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What Raising the Age of Sexual Consent Taught Women About the Vote

Before many women could vote in the United States, they lobbied male legislators to change statutory rape laws and gained political skills in the process

The age-of-consent campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s represent a vital yet little-known chapter in the history of suffrage. (Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Newspapers.com and the Granger Collection)
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The very first bill ever proposed by a female lawmaker in the United States came from Colorado state representative Carrie Clyde Holly in January 1895. Building on a decade of women’s activism, Holly’s ambitious legislation sought to raise the age of consent in the state to 21 years old. In 1890, the age at which girls could consent to sex was 12 or younger in 38 states. In Delaware, it was seven. Such statutes had consequences extending from the safety and wellbeing of young girls to women’s future place in society and their potential for upward mobility. To women reformers of various stripes—temperance advocates, labor leaders and suffragists—Holly and her historic bill symbolized what was possible when women gained a voice in politics: the right to one’s own body.

By petitioning legislators in dozens of states to revise statutory rape laws, these women forged interracial and cross-class collaborations and learned the political skills they’d later use to push for suffrage. Today, as the United States marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the impact of women in politics, and their fight to maintain their bodily autonomy, remain touchstones of the nation’s political conversation.

In the late 19th century, the prevalence of sexual assault and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compelled thousands of women to political action. Based on English Common Law dating back to the 1500s, American lawmakers had selected 10 or 12 as the age of consent to coincide with the onset of puberty, as if once a girl menstruated she was ready to have sex. Men accused of raping girls as young as 7 could (and did) simply say “she consented” to avoid prosecution. Reformers understood that once “ruined,” these young victims of assault could be forced into prostitution because no man would marry or hire a “fallen woman.”

Prostitution especially concerned wives and mothers because, before penicillin became widely available in 1945, syphilis and gonorrhea were more widespread than all other infectious diseases combined. Wives who unknowingly contracted STIs from their husbands could pass them on to their unborn children, resulting in miscarriages, fetal abnormalities, blindness, epilepsy and unsightly “syphilis teeth.” In most cases, women could not successfully sue for divorce, support themselves, or retain custody of their children if they did divorce. What they wanted was a way to hold men accountable for their actions and a semblance of control over what happened to their bodies and their children. Women believed that raising the age of consent for girls would diminish the number of working prostitutes and alleviate a host of social ills caused by the sexual double standard. They were partially right.

Most often, women worried about sexual violence, prostitution, and STIs joined the temperance movement because they believed that alcohol fueled abuse against women and children and because, unlike discussing sex, talking about alcohol didn’t breach societal taboos. In 1879, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was by far the largest women’s organization in the country. Over the next ten years, membership quadrupled and the WCTU counted chapters in nearly every community in the country. But despite their growing organizational strength, temperance advocates hadn’t yet achieved their goals of major legislative change. In addition to working to ban alcohol and bring the “moral force” of women to the public sphere, temperance groups led the crusade to raise the age sexual consent for girls.

This American movement drew inspiration from its counterpart in England. British purity reformers had succeeded in raising the age of consent to 13 in 1861, and the movement received international attention in 1885 after muckraking journalist William T. Stead went undercover in London’s brothels. Stead published a series of salacious articles, collectively titled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” in the Pall Mall Gazette detailing how London’s husbands and fathers paid top dollar to deflower child virgins in the city’s brothels. Within months, public outcry led Parliament to raise the age of consent to 16.

But change in the United States proved much more challenging. Following the success of the British campaign, the WCTU made raising the age of consent a top priority because, as the group’s long-term president Frances Willard remarked, “the Siamese twins of vice are strong drink and the degradation of women.” Confident that they were following in the path of Christ, these otherwise traditional, middle-class women were emboldened to discuss sex, albeit in veiled terms. Willard did not generally use words like “sex,” “rape,” or “syphilis” in front of male lawmakers or even in front of her female membership. Rather, she explained that “a wife must be the unquestioned arbiter of her own destiny” and the WCTU referred their efforts to curb sexual violence as “the promotion of purity.”

Between 1886 and 1900, the WCTU petitioned every state legislature in the country, garnering more than 50,000 signatures in Texas alone, and dispatched women to legislative sessions from coast to coast to demand that the age of consent be raised to 18. Many lawmakers rejected women’s presence in public affairs and further resented the unprecedented campaign to curtail white men’s sexual prerogatives. So they stone-walled WCTU members, inserted neutralizing or mocking language in their proposed bills, and occasionally outright banned women from their galleries. The few legislators who went on record in support of young ages of consent voiced sympathy for hypothetical men who would be ensnared into marriage by conniving girls who consented to sex and later threatened to press charges. Nevertheless, by 1890, the WCTU and their allies in the labor and populist movements had succeeded in raising the age of consent to 14 or 16 in several states. This marked significant progress, but women advocates still wanted to raise it to 18.

