Theses Doctoral

Sexual Violence and Responses to It on American College Campuses, 1952–1980

Abu-Odeh, Desiree

Using archival and oral history sources, my dissertation examines the emergence of what is now known as “sexual violence” and responses to it on American college campuses in the post-World War II period. This history has yet to receive a full account of its own. It demands one, national in scope but with campus-specific detail. Bridging historiographies of rape, higher education, and postwar feminisms, among others, my analysis features cases of sexual violence, activism, and institutional and legal developments throughout the US. These cases include early responses to campus sexual violence at the University of Chicago; anti-rape organizing at the University of Michigan, Barnard College, and Columbia University; Title IX litigation in the case of Alexander v. Yale (2d Cir., 1980); and the proliferation of a national campus anti-harassment movement through the advocacy work of the Project on the Status and Education of Women and student organizing at the University of California, Berkeley.

Across cases, I show how student activists leveraged feminist and sometimes anti-racist analyses to fundamentally shift understandings of sexual violence and force universities and the state to address the problem. I argue that unprecedented growth in women’s college enrollment and entry into previously closed-off professions, the new feminist movements, and emerging anti-discrimination regulations provided women a context and tools to mold the American university. After World War II, when Black Americans moved in record numbers from the South to Northern cities, campus sexual violence was understood in thinly veiled racist terms as part of a broader crime problem. The perceived crime problem and specter of interracial rape sparked calls for universities to ensure safer campuses. In response, urban universities advanced robust neighborhood renewal and campus security programs. Shortly thereafter, feminists of the 1960s and 1970s developed an anti-rape consciousness and new theories of sexual violence. Students used feminist analyses of gendered power and new knowledge about experiences of sexual violence to shift who was perceived as a threat to campus women, from Black and brown strangers to university faculty and peers. By changing how campus sexual violence was understood, from a threat outside the university to a threat within, activists placed responsibility for rape and sexual harassment with university administrators. Students leveraged anti-discrimination law – namely Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 – to force university administrators and the state to recognize and address campus sexual violence as illegal sex discrimination. In response to student demands, the state began to grapple with the full regulatory implications of Title IX. And universities established policies prohibiting harassment, grievance procedures, and institutions to serve people who experienced sexual violence.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Rosner, David K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2021