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“He had no right”: Sex, law, and the courts in Vermont, 1777–1920

Harold A Goldman, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This is a social and legal history of the role played by Vermont's courts in regulating sexual activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It relies on a quantitative and qualitative review of civil and criminal cases brought and disposed of in four of Vermont's county courts, as well as the decisions of Vermont's Supreme Court. Unlike urban areas that developed alternative administrative centers of regulatory power, Vermont's rural county courts were its most important site of sexual discourse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Civil suits were brought by and on behalf of women and girls for sexual defamation, sexual assault, breach of promise to marry, and bastardy, along with suits brought by fathers resulting from their daughters' seduction. Such suits had high success rates and awarded large monetary damages. Judges and juries focused more on the harm caused by uncontrolled male sexuality than on female moral transgressions. Men were on notice that they would be punished for violating sexual norms, including unwanted sexual advances. This study also examines how prosecutors, judges, and juries dealt with criminal sexual offenses such as adultery and forcible and statutory rape. Supreme Court decisions liberalizing the evidentiary requirements for a conviction coupled with concerns about a surging divorce rate and flagging morality led to a dramatic increase in adultery prosecutions after the Civil War. The state imprisoned hundreds of men and women for this offense. In forcible rape cases, courts allowed evidence of prior sexual acts on the part of the alleged victim to be used to impeach her credibility on the question of consent, but they also made clear that the question of consent depended on the woman's perspective. A man's perception that the sexual advance was welcome carried little weight. The state also raised the age of consent from eleven to fourteen (1886) and then sixteen (1898), leading to a surge in statutory rape prosecutions. As with forcible rape cases, guilty verdicts were obtained in a large majority of cases. And as with civil cases, judges and juries punished men for failing to control their sexual impulses.

Subject Area

American history|Law|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Goldman, Harold A, "“He had no right”: Sex, law, and the courts in Vermont, 1777–1920" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988789.