Finally, we know why sexual harassment happens! Peggy Noonan and an unnamed “aging Catholic priest” she quotes secondhand in her latest column seem to believe that harassment is a product of the sexual revolution, and especially of the availability of contraception and abortion. “Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other,” Noonan wrote on Nov. 23 in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. “Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of weight. They’ll be more able to rationalize. It’s only petty theft, a pack of chewing gum on the counter, and I took it.”
Unfortunately, Noonan isn’t the only conservative to point to the sexual revolution (and, implicitly, the feminists who successfully lobbied to make birth control and divorce more widely available) as the genesis of sexual harassment. At the Advocate, Trudy Ring rounds up links to several right-wing commentators who’ve made this argument since the Harvey Weinstein accusations went public; more recently, in Crisis magazine, Stephen Baskerville wrote an editorial headlined “The Sexual Revolution Turns Ugly.” Don’t forget White House Chief of Staff John Kelly saying that “women were sacred, looked upon with great honor” while he was “growing up,” and that this is “obviously not the case anymore, as we’ve seen from recent cases.”
It’s almost too easy to show the receipts that prove that sexual harassment and abuse are as old as the hills. That’s because, in the four or five decades since the project of writing women’s history began in earnest, historians working within this subfield have made this point over and over again: The harassment and assault of women has existed pretty much as long as there have been women. But, their work argues, protection from these evils has long been much harder to come by if you weren’t well-to-do, white, and married. It’s that part of the picture—the relationship between sexual harassment and other systems of social power—that makes this history so impossible for the conservatives scapegoating the sexual revolution to see.
Poverty has been one risk factor. Looking at the rape accusations that made it to courts in 17th-century Virginia, historian Kathleen M. Brown found instances in which landowners and fellow workers were brought up on charges of raping their female indentured servants. “The fragmentary extant evidence from the county court records suggests that very few white women successfully convicted white men of rape,” Brown writes. That’s because the complainants were employed by much wealthier and more powerful men; as female servants in the colony, their social standing was perilously shaky. It’s amazing that any of these women accused their rapists at all. At least one man charged with raping two servants was “not only acquitted but awarded extra time from the women as their punishment for accusing him.”
Being anything but white has also made women vulnerable. As Brown writes, in colonial Virginia, black women were “excluded from the constructs of white female sexual honor.” Black women accusing men of rape didn’t even appear in the court records Brown looked at until much later—because, as she observed, in colonial Virginia, when it came to the rape of an enslaved women, “no man was recognized as being injured by the offense.” Indeed, far from being injured by it, the much-pined-for patriarchal system of the antebellum South thrived on the everyday abuse and rape of black women.
Nor did this history come to an end when slavery did. Danielle McGuire chronicled cases of the rape of black women in the Jim Crow South, writing that in that time and place, “rape, like lynching and murder, served as a tool of psychological and physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy.” In looking at contemporary sources and interviewing women who had been part of the civil rights movement, McGuire found that sexual harassment and assault were common for black women in the midcentury South. “Nearly all” of the women McGuire interviewed “testified about being sexually abused or intimidated by white men—particularly bus drivers, police officers, and employers.” These experiences often spurred the women she spoke with to civil rights activism.
The long history of abuse of women of color, and those who were immigrants or working class, is enough to disprove the notion that sexual harassment was a product of the sexual revolution. But being a white woman didn’t keep you completely safe, either. Writing about the Peggy Noonan op-ed on the blog Nursing Clio, historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson mentions the case of Abigail Abbot Bailey, an 18th-century farm wife in New Hampshire who bore 14 children. This is the kind of pioneer marriage that conservatives love to fetishize: Just a man, a woman, and their rocky tract of land! But Abigail’s husband, Asa Bailey, repeatedly harassed and raped women who worked on their farm. He also beat Abigail. For years (decades!), Abigail Bailey, a deeply religious woman, suffered through his behavior, seeing it as a trial of her fortitude, obedience, and belief in God. But after he raped their teenage daughter, Abigail finally got a divorce, despite the severe consequences of such a choice at that time and place.
The point is not that Asa Bailey was a bad man (though he certainly was). It’s that the structures of the Baileys’ society—legal, cultural, religious—all worked together to trap Abigail Bailey in hell, just as the Jim Crow South victimized the women Danielle McGuire interviewed, and colonial Virginia made it extremely unsafe to be a female servant. Pedestals, keeping women safe from men’s desires, existed in all these times and places. It’s just that most women weren’t on them.
This is the problem with a conservative view of history that insists on seeing “the past” as a wholly desirable place. In order to yearn for the old order, you have to imagine yourself the winner of the game: the slaveholder, the patriarch, the robber baron, even simply the (white) woman who lucks into marrying a wealthy, kind, handsome husband who has the courtesy to stay alive until she dies. Because they identify so strongly with such winners, many conservatives don’t like what they call “revisionist history,” which pays attention to the marginalized, disempowered, and unlucky. (All good history is “revisionist,” but I digress.)
The problems with a focus on the history of winners go deep. If you refuse to see how the disadvantaged have fared, you’ll never fully understand how the system worked. This long, hard autumn of #MeToo, comments like Peggy Noonan’s have me believing this blindness is intentional.