Giving rape a history

Our series of blogs based on articles published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal continues with Tanya Serisier’s analysis of feminist anti-rape politics.

Warning: this post includes the explicit discussion of and imagery relating to rape.

Against Our WillIn 1975, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, widely regarded as the founding text of feminist anti-rape politics. In this work she claimed that rape is ‘nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. Brownmiller argued that there were two main sources for the book: women’s discovery of the ‘truth and meaning in our own victimisation’; and recognition through the ‘tools of historical analysis’ that ‘rape has a history’. The book became a best-seller and saw Brownmiller featured as one of TIME magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ for 1975.

In the years following its publication, however, the book has been heavily criticised for historical errors and for its racial politics. What has been less discussed is the way that the book, and the story of writing it, can be used to think through second-wave feminist understandings of the relationship between personal truths, history-making and constructing the truth of rape.

As Brownmiller herself explained in a personal statement included in Against Our Will, the book itself had only been written because Brownmiller was ‘a woman who changed her mind about rape’. Five years earlier, Brownmiller had argued against discussing rape in her New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) consciousness-raising group, West Village I. She declared that she ‘knew what rape was, and what it wasn’t’, and for Brownmiller, it wasn’t a feminist issue. It was a sex crime, and only ‘political’ when it involved racial politics – when allegations of rape by white women against black men were used to justify Southern lynchings or miscarriages of justice, such as in the famous cases of the Scottsboro boys in 1931 or Emmett Till in 1955. The process of how Brownmiller changed her mind, and the way she hoped to use her book to give rape a new history, are intimately connected.

Brownmiller’s mind began to change when, over her objections, Sara, a woman in her consciousness-raising group, began the discussion on rape by telling her story of being raped fifteen years earlier while hitchhiking. Sara was followed by other women telling their stories. On the basis of their discussions, in 1971, the NYRF organised a speak-out and conference on rape. The speak-out attracted over 300 attendees and was covered by Vogue and New York magazine. While ten members of the NYRF had prepared to testify, according to Brownmiller, over 30 others also spoke. By the end of the conference, Brownmiller had decided to write her book.

Il ratto di Lucrezia / The Rape of Lucretia (c. 1645-50), by Artemisia Gentileschi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Il ratto di Lucrezia / The Rape of Lucretia (c. 1645-50), by Artemisia Gentileschi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

From the speak-out and conference the NYRF declared a new feminist truth, that ‘rape is a political crime against women’, a truth of gender unity that challenged both traditional understandings of rape as apolitical and ‘Old Left’ understandings that focused on race and class. They believed they had, in the words of their 1974 publication, Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, used the collection of ‘personal and factual testimony’ as a ‘way of cutting away at male supremacist myths without creating new and equally false myths’. However, as Tanya Horeck has pointed out, writing a new history of rape as a story about all men and all women did involve creating a new myth. The Introduction to the book, which is where Brownmiller makes her famous claim, is based around a mythical account of the ‘first rape’:

In the violent landscape inhabited by primitive woman and man, some woman somewhere had a prescient vision of her right to her own physical integrity, and in my mind’s eye I can picture her fighting like hell to preserve it.

After realising that ‘ this particular incarnation of hairy, two-legged hominid was not the Homo sapiens with whom she would like to freely join parts’, the primitive woman throws a stone, initiating a conflict that ends in the ‘first rape’. Following this, Brownmiller claims, the ‘second rape was indubitably planned’ by a ‘band of marauding men’:

Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of the prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.

The myth is necessary, however, because, the assertion that rape is only and always a political crime against women, or ‘nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’ cannot encompass the reality and complexity either of history or of women’s (and men’s) experiences of sex, violence and the links between the two.

The only vision offered of (hetero)sexuality in this myth is one of male coercion and female violation. While there is a token reference to the possibility that the heroine may wish to ‘freely join parts with’ some other man, even the dismissive language used here ensures that this is a myth where sex is coded as unwanted and threatening to women. This limited vision of the possibilities of female sexuality became a major site of criticism during the ‘feminist sex wars’ of the 1980s when groups like Women Against Rape (WAR) – of which Brownmiller was a member – were accused by ‘pro-sex’ feminists of denying the potential for women’s agency and desire.

By far the most significant criticism is that Brownmiller’s foundational myth is clearly ‘based on a blind spot to race and racial oppression’. Primitive man and primitive women are unmarked racially and the primary distinction between them is one of gender. The desire to write a new ‘women’s history’ of rape that would dispel old mythologies led to a hostility towards anything associated with old truths, or the ‘Old Left’. In Against Our Will, Brownmiller associates her concern with the relationship between the politics of rape and racial repression in the United States as belonging to a time ‘before’ her consciousness had been raised. Coming to consciousness around rape seemed to necessitate denying her previous understandings of the way allegations of sexual violence could be used to fuel instances of racial repression. This founding myth of rape is also then a myth of the universality of white feminist experience. It is a myth of a world where all women resist the violence of all men and race does not exist as a socially divisive force.

Rape (1961), by Malangatana. Image via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Rape (1961), by Malangatana. Image via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

While some later critics have attempted to individualise the problem to Brownmiller, racial difference continues to pose problems for attempts to construct universal stories or histories of rape based on women’s experience. The most common solution is to attempt to broaden the category of ‘experience’. However, this only displaces the problem, and, as Chandra Mohanty has argued, ‘a pluralism of “herstories” is not a replacement for addressing the politics of “history”’ within feminist discourse or the mythologies that animate it. This is because it simply seeks to incorporate ‘other’ women within a totalising and closed system of meaning rather than recognising the limits of any attempt to tell singular or unifying stories or produce universal truths.

It is important to return to Brownmiller’s insight that ‘rape has a history, and that through the tools of historical analysis we may learn what we need to know about our current condition’. Building on that requires a commitment to grappling with the politics of that history, and to turn our tools of historical analysis onto the ways in which that history is constructed.


For the full article, see: Tanya Serisier, ‘Speaking out against rape: Feminist (her) stories and anti-rape politics,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 16 (2007): 84-95.


Academic Profile: Tanya SerisierTanya Serisier is a Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on the changing cultural politics of sexual violence; responses to women’s narratives of sexual violence, and the cultural and social regulation of sex and sexuality. Tanya is currently completing a book entitled Speaking Out About Rape: Feminism and the Narrativisation of Politics.


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