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History of the Movement

New Directors Online Manual Table of Contents

The topic of sexual assault is challenging on many levels. When we begin to create a cultural view of sexual assault, we see that we are dealing with a complex set of systems. As we try to understand individual cases of sexual assault, it is helpful to have the sense of perspective that comes from understanding the history (or her-story) of the sexual assault movement.

A Condensed Herstory

Included here is a condensed herstory of the sexual assault movement in the United States that covers a range of topics. Our movement has a rich history that informs all that we do today; knowing more about the history of our work can aid in creating a new, successful future.

Legal History of Rape

  • The earliest written laws and texts defined rape as a property crime, with the male head of household or the family/tribal unit as the victims. While those laws evolved over time around the world and in a variety of cultures, English Common Law most clearly influenced laws about sexual assault in the U.S., shifting it to a crime against a person where a civil suit could be made, or a crime against the state in which the government would bring an offender to trial.
  • An overall revision of Washington State's rape laws occurred in the 1980s including the creation of the law criminalizing Rape of a Child, based solely on the age of victim and perpetrator.
  • The revision of laws that had previously exempted rape in marriage began in Nebraska in 1976, and was not completed until 1993 in North Carolina. To this day, the Washington State crime of Rape in the Third Degree still provides an exemption in cases where the perpetrator is married to the victim.

Women's Organized Resistance

  • White colonists brought several aspects of these laws to the United States. However, colonization included widespread human rights abuses, including sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women that continues to this day.
  • Collective action against rape began with African American women. It was common and legal for African women who had been enslaved to be raped by White men. Following the abolition of slavery, rape was used by White men as a tactic of violence and control over Black women and communities. Perhaps the first women to break the silence about rape were African American women testifying before Congress following their gang rape by a White mob during the Memphis Riot of May 1866.
  • While existing rape laws didn't protect Black women, they did justify the lynching of Black men accused of raping White women. The earliest efforts to organize against rape began in the 1870s when African American women, most notably Ida B. Wells, took leadership roles in organizing anti-lynching campaigns.

Rape Crisis Movement: 1970s -- Feminism

  • In the 1970's, women began gathering in Consciousness Raising groups, sharing their stories of abuse by husbands and boyfriends, sexual abuse as children, and the day-to-day fear of harassment, rape and abuse. In 1971, the New York Radical Feminists organized a Speak Out which gave public voice to what had previously been a private suffering.
  • Seattle Rape Relief, formed in 1972, was one of the first Rape Crisis Centers in the country, along with centers in Washington, DC and San Francisco. Published in 1975, "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" was written by journalist Susan Brownmiller, followed in 1978 by Sandra Butler's Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest.
  • David Finkelhor writes that the 1970's saw the creation of Child Protective Services, the establishment of mandatory reporting laws and the collection of reports of child abuse. This work dovetailed with anti-rape work by highlighting child sexual abuse as well as physical abuse.
  • Near the end of the decade, activists held the first events that came to be known as "Take Back the Night" rallies.

From Organizing to Organizations

  • Rape crisis centers in cities and towns began joining together to form state and national coalitions. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs was incorporated in 1979 with ten members from around the state. They had been working together to make legislative change, and to mark what was then Rape Awareness Week (now Sexual Assault Awareness Month).
  • The National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA) was established in 1978, and one of its first conferences was held in Washington in 1982. Also on the national level, Child Abuse Prevention Month began in 1983, following about 100 years of concern about child abuse that had crystallized in the 1960's.
  • The late 1980's and early 1990's saw an increase in the public conversation about sexual assault. In 1988 the film "The Accused" was released. It was based on the true story of a woman who was gang-raped and starred Jodie Foster. In 1991, three major stories filled the news:
  • The Seattle-based organization now known as the FaithTrust Institute had been founded in 1977 by the Reverend Dr. Marie Fortune to address faith communities and issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Abuses by members of the Catholic clergy began to surface in the 1980's, followed by stories of abuse in other faiths. An organization of survivors, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests(SNAP), formed in response in 1989.


