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This #BelieveWomen business has gone rancid with opportunism

Froma Harrop on

The hashtag #BelieveWomen stemmed from an era when women claiming to have been sexually assaulted were broadly dismissed. That is, if you ignore the history of white women falsely accusing black men of rape. Those women were largely believed and the accused often summarily tortured and hung by the neck from a tree.

Ida Wells, an African American journalist, exposed the racial terrorism in her 1892 book "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." She just received a Pulitzer Prize 89 years after her death.

Between 1881 and 1968, 3,446 black men were killed by lynching, a number drawn from the Tuskegee Institute archives. Almost a quarter of lynching victims had been accused of sexual assault, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

A scholar, Wells didn't ignore the reality that some rapes happened. She held, rather, that many such charges followed the discovery of consensual relationships between black men and white women -- of which there were many.

Regarded as a vessel of Victorian purity, a white woman's word was rarely doubted. That made legal proceedings unnecessary in the minds of the racist mob.

Wells cites the case of a Mrs. J. S. Underwood, a minister's wife in Elyria, Ohio. Underwood claimed that during her husband's absence in 1888, a man forced his way into the house and violated her. The woman identified William Offett, a black married man, as the attacker.

 

Offett at least had a trial. He testified that Underwood had invited him in. He was found guilty, however, and spent 15 years in jail before Underwood, feeling remorse, owned up to her lies.

She confessed that she met the "polite" Offett at the post office and told him to call on her. When alone, "I sat on his lap," she said, and after their first sexual encounter, she "had no desire to resist."

Some women made false charges only after their relationships were discovered. Underwood expressed fear of giving birth to a black baby -- and that neighbors had spotted her interracial relationship.

The reality behind such allegations then and now is that some women are actually raped; some lie; and some charge rape under murky circumstances. Mental instability can also play a part in the telling of what did or did not occur.

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