Rutgers Law Student, Rape Survivor, Takes on Sean Hannity and Victim-Blaming

Rutgers Law Student, Rape Survivor, Takes on Sean Hannity and Victim-Blaming

Zerlina Maxwell gains national recognition as writer, political commentator before earning J.D.

Zerlina Maxwell
Zerlina Maxwell received rape and death threats for arguing that “... we should be telling men not to rape women" instead of arming women with guns during her March 5 Hannity appearance.

'It makes me angry that so many women don’t get the opportunity to come forward because of blame and guilt and shame. That sort of drives me and makes me want to be more open about it.'
– Zerlina Maxwell, who was raped a month before starting law school.

Zerlina Maxwell had it with all the questions. 

Was she flirting? What was she wearing? How much was she drinking?

And in the midst of listening to Sean Hannity’s pro-gun monologue, in which he argued that women should have the right to bear a concealed weapon to prevent being raped, she heard the potential for yet another question for rape survivors brewing: “Did she have a gun?”

And Maxwell was not having it. 

“I don’t think we should be telling women to do anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women. And start the conversation there,” the Rutgers-Newark law student and rape survivor fired back during her March 5 appearance on The Sean Hannity Show.

The next day, Maxwell’s Facebook page and Twitter account were strewn with hate speech, racial and gender slurs, even rape threats and death wishes.

“I normally get things like, ‘You’re dumb. You’re stupid. You’re a socialist,’ and then I move on,” said Maxwell, 31, a frequent flip-side-of-the-coin Fox News contributor who is no stranger to negative feedback. “But when I was receiving messages that were intentionally trying to hurt me because I revealed in the segment that I was also survivor . . . those were really painful to get.”

The irony of the situation – that a woman speaking out against rape culture was threatened with rape – was not lost on Maxwell.  “I think the backlash proves my point,” she said. 

But she won’t let it silence her.

“It makes me angry that so many women don’t get the opportunity to come forward because of this blame and guilt and shame,” she said. “That sort of drives me and makes me want to be more open about it.”

“And that may be what makes me most proud of her,” said Andrew Rothman, associate dean for student affairs at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, and one of Maxwell’s mentors.

Most law students find their first year to be “grueling,” said Rothman, but for Maxwell, who was raped a month prior to the start of her first year in 2007, the pressure was compounded.

“She was suffering on all fronts,” he said.

The Millburn native made it through her first semester, but juggling her emotional recovery with a full-time law school workload proved overwhelming in her second semester when she said she walked out on one of her final exams. 

Maxwell took a hiatus from school to work on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. She returned to Rutgers in 2009 as a part-time night student wiser and with a new focus. 

“As hard as that first year was, and as hard as that situation was,” she said, “it was really, really important for me to go through something challenging and then fight through it and make it to the other side.”

Stoked by her campaign experience and taken by the broad possibilities of social media, Maxwell plunged into blogging as a way to stay involved in political discussions. Once she broke into Twitter, she soon gained recognition as a legitimate voice in the political conversation.

BuzzFeed named her one of “Nineteen People Who Forced Their Way Into the Political Conversation Through Twitter.”  In 2012, The New York Times identified Maxell as “A Twitter Voice to Follow,” and she became one of “Salon’s Twitter 50” during the presidential election.

Her writing has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, JET Magazine, Black Enterprise, the Huffington Post, Salon.com and Ebony.com, among others. Maxwell also is a frequent guest and fill-in host on Sirius XM Left’s “Make It Plain With Mark Thompson” and, in addition to her twice-weekly appearances on Fox News; she has been a commentator on MSNBC and CNN.

“The writing came out of me just being very interested and engaged in politics,” she said. “I wanted to comment on it, and it grew.”

Though her national recognition as a political commentator is fairly recent, Maxwell began honing her debate skills before she could cast a ballot. 

“I remember arguing with my dad when I was 7 about the ’88 election and telling the other kids, ‘Don’t vote for George Bush!’ and they can’t vote, they’re 7,” she said with a laugh. “I can only assume that was in my blood in some way because it wasn’t instruction from my parents.”

Political activism very well could be in Maxwell’s DNA. Her grandfather, Rev. Elmer Williams, a civil-rights activist, was involved in the desegregation of public schools in New Jersey and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have plenty of pictures of him with Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Clay holding a flyer for a rally my grandfather was organizing in the ’60s,” said Maxwell, who added that her mother still talks about her 10th birthday when King joined her family for dinner and made an impression on her for putting ketchup on his mashed potatoes. “I grew up with that.”

Once equipped with a J.D. in May, Maxwell said she’ll sit for the bar exam, but plans to continue her career as a writer and analyst, not a lawyer.  But she credits her education in law with sharpening her analytical skills, making her a better writer and getting her closer to her goal of landing a contract as a paid commentator and, ultimately, her own show.