Marriage, Metaphors, and Melodramas – By Darryl W. Stephens

Darryl W. Stephens on Leslie Harris’s State of the Marital Union

Leslie J. Harris, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, Baylor University Press, 2014, 214pp., $49.95
Leslie J. Harris, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, Baylor University Press, 2014, 214pp., $49.95
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It is easy to get tripped up by the tropes of our own times. In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, we would do well to consider the rhetorical as well as the cultural and political aspects of this US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Competing narratives frame this issue in powerful ways. For example, is marriage now a radically different institution than it was prior to this court case? In the months leading up to this decision, several of the justices fretted over altering a definition of marriage in place for “millennia.” Or, is it that “[t]he history of marriage is one of both continuity and change,” as the court later asserted? The words and metaphors symbolizing marriage continue to shape political responses to this decision. If we are to make sense of these arguments today, an historical perspective on public contestations about marriage is essential.

Enter nineteenth-century marriage controversies, oddly familiar and yet shockingly distinct from our current debates. Focusing on five prominent controversies — cruelty to women, divorce, Mormon polygamy, free love and licentiousness, and miscegenation — Leslie J. Harris, in her book, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, provides a timely and insightful analysis of “the public conception of marriage” in the United States. Harris discusses issues of race, class, immigrant status, and religion even as she maintains focus on the main narrative of public identity in the United States. As a scholar of communications and gender, she analyzes the rhetorical framing of marriage in terms of morality, gender roles, and national identity — issues that still occupy our national consciousness, captivate our moral imaginations, and propel our political discourse.

Through judicious use of primary source materials (newspaper articles, court cases, laws, letters, and other public forums of debate), Harris attempts to help us understand what is at stake both then and now: “why marriage matters so much — why Americans can’t leave it alone.” Her argument is sophisticated yet straightforward: in the nineteenth century, Americans reinforced, contested, and reimagined what it meant to be a man, a woman, an American, and a civilized country through public controversies about marriage. She is interested in how the public rhetoric of marriage shaped material realities for women and men. In the courts, media, and popular entertainment, she argues, Americans performed, re-inscribed, and reinvented gender roles and public identities through debates about marriage. At stake in these contestations about public morality were symbolic womanhood and “a mythic American identity.” In this study of past marriage controversies, Harris offers a critical view onto this nation’s struggles with gender, race, ethnicity, and class.

Harris begins with cruelty and murder. In the nineteenth century, the reigning legal metaphor in nineteenth-century discourse about marriage was “family-as-government.” Marriage not only represented the nation in miniature, and therefore civilization and morality, but also provided the location for a married woman’s citizenship and legal interests. Coverture laws limited a married woman’s rights and participation outside of the home, her interests and well-being “covered” by her husband as head of household, protector of and provider for his wife. In the role of “sovereign,” the husband, as with the state, was legally sanctioned to use force for appropriate correction and discipline. The husband was permitted to use of physical violence against his wife as long as the action was not ruled as cruelty.

The legal determination of cruelty depended on determining the limits of allowable violence — not the absence of violence. Drawing on court cases, Harris shows that the “distinction between impermissible cruelty and permissible chastisement” hinged on performance of “proper gendered expectations” by both husband and wife. Legal protections, guilt, and innocence often hinged on the degree to which the individuals involved fit the role of proper manhood or symbolic womanhood. For example, in 1847, an Alabama court considered whether the wife was “kind, dutiful, and obedient” in determining whether her husband’s’ violence was harmful to her. In an 1856 Wisconsin case, the judges determined that the wife’s failure to perform her gendered role “brought on the abuse,” justifying the husband’s violence in the eyes of the court.

In Harris’s depiction, the abused wife was as much on trial as the violent husband: Was the wife perceived as “pure”? Did she submit to the authority of her husband? For his part, the husband was expected to act rationally and firmly, providing reasonable “correction” if his wife was disobedient or rebellious. Citing an 1855 Alabama decision, Harris illustrates that the courts were more willing to condone violence among the lower classes than among the educated and refined. As for wife-murders, Harris argues that newspapers helped the public make sense of these cases by casting the murderer-husband as a “barbarous Other” (low class, lacking self-control, probably immigrant) and the murdered wife as complicit, if not entirely at fault: “some wives so defied cultural expectations of femininity that their murders were portrayed as justified.”

