Archive for November, 2017

What the Puritans said about sexual harassment

Posted on November 27, 2017. Filed under: Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , , , |

The ongoing “revelations” (which were common knowledge but hushed up and/or tolerated and/or accepted and encouraged and celebrated) about sexism, harassment, assault, and rape in the U.S. today came to mind as we were searching in the Body of Liberties published in 1647 Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and found this item in the section on capital crimes:

15. If any man shall RAVISH any maid or single woman, committing carnal copulation with her by force, against her own will; that is above the age of ten years he shall be punished either with death, or with some other grievous punishment according to circumstances as the Judges or General court shall determine.

The Laws and Liberties were an update of the 1641 Body of Liberties, the first legal code written by English settlers in North America. It’s interesting that the Puritans added a law against rape in 1647; while we have to despair at age 10 being made the age of consent, it is heartening to see that women had the right to resist sex—they could not be forced into sex against their will. And only the man is punished, which is an improvement from our own situation in the 21st century, where women are usually punished for coming forward to attest to sexual harassment, assault, or rape, whether by losing their jobs and/or their credibility, or being blamed for “asking for it,” or by seeing the male perpetrator walk off with a slap on the wrist at best.

The caveat that it is only a single or unmarried woman who cannot be raped is explained by the Puritan laws against adultery. A married woman was in a different legal category, which is addressed in #9 below from the 1647 Laws:

7. If any man or woman shall LIE WITH ANY BEAST, or bruit creature, by carnall copulation; they shall surely be put to death: and the beast shall be slain, & buried, and not eaten. Lev. 20. 15. 16.

8. If any man LIETH WITH A MAN-KIND as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death: unless the one partie was forced (or be under fourteen years of age in which case he shall be severely punished) Levit. 20. 13.

9. If any person commit ADULTERY with a married or espoused wife; the Adulterer & Adulteresse shall surely be put to death. Lev. 20. 19. & 18. 20 Deu. 22. 23. 27.

These are the original three laws regarding sexual activity from the 1641 Body of Liberties. #7 is unchanged, but #8 has an update: originally, it ended with both men being put to death. The clause on being forced against one’s will into a homosexual act, or being underage, was added in 1647. Why is the age of consent for homosexuality so much higher (14) than heterosexuality (10)? It’s not clear, but it might be that heterosexuality,  being considered “normal,” was perceived to be natural and even attractive to people at a younger age than “abnormal” homosexuality, so a child of 10 might “consent” to a heterosexual sex act. Again, disturbing as this 10 year-old age of consent is (or even a 14 year-old threshold), it is a step forward to see an early American society codifying the idea that a) consent is necessary for sex, and b) homosexuality is not immediately punishable by death for both parties. (And in fact, Roger Thompson’s Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699 shows on pp 72-75  that, despite known homosexual incidents and even relationships, no man was ever executed for homosexuality in Puritan Massachusetts.)

#9 addresses adultery, circling back to the “ravishment” law and its application only to single women. This is unchanged from 1641. “Adultery” had a specific meaning to the Puritans—it was a synonym for “consensual.” “Ravishment” meant non-consensual, which meant only one party, the ravisher, was guilty and should be punished. But “adultery” meant two guilty parties—two equally guilty parties who must face equally harsh punishment. Notice that the man’s marital status does not matter; it is the woman’s marital status that matters, because she is the one who can get pregnant. A married woman who commits adultery and becomes pregnant with a child outside of marriage creates legal mayhem when it comes to her husband’s will. Even if the husband never knew the child was not his, it was the principle of the thing: a man should not leave his estate to a child that is not biologically his (unless of course he has acknowledged step-children, or adopted children, or legal heirs “not of his body,” like nephews or cousins, all of which were common). The point was that a married man should leave his estate to the child of his choosing, not to his wife’s bastard. And so a married woman consenting to sex with a man was adultery and was punishable by death.

What about a married woman being forced into sex, i.e., raped? This is not addressed in the 1647 Laws. Again, the idea was that a married woman was a sexually experienced adult who should be well able to a) stay out of dangerous sexual situations, and b) fight off the preliminary advances of a man, and then c) alert her husband and the authorities so the offender could be punished before he did anything more than preliminary. It was very unlikely, the thinking went, that a man would rape a woman immediately. It was far more likely that he had many flirtatious and then sexual contacts with the woman (kissing, etc.) that she did not turn down, and one thing naturally led to another. A married woman had to be complicit in sex outside marriage, according to this thinking, and therefore she was as guilty as the man. And those cases of adultery that went to court proved this to be true, insofar as women would recount many sexually charged conversations or physical encounters over time that led to sex.

Our own evolving view that a woman may encourage as much sexually charged interaction as she likes but draw the line at actual sex and have that decision honored by the man was non-existent in the 17th century, and is still regularly challenged in court today. When we look back at Puritan sexual laws, we see the beginnings of a more just system. We are still working to provide real justice in the realm of sexual crime today.

 

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The Great American Experiment–a reminder

Posted on November 15, 2017. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems apropos to rerun this post as we look back on a year of the Trump administration. We originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it last year when Trump was elected. Perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small country town built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they don’t entirely fit that description given above.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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