Carrie Cunningham

Author of Meaning Train: Essays on Religion and Politics

A Dialogue on Race, Sex and Emmett Till

The following is an essay I wrote for my favorite professor James Goodman at Harvard College. It reflects the beginning of my journey writing about human rights.

The history of the relationship between feminism and the struggle against racism has been one of paradoxes —of cooperation and diametric opposition, of growing together and splitting apart, of hopeful beginnings and bitter endings. In the mid-nineteenth century, many women enlisted as volunteers in the abolitionist movement because they saw parallels between the oppression of slaves and their own plight as women. Through their involvement in the crusade, they garnered their consciousness as an oppressed group and began a campaign for women’s rights. Blacks and women supported the cause of both groups throughout the Civil War. During the campaign to pass and ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, however, some women’s rights leaders not only withdrew their endorsement of the freedman’s cause but sabotaged it and its recent gains. In order to bolster their stagnate movement, suffragists played on the racist fears of Americans and argued that their vote was a crucially needed to counter the freedman’s newly-won vote. Thus, the cooperative effort of white women and blacks to end their respective oppressions crumbled into a competitive fight in which white women used racism to gain their feminist ends. 

A century later, a similar dialectic occurred between blacks as white women and their struggle to end racism and sexism. White women, mostly southern, joined men and women in the Civil Rights Women in the quest to free southern blacks from the bondage of Jim Crow. Internalizing Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC’s) values of radical democracy and equality for blacks, both black and white women questioned the inferior and sometimes even exploitive roles women faced both on the job and in personal relationships. When SNCC shifted from an interracial organization to one favoring Black Power, black women’s position improved while white women’s correspondingly worsened. Black women relinquished their feminist concerns in favor of Black Power, while white women embrace them more heartily. Forging their concerns about sexism with women from New Left organizations such as Students for Democratic Society (SDS), these women launched the modern-day women’s liberation movement. Like their suffragist ancestors, many of the leaders in the women’s movement in the 1970s sacrificed racial sensitivity in order to meet their feminist agenda. Specifically, they established an anti-rape campaign which saw rape only as a male crime against women, and never, as it was frequently used in the South since Reconstruction, as a fabricated charge pinned on blacks to justify lynchings. The white feminists’ dogmatic ideology precluded an alliance with both black civil rights organizations and black feminists. Their circumscribed vision forfeited the possibility for collective action and progress. 

In this paper, I will examine the consequences of how one white feminist, Susan Brownmiller, voiced such a self-interested ideology. In her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, she discussed the Emmett Till case from an unbending feminist perspective. Her viewpoint denied the racism in the case, and thus, many criticized her assessment of it. I will examine the causes of, and responses to Brownmiller’s dogma and show many were shaped by equally harmful self-interests. These copious and divergent voices reveal both the complexity of the intertwined issues of race, sex, lynching and rape, and the inability of black men, black women and white women to agree on the meaning of these issues. 

In her book, Susan Brownmiller advocated a monolithic view of rape. Tracing the history of rape from prehistoric time onward, Brownmiller argued that the subjugation of women by men, or patriarchal power, began and has been maintained by rape (Brownmiller 17). Men’s acquisition and ownership of women through rape established the foundation from which other power relationships such as hierarchy and slavery flowed (Brownmiller 18). Brownmiller applied this ideology in her assessment of every form of rape, including interracial rape cases and lynchings (the punishment for black men who had allegedly raped white women). She mentioned the historic abuse of the frame-up rape charge but virtually dismissed its significance by attacking the left’s strategy in lynching and interracial rape cases as sexist. Consistent with her radical hypothesis, Brownmiller suggested the possibility that black men, as men first and foremost, do want to rape white women. Her revision of the meaning of the Emmett Till lynching, which cannot be viewed realistically viewed without its element of racism, is a case in point of her distortion of the fraudulent rape charge. 

