Roy Moore and the revolution to come

tags: sex scandals, sexual harassment, Roy Moore

Kimberly A. Hamlin is associate professor of American studies and history at Miami University in Ohio and is currently writing a biography of Helen Hamilton Gardener.  Follow @professorhamlin

If U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore had been alive a little more than 100 years ago, no one would be discussing the recent allegations against him or his fitness for office.

In fact, there was no crime on the books that he could have violated, because in 1890, the age of consent in Alabama (and many other states) was 10. Between 1885 and 1920, however, American reformers, led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, embarked upon a massive and successful campaign to persuade states to raise the age of sexual consent for girls.

Before women had the right to vote, they used the court of public opinion to change attitudes about female sexuality and sought laws that better protected women from sexual violence. This 19th-century campaign launched the long struggle against sexual assault and harassment that the 21st-century #metoo campaign continues. Both campaigns show that women can secure meaningful legislative changes, even without the ballot or proportional representation as elected officials. But they also demonstrate the limits of legislative change in the absence of corresponding changes in culture and institutions — an important lesson for those seeking to make this moment the start of a more permanent transformation.

Efforts to raise the age of consent in the United States were inspired by those in England. In 1885, British journalist William Stead posed undercover among brothel keepers, where he was shocked to find that men could (and often did) easily purchase the opportunity to deflower a 13-year-old virgin for about five British pounds. Outraged, Stead chronicled this dark element of London life in a series for the Pall Mall Gazette entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” By the end of the year, the resulting public furor led the British Parliament to raise the age of consent to 16.

Such a decisive victory showed leaders of the WCTU that public moral outrage could lead to political change, even if women — the ones victimized and the ones most concerned about the victims — could not yet vote or hold office. Functioning more or less as a political party by and for women, the WCTU (which counted nearly 200,000 members by 1900) circulated pamphlets and petitions in states across the country to highlight the threat that weak or absent statutory rape laws posed to wives, daughters and the home. In 1891, for example, the WCTU gathered 50,000 supporting signatures in Texas alone. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

comments powered by Disqus