“Rave On” is the Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. Today we feature Estelle Freedman, Ph.D., the Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University, on Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller.
I came of age as a feminist in the early 1970s amidst a wealth of powerful second-wave treatises that radicalized my world view, including Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and the underground essays collected in Notes from the Second Year. These texts helped me begin to shed the devaluation of women that so characterized the culture around me. But I have to credit Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, for its immediate and long-term impact on my politics and ultimately my scholarship.
I first read Against Our Will soon after it appeared in 1975. I had just completed my doctoral dissertation on the history of women’s prison reform in the U.S., and I knew that the rape of women housed in men’s prisons had provoked early efforts to build separate women’s prisons. I was also teaching my first women’s history course at Princeton University. Although I was a budding feminist historian, Brownmiller’s book showed me how little I knew about—and how little historians had thought about—the subject of rape.
At least half of Against Our Will explores the history of rape in wartime, conquest, and slavery—subjects completely new to me when I first read it. It also has a bold, and much criticized, thesis that rape is a means by which “all men keep all women in a state of fear.” I don’t agree with that generalization, and subsequent research has exposed the ways women have perpetrated, as well as endured, sexual violence. But I credit Brownmiller with provoking a debate about why rape has been so extensive and so silenced throughout history.
Brownmiller also provoked a debate about race and rape. The book documents the historical sexual abuse of African and Native American women and the targeting of black, rather than white, men as rapists. At the same time, as Angela Davis first pointed out, Against Our Will came close to blaming the black youth Emmett Till for his own lynching, attributing to him a desire to prove his manhood by gaining access to white women. Brownmiller and her critics first made me curious about the tangled relationship of race, gender, and rape in American history. I am now writing a book on the politics of rape in America from 1870 to 1950, and I teach a course at Stanford on the history of sexual violence. When my students read Against Our Will, they uniformly rave about how compelling, and salient, it remains for them.
To younger readers I would say: Our view of rape has transformed since the 1970s, from an unavoidable and unmentionable price of being female to an unacceptable crime against the human rights of women. Brownmiller—along with Angela Davis, Susan Griffin, and the grassroots anti-rape movement—helped us reconceptualize sexual violence at the most personal and the most political levels. We have a great deal of work remaining to ensure all women the right to sexual consent; this book continues to inspire feminist efforts to achieve that goal.
Estelle Freedman is the Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University, where she cofounded the Program in Feminist Studies. She has written extensively on the history of women’s prison reform, the history of sexuality, and the history of feminism, including Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (with John D’Emilio, 1997); No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002), and The Essential Feminist Reader (2007). For more information see her website; for historical and contemporary feminist links, see the No Turning Back website .