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.
The WCTU’s age-of-consent propaganda drew its strength from invocations of female purity, the sanctity of the home and the dangers of vicious men, especially in the city. Between 1880 and 1900, a staggering 15 million Americans moved to cities, and fears about how modern urban life might corrupt white womanhood spurred many citizens to action. By 1895, 20 states had raised the age of consent to 14, one to 15, nine to 16, and one to 17.
Ten states, including Alabama, refused to budge. So reformer Helen Hamilton Gardener implemented a strategy to make public the violence against women that occurred in private. Aspiring to be “the Harriet Beecher Stowe of fallen women,” she published two novels critiquing the sexual double standard. She also circulated a “Black List” of states that had not yet raised the age of consent to at least 16, then invited legislators from those states to explain their position in the Arena magazine. And while most people, legislators and civilians alike, responded to Gardener’s letters by condemning such abuses against women and girls, they did nothing to prevent them.
Some offered a “slippery slope” argument to maintain the status quo. Men feared (correctly, as it turned out) that the next step after raising the age of consent would be the outlawing of alcohol. For as Frances Willard, the formidable president of the WCTU, frequently noted, “the Siamese twins of vice are strong drink and the degradation of woman.” Outlawing one would go a long way toward curbing the other.
Others professed concern that raising the age of consent would embolden scheming teenage girls to “lay traps” for “inexperienced boys” in attempt to force them into marriage. A few lawmakers even suggested that girls who had already been “despoiled” deserved no protection from the state.
Debates about consent laws were also about prostitution. Social purity pamphlets detailed how quickly one initial transgression, consensual or otherwise, could lead to a life of prostitution. Because female virginity was a requirement for marriage, at least in theory, girls who had been “despoiled” had few options other than what was commonly referred to as “the white slave trade.”
The “white” in “white slave trade” was literal. Reformers concerned themselves mainly with the plight of white women. Few made the connection between the sexual violence that enslaved women and girls endured for generations, and continued to endure post-emancipation, and the new Progressive-era efforts to raise the age of sexual consent.
But the real reason states maintained such young ages of consent, Gardener argued, was to protect brothels and the men who patronized them: to “shield men of mature and vicious lives from the results of their most heinous vices.” Reformers strove to convince the public that all sorts of men — including even beloved husbands, ministers and statesmen — frequented prostitutes. They hoped that raising the age of consent would lay bare the hypocrisies of the sexual double standard and be the first step toward establishing a single sexual standard by which both men and women abided.
Gardener contended that the real impediment to change was that men “who are our fathers and brothers have met in secret session and framed and passed such laws.” With women as active participants, or even observers, “no legislature on earth would ever had passed such acts.” She was right to highlight the link between male-dominated state politics and young ages of consent. By 1895, only two states had succeeded in raising the age of consent to 18 — Wyoming and Kansas. Not incidentally, these were two states in which women could vote.
By 1920, thanks to the reformist zeal of the Progressive era and the tireless efforts of thousands of women whose names have mostly been lost to history, nearly every state in the United States, including Alabama, had raised the age of sexual consent to 16. A few Western states, where women could vote and hold office, increased it to 18. Getting these laws on the books paved the way for women’s federal enfranchisement in 1920 and established women as savvy political operators.
But these laws, as revolutionary as they were, did not undo the sexual double standard or men’s readiness to wield sex as a form of power over women.
This is the public reckoning we now face. Outlawing sex between grown men and girls certainly did not make it go away, especially when the practice (in fantasy if not reality) is sanctioned in so many other areas of culture — from the prevalence of child pornography to the sustained popularity of novels such as “Lolita,” which regularly sits atop lists of the best novels of the 20th century.
History also shows us that when women have a say in making and enforcing laws, violence against women decreases — something Willard and Hamilton Gardener knew all along.
Today, women do have a voice in the law, but we do not yet have something even approximating equality when it comes to holding positions of power — in business, in politics, in entertainment, in media and in the academy — positions where women can make policies, build institutional structures and shape culture. The real revolution will come when we do.