Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Worst Supreme Court Cases for Women #4: Missouri v. Celia

Hello humans and ladies, this post is part of my running series on Worst Supreme Court Cases For Women.

I started this series because, while some try to convince us that the judicial system is or should be an objective arbiter of the law, the reality is that it has rarely, if ever, lived up to that ideal. Oftentimes, our formal educations do not teach us that these supposed Neutral Referees of the legal system have mis-used the power of their positions and the presumed objectivity granted to them to further oppress and marginalize women, people of color, and other historically subjugated people.

Some folks, particularly conservative-leaning ones, mock Women's Studies, African-American Studies, and any other ________ Studies courses as being Not Real. To them, these endeavors are Not Important to Real Scholarship, mostly because they detract away from time spent centering and celebrating white men in academia, who all Real Historians know are and were the most important, competent, and awesome people ever.

In some circles, that fields of study have been created to acknowledge and examine the reality that some of our founding fathers and builders of American infrastructure were misogynists and racists is labeled unpatriotic, man-hating, anti-white, and unacademic. When confronted with the reality that the law has been used to subordinate others, we see these typical projectionist defense mechanisms from those who seek to continue misusing the law in a similar fashion.

And so I bring you, in celebration of Not Real History, the Worst Supreme Court Case for Women That You've Probably Never Heard About #4.

[Trigger warning: rape]

In 1857, the US Supreme Court infamously ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that all men were not, actually, created equal, as slaves were deemed to be non-citizens and not protected by the US Constitution.

Less well-known is a 1855 Missouri Supreme Court decision, Missouri v. Celia, refusing to stay the execution of a slave woman who murdered her rapist "owner" in self-defense. Effectively, the court said that women who were slaves were not, actually, women and thus weren't actually rapable by their "masters."

For some background, in 1855 Missouri had a law making it a crime "to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled" (emphasis added). A woman was, in theory anyway, justified in using self-defense to prevent a man from raping her. Although, it must also be noted that married women during this time legally forfeited their right to refuse sex to their husbands upon marriage, as rape was not a recognized crime if it came within the bounds of marriage.

As members of the sex class, marriage for a woman was historically a situation of compulsory pregnancy at the sexual whim of the husband, given that he was legally permitted to rape her and that birth control and abortion were restricted. This, by the way, is the historical linkage of marriage with procreation at its most extreme and misogynistic, wherein women are valued primarily as fetal vessels. Today's "marriage defenders" use this marriage-as-procreation legacy to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.

While the rape law protected some unmarried women from rape, and marriage protected married women from non-husband rape, Missouri v. Celia made it clear that men could rape at least one class of woman without legal consequence: slaves.

Thusly, did Robert Newsom purchase a 14-year-old slave, Celia, and immediately begin raping her, which he continued to do for 5 years. She bore two children by him, both of which became Newsom's "property." Eventually, she began a relationship with a male slave, who ordered her to end her "relationship" with Newsom. Wanting to comply with this request, being pregnant and sick, and trying unsuccessfully to get Newsom's daughters to make their father stop raping her, Celia ended up killing Newsom when he tried to rape her again.

At trial, Celia was unable to testify, since blacks were deemed legally "incompetent" to testify against whites. Thus, Celia's defense attorney relied upon the testimony of two Totally Credible White Men who tried to whitemansplain on Celia's behalf that Celia couldn't have killed Newsom on her own and that she didn't intend to kill him.

After both sides presented their respective cases, the judge explained that Celia, being a slave, was her master's "property" and thus Missouri's rape law did not apply to her, despite the fact that, on its face, it applied to "any woman." Ergo, slave women were not actually women. Further, while the rape of a slave woman by someone other than her "master" would certainly be considered a trespass on the master's "property," an owner's rape of his own "property" was quite the legal quandary to our 19th century legal system.

So you see, a privileged class of white men, emotionally and situationally removed from being victims of slave rape, got to have Very Important Objective Legalacademintellectual debates about issues that uniquely affected the rights of black women.

The judge ended up holding that a slave woman, not actually being a woman encompassed by Missouri's rape law, could not make a self-defense argument with respect to rape. He instructed the jury that they were only to consider whether or not Celia murdered Newsom, not whether she did so in self-defense. Serving as a convenient backup in protecting male sexual access to women, especially black women, a jury composed of 12 white men consequently found Celia guilty of murder.

On an attempted appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court found "no probable case for... appeal" and refused to stay the execution.

The state hung Celia on December 21, 1855 for murder.

The Fulton (Missouri) Telegraph article, reprinted in The New York Times, recounted Celia's execution. Specifically, it stated only that she killed her "master," omitting the repeated rape carried out by this "master." Note, that he raped her was not a speculation. It was a fact, as (a) Celia's status as a slave eliminated her power to refuse him, and (b) she bore him two children, demonstrating that sexual contact had occurred.

By omitting these circumstances, the article implies that Celia killed Newsom For No Reason At All. It is a historical account that erases the wrongdoing of the white man and, incredibly, the article ends by calling his death "one of the most horrible tragedies ever enacted in our county."

One of the most horrible tragedies ever enacted in our county.

Not slavery. Not the institutionally legit rape of women. Not the legal construction of black women as unrapable and undefendable.

But that somebody finally showed a white man that her body had boundaries.

Isn't Real History fun?

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