U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks during a Birmingham, Alabama news conference at which he refused to answer questions regarding accusations that he had sexually harrassed women (November 16, 2017).
If U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore had been alive a little more than 100 years ago, no one would be discussing the recent allegations against him or his fitness for office.
In fact, there was no crime on the books that he could have violated, because in 1890, the age of consent in Alabama (and many other states) was 10. Between 1885 and 1920, however, American reformers, led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, embarked upon a massive and successful campaign to persuade states to raise the age of sexual consent for girls.
Before women had the right to vote, they used the court of public opinion to change attitudes about female sexuality and sought laws that better protected women from sexual violence. This 19th-century campaign launched the long struggle against sexual assault and harassment that the 21st-century #metoo campaign continues. Both campaigns show that women can secure meaningful legislative changes, even without the ballot or proportional representation as elected officials. But they also demonstrate the limits of legislative change in the absence of corresponding changes in culture and institutions — an important lesson for those seeking to make this moment the start of a more permanent transformation.
Efforts to raise the age of consent in the United States were inspired by those in England. In 1885, British journalist William Stead posed undercover among brothel keepers, where he was shocked to find that men could (and often did) easily purchase the opportunity to deflower a 13-year-old virgin for about five British pounds. Outraged, Stead chronicled this dark element of London life in a series for the Pall Mall Gazette entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” By the end of the year, the resulting public furor led the British Parliament to raise the age of consent to 16.