Memoirs and Bios

Return to main Text Memoirs Page

The Anti-Rape Movement in Chicago by Helena Aarli

(Editors Note: The women's liberation movement organized the first anti-rape groups in the 1970's and showed how the courts, hospitals and police abused rape survivors.)

The Anti-Rape Movement of the 1970's in Chicago, Illinois, provided an opportunity for women to feel empowered by being able to create change in the institutions which only added to the pain and trauma of victims. The hospitals which, if they did admit rape victims, were not sensitive to the needs of the victims and were unskilled in gathering evidence for possible prosecution; the police who, if they gave credibility to the charge of rape, treated the situation as a joke; the courts, who assigned untrained, hurried prosecuting attorneys to the cases -- all created what we called "the second rape".

Two situations worked simultaneously to assure the success of our movement: a powerful, determined and committed group of women emerged to take on the issue and society was ready for us. This is the story of the institutions we took on -- the before and after of the anti-rape movement and some of the vivid anecdotes which will not leave my mind, almost thirty years later.

Early Beginnings:

I was asked by the CWLU to start an older woman's group. I didn't see any need for that -- after all, didn't we all have similar issues? Jessie Bernard did convene such a group that year. The next year I was asked again, so I said that I would do it. I put a notice in the newspaper and six women showed up at my house. We started by exchanging our experiences -- in a consciousness-raising group style. After a while, some of us felt we wanted to get involved in an issue. A workshop on rape was being offered by -- I believe -- Andrea Medea. A few of us were totally intrigued by the idea of immersing ourselves in this issue, so we started our own local group. Andrea was quite dramatic. I can still recall that at one point in her talk, she broke a record over her knee -- a record known for its harmful, sexist lyrics….

(I was later to realize as I sat in a car with Mary Meyer on our way to a meeting that I had been nearly raped by a sheriff in Texas …. Some twenty years earlier….. a memory I had buried so deeply that it had been the much-hidden part of my psyche that came up as an immediate 'yes' when the possibility of working against rape came into my life).

Some of the older women stayed to work on this issue; some left the group. We were not trained organizers and had no special skills in this area. What we had was street smarts -- when you have experienced discrimination you gain a certain sense of what to do and how to do it. Eventually some law students joined us. Renee Hanover, a local attorney, worked closely with us.

We soon recognized that there were three institutions that we had to confront, train and change, in order to improve the picture for women who had been raped: the hospitals, the police, the courts.


We found that one hospital (at least) in Chicago did not admit rape victims.

That was Weiss Memorial. At a presentation before a committee of the Chicago City Council, I announced that there was such a hospital. Alderman Bill Singer asked which one. I hesitated, not knowing whether to announce this, but I finally did. That evening, a local newspaper called me, did some investigation, and did a story on this. Lo and behold -- Weiss Memorial began to accept rape victims.

Hospitals also need awareness and training on two other issues (which we conducted with the doctors and other personnel). They seemed to be unaware of the tremendous effect of the rape on the woman mentally as well as physically. She had to be treated gently and carefully and preferably with a woman present (a nurse or later, as we became better known in the community, an advocate from our group). Hospital personnel also needed to collect evidence of the rape if the woman decided to prosecute -- samples of semen, photos of any bruising, clothing she wore to the hospital. Hopefully, women did not shower -- which was, of course, a natural instinct (many reported that they felt incredibly dirty after the crime).


I can recall our first visit to a police station. It turned out to be very traumatic. We were sent to the sexual assault section. There -- hanging right above the sign leading to that department -- was a very, very large pair of pink women's panties! Clearly, this was a joke to our local Chicago police. I don't recall the rest of the visit, only that we returned the next day with a camera, but the panties were down. This was typical of the attitudes we had to combat with the police. At one point, I accompanied a woman to the police station to report a rape. I did not identify myself as a member of the rape crisis group. The police officer said: "If she was raped, I'm a monkey's uncle."

The police had issued a manual that stated that the first thing a police officer should do is to question a woman's veracity. I confronted a police detective at a forum and he denied the existence of such a manual. That day I was at a library in a public building and a young man approached me. As I recall, he was a lawyer with the ACLU. He showed me a copy of the manual that "didn't exist". I made a copy of it in the library and the next time the detective and I were on a platform together and he again denied the existence of such a manual, I produced it and quoted from it. Lo and behold, the manual was then revised.