Southern whites first accused black men of raping white women during the post-Reconstruction era as both a rationalization for their lynchings of blacks and as a means of absolving their guilt for raping black women. With the institution of the Thirteen, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments during Reconstruction, Southern whites saw their hierarchal economic, social and political structures on the verge of breakdown. In order to both maintain the order of their society and to restrain blacks from garnering their Constitutional rights, southern whites lynched blacks and raped black women (Hall 330). They buttressed their fraudulent rape charges against blacks by nurturing the myths of the pure, frail white lady, and the savage, black male rapist. The southern lady became the “ultimate symbol of white male power,” and her rape by the ever-promiscuous black male signified the most egregious assault on the planter hegemony (Hall 330). Whenever white male domination was threatened in any way, Southern whites employed lynching and its accompanying rhetoric of protecting southern white women. Lynching and its rationalizing mythology served both to constrict white women into the role of the southern lady and to intimidate blacks into remaining at the lowest rungs of society’s ladder (Hall 330).  While the number of lynchings had rapidly declined by the middle of the twentieth century, the mythology surrounding them was still intact, as Emmett Till unfortunately discovered. Fewer lynchings occurred later in the century only because blacks had been so effectively cornered into submission. (Whitfield 7). The myth of the black rapist endured, and if a black man, even a black boy, violated the sanctity of a white woman, the rope and faggot would reappear. 

When fourteen-year-old Emmett Till left his Chicago home and visited his cousins in Sumner, Mississippi during the summer of 1955, he was ignorant of the unwritten lynch law and the myth of the black rapist. Till carried a picture of a white woman in his wallet, and to the shock of his southern black cousins, he claimed that the woman was his girlfriend (Whitfield 16). On August 24, Till and seven other girls and boys drove to Money Mississippi for a recreational excursion. Upon arrival in Money, Till began to brag about his white girlfriend up north. The seven other girls and boys tested his audacious words by daring him to go into the general store nearby and ask the white woman at the counter for a date. Till accepted the dare from his friends, and he went into the store. 

The exact interchange between Till and the white woman at the counter, Carolyn Bryant, is in dispute. Bryant claimed in her court testimony that Till squeezed her hand and asked for a date. Bryant said she tried to move to the back of the store behind a partition, but that Till ran between the counters and blocked her path. Bryant said she then ran to her brother-in-law J.W. Milam’s car seeking a pistol she knew was inside. When she went into the store, Till fled, whistling at her (Whitfield 17). 

Carolyn Bryant did not tell her husband, Roy Bryant about the incident, but Till’s cousin, apparently jealous of Till’s brave prank, informed Mr. Bryant of the caste-crossing (Whitfield 19). Bryant, furious at the offense against his wife, drove to Till’s house in the evening with his half-brother, J.W. Milam. The men got Till out of bed and took him to the Tallahatchie River where they shot him. They tied a fan to the neck of the corpse and threw it in the river (Whitfield 21). 

The ensuing trial against Milam and Bryant was a farce. The all-male, all-white jury exonerated the men, despite the testimony of Till’s uncle which identified them as the men who took Till from his house. Milam and Bryant claimed they released Till after they reprimanded him, even though, they added, he continued to boast of his exploits with white women. The defense attorneys argued Milam and Bryant’s innocence on the grounds that physicians could not positively identify the corpse as Till’s. The defense explained that someone had planted Till’s ring on the hand of the corpse, thus removing the solid piece of evidence for the prosecution. The jury conveniently believed these feeble explanations, unanimously proclaiming the men not guilty (Whitfield 42). 

The Till murder and the subsequent court case depict the classic and most severe elements of a southern lynching--the enraged white males avenging the violation of a pure white woman who is the symbol of their political and economic power, with an inhumane murder; the exoneration of blatantly guilty men by an all-white jury; and ultimately, the denigration of both black men and white women to death and lifelong subjugation respectively. 

Because the Till case was typical of so-called southern justice and suppression, yet particularly horrifying and public, its crystallized blacks’ growing frustration with white supremacy. Indeed, many civil rights workers recall the murder of Emmett Till, more so than any other case, as one of the chief factors that motivated their activism (Whitfield 89). 

In her interpretation of the Emmett Till case, Susan Brownmiller belittled the blatant racism which so profoundly struck many of Till’s contemporaries. While she allowed that Till’s murder was “indefensible” and that “nothing in recent times c[ould] match for its sheer outrageousness,” she virtually nullified these sympathetic statements by arguing that Till’s whistle was not a mere prank but an insult “just short of physical assault [and] a reminder to Carolyne Bryant that [he] had in mind to possess her.,” (Brownmiller 247).  She claimed that Till’s whistle and his subsequent murder by Milam and Bryant exposed “underlying group-male antagonisms over access to women.” (Brownmilller 247). 

