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American Marriage

A Political Institution

By Priscilla Yamin

Publication Year: 2012

As states across the country battle internally over same-sex marriage in the courts, in legislatures, and at the ballot box, activists and scholars grapple with its implications for the status of gays and lesbians and for the institution of marriage itself. Yet, the struggle over same-sex marriage is only the most recent political and public debate over marriage in the United States. What is at stake for those who want to restrict marriage and for those who seek to extend it? Why has the issue become such a national debate? These questions can be answered only by viewing marriage as a political institution as well as a religious and cultural one.

In its political dimension, marriage circumscribes both the meaning and the concrete terms of citizenship. Marriage represents communal duty, moral education, and social and civic status. Yet, at the same time, it represents individual choice, contract, liberty, and independence from the state. According to Priscilla Yamin, these opposing but interrelated sets of characteristics generate a tension between a politics of obligations on the one hand and a politics of rights on the other. To analyze this interplay, American Marriage examines the status of ex-slaves at the close of the Civil War, immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, civil rights and women's rights in the 1960s, and welfare recipients and gays and lesbians in the contemporary period. Yamin argues that at moments when extant political and social hierarchies become unstable, political actors turn to marriage either to stave off or to promote political and social changes. Some marriages are pushed as obligatory and necessary for the good of society, while others are contested or presented as dangerous and harmful. Thus political struggles over race, gender, economic inequality, and sexuality have been articulated at key moments through the language of marital obligations and rights. Seen this way, marriage is not outside the political realm but interlocked with it in mutual evolution.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law


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List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix-ix

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Introduction: Marriage as a Political Institution

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pp. 1-19

For weeks during the summer of 2010, activists, pundits, and legal scholars paid close attention as the California Supreme Court heard testimony for and against the right to same-sex marriage in the case of . . .

Part I Historical Development

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Chapter 1. The “Duties as Well as Privileges of Freedom”

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pp. 23-46

After the Civil War, agents of the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau), charged with inculcating former slaves with the precepts of freedom and American citizenship, imposed . . .

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Chapter 2. “What Constitutes a Valid Marriage?”

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pp. 47-69

In an 1881 essay that won a New York University Law School prize, lawyer Charles Noble lamented “the contradictory and indefinite rules which come to us from various parts of the United States, when we ask this most . . .

Part II. The Long Culture Wars

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Chapter 3. “Marriage Is One of the Basic Civil Rights of Man”

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pp. 73-98

Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, asserted that “marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”1 The court claimed that . . .

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Chapter 4. “Marriage Is the Foundation of a Successful Society”

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pp. 99-121

The political and cultural challenges sparked in the 1960s and early 1970s by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, and the counterculture congealed by the 1990s into what came to be known as the “culture wars.” . . .

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Chapter 5. “We’re in a Battle for the Soul of the Nation”

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pp. 122-146

In the wake of the 1996 PRWORA and DOMA legislation, two major developments in the political institution of marriage challenged the settlements temporarily secured by those landmark acts. One was the emergence of a . . .

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Conclusion: “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?”

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pp. 147-154

I set out in this project with two central aims: to understand the role of marriage in U.S. politics, and to understand the role of U.S. politics in marriage. I approached these questions historically in order to examine the development . . .


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pp. 155-183


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pp. 185-196


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pp. 197-209

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pp. 211-212

This book is long overdue and I am glad to have the chance to recognize here the many people who helped me get to this point. I thank Rick Vallely for recommending this book for the series and for his continued support of the . . .

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206647
E-ISBN-10: 0812206649
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244243
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244249

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Richard Valelly, Pamela Brandwein, Marie Gottschalk, Christopher Howard See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 822017765
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Marriage

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Marriage -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Marriage law -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Social policy -- History.
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