- Conjugal Misconduct: Defying Marriage Law in the Twentieth-Century United States by William Kuby
The US marriage equality movement has injected new life into an old topic. In the 1980s white feminist settler scholars like Elaine Tyler May, Maureen E. Montgomery, and Karen Lystra examined the relationship between American culture and marriage and how matrimony structured [End Page 121] the experiences of everyday Americans, particularly women. Historians of African American experience explored marriage to illuminate how it both creates, organizes, and gives meaning to racial categories. The emergence of the marriage equality movement in the 1990s revitalized the field, this time with historians more closely scrutinizing how the state used marriage to confer and withhold rights and benefits. Nancy Cott's 2000 Public Vows and Tera Hunter's 2017 Bound in Wedlock are but two examples.
William Kuby's Conjugal Misconduct follows this disciplinary trend. With a focus on the first half of the twentieth century, it proposes to queer the history of heterosexuality by "revealing the many ways marital nonconformity has sparked legal and cultural repression . . . for straight couples" (24). Kuby argues that the boundaries between proper and improper relationships are more nuanced than a hetero/homo framework permits. By shining a light on these nuances, he argues, we can better appreciate how "recent disputes over same-sex marriage are but one strand in an elaborate historical struggle over the borders of matrimony" (24).
Conjugal Misconduct draws principally on news reportage and legal journals to explore debates over a variety of marriage types and to examine attempts to use the law to restrict or curtail practices deemed problematic, immoral, or even dangerous. Drawing largely on the Chicago Tribune, chapter 1 examines the rise of matrimonial advertisements and matchmaking bureaus. In the early twentieth century, the wedding industry was a fast-growing market, but for some, profiting from people's desire to find a spouse crossed the line, and efforts were made to shut these service providers down. Recognizing the positive role that could be played by marriage brokers, some Christian churches began operating their own matrimonial services (59–60). Congresswoman Alice Robertson sponsored a bill for a US Bureau of Matrimony, which would "encourage marriage and stimulate the birth rate. . . . The safest love broker in the world would be Uncle Sam" (63). The bill failed to win sufficient votes.
Chapter 2 focuses on what was called progressive polygamy, consecutive polygamy, and tandem polygamy, derogatory terms used to describe the act of marrying very soon after obtaining a divorce, thus flouting the expectation that marriage was a lifelong commitment. Several states deterred the practice by requiring their residents to wait a year before applying for a new marriage license, but, as with most of the other legal measures examined in this book, couples got around such restrictions by crossing over into a state where no such prohibition existed. Periodic attempts to create uniform marriage laws across the country failed (134–36).
Chapter 3 draws primarily on the Wisconsin State Journal, the Harvard Law Review, and the Michigan Law Review to examine eugenic marriage laws. Chapter 4 concerns trial marriage, a term used to describe the emerging practice of treating marriage as an agreement that can easily be broken by seeking an annulment. This option was pursued when the marriage [End Page 122] produced no children and was deemed by both wife and husband to have been a failure. Like consecutive polygamy, the rise of trial marriage shows that a significant number of white Americans were less wedded to the notion of 'til death do us part and more willing to allow unhappy couples a second chance. But, as so often happens, the loosening of restrictions around permissible marital practices prompted a backlash. In the case of trial marriages, celebrities—who popularized a casual attitude toward this once-sacred institution—became the targets of traditionalist ire.
Like the chapter on eugenic marriage, chapters 5 and 6 cover well-trodden ground: marriages between African Americans and white...