Annette Gordon-Reed

(WOMENSENEWS)–In responding to the story of white supremacist Strom Thurmond having a black daughter, most commentators have keyed in on the hypocrisy of racism.

It’s certainly fascinating to think about a staunch segregationist campaigning against the rights of blacks and ranting about the dangers of the “mongrelization” of the white race while he was giving money to his secret black daughterand paying her college tuition.

But in addition to the heavy load of racial hypocrisy that the story unearths, it also has another important element. That is the sexual advantage that is often taken by one with more wealth and social standing than another.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s mother, Carrie Butler, was a 16-year-old maid for the Thurmond household when she became pregnant by 22-year-old Strom. Although the age of consent in South Carolina at the time was 14, the circumstances make you wonder if this could have been a consensual relationship.

Think of the Thurmond household in 1925. Here was Carrie Butler–a poor, black, female–16 years old. In contrast, Strom was older and the scion of a prominent family. His power was in inverse proportion to her vulnerability. With such a power deficit, could she have said “no” to him?

We all have our instinctive responses to that question, based upon our knowledge of power, race and gender relations.

Some Found a Way to Say “No”

I am inclined to agree with those who give an immediate and emphatic “no,” for reasons that I’ll explain shortly. Yet, I pause over that response because I don’t want to imply that every black woman who worked in the homes of white people in the South had to have sex and babies with the white men in the household whenever they asked them to. That is not true. There were black women who resisted the advances of white men, kept their jobs and struggled on. They must not be forgotten as we try to do justice to Carrie Butler.

Butler’s age at the time is the major cause for suspecting it was not truly consensual.

Age Affects Pregnancy Rate

Even if Thurmond didn’t knock her down and drag her into the bedroom, teen-age girls are notoriously susceptible to abusive manipulation by older men. Even today, men who are six years or more older than their teen-aged partners cause a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies.

The age differential definitely affects the outcome in these sexual encounters. This may be because the teens aren’t able to stand up to older men who demand sex without protection, or because they fall for promises of support from men who are out in the workplace. Either way, they are in over their heads. Carrie Butler was left to make decisions that no one her age should ever have to make.

She struggled alone for six months before she left town to give her daughter to relatives who could provide a better life than she could. Young Strom, a teacher at the local high school, was apparently exiled to Florida for a time to sell real estate. He returned to study law with his father. Soon he began his meteoric rise in South Carolina politics, fueled in great part by catering to his constituents’ hostility toward people such as Carrie Butler and the daughter he had with her.

Poignant Absence of Mother’s Voice

Who knows what Carrie Butler really thought about Strom Thurmond? The absence of her voice is poignant.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams says her mother described Thurmond as “a nice man” and took her to meet him many years after what transpired in 1925.

That intrigues me, and makes me think that at least the grownup Carrie Butler had a lot of backbone. Imagine being a Southern black woman in the early 1960s and walking your half-white daughter, the very image of her white father, into his law office to introduce the two. By then Butler was gravely ill and may well have wanted to leave her daughter with something positive, some connection that might make her path in life smoother than her own had been. Mothers often do that.

But we owe it to Carrie Butler not to gloss over the harsh world she lived in and brought her daughter into. There’s nothing left to do but try to tell the truth of that time.

Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School, author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” and editor of “Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History.” She is currently finishing a biography of the Hemings family.