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  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
      Author (Review)
      • Barnes, Liz
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Feinstein, Rachel A.
      When Rape Was Legal
      The Untold History of Sexual Violence During Slavery
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      New York and London
      New critical viewpoints on society series
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      Gender Studies, Legal History, Social and Cultural History
      Time classification
      Modern age until 1900 → 19th century
      Regional classification
      America → North America → USA
      Subject headings
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Rachel A. Feinstein: When Rape Was Legal. The Untold History of Sexual Violence During Slavery (reviewed by Liz Barnes)

In this concise monograph, Rachel Feinstein explores the centrality of sexual violence against enslaved women in the formation of white gendered identities. Using a variety of theoretical lenses, including intersectionality and systemic racism theory, Feinstein places racist sexual violence into its broader context, tracing the legacies of such violence in today’s behaviour and discourse. This book will prove especially useful to students, particularly for the way in which Feinstein has skilfully summarised a fairly large body of literature (the story of sexual violence and slavery is not, as Feinstein’s title states, an untold one). For other scholars, Feinstein’s most valuable contribution is her concept of the intergenerational transmission of white gender norms, a concept which she devotes her entire third chapter to.

In Feinstein’s first chapter, she provides an introduction to the challenges of studying sexual violence and slavery in the United States, as well as outlining the theoretical frameworks that she employs. Feinstein summarises the key issues for scholars trying to analyse sexual violence during slavery: the lack of legal recognition of the rape of black women and the associated dearth of sources; the evolving definition of ‘rape’ and associated crimes; and the inadequacy of early scholarship in uncovering problems of gendered and sexual violence. Here, Feinstein is unfair to the field of US history, stating that ‘many historians today use language that minimizes the rape of black women and white men’s responsibility in the perpetration of this violence’ (p. 5). Thanks to path-breaking historical and theoretical work in the last few decades, work primarily done by African-American women, very few historians today frame sexual relations between enslaved women and white men as consensual; when they do, they certainly do not go unchallenged. Feinstein’s outline of her theoretical approach is stronger than her historiographical summary, however, and she excels in synthesising a wide array of approaches here into one that suits her purpose. It is in this section that Feinstein makes her focus clear: the role of sexual violence against black women in the formation of white masculinity and femininity.

In her second chapter, Feinstein summarises the nature of sexual violence during slavery, and explores the ways in which enslaved men and women resisted such violence. Feinstein establishes that rape was used as a tool to both force enslaved women into submission and to further the profit of slaveholders through breeding. The author also argues that, on slave ships and on plantations, the rape of enslaved women was a performance of white masculinity. Here, Feinstein makes an interesting point about the social aspect of sexual violence for white men, analysing an example of group sexual assault. Although this is an important point, Feinstein is clearly limited by the source base. Moving beyond the antebellum period and exploring sexual violence in the Reconstruction period would have added weight to this argument: as Lisa Cardyn has argued, group sexual attacks by the Ku Klux Klan were a central tool of racial oppression and of white identity expression in the immediate aftermath of emancipation.(1) In her exploration of resistance to sexual violence, Feinstein focuses on the counter-framing of sexual violence by enslaved men and women. Through analysing the testimonies of enslaved people, Feinstein highlights assertions of equality, bodily autonomy, and rights, counter to white stereotyping of black Americans as consenting, hypersexual, and deserving of violence.

Feinstein’s third chapter contains her most valuable contribution, the concept of intergenerational transmission of white gender norms. In this chapter, Feinstein highlights incidents of rape perpetrated by white fathers and sons together, and cases of fathers actively encouraging their sons to rape enslaved women. The loss of virginity was central to white manhood, Feinstein argues, and through encouraging their sons to seek enslaved sexual partners, white parents shielded white women from improper sexual behaviour while enabling their sons to demonstrate their masculinity. Feinstein argues that the rape of enslaved women by white men upheld both racism and sexism, demonstrating white superiority over African Americans and white male control of white women’s sexuality. Feinstein once again includes performativity in her analysis here, highlighting the purchase of black women to serve as sexual slaves as a public demonstration of white male dominance through sexual violence, although she stretches the evidence: Feinstein’s reliance on evidence from an abolitionist text, and from New Orleans (which cannot be considered representative of the South as a whole) leads to a suggestion that buying enslaved women for sexual purposes was widespread, a conclusion which simply cannot be drawn solely from these documents. Most importantly, in this chapter Feinstein outlines the role that white mothers played in encouraging their sons to rape enslaved women as a rite of passage. It was not only white fathers who were involved in the intergenerational transmission of white gender norms, but mothers too, who prioritised their racial superiority over their interests as women. Here, Feinstein skilfully broadens out her analysis, separating her framing from socialisation through emphasising the wider implications that intergenerational transmission had in a larger system of oppression. Feinstein argues that this transmission of white masculinity, much like the transmission of wealth (the framing which has inspired her analysis of sexual violence during slavery) survives in the present day in a slightly altered form. White parents still transmit ideas of white superiority to their children, and the associated entitlement to the use of non-white bodies for their own benefit.

