- The Broken Promises of Marriage
New York: New York University Press, 2015. xi + 275 pp.
At the end of the American Civil War, reformers and members of the Freedman's Bureau argued that the "dignity" of the nation could be restored only through the right and national encouragement of newly freed African Americans to marry. One hundred and fifty years later, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, argued that denying the right of same-sex couples to marry was a denial of their "equal dignity" under the law. Marriage rights are accorded a great deal of importance as a benchmark of individual dignity in the United States; advocacy for them has been fundamental to mainstream US minority rights movements. Scholars like George Chauncey (2004) have observed that same-sex marriage emerged in part because the nature of marriage in US society had already been rapidly changing since the mid-nineteenth century, and mostly because of antiracist and feminist political thought. Work like Chauncey's, which is typically geared toward LGBTQ studies audiences, argues that same-sex marriage equality is part of a continuum of previous civil rights work on domestic life in the United States. Though most LGBTQ studies scholars do not go so far as to say that these struggles are the same, few have scrutinized this analogy or reconsidered it in the wake of marriage equality's mainstreaming.
Katherine Franke's Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality was written over the ten years leading up to marriage equality's fruition in the United States. Like most antinormative scholarship, Wedlocked cautions that marriage involves a submission of one's life to "public control through law" (3). Franke weaves this argument through comparative analyses of newly freed African Americans' and modern same-sex couples' experiences with marriage. Like Nancy Cott (2000), Franke describes the changing nature of marriage among African Americans during slavery and Reconstruction in a way that shows its historical salience to samesex marriage. Franke, however, updates Cott's work by considering not just how the struggle for marriage rights has a long history beyond LGBTQ politics but [End Page 437] how the negative bureaucratic fallout faced by African Americans in the early years of their marriage rights may portend similar problems for the LGBTQ community. Franke is perhaps the first scholar to argue that African Americans' historical experiences with marriage rights serve not merely as legal and social precedents but also as "cautionary tales" for gay men and lesbians seeking the right to marry (3).
While Wedlock's central arguments about the discontents of marriage are familiar — marriage incentivizes certain partnerships over others and is assimilative to heterosexual norms — Franke's methodologies and archives are novel. For LGBTQ activists, interracial marriage advocacy typically serves as the analogic point of departure in work that bridges the divide between African American and LGBTQ marriage rights; most of us are familiar with the shorthand argument that those against interracial marriage in the Jim Crow era and those against same-sex marriage now are similarly "on the wrong side of history." Franke instead looks into the archives of African American marriage in the nineteenth century: Freed-men's Bureau papers, accounts of African American military recruitment through the Enlistment Act, war widow pension applications, and Jim Crow–era criminal adultery and fornication complaints. Franke argues that early African American legal marriages created more discontents than benefits for their participants. Marriage rights were first offered to enslaved people in the United States as an incentive to enlist in the Union Army. The legal families of African American Union soldiers were promised freedom, but soon found that their treatment at the hands of the US Army was as bad or worse than what they had experienced under slavery; worse still, enslaved families of African Americans who enlisted in the Union Army often found themselves the victims of violent reprisal by their enslavers. Some African Americans also lost the flexibility of informal partnerships under "self-marriage," the act of a couple marrying themselves without a state or religious authority present. As the state intervened...