Even if Brownmiller is right in her assertion that Till’s whistle was a threat of rape to Carolyn Bryant, her argument that Till, Milam and Bryant were undifferentiated males fighting over the possession of a woman is not persuasive. Given that Till’s whistle was a call to rape, the struggle between the men was   black versus white not male versus woman. Till did objectify Bryant, but he did this only as a means of challenging stereotypical white control, not for the end of actually physically possessing her. 

While the threat of Till’s whistle was an important aspect of the case, Brownmiller’s description of it as a forerunner to rape was a gross and dangerous exaggeration. Till’s interchange with Carolyn Bryant was from the beginning a childish albeit sexist prank, not a premediated plan to rape Carolyn Bryant. While the implications of children finding humor in the objectifying women are worth pondering, they should not supersede the importance of the racist aspect of the case. For the overemphasis of the sexist aspect necessarily denied the validity of the racist aspect: Brownmiller’s interpretation of Till’s whistle as a call to rape justified, even condoned, his murder. Thus, by isolating the sexist aspect of the case, Brownmiller established an ideology of racist feminism, a myopic vision that refused to admit that white men could falsely accuse black men of rape, or that any man could ever be innocent once accused. 

While Brownmiller maintained the sexist not racist motivations governed the dynamics of the Till case, or at least the most significant inner dealings, she argued in other discussions of interracial rape that black men might want to rape white women as a means of attack against their racial oppressors. By contrasting the large number of black male/white female rapes from the period of 1965 to 1973 with the smaller number of black male/white female rape from 1958 to 1960. Brownmiller argued that the increase of the latter made sense as it coincided with the later, more radical half of the Civil Rights Movement (Brownmiller 215). Blacks’ inability to gain full equality frustrated them, Brownmiller implied, in the late 1960s. 

Anne Braden, a civil rights, civil liberties, and labor organizer in the south since the 1940s, suggested another possibility for the increase in black-on-white rapes. Braden suggested that the rise of these rapes might be a function of the “racist use of the rape charge.” As the false rape was used post-Reconstruction as a counter-attack against the threat of revolutionary gains posted during Reconstruction, so too might it have been used during the latter half of the Civil Rights Movement to similar ends (Braden 51). Brownmiller failed to see this very likely possibility. 

Brownmiller fleshed out the notion of blacks wanting to rape white women in her discussion of Eldridge Cleaver, Calvin C. Hernton, Leroi Jones and Frantz Fanon. Brownmiller quoted pieces in the works of these men showing how they condoned or excused the rape of white women as a form of rebellion. “[I]n  every Negro who grows up in the South, there is a rapist, no matter how hidden,” Hernton said. “And that rapist has been conceived… by a system based on guilt, hatred and human denial,” (Brownmiller 249). 

This justification rightly outraged Brownmiller. Brownmiller likewise argued that in his autobiography, “Soul on Ice,” Cleaver seemed the embodiment of the black rapist, the extreme manifestation of what Hernton was talking about. Cleaver viewed, she quoted, the rape of a white woman as an “insurrectionary act” as a way of “getting revenge” for the white men’s defilement of black women since the beginning of slavery (Brownmiller 251). Yet he later recanted these views. 

Despite Cleaver’s self-condemnation of his initial hatred of white women and impetus to rape them, Brownmiller argued that his and other men’s reflection on the rape of white women represented a “quite fashionable” strain of thinking among black intellectual in the 1960s. Likewise, many white intellectuals received their views with “astonishing enthusiasm”. (Brownmiller 248). It is impossible to ascertain whether the other black ideologues Brownmiller quoted ever repudiated their views of white women like Cleaver did, or whether many other intellectuals condoned the rape of white women as “an insurrectionary act.” What is clear is that Brownmiller believed these views were widely and tenaciously held. Indeed, in her concluding section on interracial rape she said that “the black man in the name of his manhood now contributes” to the myth of the black rapist (Brownmiller 255). 

