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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 Inthe age at which girls could consent to sex was 12 or younger in 38 states. In Delaware, it was seven. 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 s, American lawmakers had selected 10 or 12 as the age of consent to coincide with the onset of pubertyas if once a girl menstruated she was ready to have sex.
Prostitution especially concerned wives and mothers because, before penicillin became widely available insyphilis and gonorrhea were more widespread than all other infectious diseases combined. What they wanted was a way to hold men able 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 of working prostitutes and alleviate a host of social ills caused by the sexual double standard.
They were partially right. Over the next ten years, membership quadrupled and the WCTU counted chapters in nearly every community in the country.
This American movement drew inspiration from its counterpart in England. British purity reformers had succeeded in raising the age of consent to 13 inand the movement received international attention in after muckraking journalist William T. Within months, public outcry led Parliament to raise the age of consent to But change in the United States proved much more challenging.
Between andthe WCTU petitioned every state legislature in the country, garnering more than 50, atures in Texas alone, and dispatched women to legislative sessions from coast to coast to demand that the age of consent be raised to 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, bythe 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.
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This marked ificant progress, but women advocates still wanted to raise it to Reformers lamented the challenges of directing public attention to this ongoing outrage, especially when respectable women were not supposed to talk about sex. 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 directed readers to write the nearly 9, 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.
By32 states had raised the age to between 14 and But most Southern state legislatures refused to budge. Wells—had called attention to the fact that white men used rape as a tool of white supremacy. For a brief period beforewhite 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. But, as the historian Leslie K. Dunlap has documentedwhite 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. 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.
Yet the fact remains that the first states to raise the age of consent to that of majority , were those in which women had a direct voice in politics—Wyoming and Kansas. While the Colorado Senate would water down Rep. 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.
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Two years after women gained the vote in California infor 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. 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.
In the 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 18although 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. 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.
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