DAY ELEVEN: No it wasn’t different back then #1 – Researching rape in 20th century US

‘It wasn’t different back then’ Mara Keire illuminates how this ahistorical rhetoric enables justification of men’s sexually predatory behaviour. Her research on rape in 20th century US shows clearly the falsity of that excuse.

Mara Keire

Featured image: ‘The Little Butterfly’, credit: Library of Congress, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Defenders of men like movie producer Harvey Weinstein, architect Stanford White, actor Clark Gable, and director Roman Polanski rely on the argument that it was “different back then.”[1]  They use this specious ahistorical reasoning to justify predation. 

Studying the history of sexual violence serves three important purposes for me.  First, it provides the crucial evidence that “no, it was not different back then.”  Second, it illuminates the politics of power and networks of complicity that enable the ongoing oppression of women and children through sexual violence.  And finally, it allows historians to advocate for the victims they study. 

Learning about what people thought about rape at the time, seeing how victims and their supporters responded to attacks, and reading the commentary about legal cases large and small, provides a stark contrast to the representation of a sexually laissez-faire world where anything men did met with social acceptance. 

My work on sexual violence in early 20th century New York provides concrete evidence refuting the assertion that it was “different back then.” I hope that it will help anti-violence activists change this narrative exonerating predators for assaults that were not acceptable then and are not justifiable now. Studying the history of sexual violence also serves to obliterate the idea that rapists are solitary “bad apples.” Instead, researchers can uncover the networks of complicity that reinforce male power. 

Most recently, we’ve heard Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, and Maggie Nichols testify how they reported Larry Nasser to everyone who they hoped would listen from US Gymnastics to the FBI, but no one acted.  Larry Nasser continued his predation because authorities thought a quack medical doctor was more important than elite young gymnasts.[2] 

While in the present day we need to unravel these networks of power in real time, as historians we can show them whole cloth.

For example, when Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson kidnapped and raped Madge Olberholtzer in 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had already known about his predatory behaviour toward women for years, but they had done nothing to stop him because he was a popular leader and useful to the organisation.  After Olberholtzer died from her injuries, the Klan repudiated him. But Stephenson’s trial for murder and the subsequent revelations illustrated to a chilling degree how male sexual entitlement worked and the degree to which the people around him catered to and covered up his violence toward women. [3] Exposing the networks of complicity in the past shatters the myth of individual bad actors in present day cases.

Refuting the contradictory myths that rapists are either misguided men of their time or solitary monsters makes studying the history of sexual violence a necessary venture. However, I find that advocating for the once discredited victims is the most fulfilling part when writing this history. I chose to research rape because of my present-day activism fighting women’s oppression. I am not objective. I am emotionally involved. I care deeply about the girls and women about whom I write. I am one of them. As a survivor, I have the unparalleled opportunity to believe my ancestors in trauma. 

Author’s Bio:

Mara Keire is a Senior Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford.  She is currently writing a book called Under the Boardwalk: Rape in New York City, 1900-1930.  You can find her far too often on twitter at @MaraKeire


[1] Weinstein – Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” The New York Times (5 October 2017): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html

Stanford White – Paul R. Baker, Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1989), ix-xi.

Clark Gable – Lou Lumenick, “We’ll never really know if Clark Gable actually date-raped Loretta Young,” New York Post (13 July 2015): https://nypost.com/2015/07/13/well-never-really-know-if-clark-gable-actually-date-raped-loretta-young/

Polanski – Michael Cieply, “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Today,” (10 October 2009): https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/movies/11polanski.html

All accessed 26 October 2021

[2] McKenzie Jean-Philippe, “Simone Biles, Aly Raisman Bravely Testify Against the FBI’s Handling of the Larry Nassar Case,” Oprah Daily, 15 September 2021: https://www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a37610818/simone-biles-aly-raisman-testify-larry-nassar-hearing/ (accessed 25 October 2021).

[3] Mara Keire, “#MeToo, Networks of Complicity, and the 1920s Klan,” Process: a blog for American history (24 January 2019): http://www.processhistory.org/keire-networks/ (accessed 26 October 2021).

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