Reformers lamented the challenges of directing public attention to this ongoing outrage, especially when respectable women were not supposed to talk about sex. In 1895, Willard forged an unlikely alliance with the “freethinking” (atheist or agnostic) feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener, who made raising the age of consent her focus in the 1890s. Though hardly anyone—least of all Willard—knew it, Gardener herself was a “fallen woman” who had moved and changed her name when she was 23 after Ohio newspapers publicized her affair with a married man. Feeling constrained by nonfiction and the Comstock Laws (which prohibited the publication or transmission of any “obscene” material), Gardener turned to fiction to dramatize the dire consequences of sexual assault and spur a complacent public to action. After the publication of her two novels, Is This Your Son, My Lord? (1890) and Pray You Sir, Whose Daughter? (1892), Gardener became known as “The Harriet Beecher Stowe of Fallen Women.”

While Gardener and Willard disagreed on religion and temperance, they agreed that men and women should abide by the same standard of sexual behavior. Gardener vigorously opposed the efforts of several states to weaken their statutory rape laws by including clauses stipulating that the law only applied to girls who could prove that they had been virgins at the time of their assault.

In addition to her novels, Gardener used her position as an editor of the liberal Arena magazine to promote age-of-consent reform. She chronicled reformers’ efforts, included detailed legislative reports and vote tallies from every state, and even published a “black list” of states that had not yet raised the age of consent above 14. She directed readers to write the nearly 9,000 state legislators in the country to ask their position on the age of consent, and she sent copies of her novels to lawmakers in states where age-of-consent legislation was pending. By 1900, 32 states had raised the age to between 14 and 18.

But most Southern state legislatures refused to budge. For years, black women—including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Ida B. Wells—had called attention to the fact that white men used rape as a tool of white supremacy. For a brief period before 1900, white women worked together with African American women, mainly in the WCTU, to revise age of consent laws. Before they were disenfranchised and forced out of office after Reconstruction, African American male legislators in the South also advanced legislation to raise the age of consent.

White Southern lawmakers stridently opposed revised age-of-consent laws because they did not want black women to be able to charge white men with a crime. Kentucky state representative A. C. Tompkins went on record with his opposition, explaining, “We see at once what a terrible weapon for evil the elevating of the age of consent would be when placed in the hands of a lecherous, sensual negro woman,” insinuating that black women, who he claimed matured earlier and had a more sexual nature, would seduce men and then accuse them of assault. But, as the historian Leslie K. Dunlap has documented, white legislators did pass new rape laws that allowed for brutal punishments, including castration, because these laws targeted black men and were used to justify lynching and disenfranchisement. Thanks to the lobbying of the WCTU, most Southern states raised the age of consent to 13 or 14, but these laws fell far short of reformers’ goals, as they generally pertained only to white girls and those who could prove they were virgins at the time.

These uphill campaigns proved to the activists, many of whom had not before been ardent suffragists, that women needed the vote and a voice in the legislatures. As the pioneering physician Emily Blackwell noted, opponents of women’s suffrage insisted that “men are always ready to remove any proved injustice to [women]. Yet the fact remains that the first states to raise the age of consent to that of majority [18], were those in which women had a direct voice in politics–Wyoming and Kansas.” In the 1880s, many of the WCTU’s thousands of members had stopped short of demanding the vote. By the end of the century, however, the unified and vocal support of the WCTU helped transform women’s suffrage into a mainstream movement.

As the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) lead negotiator in Washington, Helen Hamilton Gardener went on to use the strategies she learned in lobbying to raise the age of consent to get the 19th Amendment through Congress: Apply pressure through the media, enlist legislators’ wives and daughters, build personal relationships with men in office and never underestimate the power of white Southern intransigence.

While the Colorado Senate would water down Rep. Holly’s bill (the final version raised the age to 18), NAWSA members celebrated this historic legislation at their annual meeting, and Susan B. Anthony sent Holly a warm letter of congratulations. Women then watched as this pattern of enfranchisement and new policies repeated itself in state after state. Two years after women gained the vote in California in 1911, for example, lawmakers raised the age of consent to 18 and increased prison sentences for rapists. The message was clear: Women voting meant women having a say over what happened to their bodies.

Suffrage organizations, smaller and eager to appear mainstream, were less likely than the WCTU to openly champion age-of-consent reform (though individual chapters did help with petition drives), but the rights to “self-ownership” and “voluntary motherhood” remained fundamental goals, as historians Lauren MacIvor Thompson and Heather Munro Prescott have shown. They believed that women voters would usher in a new age of politics in which the needs of women and children would be paramount. Unfortunately, suffragists never replicated the interracial coalition that had briefly worked together to raise the age of consent. Mainstream suffrage organizations, including NAWSA and the National Woman’s Party, discriminated against and cold-shouldered African American women, who worked for the vote through black women’s clubs, churches and civil rights organizations.

In the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, age-of-consent laws have remained on the books (all states now set the age between 16 and 18), although the internet, child marriage and other workarounds undermine these standards. Subsequent generations of activists have succeeded in criminalizing marital rape, moving conversations about sexual assault away from victim-blaming, and introducing the concept of sexual harassment into employment laws.

Women won the vote, but the sexual double standard that 19th-century women fought against still persists and may well be patriarchy’s last, best tool. The age-of-consent campaigns that brought thousands of women into reform work and, ultimately, suffrage activism, show what is possible when women work together across racial, economic and ideological lines. Gardener and her colleagues longed for the day when women would be recognized as “self-respecting, self-directing human units with brains and bodies sacredly their own,” and the #MeToo movement carries on this long tradition of activism today.

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