-soled waitress shoes and in fur-lined coats."

There are no photographs or recordings of what unfolded that Sunday afternoon. Cameras and tape recorders weren't allowed. But Brownmiller kept her notes from that day for 25 years. "Latecomers hugged the walls and hunkered down in the aisles," she later wrote. The handful of men remained silent.

From the dimly-lit stage, women talked about being raped by strangers in alleys, by their therapists and by blind dates set up by their moms. When they went to the police, they said they were mocked or dismissed. All of them believed that it was in some way their fault. 

The only one to fight back had been a 16-year-old girl, who kicked the guy in the groin. He was taken to the hospital. She was taken to the police station and fingerprinted. 

"Everybody was just stunned," Brownmiller recalled of that night. "The politics of rape, indeed, unfolded before us."

The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

Raised in a Jewish home in Brooklyn, Brownmiller found her way to the political Left early. She volunteered in the civil rights movement, but then buckled down on her journalism career. Brownmiller was a 33-year-old reporter, a full-time writer at ABC-TV with bylines in the best glossy magazines, when a friend brought her to a consciousness-raising group in a run-down office building in September 1968.

One of the women started them out: "If you want to have a baby, do you want a girl or a boy?"

The women's secrets quickly spilled out. One described her blindfolded trip to an undisclosed location in New Jersey for an abortion arranged by the Mafia. Another talked about her legal abortion, which required her parents to pay two psychiatrists to testify that she was mentally unstable. Brownmiller blurted out that she'd had three illegal abortions, one in Cuba and two in Puerto Rico, the second one leaving her afraid for her life. She'd never told a soul about any of it.

In a memory that still gives her chills, it clicked that her private grief was part of a shared female experience. Brownmiller quit her day job before the year was out to help pilot the new women's liberation movement.

‘I was hoping to change everyone’s mind about rape, the same way my mind had been changed.’

Susan Brownmiller

"Women organizing as women in a radical movement, as women for women's issues, happens infrequently in the world," said Brownmiller. The last American women to do so were the Suffragettes, and the Victorian values of their age had hushed up a host of issues that now burst to the surface: sexual satisfaction, sexual identity, birth control, abortion and, of course, rape. 

The flier for New York Radical Feminists' rape conference, a few months after the speak-out.
Susan Brownmiller

Brownmiller was dizzy with epiphany. Was it possible that the fear of rape had affected women's lives throughout recorded time, but no one had given it a name? She decided to write a book but "not just about present-day rape."

"I was going to give rape a history," she said.

For the next four years, Brownmiller researched and wrote in the New York Public Library, which at the time, she noted, had more entries in its card catalog for rapeseed than rape. (Today rape has 3,052 entries, to rapeseed's 11.) Chasing dusty footnotes, she found answers to questions others hadn't even thought to ask. When did rape become a crime against a woman in the law, and not just a property crime against a husband or father? How exactly is rape used in warfare? Who is the average rapist?

Through her discoveries, she wove a radical thesis: Rape wasn't a random act of a diseased, lust-crazed mind (the Freudian thinking); it wasn't a thing women lied about a lot (also Freud); it wasn't a thing women secretly wanted to happen (Freud again); and it wasn't a political issue only when white women falsely accused black men (the thinking on the left). 

An ad for "Against Our Will"
The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

Rapists, she said, were usually young guys, amped up on entitlement and dangerous, violent ideas of what it means to be a man. Rape was about power, she concluded, not sex. And it happened all the time.

"There was a tradition — and it's a fine tradition in this country — of preserving the rights of defendants," said Brownmiller. "And here we were, radical feminists, saying, 'We need to look at the rights of victims.'"

While Brownmiller labored in the stacks, feminist groups started forming all-day, all-night rape hotlines, which they called rape crisis centers. Today, there are at least 1,000 across the country.

But the anti-rape movement was just getting its legs when it got its great work. When "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" came out in 1975, it was an instant best-seller, printed in more than a dozen languages around the world. Time magazine selected Brownmiller as one of its people of the year.

