Editor’s note: This post contains frank discussions of sexual violence.
Giving Teachers the Resources They Need
When I first began research for the Early Encounters, 1492-1734 unit of our Women and the American Story curriculum guide, I knew that to write truthfully about the experiences of women in colonial America, I had to include frank discussions of the sexual violence they faced. However, I was unsure if the sensitivity of these topics would prevent teachers from addressing them with their students. I worried that I faced two terrible options: omit the stories of sexual violence in order to make our guide more palatable, or include these stories and run the risk of teachers refusing to use our materials.
But in my panic, I failed to appreciate the courage and determination of American history educators. When I brought my dilemma before a focus group of middle and high school teachers, they not only insisted that this history should not be erased, but said that they welcomed the opportunity to have these discussions with their students. At the time, the #MeToo Movement (a social media campaign started by activist Tarana Burke to raise awareness about widespread sexual violence) was dominating the news cycle. Students were looking to their teachers to help them understand this phenomenon and the backlash against it. Teachers felt like they were failing their students at a critical moment because the traditional curriculum did not provide a way to talk about and historicize issues of sexual violence. These teachers were eager for materials to guide students.
Nearly a year after that initial focus group, the debates around the #MeToo Movement have grown more heated. Teaching about historical incidents of sexual violence allows teachers and students to unpack contemporary arguments without having to weigh in on specific people or incidents. Students can explore these issues in the past and then apply what they’ve learned to the world around them.
Below are a few common questions that have arisen around #MeToo, along with some ways teachers can use historical examples to help their students find answers.
Question #1: How widespread is this problem, really?
For generations, a cone of silence has existed around experiences of rape and sexual assault. Unless a person has been individually affected, this silence can make it easy to believe that sexual violence is an uncommon occurrence. As a result, when survivors come forward with their stories, it is easier to dismiss them as untrue.
Teachers can help break this silence by discussing the sexual violence enacted against women in the past. This shows students that the problem has existed at every level of society, in every culture, and in every era. It allows them to understand that the stories shared through the #MeToo Movement document an ongoing problem that women have faced for generations, and are not the product of a recent outbreak (or worse, an imagined hysteria). This doesn’t mean that sexual violence needs to be part of every lesson and conversation. It does mean that there is no reason to shy away from it when we teach historical topics in which such violence played a prominent role.
For example, when enumerating the horrors of slavery, we must include the fact that enslaved women were the frequent victims of rape and sexual assault. In 1662, this sexual exploitation was make explicit when the Virginia Grand Assembly passed a law that tied slave status to mothers, making it profitable for slave owners to force their female slaves to have sex and bear children. The conquest of the Americas was rife with incidents of sexual assault, which Queen Isabella I of Spain made clear when she outlawed the practice of abducting Native women in 1502. When teaching about indentured servitude, we must explain that the masters of indentured women were free to sexually abuse their servants without fear of legal consequences. Their victims, however, like Dennis (pronounced “Denise”) Holland of Maryland, could be tried for the crimes of fornication and bastardry if their masters’ assaults resulted in a pregnancy. By reincorporating these stories into our lessons, we can amplify our understanding of the past and show our students that this is a problem that has existed for all of American history.
Question #2: Why didn’t she report?
Simply put, historical records are full of examples of how reporting sexual violence often makes things worse for the survivor.
Lisbeth Anthonijsen, a free black orphan girl living in New Amsterdam, was put on trial for stealing in 1663. During her trial, Lisbeth confessed that she had sexual relationships with a number of men in the settlement. Instead of investigating the grown men who had taken advantage of a young, vulnerable person, the court ruled that Lisbeth was a disruptive influence and sentenced her to enslavement.
Dennis Holland of Maryland gave a harrowing account of the routine rapes she had suffered at the hands of her employer during her bastardry trial, only to have her child taken from her. Her abuser was never held accountable.
During her trial before the Spanish Inquisition, Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, the wife of the governor of New Mexico, confessed that her husband frequently sodomized her, despite her pleas that such an act was a crime against God. She feared her failure to stop him was the reason she had been arrested by the Inquisition. This particular piece of testimony was dismissed as inconsequential to the trial, and never again addressed.
While each of these cases occurred hundreds of ago, they demonstrate two important key facts. First, reporting sexual assault did not guarantee a positive outcome for the survivor. Second, there is a long history of women’s reports of sexual violence being dismissed, ignored, or used against them. This has created a culture in which staying quiet is considered the safer option.
History shows us that the answer to “Why didn’t she report?” is often, “Because she knew it might make things worse.”
Question #3: If she went along with it, is it still a crime?
One of the more troubling responses to #MeToo is when reports of sexual harassment in the workplace are dismissed because of the belief that women willingly use their sexuality to get ahead professionally. This cultural myth shapes our understanding of historical women. No woman is more scorned in this regard than Malitzen, popularly known as La Malinche, the native woman born in the Yucatan Peninsula who bore the Conquistador Fernando Cortés a child and helped him conquer the Aztec Empire. These days her name is synonymous with betrayal in Mexican mythology.
But a closer look at Malitzen’s life reveals a more complicated story. Malitzen was born the eldest child of Mexican Amerindian nobility, but at an early age she was sold into slavery. In 1519, she was one of twenty enslaved women given to Cortés by the leaders of the city of Pontonchan. Malitzen was essentially a sex slave, to be used by Cortés and his followers in any way they pleased. It was only when her gift for the languages of the Yucatan Peninsula was discovered that she earned a place in Cortés’s inner circle. Her safety and security depended on her ability to do whatever Cortés wanted, whether that was aid in his efforts to conquer the Aztecs or submit to his sexual advances. She was undoubtedly a key part of Cortés’s success (Cortés himself said that next to God, Malitzen was the most important person of his campaign), and her complicity in the conquest eventually earned her freedom. But what other choice did she have?
Malitzen’s story illustrates the problem of determining consent in circumstances where the two individuals do not have the same amount of power. Allowing our students to learn about her story and consider all of its complicating factors gives them the tools to better understand the modern debates about workplace abuse and consent.
Facing History, Facing the Future
Sexual violence is never easy to talk about. Our own discomfort alone can be a powerful deterrent to broaching these subjects with our students. But if the last year of the #MeToo Movement has taught us anything, it is that our students need guidance in making sense of the complexities of cultural change. History can help them grasp the extent of sexual violence, and to think through their own positions on these issues, from the comfort of a safe space away from modern stressors.
The Early Encounters, 1492-1734 unit of Women and the American Story will be available online on November 6 and will include resources that illuminate each of the stories discussed above.
– Allyson Schettino, Associate Director of School Programs, New-York Historical Society
Top Photo Credits: Bartolomé de las Casas, “Brief relation of the destruction of the Indies,” Regionum Indicarum per Hispanos, 1664, Heidelbergar: typis Guilielmi VValteri acad, New York Historical Society Library (detail).