We pushed for a team of detectives to answer rape calls -- one male, one female. We asked for training of police officers in this special field which included sensitivity training and efficient collection of data to be used to apprehend the suspect.


But if a woman got through the ordeals of the hospital and the police, what then happened in the courts could be even more detrimental to her. Women were afraid to press charges because their lives were examined and the women were made out to be loose women who were "asking for it" -- by the audacity of the way they had been dressed or had acted, or if they were not virgins. The victims were made out to be the criminals. The women were represented by state's attorneys who might be well-meaning but were inexperienced, had no special training in rape cases, and, as one young man told me: "I have only ten minutes to interview my client before I have to enter the court." That particular incident involved a teen-aged young woman from the Phillipines who had been gang-raped. Her culture did not allow her to use the necessary legal language which described rape. On that basis, the judge could have said there was no "probable cause" and dismissed it. But he looked at the young woman, looked around the courtroom (a row of women sat there observing) and said: "There is clearly something happening in our society; I am going to find "probable cause".) Yes, there were people who "got it" and responded positively.

On the other hand, there were others who clearly didn't "get it". Paulette was a young, African American woman, who went into a bar one night because she felt like dancing. (It seems to me that the issue of the way she dressed was raised at this time, but no details come back). Four men in the bar raped her. The Chicago court room was large and full. Judge (Dunn) called in the four young men and included, in his remarks, that "boys will be boys". I remember gasping and standing up in shock and saw, from the corners of my eyes, court police coming over to seat me.

Lee Phillips hosted a noon show in Chicago and I appeared on her program. Something was triggered in Ms. Phillips and she became very involved in the issue. She made a film "The Rape of Paulette". (Wish I had a copy)

We started to go to court as lay advocates, both to give moral support to women who chose to prosecute, and to monitor that all legal roads possible were pursued.

I recall going to the home of a woman on the south side of Chicago. Approximately seven women were present that afternoon. We sat in a circle and one by one the women told their horror stories. One woman was walking into her building after a day of work -- a man was standing by her mail box and he raped her. She was too embarrassed to tell her husband and daughter. After that, she walked her teen-aged daughter to school each day. When we went to our respective cars, she asked if she could walk me. I was concerned about HER ….. this conservative, rather shy, quiet woman, carefully opened her purse to show me a Saturday night special …. Which she carried with her at all times!

Another young woman was not there because she, her husband and baby, had moved to Canada. She had gone out for milk early one morning, carrying her baby. A man forced her back into her apartment, raped her in front of the baby, slit her throat, and left her for dead. She was a nurse, and obviously was able to control the bleeding sufficiently to save her life. She was too traumatized to remain in Chicago.

What was the commonality that had brought these women together? Each one had identified the same man. When we confronted the state's attorney handling the case with these facts, he said it was a case of "mistaken identity"…. And, since the court system was (is?) set up to introduce only one case at a time, with no reference to other rapes and victims, the jury would never know that this was indeed NOT a case of mistaken identity, but rather a miscarriage of justice.

When we suggested that the state's attorneys might try to come up with some creative ways to somehow put this menace behind bars, we were treated with some hostility… i.e., how dare we question their handling of the case??

Eventually, we were heard. Some state's attorneys were trained to handle this area with expertise; many more women became involved in this aspect of the law. Questioning a woman about her history was no longer allowed. Defense attorneys were less likely to question what a woman wore or how she had acted to "cause the attack".

We had a rape crisis line on the north side and the calls we received were learning experiences for us. We found out what women wanted and needed. We listened and we learned. We found ourselves on radio shows and being interviewed by the press. Clearly, the time had come for change and we were ready.

I hope this project (the book and the website) make that very clear to young people today.

These years were clearly so important to me -- how else explain the power of these stories that can last almost thirty years?

I became able to talk to individuals, to groups, to press. I learned to confront when necessary.

I learned how empowering it can be to work for social change and to achieve it.

So -- if you can get the positive message out to youth today --what an incredible service that will be to the world!

Good luck.

Woman symbol

Memoir Topics