Until several decades ago, the U.S. treated women as men’s property, and regulated violence against women accordingly. Violence against women was considered illegal only when men transgressed the “property rights” of other men.

Transplanted from England, U.S. law traditionally defined rape as “intercourse between a man and a woman not his wife, against the woman’s will and without her consent.” Rape laws may have discouraged men’s violence against other men’s wives, and the laws promised severe punishment for the transgressing rapist. But most rape has been effectively legal, because it was considered impossible to “prove” in most circumstances. Prosecutors and judges required far more evidence of rape than is required to prosecute and convict for other crimes.

During slavery, white men’s rape of female slaves was explicitly legal. During colonialism, white men’s rape of Native American women was rampant, and went unpunished by white law. Men’s rape of their own wives was explicitly legal until the 1980s, and still remains legal in some circumstances.

During Reconstruction, the KKK used rape of Black women as a weapon of terror. At the same time, Black men were accused of raping white women, and the accusation was used as an excuse for lynching.

The history of violence against Native American women during colonization is reflected in disproportionate violence today: FBI statistics show that Native Americans are twice as likely as African Americans, and three times more likely than whites to be victims of rape or aggravated assault. (Seventy percent of the violent attackers are of another race). A 1990 study done in Texas found that the average prison sentences for men convicted of raping Black women were only one-fifth of average sentences for men convicted of raping white women. Accusations of rape by white women against Black men are taken the most seriously by the courts.

But violence against all women by men of all races continues to be treated as trivial and within men’s rights. “Anti-racism” and leftist movements have in recent decades perversely used the history of white men’s scapegoating of Black men to dismiss, trivialize, or justify men of color’s violence against white women, continuing the tradition of viewing women as little other than property. The movement by and large abides by the notion that violence against women should not be taken seriously unless it involves the violation of men’s rights, except in reverse–the violation of marginalized men’s property rights by dominant men.

Rape became widely recognized as violence against women and a public policy issue during the 1970s, as a result of the feminist movement. Reform efforts spread throughout the country. Activists sought to improve the treatment of victims by the police, hospitals, the courts, and society in general. Feminists set up rape crisis centers and hotlines to support victims. They also fought to change rape laws. New laws shielded a victim’s sexual history during court trial. Activists also fought to make marital rape illegal, raise awareness about sexual coercion, and carry out rape prevention education.

Also during the 70s, feminists began to create revolutionary changes in society’s treatment of battered women. Feminists fought to change societal attitudes that blamed the victim rather than the perpetrator. They also fought for changes in the law, including the right of battered women to obtain orders of protection, the right to stay in their own homes and have the batterers removed, and to retain custody of their children. Particularly during the 1970s, feminists faced enormous resistance by the criminal justice system when demanding equal protection for women. Many lawsuits had to be filed before battered women began to receive some protection by police and the courts.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the first of its kind, was founded in 1978. In 1980, the Washington, D.C. Rape Crisis Center sponsored the First National Conference on Third World Women and Violence. The following year, a Women of Color Task Force was created within the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

During the 1980s, a handful of women physicians, including Drs. Anne H. Flitcraft and Carole Warshaw, discovered the vast numbers of unaided and unidentified victims of battery, who sought medical attention, but did not turn to the police or courts. In 1990, the American Medical Women became the first major medical group to pass resolutions regarding physicians’ responsibility toward victims of domestic violence. A decade later, most hospitals emergency departments have implemented procedures for identifying, treating, and referring victims of battery.

In 1994, feminists won passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions to aid battered women, raise social awareness, and educate those in positions of authority about domestic violence. The act was reauthorized in October, 2000, and expanded to include the problem of dating violence.

In April 2000, the Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color conference was held, which highlighted the links between domestic violence and broader forms of economic and political violence, including corporate globalization. Activists organized around their concerns about the professionalization and de-politicization of the anti-domestic violence movement, the marginalization of women of color, and the complex problems in relying on a racist and brutal law enforcement system to fight domestic violence.

Angela Davis, the keynote speaker, said, “On the one hand, we should applaud the courageous efforts of the many activists who are responsible for a new popular consciousness of violence against women, for a range of legal remedies, and for a network of shelters, crisis centers, and other sites where survivors are able to find support. But on the other hand, uncritical reliance on the government has resulted in serious problems.”

Later in her speech: “I should say that this is one of the most vexing issues confronting feminists today. On the one hand, it is necessary to create legal remedies for women who are survivors of violence. But on the other hand, when the remedies rely on punishment within institutions that further promote violence–against women and men–how do we work with this contradiction?”

Many attendees consider the conference to be pivotal in shaping the future of anti-violence resistance. Activists should be wary, however, of the potential for criticisms to be used by misogynists to dissuade women from exercising their right to police and legal protection. Women should not feel in any way pressured to forego their rights to equal protection under the law. Movements opposing hate crimes against men continue to call for stronger legal response and greater prison sentences, yet they are not being criticized for their reliance on protection by the state. Women have had a long-enough history of receiving “special” protection– translated as hidden violence with virtually no protection. Anything other than a single standard is further violence against women.

— Adriene Sere

(main sources: The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, and Colorlines, Fall 2000, Angela Davis, “The Color of Violence Against Women”)