“She Should Have Known Better”

The Antebellum Period was one in which men were treated as superior to women. Surprising? Not really, but the extent to which this statement held true is. Through the course of this week, we’ve read and analyzed works on sexuality in the Antebellum period.  In chapter four of Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality we examined different primary source documents as well as two essays on the topic. Of this chapter, this post will focus on the “A Trial for Rape in New York, 1793” and the essay “Male License and Working-Class Women’s Sexuality.” Additionally, we read Charlotte Temple by Susana Rowson. One of the most significant themes shared by these readings is that of the expectations of men versus the expectations of women, specifically the fluidity of the former compared to the strict and clear cut of the latter; moreover, it is important to examine the repercussions of this difference, specifically that of male sympathy and female blame.

In Charlotte Temple, the expectations of male sexuality vary. The three main characters of Montraville, Belcour, and Mr. Temple all represent different parts of this spectrum. Mr. Temple, being modest, virtuous, and compassionate, represents an ideal man. Conversely, Belcour, being seductive, manipulative, and selfish stands as a complete opposite type of man. However, Belcour is still accepted in society. His behavior is expected; further, the narrator argues Charlotte is to blame, saying “when once a woman has forgot the respect due to herself, by yielding to the solicitations of illicit love, they lose all their consequence” (Rowson, 58). In other words, what should Charlotte expect? She’s no longer a respectable woman, so essentially it is her fault. Belcour’s behavior is to be expected.  Charlotte and her mistakes take away her virtuosity and modesty and replace them with socially unacceptable vice. This is male sympathy. This is female blame. Below, I’ve created a visual spectrum based on the three main characters in Charlotte Temple, similar to one created in class.





In contrast, women’s sexual expectations were more exact and strict – either you were virtuous or unacceptable by society. Charlotte’s character is a perfect example. She is described as better, in terms of how a woman should be, than Mademoiselle La Rue because of her kind nature, but she is much worse than Mrs. Temple and Mrs. Beauchamp due to her mistakes. Wouldn’t we expect her to, like Montraville, land in the middle of the spectrum? No. Because of her actions, she is treated as a total outcast. Though she is not as sexual or manipulative as La Rue, according to the narrator, she deserves no respect after becoming a mistress.






The main characters can be grouped into two: Charlotte and La Rue; Mrs. Temple and Mrs. Beauchamp. Despite the narrator’s brief attempts at portraying Charlotte as better than Mademoiselle La Rue, it does not matter. Because of her choice to follow Montraville, Charlotte is still an outcast until her death. Despite the fact that Charlotte never actually makes this choice, and actually tries to say no multiple times, the blame is on her.

All of these ideas (fluid male expectations versus strict female expectations, male sympathy versus female blame) are also present in chapter four of Major Problems. We see male sympathy for Henry Bedlow in “A Trial for Rape in New York, 1793.” In this excerpt, Bedlow’s defense shows both male sympathy and female blame, as they blame Lanah Sawyer, the victim, rather than Bedlow, the accused rapist. They characterize Bedlow as “one perhaps, who will go considerable lengths in soliciting [a woman’s] consent to his wishes” but they state this is actually “by no means a circumstance against him, it is strongly in his favor” (“A Trial,” 111). Additionally, they characterize Sawyer as untrustworthy and manipulative, saying “she may have had the art to carry a fair outside, while all was foul within” (“A Trial,” 112). By doing this, they focus the attention and associated blame on Sawyer instead of Bedlow. It’s the classic case of today’s “She Should Have Known Better” rhetoric.

Adding an element to this case, Christine Stansell’s essay “Male License and Working-Class Women’s Sexuality” calls out this female blame and male sympathy, stating that Bedlow’s defense “shifted the focus of the trial from the duplicity of the seducer to the weak-mindedness of the seduced” (Stansell, 122). Stansell explains that this case is a classic example of misogynist thought, and it shows that the Antebellum’s misogyny was extreme enough normalize the association of “heterosexual relations with treachery and cold-blooded exploitation” (Stansell, 122). Male on female sexual hostility was just a fact of life. Again, this allowed for sympathy for males who commit sexual hostility and pushed the blame on female victims.

In both Charlotte Temple and the excerpts from chapter four of Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, we see an obvious difference in the expectations of male and female sexuality, and the common sympathy for males and blame on females shows this.


“A Trial for Rape in New York, 1793,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexualitiy, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 109-112.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Stansell, Christine. “Male License and Working-Class Women’s Sexuality,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexualitiy, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 120–131.

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