Brownmiller’s dogged belief in this strain of thinking and the corresponding action it promoted is very important to understanding her work as it seems to be the source of her revisionist history of interracial rape. Throughout her history of the rape of white women by black men, she has either painted black men as wanting to rape white women or she has attacked Leftist organizations who defended black men, almost always falsely, of rape. In her discussion of slave rebellions, Brownmiller said that no records exist of black men raping white women because they were “snuffed out.” She implied that if they had run full course, black men would have raped white women (Brownmiller 217).  She added that the infrequent black-on-white rapes that did occur were not, and as many historians argue, “solitary, suicidal acts of violence,” (Brownmiller 218).  On the contrary, these rapes were “probably as political as any act of slave arson, for a slave might have a firm understanding of what constituted hit-and-run damage to the white man’s property, being property himself,” (Brownmiller 218). She documented these sweeping judgements tenuously by discussing slave rebellions in Haiti where blacks raped white women, it seems that Brownmiller transposed her fear, anger and her resentment of black males in the late 1960s on to black male slaves. The result was a reactionary historical revision. 

Brownmiller distorted the history of the Scottsboro trial like her revision of the facts and meaning of slave revolts. In that case, two white women caught traveling on a freight train with nine black teenagers accused the teenagers of raping them. A racist white mob stopped the train because some white men reported that the black boys beat them up on the train. The blood-thirsty mob apparently pressured the white women into their accusation. The Communist Party took up the defense of the boys after an all-white jury convicted them and sentenced them to death (Brownmiller 227).  Brownmiller belittled the vanguard role of the Communist Party in fighting against the racist frame-up charge with her overemphasis of their sexist means of defense. The Communist Party distributed propaganda during the case that condemned the “lie of rape,” (Brownmiller 228). Brownmiller attacked this propaganda, asking “If rape was a lie, with whom did it originate?” (Brownmiller 228). She additionally disparaged the Communist Party’s legitimization of their propaganda with the theories of Helene Deutsch. Deutsch contended that white men believed the hysterical lies of white women accusing black men of raping them because they “sense[d] the unconscious wishes of white wom[e]n,” (Brownmiller 229).  

Brownmiller is right to attack the Communist Party’s use of Deutsch. Her theory that women desire rape dangerously exonerates rapists for their horrendous crime and tragically blames it on women. Yet, however wrong the Communist Party was for blaming the fraudulent rape charge on white women rather on its author, white males, that fact remains that the nine boys did not rape Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. White southerners undoubtedly pressured the women into lying, but the charges nonetheless framed nine innocent boys. The Communist Party admittedly used shady means in their defense, but they employed these tactics as a desperate measure to obtain justice out of an untenable situation. When Brownmiller only stresses the sexist means of the Communist Party’s defense, their struggle for just ends disappeared. 

In Brownmiller’s discussion of both Till and Scottsboro cases, one sees the validity of her points, but she overemphasized them. At the end of her discussion of the Till case, Brownmiller loses ally credibility.  Relinquishing her initial thesis that Till, Milam and Bryant were simply men and a boy fighting for the possession of a woman, she implied that perhaps Till did indeed want to rape Carolyn Bryant as a form of racial rebellion. 

Many contemporary critics of Brownmiller’s books failed to see her errors both in ignoring Cleaver’s condemnation of rape, and in ignoring that Cleaver’s view of rape motivated framed victims such as Till. The fear of the black rapist which stemmed, legitimately or not, from radical male writers in the latter half of the Civil Rights Movement transfixed many journalists in the same way they riveted Brownmiller. Helene Schwartz’s commendation of Brownmiller’s analysis of Cleaver is typical of this preoccupation. She said Cleaver’s Soul on Ice horrified her when it came out but that she could not criticize the book without being tagged a racist. Brownmiller’s discussion of Cleaver finally illuminated, she said, “the theology of the male-dominated ‘movement’ …[which] called for the sacrifice of white women on the altar of black male aspiration.” (Schwartz 567). She continued, saying this analysis of “history” provided “some of the most interesting parts of the book”(Schwartz 568).  Schwartz, like Brownmiller was correct in attacking Cleaver’s rationale for the rape of white women, but she neither mentioned Cleaver’s rejection of his initial belief nor attacked Brownmiller’s claim that Emmett Till wanted to rape Carolyn Bryant as an “insurrectionary act.” Skewed by angry emotions over what she thought was the accepted rape of white women. Schwartz’s analysis overlooked Brownmiller’s mistake of equating Cleaver’s mentality with Till’s. 


