There’s a very interesting article in the Smithsonian Magazine about “What Raising the Age of Sexual Consent Taught Women About the Vote”. It’s hard for us to believe today, but the age of consent for females was set by each state, and in 1895, 38 of those states set the age of consent at 21 or younger–in Delaware, the age of consent for a female was 7 years of age.
Most states set it at 12 or 13, considering this the age most girls began to menstruate, which meant, according to male lawmakers, that sexually she was an adult and would of course always consent to sex. And as the article points out, the consent age gave men complete freedom to rape girls and say the girl had consented; that’s all that was required if (and only if) the man was questioned. “She consented,” he could say, and that would be that.
Women who wanted to change this found allies in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU and “the temperance movement” were and still are reviled and mocked as frigid, frustrated, idiotic old maids who didn’t want people to have fun. What the WCTU really did was attempt to change state laws and business practices that sanctioned and even promoted drunkenness–for men only–that led to disastrous consequences for women, especially their wives. Many taverns made deals with factories to have the factory send male employees’ pay envelopes directly to the tavern, in hopes that the men would not be able to resist the temptation and end up drinking their entire salary away. Men staggered home drunk and broke, meaning their families went hungry, and, worse, that women asking where the pay was were often beaten and sometimes killed. Worse, in most states a man who killed his wife while drunk could be let off because he was drunk–a sort of “not guilty by reason of intoxication”–and no man could be held accountable for something he did while he was drunk. (See “Part 1: Roots of Prohibition” of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition for details on the climate of drunkenness in 19th century America and why it happened.)
So the WCTU fought alcohol manufacturers and distributors (i.e., bar and tavern owners), not alcohol itself, for what they did to women. They were a natural ally for women seeking to raise the age of sexual consent in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
It was tough going. Women petitioning their state governments were ridiculed and sometimes removed. In the south, rape was openly acknowledged as a way to maintain white male power over black women, and the idea that a black woman might be able to successfully accuse a white man of rape and he might go to jail was out of the question. As the Smithsonian article points out, white male legislators perverted the age of consent drive to write abominable laws against black men accused of rape, guaranteeing they were tortured, mutilated, and/or killed.
With great tenacity and bravery, American women pressed on. They realized that for as long as legislators were always and only men, there would never be justice for women. They organized themselves to gain the vote, which is remarkable. Women pressing for a right they had been denied were already targets for harassment and violence. Women talking openly about sex and rape and child rape and rape as a tool of racism were a hundred times more vulnerable to attack. Brick by brick they scaled the wall of sexism and won the vote in 1920. Once women began to vote, female legislators began to exist, and like “magic”, somehow, the age of consent rose in all existing states to between 16 and 18.
We owe these women a tremendous debt that can only be repaid by exercising the right they had to fight for at the cost of their lives: women voting. American women have been steadily told that sexism is at once not that big a deal and all over, a thing of the past. It’s like telling non-white Americans that we’re living in a “post-racism” society. American women are being urged not to be strident, angry, hysterical… like women have been told for centuries.
So much more work needs to be done to end sexism, and so much of it is being done in the court of public opinion–a man who preyed on women is forced to resign from his job. And it ends there. But American women at the turn of the 20th century didn’t win the vote so men who prey on women could remain safely outside the legal system. Freedom is maintained by law. We need to vote for legislators who will fight for enforcement of existing laws against rape and sexual discrimination. We need to vote for legislators who don’t let cases of rape and sexual discrimination be tried in the court of public opinion. We all–men and women–need to fight like Temperance women and Suffragettes for real justice.