In the fourth chapter, Feinstein goes into further depth about the role of white women in sexual violence against enslaved women. Specifically, Feinstein analyses the failure of white women to oppose the violence perpetrated by their husbands, exploring their position within a matrix of racial and gendered oppression. Feinstein focuses on the ways in which sexism worked to silence white women, highlighting the economic dependence they had upon their husbands, and class and social pressures that slaveholding women faced. What Feinstein does not emphasise so much here is the ways in which white women directly benefitted both from their whiteness and the institution of slavery itself, something which much recent scholarship about slaveholding women has focused on.(2) Feinstein goes on to analyse instances in which white women did resist white men’s sexual abuse of black women. Here, she highlights that in such cases white women rarely objected on behalf of victimised black women, but instead emphasised the ways that white men’s behaviour degraded white women, and the evils of racial amalgamation. Feinstein’s broader point, however, that white women’s failure to resist their husband’s sexual violence against black women only upheld the oppression of white women, is a valid and important one. This analysis is perhaps the inevitable result of focusing on white women’s responses to sexual violence, an issue in which the disapproval of white women is clear (even if they did not consider their husbands’ behaviour to be rape, they were nevertheless wives with unfaithful husbands). By considering slaveholding women’s behaviour more broadly, however, Feinstein’s argument loses some of its weight: white women clearly and repeatedly prioritised the power that their whiteness granted them above any attempts to find any shared interests with black women.(3) While, as Feinstein argues, this could be a result of their relatively weak social position and of ‘white sexism’ (p. 53), the centrality of race does need to be considered more fully in her analysis, especially given white women’s continued social and political behaviour in the present day.

Feinstein’s subsequent chapter extends her analysis of white women, focusing on the language of divorce petitions. Specifically, Feinstein highlights divorce cases in which women explicitly referred to sexual relationships between their husbands and enslaved women as grounds for divorce. Convincingly here, Feinstein establishes the restrictions imposed on the language of such women: in order to ensure success for themselves, they had to uphold racial, gendered, and societal conventions in their divorce petitions. Feinstein adds, however, that the women in the cases also simply did not see their husbands’ behaviour as rape, instead centring themselves in narratives of victimhood. She points out that the language that these women used portrayed black women in ways that were familiar to whites: as hypersexual and consenting ‘wenches’ (p. 74) intruding into the marriages of whites. Feinstein concludes that, through these petitions, although many white women were able to escape abusive or unhappy marriages, in doing so they upheld their own inferior status and the subordination of black women. Her argument here is reminiscent of Deniz Kandiyoti’s ‘patriarchal bargain’, and the close focus of this chapter is much more effective than the previous one in locating white women within intersecting relationship of power and subordination.(4)

In her concluding chapter, Feinstein explores the ongoing problem of racial and sexual violence in modern America. Opening with problems universal to all women — specifically high rates of sexual victimhood and low conviction rates for sexual offenders — Feinstein then highlights the particular vulnerability of black women to sexual violence. Feinstein also analyses the survival of racist stereotyping of black women’s sexuality, and the continuing use of sexual violence by men as a performance of masculinity. Crucially, Feinstein also explores the ongoing othering of black women by white women, especially in incidents of sexual abuse. Here, she highlights the allure of power for white women, who can exercise their dominance in limited ways in a sexist world. Exerting authority over subordinated racial groups is one way for white women to seize power, and one which Feinstein argues serves to uphold the power of heterosexual white men. This chapter draws from a variety of studies to establish links between slavery and current issues of racism and sexism. Going even further, and tracing the evolution of those issues over time (the role of white women in lynching and in anti-Civil Rights campaigns, for example) would have added valuable context to this chapter, and strengthened Feinstein’s already fascinating analysis here.

Rachel Feinstein has written a concise, thoughtful, and interesting analysis of sexual violence and slavery. By drawing on and summarising the work of a wide range of scholars, Feinstein has created a fantastic foundation for future students and scholars to build on. Feinstein should be especially commended on her use of various theoretical approaches to illuminate the intersecting power dynamics involved in sexual violence and responses to it during slavery. Her most important contribution here is the idea of intergenerational transmission of white gender norms, which will prove a useful tool for future scholars, especially of racism and white masculinity. In places, Feinstein does stretch the evidence, however, drawing fairly broad conclusions from only one or two examples. Her approach to white slaveholding women does not account for recent shifts in the scholarship, which tends to emphasise the impact of sexism on white women over their investment in white supremacy. The title of this monograph too, although effective, does diminish the work that several generations of scholars, primarily African-American women, have done to highlight the role that sexual violence played in the oppression of black women under slavery. Although, admittedly, there has not yet been a monograph published on the history of sexual violence and slavery by an historian, this does not mean the story has been left untold. Overall, however, Feinstein skilfully demonstrates the value of taking various theoretical approaches to the past, and her work will surely spark debate across disciplinary boundaries.


(1) Lisa Cardyn, ‘Sexualized racism/gendered violence: outraging the body politic in the Reconstruction South’, Michigan Law Review, 100, 4 (2002), 675-867, 730.

(2) Stephanie E Jones-Rodgers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT, and London, 2019)

(3) Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: the Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge and New York, NY, 2008).

(4) Deniz Kandiyoti, ‘Bargaining with patriarchy,’ Gender and Society, 2, 3 (1988), 274-90.

The author is happy to accept this review and does not wish to comment further.