“In Family Way”: Community Critiques of Sexuality and Violence in American Courtrooms

AHA Session 8
Coordinating Council for Women in History 1
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Elizabeth A. Jameson, University of Calgary
Elizabeth A. Jameson, University of Calgary

Session Abstract

American family law expanded in the late nineteenth century to include concerns about domestic abuse, maternal and paternal authority, and normative sexuality. Courtrooms became sites where jurists—trained legal experts—aired their critiques of sexuality and violence, and jurors—reasonable laypersons—delivered verdicts on family disputes and sexual infractions.  These communal debates, made public to those who witnessed them within the courts and to those who read about them in newspapers, reflected the attitudes of local citizens, regional lawmakers, and federal politicians regarding class, race, and sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century.  The papers that make up this panel explore those debates in great detail, offering insights regarding the use of law to regulate families and sexuality in settler-colonial contexts, as a response to the agrarian crisis, and amidst immigration hysteria.

Katrina Jagodinsky’s paper compares guardianship and indenture laws in Arizona and Washington between 1864 and 1881 to explore the experiences of Indigenous women impregnated by their white male guardians.  Her study reveals that community attitudes toward Indian-white liaisons and mixed-race households differed very little in both borderlands regions, though the laws that governed these relationships varied dramatically.  In “The Putative Father,” Jagodinsky identifies the influence of settler-colonialism in legal debates regarding Native women’s sexuality and white men’s culpability and illustrates that Indigenous women used the courts to challenge the communal assumptions that promoted their sexual vulnerability.

Peter Boag’s project links adolescent parricide to the disruption of family hierarchies that accompanied the agrarian crisis between 1880 and 1920.  His paper focuses on rural families in the 1890s to illustrate community responses to family violence during a time of traumatic social upheaval. Boag argues in “Communities and Networks Disrupted” that jurists, jurors, and newspaper editors appealed to an idyllic “traditional” family as they began to conceive of adolescence as a liminal—perhaps dangerous—psychological and social state of development.  Rural Americans’ perceptions of the young people in their midst changed dramatically during this time period and it is in parricide trials that Boag traces this transformation.

Pablo Mitchell offers a study that reveals the complex intersections of class, race, and sexuality in sex crimes cases involving Mexicans during the early twentieth century.  “Drawn by Law” interprets trial transcripts that question Mexicans’ sexual morality as communal critiques of Mexicans’ citizenship status.  Mitchell compares Anglo and Mexican depictions of deviant sexuality to highlight the arguments both communities made to advance their goals of Mexican exclusion and inclusion.  His study reveals the linkages between sexuality and citizenship within community debates and courtroom proceedings.

Together, these papers provide a springboard for commentator Elizabeth Jameson to discuss the ways in which communities apply and interpret family laws regulating sexuality and violence.  Jameson’s own work on race, gender, and sexuality in the American West and borderlands regions prepares her to link the community debates described in each paper as national concerns about miscegenation, parricide, and immigration—all issues that threatened the bedrock of democracy: the American family.

See more of: AHA Sessions