Rape, law, and society in the progressive era

Reid, Lydia Jane Ellen, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This paper is a beginning exploration into the history of rape in early twentieth century America. The topic is difficult to research and interpret since rape only becomes apparent when the perpetrator is brought to trial. As a result, the most accessible information concerning this crime exists within legal periodicals, statute books, and appellate court records. This essay focuses on two aspects of this history--legal reform discourse and the legal system's treatment of the crime.

The first section places rape within the context of the early twentieth century. This period, designated the Progressive Era, witnessed a plethora of reform efforts which addressed harsh social and economic conditions created by rapid urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. A large number of male and female reformers denounced female exploitation, both economically (in the workplace) and sexually (in commercialized prostitution). On the whole, however, they remained silent on the crime of rape. The only corresponding issues debated were age of consent laws and the adoption of sterilization statutes. The debates reveal a Progressive concern for children and a faith in scientific solutions, respectively.

The second section analyzes rape laws and their subsequent interpretation at the appellate court level. The statutory elements are consent, force, the victim's age, and the demand for corroboration. An examination of these components reveals a legal system that not only treated a victim harshly, but also judged her according to the middle-class demand for female chastity. Women who failed to conform to this ideal were considered "fallen" by middle-class society. As a result, an unchaste woman, or even one whose general reputation suggested immodest behavior, lacked credibility in the eyes of the law.

MA (Master of Arts)
Rape -- United States -- History -- 20th century, Rape -- United States

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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