Rage Before Race

How Feminists Faltered on the Central Park Jogger Case

Yet some women who felt they could have been the mothers, sisters, or cousins of the Central Park defendants felt pressure from two sides. Like all women, they were intimate with the fear of being attacked, but this country's haunting history of stringing up black men for alleged rapes of white women was a nagging reality. They worried if the next time their sons were too boisterous they might be rounded up for some heinous crime. And at the same time, they fought those who would overlook the needs of the victim.

"There was a whole different tone with this case than with the [Robert] Chambers case. He was the preppie rapist as opposed to 'wilder.' But you don't have genteel rape," says author Julianne Malveaux. "I think the main thing for many people of color was to put this crime in context. I don't think there was enough concern about the race to judgment." But, according Crenshaw, women who stood in both camps "didn't make good copy." In their "private spaces" the "response among women ran the gamut." Certainly many feminists of color, and white activists, demanded that the two issues not be mutually exclusive, including Gloria Steinem.

Leader accuses the media of creating the race/gender divide. And the media did indeed keep the focus on this educated, well-employed, white victim of rape. When Anna Quindlen said, "This is about gender. . . . They killed this woman, except that her heart is still beating," she hit a nerve. But the greatest damage done by the hysteria was probably the simple assumption on the part of so many that the system had found the right culprits.

Alex Leader, Executive Director, NOW NYC
photo: Tania Savayan
Alex Leader, Executive Director, NOW NYC

Though some feminists certainly might not stand behind Brownmiller's remarks today, clearly few have stepped up with their own. Calls to offices and agents for dozens of prominent feminists from Naomi Wolf to Michele Wallace yielded few returns.

The lack of willingness to approach this particular case, according to Malveaux, is a result of the failure of the women's movement to confront race. Crenshaw says the paralyzing terror Baumgardner described is also a reason it is so hard to build "an inclusive anti-rape movement."

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