Mary Ellen Gale’s review in the New York Times Book Review similarly fixated on the black rapist. She praised Brownmiller for connecting Till’s whistle with Cleaver’s rape of white women (Gale 2). 

While Schwartz’s and Gale’s praised Brownmiller’s warped vision, other critics condemned her myopia. Many criticized her monolithic ideology without specifically attacking her misrepresentation of the Till case and the other interracial rape cases. Amanda Heller from the Atlantic Monthly said the book’s “dogma” produced a kind of feminist pornography that overtakes the book’s more thoughtful passages (Heller 77). 

Likewise, critics from the New Statesman and the New Leader charged respectively that the book had “a one-sided view of the complex of human sexuality “and “a passionate, often angry sometimes downright nasty” tone (Tindall 761 and Johnson 16). 

Jean Stafford served as the only critic who joined her condemnation of Brownmiller’s monolithic view of rape with a specific attack to the Till murder as “satanically ugly” and “bloodcurling,” (Stafford 50). Stafford identified the crux of the problem with Brownmiller’s analysis when she argued that Brownmiller assessment gave the message that Till’s murder, “if not altogether justified under the law, was wholly understandable in larger (i.e. feminist) terms,” (Stafford 50). In other words, by emphasizing the sexism inherent in Till’s whistle, Brownmiller has belittled his lynching. By underscoring the whistle, she pits feminism against the struggle to end racism. 

Angela Davis, a radical black feminist and Communist, responded to Brownmiller’s revision of the Till case from the unique viewpoint of a black woman. Davis decried Brownmiller’s rendition of the Till case calling it a “provocative distortion” that “resuscitated the myth of the black rapist” (Davis 178).  She argued that by highlighting Tills’ sexism against Carolyn Bryant, Brownmiller “capitulates to racism,” (David 199). 

 Davis’s attack against Brownmiller does not mean that she chose to protect her racial identity over her sexual identity. Rather, as she explained, the myth of the black rapist accompanied the myth of the promiscuous black female. The fabrications both rationalized and allowed for the subjugation of all black people through lynching and rape (Davis 173). Thus, by protecting Emmett Till, in her mind, she guarded herself as a black woman. 

Davis’s rebuttal to Brownmiller effectively highlighted the consequences of the latter’s ideology of rape. Though Davis’s attack and the explanation of her attack, the reader sees how Brownmiller’s feminism had isolated black women as well as black men. Davis’s response contains some problems though. In chipping away at Brownmiller’s thesis, Davis dismissed Cleaver’s diatribe on the rape of white women as “absurd” and “purely sensational,” (Davis 197).  While Cleaver condemned his rape of white women, he admitted that he did want to rape white women “as an insurrectionary act.” His admission of the fact does not mean, as Brownmiller incorrectly interpreted it that all men, past and present, want to rape white women. Yet it does mean that a black man is capable of raping white woman. Thus, while Davis wanted anti-rape theorists such as Brownmiller to defend black male victims of the fraudulent rape charge in addition to black and white rape victims, she herself must acknowledge that black men, however infrequently, raped white women. By denying that black men ever rape white women, Davis resorts to the same circumscribed vision that she attacked in Brownmiller. 

The roots of Brownmiller’s controversial and passionate belief in the sanctity of the female body and the ubiquity of the black male rapist are found in the development of the feminist movement within the Civil Rights Movement. Both southern and northern white women joined the ranks of black civil rights workers attracted to the egalitarian ideals professed by organizations like SNCC (Evans 64). Southern white women were particularly drawn to the fight for equality for blacks because the states of their societal roles often corresponded to the level of blacks’ roles. Enforced by lynchings, southern white women’s roles as pure white ladies and black males’ roles as savage rapists simultaneously ensured the white patriarchy both sexual and racial domination. Blacks’ fight to their roles would necessarily change southern white women’s’ roles, and thus, those women were also eager to facilitate the destruction of white supremacy, (Evans 25). 

