Virginia Nordby was the principal drafter of the Michigan Criminal Sexual Conduct Act, Public Act 266, in 1974. However, her influence transcends Michigan state lines. Public Act 266 revolutionized perceptions and interpretations of rape and has since served as a model for nearly thirty other states. The Act now defines rape as a four-degree crime of assault with its varying degrees based on the presence of force and aggravating circumstances as opposed to the previous definitions of rape as the “carnal knowledge” of a woman not a man’s wife by force and without her consent under the common law. The language used in Public Act 266 acknowledges the existence of marital rape as well as male rape victims. The law also includes a rape “shield” provision which bars evidence about unrelated and irrelevant aspects of the victim’s sexual history. This helps to ensure that the assailant’s actions are on trial and not the victim’s past. Though contested, the law has remained intact and has given many victims greater peace of mind in taking a case to court.
Virginia Nordby’s impact on women in Michigan extends beyond the context of the 1974 Criminal Sexual Conduct Act. She molded the sensitivities and understandings of future generations at the University of Michigan with a pioneering class called Women and the Law. The goals of the course were “to understand the great number and variety of ways in which the law establishes or reinforces sex role stereotypes,” as well as, “to develop a thorough understanding of the legal tools and theories available for challenging stereotypes.” During her time at the University of Michigan and as a consultant for the Michigan Women’s Task Force on Rape, Nordby has worked tirelessly to end discrimination against not only women, but against people of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and social classes.
1Virginia Nordby, Necrology File. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.