The conviction last week by a Utah jury of the man who kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002, forced her into a “celestial marriage” and raped her over a period of nine months has been depicted as a victory for one courageous young woman and for the federal justice system. It is both of those things, but it is also a victory for 40 years of secular feminism, which singlehandedly brought about a vast change in public and legal attitudes toward rape in the second half of the twentieth century. Four decades ago, it is highly unlikely that this case would ever have come to trial. Had Smart been found, and returned alive to her devout Mormon family, it is unlikely that she would ever have been heard from again in public. She would have been shrouded by the shame and silence that were the lot of nearly all rape victims not centuries ago, but in my lifetime.
“I hope that not only is this an example that justice can be served in America,” Smart, now 23, said after the verdict was rendered, “but that it is possible that people can move on after something terrible has happened. We can speak out and we will be heard.” I don’t know if Smart knows this, but she owes a debt to those feminists–who were more often than not scorned for being rabid man-haters–who made it possible for her to be heard and taken seriously. In order to do that, feminism had to undermine the millennia-old assumptions, promulgated by all western religions (including Smart’s Mormon faith) about unchaste women being responsible for the sexual violence inflicted on them.
Elizabeth Smart addresses the media outside the federal court house following the guilty verdict in the Brian David Mitchell trail Friday, Dec. 10 2010 in Salt Lake City. Mitchell was found guilty for the June 5, 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. AP Photo/Colin E Braley.
As Susan Brownmiller pointed out in her pioneering 1975 work, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, the standard jury instructions in rape cases in many states at that time were followed by the admonition, “…the law requires that you examine the testimony of the female person named in the information with caution.” Not the male person. Just the “female person.” These instructions were based on the famous comment by the 17th-century English jurist Matthew Hale that “rape is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.” (As Brownmiller notes, stranger rapes of white women by black men, particularly in the South, were the main exception to the “blame the victim” tenor of so many rape cases in the United States.)
My guess is, in the unlikely event that a young woman of Elizabeth Smart’s background would have been willing to testify to her own rapes 40 years ago, that she would have been questioned endlessly about why she didn’t try to get away from her captor. The trial would have been turned into an examination of why a 14-year-old girl–taken from her bed in the middle of the night, raped and chained on the first day, and told that if she tried to escape, she and her family would be killed–failed to “resist.”
As things are today, the defense had to resort to an insanity plea–which the jury didn’t buy. The jurors agreed with the prosecution’s view of the defendant, Brian David Mitchell, as a narcissist who used religious justifications for his acts. “The defendant’s professed beliefs are highly consistent with fundamental [sic] extremists on what we might call the Mormon fringe–the belief that polygamy needs to be restored,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Hagen said during her closing argument. “This is the environment in which Brian David Mitchell became immersed in the early 1990s.”
Those connected with the official Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, which abandoned polygamy in 1896 in return for the admission of Utah to the Union, were extremely anxious to see Mitchell convicted, because the mainstream Mormon church wants to do everything possible to distance its own polygamous heritage from the plural marriages practiced by breakaway sects today. It was somewhat ironic to hear a defense based on the assertion that the founding religious beliefs of the Mormons now amount to insanity.
Smart also testified that she felt “marked” because of what had been done to her. “I wasn’t the same, My personal value had dropped. I was nothing. Another person could never love me. I felt like I had a burden to carry around with me the rest of my life.” This sense of personal devaluation was recounted over and over again, by victims of all ages, at rape “speakouts” in the early 1970s. In some instances, the women I heard at these sessions had indeed carried a burden of shame for a lifetime; some were in their 70s and 80s.
Feminism originated as a secular movement because its view of women as human beings with human rights and human responsibilities commensurate with those of men was long denounced by established churches (and is still disputed in many religious communities). Religious feminists who have pushed their denominations for change were responding to the spirit of secular feminism, and that is the main reason why anti-feminism played such an important role in the rise of the religious right during the late 1970s and 1980s. What has always been the basis of the orthodox religious view of women–whether the specific issue is the role of women outside the home or the entrance of women into the clergy–is the conviction that females were put on this earth by a divine creator to serve the needs of and submit themselves to men. When the issue is rape, subordination to superior power is not a metaphorical but a literal reality.
It is, I think, a measure of the success of feminism–as well as the fleeting nature of historical memory–that no one has commented on the long-term role of the women’s movement in making it possible to convict Ellizabeth Smart’s assailant. Female federal prosecutors, a young woman telling her story in searing detail, and a jury of men and women who believed what the victim said are no longer startling. This is a good thing, but secularists, at least, should, pause to acknowledge a debt to the secular feminists of the 1970s who changed the climate of opinion about rape.
In the Smart case, of course, there was overwhelming evidence that the defendant did kidnap and rape Elizabeth Smart. All the defense could do was resort to the argument that the Mitchell’s religious insanity made him do it. If delusional religious belief is a legitimate basis for an insanity defense, a large share of the world’s criminals could never be convicted of any heinous act.