(WOMENSENEWS)–The 1974 trial of Inez Garcia in Monterey, Calif., was a window on the growing movement of women’s rights activists to expose violence against women as a tool of sexism.

Garcia, a 30-year-old agricultural worker and wife of an imprisoned anti-Castro Cuban dissident, had been raped. Half an hour after the attack, the two men involved had threatened that "worse" would happen if she did not leave town. Garcia went after them with a rifle, killed the hefty man who had held her down, missing the actual rapist. She was arrested and charged with murder.

An entire system in which rape victims were disbelieved, blamed or treated condescendingly was on trial as crowds of largely white women’s rights activists from all over California filled the courtroom daily, demonstrated loudly and raised money for Garcia’s defense. At the time, most battery and rape went unreported and few perpetrators went to jail. Garcia had not been tested for rape evidence after her arrest.

Her attorney, Charles M. Garry, a radical hero who had represented several Black Panthers, faced a judge who refused to admit rape evidence into what he insisted was a homicide trial. Garry’s defense of Garcia was based on "diminished capacity," meaning she had not known what she was doing when she fired her rifle. But the defendant didn’t enhance her lawyer’s portrayal of her as a meek, distraught victim.

At one point, she shouted at the judge: "I killed the son of a bitch because I was raped and I’d kill him again!"

The post-trial comment by one male juror was typical of public opinion at the time: "A rapist is just trying to give her a good time," he said.

She was found guilty and sentenced to five years, leading to widespread "Free Inez Garcia" demonstrations. But the conviction was overturned on a technicality and three years later, another trial was held.

By 1977, things were different. Most states had dropped the requirement of corroborating evidence to prove a rape and adopted "rape shield laws" that prevented attorneys from questioning defendants about prior sexual conduct. Penalties for convicted rapists had increased. Rape hotlines and shelters were being established and a woman’s right to self-defense was becoming more firmly planted in the public mind.

The activists pressing for change included women newly graduated from the nation’s law schools. Young attorney Susan Jordan argued self-defense on Garcia’s part at her retrial. In March, she was acquitted.

While Garcia herself took no part in the still-growing movement against gender-based violence, she is regarded as one of its heroes. She died in Florida in 2003.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at [email protected].

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