Memorialisation is a political project, and one which is deeply interwoven with the never-finished project of nation-building. In most cases, the memorials that populate public spaces across the globe have contributed to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the (gendered and racialised) status quo.  In the contemporary moment, however, this picture is subject to fragmentation and contestation, as disparate groups in multiple countries make claims to public representation that question conservative stories of national unity and strength. On the one hand, we see struggles between progressive movements seeking to pull down monuments that reflect values they wish to see banished from contemporary society – #RhodesMustFall in South Africa and in Oxford; the pulling down of Confederate statues in the USA and statues of slave traders in the UK – and their counter-protesters. On the other, we see efforts to inaugurate monuments in support of progressive values, such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial.

At the same time, multiple sites across the globe are also witnessing renewed struggles over the interpretation and representation of sexual violence. This is most obviously encapsulated in the transnational #MeToo movement, which has (re)launched the question of sexual abuse into the forefront of public consciousness and media discourse. #MeToo has drawn attention to how commonplace the experience of sexual violence and/or sexual harassment is, and to the linkages between different forms of sexual abuse. The renewed public interest in sexual violence further resonates with public discourse around sexual violence in conflict zones, which has claimed significant space in the political, media, and public consciousness in recent years. While these are diverse and disparate movements, the notion of breaking the silence around sexual violence across both war and peace has emerged as a common trope.

Against this broad backdrop, this study engages with struggles over public memories of sexual violence by exploring six memorials that have appeared across the USA over the last decade. The memorials commemorate forms of sexual violence that span what feminists such as Cockburn have termed the “continuum of violence” across war and peace: three are dedicated to survivors of peacetime sexual violence within the USA itself; and three, the so-called ‘comfort women’ of the Asia-Pacific War. The study pays attention to the stories that the memorials tell, how they are shaped by their political contexts, and the interventions they make into political debates.

The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which is funding the project, is gratefully acknowledged.