Skip to content Skip to navigation

How Women’s Oral History Collections Reveal the “Silent” History of Sexual Violence

head shot of freedman

Estelle Freedman

Dec 17 2019

In the last decade, increasing numbers of women have spoken out about sexual violence in public forums. As a historian, Estelle Freedman, a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow and the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, wanted to know how often women had vocalized their experiences of sexual violence in the past. “Do we assume silence until these [contemporary] movements?” Freedman asked. “What about in interviews, did women talk about sexual violence in narratives and if so, what language did they use? What meanings did they attribute to it? And how did those terms and meanings change over time and by demographic groups, regions, and other categories?” Freedman presented about her project at a recent Clayman Institute lunch event for faculty research fellows.

In her book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, Freedman used a broad array of late 19th and early 20th century newspaper sources and legal cases to study several movements that transformed the meaning of sexual violence and expanded definitions of who could be a victim and who an assailant. In her current research, Freedman explores new methodological approaches to the history of sexual violence. Examining interview transcripts housed by dozens of women’s oral history projects, Freedman asks: “What can the analysis of digitized women’s oral histories contribute to our understandings of the history of sexual assault and harassment and to contemporary responses to sexual violence?” 

“What about in interviews, did women talk about sexual violence in narratives and if so, what language did they use? What meanings did they attribute to it? And how did those terms and meanings change over time and by demographic groups, regions, and other categories?”

To examine the sources available at Stanford, Freedman turned to Natalie Marine-Street, Oral History program manager at Stanford Historical Society. Excited about the potential for the project, Marine-Street, who is a former Clayman Institute graduate dissertation fellow,  suggested Freedman contact archivists around the country who managed oral history collections. In the 1970s and 1980s, multiple women’s oral history projects emerged to record women’s voices for the historical record. Since then, these projects have produced thousands of interviews, many digitized in the past decade. The archivists Freedman contacted were enthusiastic that she wanted to use this data, which few researchers have consulted. 
 
The Oral History Text Analysis Project soon grew to encompass more than 2,700 interviews. With such a large corpus of texts, the project required new digital methods to determine which transcripts made reference to sexual harassment or violence, so Freedman and Marine-Street engaged a team of researchers with digital humanities and programming skills to develop digital tools. Using knowledge from her first project on sexual violence, Freedman was able to identify a number of terms that women in different historical eras used to refer to sexual harassment or assault. These terms included “rape,” “assault,” “harass,” and “attack,” but also “took advantage of,” “hit on” and “hanky panky,” among others. 
 

Even with this array of search terms, some references to sexual violence escaped the data scraping tools Freedman and her team set up. For example, one of the most poignant interviews Freedman examined was a clip she labeled, “I was able to handle it,” an oral history with an older woman whose boss propositioned her for sex while she was a 17-year-old working at Moffett Field building aircraft during World War II. Freedman and her team only found “I was able to handle it” during an initial qualitative sweep that involved listening to each interview. This example illustrates the challenge of searching for references to a problem many women were taught to handle on their own or to sweep under the rug. 

photo of women and microphone

Thus far, Freedman and her team have found 27 percent of the interviews they examined have some speech related to sexual violence or harassment. She imagines the project will offer insight into the ways women talked about sexual violence in the past, but she also hopes the tools her research team develops can be applied by other scholars to search digitized oral history projects on any historical topic. Certainly women were speaking privately about sexual harassment and violence long before second wave feminism and #MeToo challenged the stigma surrounding these topics. By analyzing the ways women spoke about sexual violence in interviews and how women’s ability to speak on these topics changed over time, we might better understand both the effects that rape and harassment had on women in the past and the normative changes that led to a broader discourse on sexual violence in the present.  

 

(Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash)

 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.