  • In the late 1970's, Washington State passed the Victims of Sexual Assault Act, including funding administered by the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) guided by a Sexual Assault Program Advisory Committee. On the federal level, the Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grants began in 1982.
  • In 1990, the State Legislature created the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to administer sexual assault funding and services to victims of other crimes. Former WCSAP Executive Director Bev Emery was chosen to lead OCVA. In 1994, the first federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed including Rape Prevention & Education (RPE) funding. The 2005 re-authorization of VAWA included the Sexual Assault Services Program.
  • In 1995, in an effort to ensure a basic level of services to everyone throughout the state, the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Committee released its final report, creating the system of accreditation for Community Sexual Assault Programs. That plan was followed by the 1997 Prevention Plan for the State, including an emphasis on Community Development strategies.

Rape and Oppression

  • In part because the feminism of the 1970's grew out of the civil rights movement, questions about the relationship of racism and other oppressions to sexual assault have long been part of our dialogue as a movement. From the 1980's at least, WCSAP struggled to create a place for the conversation in the governance of the coalition. From 1990 to 1996, WCSAP had an Inclusiveness Committee. Our mission and philosophy statements today speak to the intersection of sexual assault and oppression.
  • From 1998 to 2001, OCVA contracted with the Cross Cultural Health Care Program to address cultural competency within the sexual assault field. The report cited "sporadic utilization and limited policy-level support." So in 2002, OCVA funded a project known as Community Voices, organized by WCSAP Prevention Director Gayle Stringer to provide concrete information to the field.
  • Nationally, Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA) was founded at this same time by staff from the Resource Sharing Project (of which WCSAP is a partner) to support women of color in the field. At the same time, WCSAP was awarded a grant to address violence against people with disabilities.
  • In 2006, Amnesty International released its report Maze of Injustice, highlighting the horrific levels of sexual assault perpetrated against Native Women in the US, and the jurisdictional "maze" that simultaneously keeps those women from accessing justice, emboldens perpetrators and maintains an environment of fear and despair in many Native communities.

Where We Are Today

The hard work and courage of countless women led to the establishment of rape crisis centers and advocacy as we know it today. You may draw on this history as you encounter the difficult work of advocacy. As you support survivors, educate your community, and dream of new approaches to ending rape, you can know that you are part of a movement and your voice is an important one.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established as resource for all state coalitions & rape crisis centers in 2000.

President Obama is the first U.S. President to declare April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in 2009.

Today we can see that we have had significant successes:

  • A rape survivor's sexual history cannot be used to discredit her in court.
  • Acquaintance rape has gained greater visibility.
  • Rape crisis centers are still standing.
  • Laws continue to change in favor of survivors.
  • The assumption of men's power over women has been challenged.
  • Survivors have greater resources.
  • Sexual assault rates have declined in recent years.

We are also continuing to struggle with a legacy of challenges. In society at large, women are still blamed for the violence they suffer. It is still common for people to ask: "Why did she… wear that, say this, go there, drink that, etc." rather than "Why did he rape her?"

Within the field, the establishment of rape crisis centers by rape survivors brought large numbers of middle-class White women into political activism. Although women of color were pivotal in this history, their efforts and struggles were largely invisible because of racism within and outside the movement.

For a more comprehensive historical overview, refer to History of the Sexual Violence Movement in our online Ongoing Advocacy Training.



  • Brown, Suzanne (2003). A feminist history of rape. Connections. Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Olympia, WA.
  • Finkelhor, D. (2002). Introduction. In Myers, J. E. B., Berliner, L., Briere, J., Hendrix, C. T., Jenny, C., Reid, T. A., [Eds.], The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, Second Edition (pp. xi-xiv). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Greensite, Gillian (1999). History of the rape crisis movement. In California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (Ed.), Support for survivors: Training for sexual assault counselors. Cited by Sniffen, C. in History of the rape crisis movement.

Additional Resources

Reviewed: May 9th, 2016