By Jo Reger
It seems like a hard sell to convince academics to spend some of their “free” time in the summer reading books that center on the sexual assault of women and children. Yet, I find myself attempting this because of my certainty in quality of these two books; Danielle McGuire’s beautifully written At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance (2010, Random House) and Nancy Whittier’s incredibly intelligent The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotions, Social Movements and the State (2009, Oxford). Note: I have met Danielle McGuire and I am friends with my graduate school colleague Nancy Whittier. So while I have connected with these authors personally, my goal here is to focus on the intellectual and emotional connection I have with each of their books (knowing them personally is just an added benefit).
So why should you read these books? First, taken together they underscore the importance and often overlooked issue of sexual assault in the study of movements. McGuire, a historian, retells the story of the origins of the civil rights movements through the epidemic of rapes of black women. Starting with anti-rape activism of Rosa Parks, McGuire tells a compelling and sometimes horrifyingly detailed story of the rapes, assaults, and murders of black women in a time when it was “open season” for white men to go “hunting.” Starting (and ending) with the story of Recy Taylor, McGuire carefully traces these cases and the grassroots organizing that sprung up around them, eventually coalescing in an infrastructure that carried the movement forward.
Whittier, a sociologist, starts in a different place and a time and examines the origins, growth and development of the movement to address child sexual abuse. She takes us through the days when sexual relations between adults and children were seen as the result of the child’s provocative behavior to the growth of the women’s movement to the intertwining of the issue and activism with the state. Overall, Whittier carefully traces how feminists created space for the telling of child sexual abuse stories and slowly built a movement that brought the issue into the societal eye, moving children’s sexual assault into a social problem addressed in a multitude of ways, some effectual and others not so.
But there is more here than the documenting of a social problem into a social movement. To me, the core of these books is the way in which they show how the infrastructure of a movement is built, often in unplanned and unpredictable ways. McGuire documents how the arrests and court cases following these rapes bit by bit built a network of activists and organizations that coalesced when the time was right into full blown community activism. For example, she shows how the Montgomery bus boycott had its roots in the networks of women, many of them brought into contact through petitions and protests around rape cases. She also refuses to let us forget that women’s organizing was the catalyst for the boycott and the molestation and threat of sexual assault was just as relevant as the discriminatory seating on the bus. While McGuire’s tracing of the infrastructure of the civil rights movement is often understated, Whittier clearly sets out to show how discussions and group consciousness raising sessions about child sexual abuse in the 1970s became the legislated, legal social issue of the 1990s. However, Whittier does more than show the women’s movement’s gains in policy; she goes beyond those victories to examine how the movement interacted with the state and how the movement gained and lost from those interactions. While McGuire is the historian of the two, Whittier’s analysis is equally historical, constructing on a detailed history that combines sociological insights to illustrate how social change happens but not always as social movement activists want.
I would also argue that both of these books serve as reminders of the importance of “everyday” experiences of oppression and how those experiences bubble up into activism. By focusing on these everyday incidences of rape and assault, both authors capture the bravery of what Whittier calls “bearing witness” and the social change that happens as a result. As I write this, I am struck by the parallel of the contemporary visibility in campus organizing around sexual assault and the response of the state to address activists’ concerns. (You know you are reading good sociology when you watch the news and think of the authors’ analyses.)
And though social movement theorists started to beat this drum a couple of decades ago, both books remind us the importance of locating the women in movements who often serve as the unheralded leaders of collective organizing which profoundly changes all our lives. Whittier labels this change a “revolution in attitudes,” a phrase that stands for McGuire’s work as well.
Finally, I would also suggest that these works serve as models of writing, particularly for graduate students searching for their own academic voice. McGuire takes on the task of telling a horrifying tale in a compelling and meaningful way that allows the reader to connect (and keep reading). My undergraduate students marvel over the McGuire’s prose and some even read ahead, caught up in the compelling narrative. Whittier’s style is more academically formal but she presents both a sophisticated analysis as well as an accessible read.
So my suggestions are not exactly “beach reads” but they are two books that will make the reader a better social movement scholar, analyst and a writer. Who could pass that opportunity up?