I have an insane amount of respect for Susan Brownmiller. Trailblazer is truly the word to describe this journalist who became a civil rights and feminist activist. Her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, legitimately changed the public outlook on rape. When it was published in 1975 there were very few, if any, books like it. Her book is rightfully credited with not only changing public attitudes about rape, but also with influencing law changes and starting a national conversation. She created the kind of widespread change that as a feminist activist I dream of creating. I am trying to get my voice out into the world and change it like she did. Growing up in a feminist household, the values I learned were influenced by her book. My mother, who read her book in high school, said, “it was one of those books that really made me think in new ways.” All feminists today owe a debt of gratitude to Brownmiller and to those like her because they paved the way for us.
Although I have looked up to Brownmiller for years, in September that changed. She started blaming victims of rape, as opposed to their attackers, for what happened to them. This attitude of asking questions like, “was she drunk?” and, “what was she wearing?” is unfortunately common today, but I would have never expected it from the woman who started the anti-rape movement. In an interview, Susan Brownmiller came out against campus activism that aims to combat rape. She said that she thinks it’s unrealistic when women think they can drink as much as men because, according to her, they can’t. She said, “I find the position ‘Don't blame us, we're survivors’ to be appalling.” She also talked about how she doesn’t like SlutWalk because she doesn’t approve of the female participants wearing revealing attire. Brownmiller went so far as to say that the a woman who dresses in such a way looks like a hooker.
For me, this is really sad. I follow feminist news pretty closely, and when Brownmiller gave this interview I had several articles about it in my newsfeed. I was nauseated. It’s not that I haven’t heard these things before; that’s exactly the problem. The kind of people who say that rape is the victim’s fault are often, for example, teenage boys with bad judgement, not feminist heroes. She paved the road for me but now she’s “off the derech” (off the right path) so to speak. Her comments in this interview make no sense to me. She was the first to talk about rape as an issue of power and dominance. She talked about how men keep women in a state of perpetual fear. Whenever people say, “What was she wearing?” or “Well, was she drunk?” I have a knee jerk reaction. “She was NEVER asking for it!” I always say. I learned that from a feminist ideology that was largely shaped by Brownmiller and the work she did, and therefore her comments in this interview were shocking and upsetting.
As a senior in high school I have been visiting a lot of colleges this year, and I recently submitted my college applications. A few weeks ago when I was visiting Barnard/Columbia and talking to some current students, rape culture came up in the conversation. On the Barnard/Columbia campus, rape is a hot topic because of Emma Sulkowicz: a student who carried the mattress she was raped on everywhere with her in protest of the fact that her rapist was still on campus. She has bravely used her story to highlight the national issue. But rape is a huge issue on campuses everywhere. The national conversation is impossible to avoid. I plan on being very involved in campus activism and I think that’s one of the most important things I can do. The point of activism is that we want to create a moral society built on righteous ideals. Women should be able to wear whatever they want and drink what they want, because feminism is about equality. Brownmiller lived in a society which is very different from the one we live in today, but made changes that we can still see. Now it is our turn to make sure that the issues facing us now are not still being faced by our grandchildren when we’re 80.
Susan Brownmiller changed the world, but now we are fighting the good fight without her. I wish I could tell her that. I wish I could tell her that right now she is harming the movement that she helped create. In 1975 she saw, with incredibly clear eyes, a problem in society that no one was talking about. I want to tell her that those eyes are now clouded. I will not say that she is stuck in her generation, because she never has been. I will hold her to the same standard to which I hold myself and other active feminists. In her lifetime feminism changed the world, but maybe she hasn’t realized that the world has changed feminism. When she was my age, society was at a very different place than it is now. Today feminism is facing different issues, and and our ideal society probably looks different than her’s did. I’m not going to let these statements detract from the ways in which her voice changed this country. It’s her time to learn from us, and I hope that she will.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Bickel, Rana. "Blaming Victims." 20 November 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/blaming-victims>.