Both black and white women identified a treatment toward women in SNCC that was hypocritical given the organization’s ideology of radical egalitarianism. This ideology attacked white supremacy and sought a democratic community in which every person had a voice in decision-making processes, (Evans 36). SNCC embraced the ideas of equality, yet they treated women as inferiors, assigning them the most menial tasks. The black and white women within SNCC initially discussed these issues together, opening the possibility for a trans-racial/feminist alliance, but the sexual relations between black men and white women within the movement precluded such an integrated sisterhood (Evans 88). 

Sexual intercourse between black men and white women aided the destruction of the racist mythologies which upheld white patriarchal domination and facilitated the SNCC’s purported ideals of equality and the so-called beloved community (Evans 78). While interracial sex often led to mutually rewarding relationships for black men and white women, some of the encounters possessed a “dehumanizing quality” (Evans 79). White women sometimes felt compelled to sleep with black men from being white and out of fear of being dubbed a racist if they resisted sexual advances (Evans 79). 

Black women resented sexual relations between white women and black men because their desirability as women, as sexual partners to black men, diminished (Evans 81). They were embittered that their blackness excluded excluded them from being “feminine, and despite searching for signs of femininity in their blackness, they often felt “ugly” and “unwomanly” (Evans 88). During Freedom Summer in 1964, when thousands of white women came down from the North, these tensions heightened. To be sure, black women’s demand for greater unity with black men was part of a growing trend among blacks within SNCC and the Movement that downplayed the idea of the “beloved community” of blacks and whites together and called for stronger intra-black solidarity (Evans 84).  This trend jelled into Black Power in 1965 when black women’s issues fused with a growing anger among all blacks that whites were polluting their organization. This feeling stemmed from resentment that their organization only received publicity when whites were involved, which was a fear that whites wanted to “take over” in planning. This coincided with an increasing frustration with nonviolent tactics (Evans 94).  

With SNCC’s shift to Black Power, black women’s position had grown increasingly secure while white women’s position had become increasingly precarious (Evans 100). The chiasmatic movement of black women’s and white women’s positions meant that black women traded their initial feminist ideas for Black Power and that white feminism burgeoned, sometimes with racist overtones. White women’s feminism was fueled by the hypocrisy of SNCC ideology and their demeaning treatment toward women. This hypocrisy was initially perceived by both black and white women but was later reinforced in the eyes of white women by the often-explosive sexual relations they encountered with black men (Evans 78). The pressure for white women to sleep with black men in order prove that they were not racist must have heightened with Black Power. This stress, added to black men’s increasing disinterest in, and event contempt, for white women, created the potential for degrading and exploitive sexual relations between black men and white women. 

In her influential novel, Meridian, Alice Walker portrayed a white woman from the North, Lynne, who endured such an exploitive relationship with SNCC’s shift to Black Power. In the first years of the movement, Lynne was vociferously accepted for her volunteer efforts and her marriage to a black man, Truman Held. They seemed the essence of the organization’s “beloved community” ideology (Walker 130). When the movement shifted to Black Power, however, Lynne became a virtual pariah. Not only was she excluded from participating in the meetings and marches, but also SNCC members forbade Truman to even talk to her about the organization (Walker 139). 

Lynne’s rejection by SNCC culminated with her rape by Tommy Odds. Tommy, initially close friends with Lynne, began to despise her when he lost his arm after being shot by whites (Walker 133). Frustrated with the inability of nonviolent methods to achieve immediate results and hostile to all whites for their continued attacks, rape and murders of blacks, Tommy Odds raped Lynne to avenge the historic demoralization of his race. Lynne tragically did not resist Tommy as he raped her. She felt guilty because of “his hardships of the way he was black and belonged to people who lived without hope” (Walker 161).  

Tommy Odds rape of Lynne was by no means typical or condoned by blacks either in the movement or the story. Indeed, Tommy’s black male friends condemned him for raping Lynne. However, a general rejection of white women both as sexual partners and as co-workers was typical with the advent of Black Power. Thus, while Truman denounced Tommy for raping his wife, he eventually left and went back to his initial black lover, Meridian (Walker 144). Lynne’s feeling of guilt was likewise common.  Because she was white, she felt responsible for white people’s abuse of Tommy and other blacks. She allowed, forgave and even later denied her own degradation in order to compensate for centuries of white racism. 