At this point, it may be useful to address a possible objection to Harris’s line of argumentation. Some readers may find her focus on a dominant, national narrative about marriage somewhat disconcerting. The viewpoint of this narrative tends to be white, male, and Protestant, as were the persons wielding significant social and political power in the United States at the time. The idea of a national narrative, however, does have coherence when viewed as legal discourse on state and federal levels. From this perspective, newspapers and other forms of public expression contribute and respond to a normative (that is legally enforced) rhetorical expression of marriage, gender, and citizenship. How Harris handles counter-narratives, then, becomes an important aspect of her analysis.

One example of counter-narrative that Harris analyzes is how prominent women leaders, such as Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, reinforced gender norms as they fought against violence in the home. For example, Willard drew contrasts between civilized Americans and violent immigrants, contributing to an inability to conceive of domestic violence among apparently upstanding citizens of the day. Instead of framing “violence against women as a violation of individual liberty,” Harris claims that many organizations spoke out against it as “a sign of cultural barbarity.” In this rhetorical depiction, it was not the woman as citizen that needed protection by the state but rather the woman as wife that needed protection by the (civilized) husband. According to Harris, “the public rhetoric of domestic violence reified myths of nation and womanhood while scapegoating a violent Other.” Thus, Harris suggests, this form of rhetoric against domestic violence also functioned to reinforce “cultural norms of piety and purity” for women.

Harris’s distinct contribution is to show how the regulation of gender through marriage functioned as a debate about public status and citizenship. This is clearly evident in her description of divorce. Viewing public debate about divorce as a melodrama, in which characters are either unambiguously good or unambiguously bad and through which virtue ultimately defeats vice, Harris illustrates the public’s desire for moral clarity about gender and the public role of women. Drawing on two prominent divorce trials (Beardsley 1860 and Ticknor 1867), Harris depicts the public spectacle of divorce as a morality play. “The divorce trial,” argues Harris, “used entertainment as a persuasive way to regulate gender in public culture and constituted the new public figure of the divorced woman.”

Detail of a 19th Century Marriage Certificate. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of a 19th Century Marriage Certificate. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This melodrama was played out not only in the popular imagination, as evidenced by newspaper coverage, but also in the courtroom. In legal terms, divorce depended on showing one party innocent and the other guilty, determinations based on gender role performance, such as harlot, victim, (good) mother, or neglectful husband. According to Harris, there was no possibility of shared guilt. (No-fault divorce did not exist in the nineteenth century.) Even as public divorce trials reinforced traditional gender roles, the process itself created new possibilities for women. The divorced woman represented a new public identity beyond either single or married status. The spectacle of divorce trials in courts and newspapers brought public light to what was still considered the sacred privacy of the home.

Divorce threatened this conception. Harris describes “widespread fear about the changing nature of family in the United States.” Efforts by the National Divorce Reform League (est. 1885) succeeded in prompting the US Bureau of Labor to issue a report on marriage and divorce in 1889. According to Harris, “the report constituted divorce as a national problem,” focusing not on the causes of divorce but on divorce itself as a “social evil.” Drawing on discourse in the New York Tribune and the 1860 Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, Harris shows that public rhetoric about divorce was rooted in religious and moral concern and based on definitions of marriage that limited women’s public identity and agency. Harris concludes that “any deviation from the ‘natural’ understanding or marriage” – a divinely sanctioned, gender-specific, life-long covenant between a man and a woman – “was thought to threaten the moral underpinnings of the nation.” Thus, the 1880s saw a push for uniform divorce laws, either through national legislation or a US constitutional amendment.

