Rape is an historical condition that underlies all aspects of male-female relationships. It is a crime not of lust but of violence and power.
Susan Brownmiller is an American feminist writer, best-known for her groundbreaking book about rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape which, since its publication in 1975, has never been out of print. The book was the first of its kind to document a history of rape and argues that rape is used by the patriarchy to dominate women and keep them in a perpetual state of fear in male-female relationships.
Born in 1935, Susan Warhaftig grew up in Brooklyn, New York, as an only child. Her father, Samuel, had emigrated from Poland to America, where he met and married Mae, a secretary. Brownmiller’s father did not want his daughter to go to college, but she went to Cornell University on a scholarship regardless, though eventually dropped out after two years of study. Taking up the pen name Brownmiller, she pursued a journalism career and went on to work for Newsweek, Village Voice and ABC-TV.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published her seminal text, The Feminine Mystique. Brownmiller read the book and saw her own worries highlighted in Friedan’s account. In 1968, Brownmiller went to a clandestine meeting of the New York Radical Women, a group engaged in consciousness-raising, two weeks after their first national protest at the Miss America pageant. Here, the women spoke about their experiences of abortion and childbirth, which resonated with Brownmiller. At the group, she shared her three experiences of unsafe abortions, the second of which had nearly killed her.
In the 1970s, Brownmiller was given a copy of Berkeley feminist magazine It Ain’t Me Babe,
which had printed an account of a woman who had been raped by two Vietnam veterans. Diane Crothers, who had brought the account to the group’s attention, had argued that rape was a feminist issue which deserved their attention. As she argued her point, women in the group felt confident to share their own experiences of sexual assault. Seeing that this was a larger issue, the New York Radical Feminists, in January 1971, decided to hold the event Speak-Out on Rape, at which women would come together to share their experiences.
At the time, rape was understood to be rare, and very few rape survivors came forward because women who said they had been raped were met with blame or suspicion, and police departments and hospitals did not have trained practitioners for collecting evidence or testimonies. In addition to this, if the case ever did reach court, a woman’s sexual past could be used to discredit her accusation. Therefore, the consciousness-raising undertaken by the New York Radical Feminists was a revolutionary step towards lifting the shame and secrecy around rape.
It took Brownmiller five years to complete Against Our Will, which was ultimately released in 1975.
In the book, Brownmiller identified many popular myths about rape that were reinforced throughout history, literature, popular culture and mythology, including the idea that rape is motivated by male lust, that female sexuality invites violence, and that women ‘cry’ rape. Brownmiller counteracted all these arguments with her overarching thesis: that rape was fundamental to the domination of women.
The book was hugely influential, not only shaping the way society viewed rape but also contributing to a body of work that was lobbying for changes to legislation about rape. Indeed, Brownmiller has said that her purpose for the book was to give a history of rape. When Brownmiller was writing
the book, as part of the wider second wave feminist movement, rape crisis centres were opening across America, self-defence classes were being set up and other forms of support were being created for rape survivors.
Against Our Will also argued that the popular image of a rapist was incorrect, and that
date and spousal rape were shockingly prevalent in male-female romantic relationships. Brownmiller’s work on this topic added to a growing understanding of the issue and, as a result, the first marital rape laws were passed in the United States in the late 1970s.
Brownmiller’s thesis was not universally accepted. Dr Angela Davis, bell hooks and other feminists of colour have disagreed with her reading of the case of Emmett Till.
Brownmiller toured extensively with the book and then released Femininity, a book which examined and analysed society’s view of the ideal woman’s body, appearance and behaviour, in 1984. Following this, she also wrote Waverly Place, Seeing Vietnam, In Our Time and My City High Rise Garden.
In a recent interview with The Cut, Brownmiller spoke about closely following the rape activism on college campuses, and urged the current generation of rape activists to also focus on the working class women who are at greater risk of sexual violence. The interview caused some controversy because, to some, Brownmiller’s comments appeared to blame the victims of rape, rather than the rapists themselves.
Brownmiller’s work has gained mainstream attention again during the #MeToo movement. In an interview with The Guardian, she said that while she found the widespread abuse of power, and women’s experiences, upsetting, she also said “it’s been hard coming to terms with the fact that a lot of what we accomplished seems somehow just to have been erased.”