(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Against Our Will appeared early in the examination of rape by the women’s movement as a political as well as a personal event. The book’s focus on a historically “unspeakable” topic invited immediate controversy. Its unapologetically extreme assertion that rape involves every member of a society, not simply men who rape and women who are raped, heated the controversy to a flashpoint. Almost every review of the work quoted the inflammatory statement that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” As might be expected with such an emotionally charged topic that by its nature is understood differently by male and female audiences, reviews were extremely mixed. Nevertheless, the book became a best- seller, was listed as one of the outstanding books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, was serialized in four magazines, and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Brownmiller was named one of Time magazine’s twelve Women of the Year. These tokens of recognition show that the book had a profound impact on social awareness of the meaning and consequences of rape.

The book became part of a movement to protect the dignity and rights of victims of rape, who have historically been treated with mistrust and insensitivity by the law and male-dominated law- enforcement institutions. It also supported the feminist trend toward valuing the physical empowerment of women through training in self-defense and competitive sports. It raised awareness that the pleasant passivity that women are trained to adopt is not simply a psychological problem—it trains them to be rape victims by encouraging them to be polite, quiet, and cooperative in the face of male violence. The book also contributed to the feminist attack on pornography and prostitution, which Brownmiller interprets as cultural institutions promoting the belief that men own the rights to women’s bodies, a belief that Brownmiller finds to be the basis of rape.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Susan Brownmiller was one of the first politically active feminists in New York City during the 1960’s. Her interest in women’s rights surfaced in much of her work as a free-lance journalist, and an article that she wrote about Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman, developed into a biography for young readers. In 1971, Brownmiller helped to organize a “Speak-Out on Rape,” and in the process she realized that she had material for a book. She submitted an outline of her idea to Simon & Schuster and began researching the subject of rape. After four years of research and writing, she published Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.

Against Our Will explores the history of rape, exploding the myths that, according to the author, influence one’s perspective on the act. She traces the political use of rape in war from biblical times through the Vietnam War, explains the origins of American rape laws, and examines the subjects of interracial rape, homosexual rape, and child molestation. Brownmiller asserts that rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. Supporting her thesis with facts taken from her extensive research in history, literature, sociology, law, psychoanalysis, mythology, and criminology, Brownmiller argues that rape is not a sexual act but an act of power based on an anatomical fact; it is the result of early man’s realization that women could be subjected to a thoroughly detestable physical conquest from which there could be no retaliation in kind.

Against Our Will was serialized in four magazines and became a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, and its nationwide tour made Brownmiller a celebrity. Her appearance on the cover of Time magazine on January 5, 1976, as one of the twelve Women of the Year for 1975 and on television talk shows as a frequent guest confirmed the timeliness of her book. Since Brownmiller’s analysis of rape presented a new and controversial viewpoint on an already provocative subject, Against Our Will was received with mixed and at times passionate reviews, some of which were critical of Brownmiller’s research methods and conclusions.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Against Our Will was an important work in the history of women’s issues for its impact in the press and as a best-seller. It sparked public debate on the problem of rape and the male ideology of domination that Brownmiller argues surrounds the act. The book was of value to feminism for the research that the author marshalled in making her claims about women’s victimization and for the support that it gave to feminists who were convinced of vital causal connections between pornography and violence against women. For many readers, Brownmiller’s work forced them to make connections about social problems that had been too long evaded, and it changed the way that many felt about a subject that had been too long taken for granted—relations between the sexes. Against Our Will was listed among the outstanding books of the year by The New York Times Book Review in 1975.

Brownmiller’s next book, Femininity (1984), is less confrontational in tone than Against Our Will, but it still provoked mixed reactions. Femininity examines the ideal qualities—both physical and emotional—that are generally considered feminine and the lengths to which women go to conform to those ideals. Brownmiller’s work Waverly Place (1989) is a fictionalized account of a New York attorney and his lover who were accused during the late 1980’s of beating to death their illegally adopted daughter; a feminist understanding of battery and abuse informs the author’s treatment of the case.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Groth, A. Nicholas. Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender. New York: Plenum Press, 1979. This book examines the psychological and emotional factors that predispose a man to react to situational and life events with sexual violence. Provides a framework for understanding the developmental histories, the lifestyles, and the motivations of men who rape.

Nass, Deanna R., ed. The Rape Victim. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1977. A collection of articles focused on the problems faced by the rape victim and articles dealing with the therapeutic response to this trauma. The psychological pain experienced by the rape victim arises not only from the event itself but also from societal factors that intensify her suffering.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. New York: New York University Press, 1990. A study of sexual practices on college campuses that explores the role played by pornography, male bonding, degrading jokes, and ritual dances in the gang rape of women at fraternity parties.

Walker, Marcia J., and Stanley L. Brodsky, eds. Sexual Assault: The Victim and the Rapist. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1976. A collection of articles assessing rape and the criminal justice system, the impact of rape at different stages in the victim’s life cycle, rape at work, medical treatment for the victim, the history of the women’s movement in changing attitudes and laws, myths and realities about the rapist in treatment, and rape and race.

Warshaw, Robin. I Never Called It Rape. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. This book combines survey results and scholarly perspectives with first-person accounts to explain what date rape is, how it happens, and how it has remained a hidden crime for so long. Warshaw explores the magnitude of the problem, the attitudes of men who rape women they know, and the devastating aftereffects.