Even though white women in SNCC, like Lynne, did not vocally attack sexual exploitation, there issues were an important if latent precedent for white women’s assault on sexual objectification in SDS and other New Left organizations. White women in SDS were able to attack sexual exploitation openly since they were in an all-white movement where the race factor was not an issue. Despite white women’s silence in the Civil Rights Movement, the experience of women in both groups fused to create the women’s movement fervent attack against rape and their belief in the sanctity of an and importance of control of the female body. (Evans 82.)

Braden discussed her fears of Brownmiller’s Against Our Will. She found Brownmiller’s primary issue in the Till case, namely in the way it reflected a power struggle between men over women “startling” (Braden 51). Brownmiller’s emphasis of the sexism in the Till case employed in her book, she argued, as a “weapon” of racism (Braden 51). By suggesting Till was a rapist, Brownmiller fed the myth of the black rapist with which white racists rationalized their terrorism of blacks. Braden urged Brownmiller to rethink her one-sided view of rape. She called on southern white women to facilitate the rethinking of northern anti-rape theorist by reintroducing anti-racist issues within the feminist movement. Because their liberation from southern “chivalry” has corresponded with blacks’ liberation from lynching and the frame-up rape charge, Southern white women have historically fought against racism as a means to combat sexism (Braden 51). Their unique viewpoint could broaden the movement’s agenda from protecting white women at expense of black men and women to protecting all of the oppressed groups. Braden saw socialism as the ultimate means to expunge racial and sexual oppression, but she realized the first priority in achieving this end was unanimity among oppressed groups (Braden 53). 

Braden’s broad vision offered a viable solution and example for Brownmiller, Davis and the fictional Tommy Odds.  All the individuals clung to their most specific self-interests, and as a consequence, each person excluded and damaged someone else. Seeing rape always as a male against women, Brownmiller ignored the historical reality of southern whites fabricating black rapes. She fueled the rationales of racist white southerners and thus diminished the struggles of Tommy Odds and Davis. While Davis rightly protected her combined her racial and sexual identity, she denied that white women needed protection. By rejecting and condemning all whites, Tommy Odds fought for his oppressed race at the expense of degrading Brownmiller’s victimized group of white women. By looking beyond their immediate issues and seeing the dynamics of each other’s oppression, the individuals could have created a united struggle. Rather than fighting against each other and accomplishing limited ends, they could have fought cooperatively and gained progress against white men’s political, economic and social domination. 

Many years after the advent of Black Power, Susan Brownmiller’s publishing her book Against Our Will, and Davis’s attack of Brownmiller’s book, the struggles between black men black women and white women continue to rage. Highly particular self-interest drives these groups to struggle not against the sources of their inequality and oppression but against each other. Inter-group conflict persists while intra-group unanimity remains an elusive goal. Perhaps altruism in history is an impossibility and the struggles against racism and sexism will never unite. Widespread cooperation, however, is in fact in the self-interest of the groups. Broad-based groups with universal visions are the best means to effect significant and tenacious reform. The Tommy Odds, Brownmillers and Davises of the present-day struggles must look beyond the immediate issues and see this fact. This is the route to lasting progress.   


Braden, Anne. “A Second Open Letter to Southern White Women. Southern Exposure 4 1977.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975. 

Cleaver, Eldridge. “Soul on Ice.” Ramparts, 1968. 

Davis, Angela. Women, Race and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.

Evans, Sarah. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. 

Gale, Mary Ellen. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller. New York Times Book Review 12 October 1975. 

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Mind that Burns in Each Body: Women, Rape and Racial Violence.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality.  Eds. Anne Shitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.

Heller, Amanda. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller. Atlantic Monthly November 1975. 

Johnson, Diane. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller New Leader 5 January 1976. 

Schwartz, Helene. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller. Nation 29 November 1975. 

Stafford, Jean. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller. Esquire November 1975. 

Tindall, Gillian. Rev. of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller. New Statesman 12 December 1975.  

Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976. 

Whitfield, Steven J. Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: The Free Press, 1988.