Jane E. Larson


This Article describes the late nineteenth-century campaign to raise the age of sexual consent as the first wave of anti-rape activism in the United States and a precursor of the modern rape reform movement. This account draws upon evidence from reform efforts in all the states and territories in the period 1885-1900, but focuses in particular on the successful effort to change the law in the District of Columbia. Age-of-consent reform strengthened the crime commonly referred to as "statutory rape," or heterosexual intercourse with an underage female with or without her consent. (At common law and in early American statutes, rape was an offense only against a female.)

When agitation for reform of statutory rape law first began in the United States in 1885, the age of consent in most states was ten years. Ten years was the English common law rule adopted by most of the newly-formed United States and the District of Columbia. Four years later, in 1889, Congress revised the statutory age in the D.C. criminal code upwards to sixteen years, where it remains today. In like measure, throughout the country during the 1880s and 1890s, state and territorial legislatures significantly raised the age of consent. Today, all states criminalize statutory rape in some form and the age of consent in the majority of states is sixteen years.

Credit for this sweeping and successful legal reform belongs to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the WCTU was the largest women's organization in the nation, the first mass (as opposed to elite) political organization for women in American history. Suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper described the organization as "the most perfectly organized body of women in existence," successful both in shaping public opinion and enacting legal reforms.