June 22, 2022

California, which was never a slave state, is now on a path to grant reparations to the descendants of slaves. But if we’re being fair, there’s a group that deserves reparations first: Women.

‘); googletag.cmd.push(function () { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1609268089992-0’); }); }

Women were America’s first and last slaves. Marriage turned women into freedomless, voiceless, chattel slaves, who needed permission to leave home. A wife’s assets, children, and body were her husband’s property. Spousal rape wasn’t a crime. Spousal rape laws were first repealed in 1975, and all states did so by 1993, but eleven still have loopholes or have not criminalized it.

If a husband wanted sex, a wife could be legally subject to corporal punishment for disobeying. Laws permitted beating disobedient wives into the late 19th century. Afterward, the practice persisted, and it was rarely punished.

In the late 20th century, “battering of women by husbands, ex-husbands, or lovers ‘[is] the single largest cause of injury to women in the United States.” Women began campaigning in 1850 to end the battering and, in 1994, Congress finally passed the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) to provide support for victims and acknowledge that domestic violence and sexual assault are crimes.

‘); googletag.cmd.push(function () { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1609270365559-0’); }); }

Plenty of women need support. Annually, nine million women experience physical partner violence. For the fraction of incidents that lead to arrests, few women find justice, and seeking justice can backfire. Police interventions are frequently followed by more violence. Violence remains a means to reinforce subordination.

Single women technically had more freedom than married women but, practically speaking, it was almost impossible to survive. Before the industrial revolution (1820-1850), wage jobs for women were limited to domestic help. Domestic servants worked 24/7, were coerced into sex and earned about $1 per week. This drove many into “White slavery” (i.e., prostitution). With the industrial revolution, women worked in sweatshops 80-100 hours per week, earning $1-$3 per week. Living costs averaged over $10 per week, so they lived in squalor or married, becoming virtual slaves.

Raping a single woman over the age of 12 (or as young as 7, depending on the age of consent in most states until 1890) was virtually legal. Many raped victims were denied justice because they lacked two credible witnesses. If they went to court, they faced the public shame of being an indisputably dishonored non-virgin. They could only absolve this stigma by leveraging marry-the-rapist laws.

Into the 18th century, there was more than stigma to avoid. A finding that an unmarried woman consented to sex out-of-wedlock, which was assumed if she was pregnant, could be punished with fines, whipping, and indentured servitude. The resulting “bastard” child was punished with indentured servitude from ages 18 to 31. Indentured servants were governed by the slave codes.

The stigma of dishonorable women has persisted. It’s reflected in the low percentage of females alleging sexual assault who find justice.

Surprisingly, Black slaves accused of sexual assault often found justice and sympathy from male judges. “Of the 37 appeals by African American men prosecuted for rape or attempted rape of a White female that appear in the public records of state courts in the antebellum south, 22 were successful…Five were free blacks, one was a quadroon and the rest were slaves.” A slave’s master footed the legal defense for his slaves; they were his valuable property. Meanwhile, most alleged victims were, by default, dishonorable women, without sponsors, value, resources, or sympathy. Black slaves were at the bottom of society and so were most White women.