(Originally posted at Legal Momentum Briefing Room)
Sunday’s Washington Post featured a thought-provoking piece by historian Stephanie Coontz concerning television’s critically-acclaimed “Mad Men.” Coontz explains that while historians usually deride historical fiction for its inaccuracies, most historians Coontz knows (herself included) adore “Mad Men,” particularly for its attention to historical accuracy, down to the smallest 1960s details.
Recently, however, a few non-historian “Mad Men” critics have complained that the show exaggerates 1960s American sexism and the narrow range of choices available to women because of it. Joan Harris’s decision to marry her fiancé after he raped her, for example, riled many viewers, who wondered why she would ever marry (instead of prosecute) such a man. One critic complained, “[T]his year’s show takes place in 1965, not the stone age.”
Coontz highlights and dismantles this criticism to underscore how few rights legal rights women had in the 1960s – especially when it came to intimate partner violence. She notes that “In those days…In North Carolina, only a virgin or a married woman could bring rape charges, and many other states required two witnesses for a rape to be prosecuted.”
Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) explores this issue throughout its publications and curricula, most recently in its web course/resource, Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse: Adjudicating this Hidden Dimension of Domestic Violence Cases (registration is free and open to all). As NJEP explains in Module IV: Statutory Constraints, until the mid-1970s, husbands could rape their wives with legal impunity in every state across the country.
While legal reforms have eliminated the marital rape exemption from most states, 26 states continue to permit some degree of marital immunity, and some have extended immunity to cohabiting non-marital relationships.
Coontz is right: rape victims, especially victims of intimate partner rape, had little legal recourse in the 1960s. But while much has changed since Joan married Greg, vestiges of the marital rape exemption still remain.
Learn more about NJEP’s sexual assault resources.
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