The problem of how to deal with sexual misconduct existed long before the United States was founded. But the new U.S. legal system did not make any changes to better protect American women. The legal system adopted the English custom of assuming a woman was lying about sexual assault unless she could prove it. This custom stemmed from the belief that if a woman was caught having sex with a man outside of marriage, she would claim it was rape to protect her reputation. It did not consider the serious social and emotional consequences women faced if they had been sexually assaulted. As a result, very few women won cases against their attackers and even fewer reported attacks.
These two sources illustrate how race and social class could affect the experience and outcome of a woman seeking justice in a sexual misconduct case. The Trial of Captain James Dunn details the court proceedings in a sexual assault case from 1809. The case was very unusual for the time because the victim was a free Black woman named Sylvia Patterson and the defendant was a white man. It should be noted that Sylvia’s husband witnessed the attack, and he was the person who pressed charges. This was allowed because under coverture Sylvia was his personal property. Even with her husband’s support and testimony, Sylvia still had to provide witnesses to prove she was a respectable woman who would not have slept with her attacker. Captain Dunn’s lawyers tried to prove that she was a woman who had sex outside of marriage and had once contracted a sexually transmitted infection. The court ruled in her favor.
The newspaper article covers a court case from 1825. Sarah Moran sued William Dawes for sleeping with her daughter. Sarah did not press criminal charges. This may be because she knew the relationship was consensual or it may be that she understood that it would be too difficult to prove it was not consensual. Sarah sued William for money. She claimed that her daughter’s reputation was ruined and that she would never be able to arrange a good marriage for her. Since marriage was the only way for most women to secure their financial future, the jury awarded her $9,000 (nearly $250,000 today). Sarah’s daughter’s race and social class made it easier for the jury to pity her. And Sarah’s economic resources made the lawsuit possible in the first place.