"Against Our Will" in a handful of its different translations and editions.
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As awareness spread, state legislatures passed a string of new laws, like striking down the requirement that victims prove they physically resisted (usually through injury) and banning defense attorneys from probing victims about their sexual history. Within 20 years, every state made it illegal for a man to rape his wife. 

"I was hoping to change everyone's mind about rape, the same way my mind had been changed," said Brownmiller, in the West Village apartment where she's lived for almost four decades. The New York Public Library later honored "Against Our Will" as one of the 100 most significant books of the 20th century.

In her final chapter, which the National Organization for Women (NOW) turned into a pamphlet, Brownmiller pointed her finger at the blurring of sex and violence in the booming pornography industry. She called it "anti-female propaganda" that helped create a climate where men felt freer to rape. In response, the porn tabloid Screw published her home address with a picture of her face superimposed on a toilet. 

Women Against Pornography led tours of the 25-cent peeps around Times Square to raise awareness – and funds.
Getty Images

After her two-year "Against Our Will" college tour, Brownmiller jumped into the anti-porn campaign, as did women's liberation luminaries like Robin Morgan, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem.

"We wanted to create a feminist tradition around pornography," said Brownmiller. "The other tradition said, 'What if our young daughters see this?' We said, 'What if our young sons see this?'"

The crusade made for strange bedfellows, and both pornographers and other feminists branded them prudish, judgmental and anti-free speech.

"We will no longer hang up women like pieces of meat," declared a 1978 Hustler cover, alongside a picture of a naked woman being fed into a meat grinder. The anti-pornography efforts proved to be the last gasp of feminism's second wave.

"We lost that one," Brownmiller chuckled. "Lost it big time."

But as much as the feminist tradition lost the porn wars, it decidedly won the issue of rape. The 1970s gospel runs under current reports of rape in the military, the rising up of abuse victims in the Catholic Church, the viral spread of SlutWalks and the anti-rape movement on college campuses, where Title IX – the law banning sex discrimination in schools – has become activists' sharpest weapon.

Now 80, Susan Brownmiller offers this advice to young activists: "I hope you can just see that the issues that you're raising now, that we raised then, are eternal."
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"I think what's happening on the college campuses today can be called a fourth wave of feminism," said Brownmiller. "[But] I think in a way they are reinventing the wheel. I'm sorry about that."

But the campus campaigners are fighting a few newer battles, with a newer vernacular. Many "survivors" turned activists and their allies are fighting hard against the victim-blaming they see in cases when a girl is too drunk to consent – a significant slice of rapes on campus. Alcohol wasn't a talking point in the first anti-rape movement, and Brownmiller's stance rings more old school than the party line today.

"I always stress the warning signs about rape, don't get yourself into a situation," she said. "But women are still in denial. They don't want to feel that special restrictions apply to them…The truth is, they can't do everything that men can do, because there are predators out there."

Earlier this month, Brownmiller was teaching her class on rape, part of her women's studies course at Pace University in downtown New York, when one student asked, "What if the girl's intoxicated?"

"If you want to get drunk, get drunk," she replied. "But you won't have a case in court."

Susan Brownmiller's 1975 Time cover, behind some files in her bedroom.
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In 40 years, Brownmiller hasn't budged. She stands by every word of her book, including her famous statistic that 2 percent of rape accusations are false, which is lower than more recent estimates. This number was apparently the finding of a New York City rape squad once policewomen were put in charge, and it's been voraciously cited and viciously attacked.

"I hope it keeps getting cited," said Brownmiller. "… It's always going be controversial, because there are men who want to believe that there's no such thing as rape."

When Brownmiller was researching her book that was a common myth. "You can't thread a moving needle," so the saying went. You couldn't rape a woman against her will. When former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin uttered a version of that idea in 2012, he was shunned by his party and voters alike. Last year, the FBI changed its definition of rape from "forcibly and against her will" to "without the consent of the victim."

"We accomplished more than any other movement in my lifetime," said Brownmiller. "I think we've changed more lives for the good."

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If you have been the victim of a sexual assault or are a friend of a victim, live support is available at 800-565-HOPE (4673) or online here.

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