"Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" conquers the "Washington Post"
The October 1975 publication of journalist and activist Susan Brownmiller’s treatise Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape recast public understandings and debate on rape and helped to influence both American and international legal definitions of the crime.
This impact was reflected in four different articles published in the Washington Post on November 2, 1975. The Post on that day offered a (critical) review of the book in its book review section and three related articles on the front page of its Style section. One of the articles described the complexity of a specific rape case, one took on the question of “Rape: A New Definition” and one considered “... the Lives and Concerns of Susan Brownmiller.” As these articles suggest, both Brownmiller and her book received extensive coverage including front-page reviews, an interview with the author on The Today Show, and her inclusion as one of the 12 women recognized by Time magazine as its 1975 “Man of the Year.”
Brownmiller’s powerful analysis of rape grew from her involvement in the feminist movement as a journalist (she chronicled the movement in an influential March 15, 1970 article in the New York Times Magazine) and as an activist. Growing attention to rape and violence within women’s movement speak-outs, conferences, and publications, sparked Brownmiller’s interest in devoting systematic study to the subject. At the same time, publishers, following the growth of women’s liberation within the media, were actively seeking books on feminism to meet a growing public demand. One result was Simon and Schuster's heavy promotion of Brownmiller's provocative book and its inclusion as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection.
The publication of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape brought rape to the national agenda and into American consciousness. Brownmiller’s stark claim – that all men benefited from rape because its pervasive threat kept all women subordinated – proved revolutionary to many. There was nothing comforting in an historical analysis that indicted society for protecting rapists and contributing to the further humiliation of rape victims. Yet, Brownmiller’s book, which briefly appeared on the bestseller lists, appeared at a moment when new questions raised by the women’s movement were able to find their way into the mainstream.
In subsequent decades, prosecutors, activists, and academics concerned with rape have all credited Brownmiller’s work with leading to profound transformations in legal and social understandings of rape. Acquaintance rape has been recognized; women have been more likely to report rape; rape crisis centers have become more common; laws that made it difficult to prosecute rape or that refused to recognize marital rape have been overturned.
The transformation in public understanding of rape from an expression of sexuality to an expression of power, that grew from Brownmiller’s work, continues to echo in American and international public policy. Brownmiller described rape in wartime as a “weapon of terror,” but showed how it had long been understood as part of the “regrettable” but “inevitable” disorder that accompanied battle. One clear measure of Brownmiller’s continuing impact is reflected in the 2002 ruling by the International Criminal Court that rape in the context of war constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Learn more about Susan Brownmiller in Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.
See also: Susan Brownmiller in the Virtual Archive; 50 Most Influential Progressives of the 20th Century - Who else?, Jewesses with Attitude.
To see video clips of an interview with Susan Brownmiller from the MAKERS project, click here.
Sources: Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York, 1975); In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (New York, 1999); Washington Post, November 2, 1975; “Sisterhood is Powerful,” New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1970; New York Times, March 19, 1970, August 17, 1970, October 16, 1975, February 25, 1990, April 21, 1991, December 12, 1991, December 21, 1975; Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism/index.html?id=JWA008.