Revolutionary-era rape narrative painfully relevant today

Bedlow’s defense team accuses Lanah of “screaming rape” to protect her character from defamation. Her six lawyers admit a seduction took place but maintain that Lanah consented, then later regretted her decision. They continue to slander her through hours of grueling court testimony for daring to associate with a man above her position. Like many modern sexual assault cases, the trial is more about the victim and society’s perception of their morality than about proof of the perpetrator’s guilt.

The expertise Sweet gained as director of sexuality studies at UNCC gives him the authority to deal with the impact of date rape. He argues, quite effectively, that Lanah’s behavior after Bedlow’s assault is consistent with current psychological understandings of rape survivorship. But in 1792 Lanah’s immediate actions were his undoing. Rape laws were always derived from Sir Matthew Hale’s strict British criteria which valued a woman’s reputation and the impressions left by her behavior rather than physical evidence. Hale’s goal was to thwart “malicious women (who) might bring false rape charges against men of property and good repute.”

As wealthy and influential men still do, Bedlow uses his privilege to protect himself from the consequences. But Lanah’s father is a surprisingly worthy opponent. He holds an influential position in working-class society and leads a years-long battle against Bedlow to restore his family’s reputation. Their conflict grows to consume popular interest repeatedly. At one point, the outcry translated into street riots and later a series of scathing letters published in the newspaper that would put a modern Twitter war to shame.

Still, it wasn’t Lanah’s fight, it was her father’s. She was her father’s property, so legally he was the party that was hurt by Bedlow’s assault. It’s one of many situations Sweet uses to illustrate how the men take control of Lanah’s narrative, repeatedly whittling her down as they use her experience to further their own agendas. Another way Lanah is diminished is the surprising lack of record of her result. After the court transcripts, there is no physical evidence of where she goes or what she does. Was she even the author of the letter retracting her rape published five years after the trial?

Sweet is meticulously careful not to usurp Lanah Sawyer from her own story. Instead, it produces a historical narrative that is decidedly pro-woman, highlighting a host of ways working-class women were held to an impossible standard of propriety. And by comparing 18th century mores with today’s ethos, he slams a hammer on the lack of progress society has made in 230 years regarding victim shaming, abuse of privilege and double standards. feminine.

“The Sewing Girl’s Tale” offers a fascinating dive into history while restoring Lanah’s place in her own narrative. Sweet even argues that Lanah’s disappearance in the mists of time could be how she regained her autonomy. Once she was no longer available for exploitation, her hope is that she found peace in her anonymity.


“The Seamstress’s Tale”

by John Wood Sweet

Henry Holt and Co.

384 pages, $29.99

About Hector Hedgepeth

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