Marriage Must Be Defended

AHA Session 250
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 9
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 209 (Hynes Convention Center)
Leisa D. Meyer, College of William and Mary
Leisa D. Meyer, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

Marriage, as historian Nancy Cott argues, can be understood “as an institution that helps to found both men's and women's identity in the polity, an institution in which the nation-state has historically had a great interest.” This panel builds from Cott’s insights and historicizes Americans’ persistent understanding of heterosexual marriage as imperiled and in need of fortification by placing current anxieties over matrimony within a national and transnational historical context. The papers explore how marriage has been crucial to forming and sustaining social hierarchies based on gender, sexuality, race, nationality and religion. Each panelist focuses on an episode in American history where the belief that “marriage must be defended” against threats—both foreign and domestic, visible and invisible—has been crucial to producing, challenging or sustaining social norms. By studying movements to defend marriage within and beyond the United States, we explore how local and global forces have influenced and transformed American ideas of marriage, which in turn have affected other countries’ marital politics. While the state has played a powerful role in defining normative marriages for its citizens, this panel also emphasizes the vital role of social movements, scientific experts, sexual minorities and moral entrepreneurs in defending matrimony.

Each presenter introduces various social actors involved in the efforts to defend marriage and to maintain its sacred status: lesbian wives, left-wing religious reformers, conservative women, and Japanese and American leaders in postwar Japan. The papers cover different time periods, from the immediate postwar to 1970s, and illuminate changing images and ideas about marriage. Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci’s paper, “Under the Banner of Democracy: Promoting Eugenic Marriages in U.S. Occupied Japan,” analyzes how Japanese national leaders and American leaders in Japan respectively sought to defend the integrity of eugenic families and the purity of heterosexual marriages in the postwar period. In “Another ‘Enemy Within’: Lesbian Wives, or the Hidden Threat to the Cold War Family,” Lauren Gutterman examines how psychiatrists and psychoanalysts attempted to identify and reform white, middle-class women who secretly engaged in lesbian relationships within heterosexual marriages where they posed the greatest risk to the nation's security.  Heather White’s paper, “‘Love Is the Only Norm’: Situation Ethics and Sexuality Education in the Long Sixties” explores 1960s sexual liberalism by examining left-wing religious debates over sex education and marriages. Gillian Frank’s paper “‘His masculinity may be threatened by your paycheck’: Conservative Women’s Defense of Marriage in the Age of Stagflation,” shows how reactionary women, by defending marriage, reckoned with transformations to the gendered division of wage, domestic and emotional labor and the intimate stakes they had in maintaining their economic and social subordination within marriage.    

The panel thus looks at the social production of marriage from multiple perspectives, across different time periods, within and outside of the United States. By historicizing the process in which societal notions of gender, sexuality, race, and the nation have been shaped, challenged, and rearticulated, this panel seeks to contribute to the understanding of “sacred” bonds that have formed the contours of present-day political concerns.

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