Defining the Marital Union – A Conversation with Leslie J. Harris

HarrisLeslie J. Harris is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her book, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, analyzes the rhetoric surrounding five marital issues from the 1800s: domestic violence, divorce, polygamy, free love, and miscegenation.

ECM: Your book is concerned with nineteenth century marriage controversies, so same-sex marriage is seldom mentioned. But it was on my mind the whole time I was reading. Did it inspire or influence your writing in any way?

LJH: Yes, the same-sex marriage controversy was an important factor in inspiring the book. I’ve been very interested in the issue for years, but I was particularly intrigued by the rash of state constitutional amendments in the early 2000s. I couldn’t help but wonder why marriage mattered so deeply to so many people.

For those advocating the amendments, marriage seemed to function as a status and idea that was much larger than any particular relationship. War metaphors were common as advocates declared that marriage was “under attack” and needed to be “defended,” and marriage was commonly represented as a sacred and unchangeable institution. While the other side of the debate emphasized the huge number of laws and policies tied to marriage, simply changing laws and policies quickly became an inadequate response. Marriage seemed to function as a status that enabled full citizenship, and advocates often made the analogy to nineteenth and early twentieth-century bans on interracial marriage.

By examining the history of these controversies we can better understand what is at stake today. In the nineteenth century the topic of marriage arose in almost every major controversy of the time including women’s rights, westward expansion, slavery, immigration, religious diversity, temperance, and state’s rights. Marriage functioned as a lens through which complex issues of belonging, identity, and status were debated.

I’ve become convinced that today’s debate about same-sex marriage is not simply about preserving a seemingly sacred and unchanging institution, or securing particular rights and privileges. Rather, it is about negotiating the boundaries of American-ness. I reference the recent Supreme Court decisions about marriage in the book’s conclusion because they illustrate this point well.

The court said that marriage enables “pride” and “dignity,” especially in reference to raising children (who were said to be humiliated by DOMA). Even as the Supreme Court seemed to open space for same-sex marriage, it (perhaps inadvertently) limited the acceptable gay family to one that models the traditional nuclear family.

ECM: Contra those who claim that marriage has always been stable and static, you show that it has been controversial for a long time. Did you observe any particular consistency or development in the arguments from controversy to controversy?

LJH: One reoccurring theme across controversies is marriage as a religious institution and the role of religion in public life. Arguments against expanding grounds for divorce, for example, consistently invoked arguments about marriage as ordained by God. If God created marriage as a permanent union between a man and woman, humans could not legitimately change the institution of marriage. Much like many current advocates for same-sex marriage, some proponents for expanding divorce laws argued that religion should be separate from politics and that marriage was essentially a civil institution.

Religious tropes were also used in attempts to change understandings of marriage. Polygamy (nineteenth century Mormons) and free love (some groups of Perfectionists) were two dramatic attempts to change marriage that were based in religious and often explicitly biblical justifications. Religion can be a malleable tool in negotiating the meaning and significance of marriage in public life.

The perceived connection between marriage and the future of the nation also has a long history. Commentators warned, for example, that increasing rates of divorce would lead to the fall of the United States, much like the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, polygamy was seen as causing social decline into barbarism. This technique of linking changes in marriage to a slippery slope to the nation’s destruction instilled fear of change. More importantly, however, these claims revealed underlying ideological norms about what constituted a “good” nation.

Within this reasoning, the family represents a microcosm of the nation as a whole; so it was problematic if the American family replicated seemingly barbarous families of the East, which were assumed to be polygamous. If the family looked like the racial other, the nation would begin to look like the racial other—so there were racist assumptions hidden within the image of a “good” nation.

There are, however, some temporal differences in marriage controversies. During the first half of the nineteenth century Americans were experimenting with public identity, and marriage became one site of experimentation. During this time, for example, Oneida Perfectionists practiced free love (or communal marriage) and Mormons began practicing polygamy. They were certainly controversial during their time (both groups were run out of various communities), but there seemed to be cultural space for experiments in marriage, religion, and public identity.

On the other hand, today’s marriage controversies are not only able to incorporate the powerful rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re further enabled by new technologies. In the nineteenth century, for example, newspapers would print vivid descriptions of individuals such as the innocent and worthy “girl” who was deceived by a violent and unscrupulous husband, which helped promote identification with audiences. Today, however, such profiles are supplemented by actual visuals. Images of hard-working and non-threatening gay couples with their children enhance that audience identification even further.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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