In contrast, efforts to expand divorce offered counter-narratives that strengthened the public role of women and their rights as citizens. For example, the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments cast traditional marriage as a form of slavery. “Divorce,” Harris writes, “was like an escape from slavery,” a metaphor that gained traction after the Civil War. Harris argues that the women’s movement’s rhetorical shift from the language of religion to the language of rights allowed the citizenry to hear from the experiences of individuals affected, creating public space to contemplate a right to divorce. Marriage as a contract (rather than divinely ordained covenant) shifted argumentation “from [the wife’s] status as a woman in a Christian family to [her] status as an individual citizen in a democratic nation.”

As Harris shows in subsequent chapters, the proper performance of sex, gender, and marriage rhetorically frames the politics of citizen and nation on many different fronts. For example, Harris argues that controversy over Mormon polygamy “came to symbolize a conflict between the civilized world and the barbarous Other.” Indeed, Harris observes, the Republican Party came to prominence in the 1850s on “the platform of eliminating the ‘twin relics of barbarism’: polygamy and slavery.” This rhetoric illustrates the idea of marriage, and even more precisely, the virtuous wife, as the symbol and location of civilization and morality. Pro-polygamy rhetoric by Mormon women also focused on the woman as embodying the ideals of “proper womanhood,” as Harris illustrates. This controversy had direct impact on citizenship. Citing Reynolds v. United States (1878), Harris shows the Supreme Court establishing “marriage as a foundation of civilization,” to be protected by law. The prospect of statehood for Utah depended directly upon social conformity in marriage practices.

One of the most interesting controversies in the book is “miscegenation.” Harris reports that the writers of an anonymous pamphlet, Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro, “claimed to have coined the term,” promoting the idea as “the solution to racial problems in the United States.” It was a hoax. The pamphlet was circulated to exaggerate the racial equality platform of Lincoln and his Republican Party prior to the 1864 presidential election. Examining the ensuing national debate, Harris argues that interracial marriage posed a threat to a national identity defined by separation of race. “Women’s bodies represented a contested space where sexual ‘possession’ of women represented the ownership of culture.” It was not until 1967, Loving v. Virginia, that the US Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

From my own research, I find it fascinating how closely the history of American Methodist discourse about marriage and sexuality adheres to the dominant tropes described by Harris. Methodists in the nineteenth century campaigned for federal laws and a constitutional amendment to protect marriage from the “divorce evil”; they decried Mormon polygamy as “uncivilized” and “un-American”; and they embraced legally enforced racial segregation and supported bans on inter-racial marriage. In these examples, (white, middle-class) Methodists conformed to and performed precisely as Harris describes. While I know of no record of official Methodist attacks against nineteenth-century free love advocates (another controversy Harris investigates), her assessment, that “debates about proper sex are ways of negotiating American values and ideologies,” does ring true for Methodists. Debates about sexuality in American Methodism have functioned as ways of negotiating Christian values and Methodist identity.

Harris accomplishes much in this concise volume. She has offered concrete illustrations of how rhetoric about marriage bolsters an American mythology in which civilization triumphs over barbarians and moral virtue wins over unrestrained sin. Enforced through the rule of law and social conformity, the norms of acceptable marriage impose a natural order and reason embodying American ideals. Harris makes it implicitly clear that nineteenth-century marriage controversies matter for twenty-first-century politics.

It is simplistic to suppose that the form of marriage currently cast as “traditional” or “biblical” has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The symbolic meaning of marriage continues to be contested and altered through democratic discourse in ways that reflect shared and evolving notions of morality, gender, citizen, and nation. What is the significance of the tremendous increase in public approval of same-sex marriage in the US since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2003? Extending the logic of Harris’s argument, current-day public controversy over same-sex marriage matters, in part, because through it we participate in an ongoing discourse about what it means to be American and what it means to be America.

Today, same-sex spouses participate in the most long-standing institution of patriarchy in Western culture while radically upending traditional gender roles. I would venture to guess that twenty-first-century marriage threatens traditional conceptions of American identity and civilization only insofar these ideas are predicated on patriarchal structures and identities — that is, perhaps quite a bit. I am curious how Harris would lead us through the current thicket of rhetoric that forms our twenty-first-century symbolic world and defines our material reality. If, as Harris concludes, “legally and politically nineteenth-century marriage was about [the] status and public identity” of women, I ask, what is twenty-first century marriage about?

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