In 1900 an Australian book of marital advice instructed its white, female, middle-class readers about the importance of carefully selecting a husband. "A young woman in search of a partner in life," the author declared, "if she is the worthy, prospective wife and mother to whom these pages are specifically dedicated...is not likely to mate herself with a member of a lower race." In case readers were in any doubt whom the author had in mind, he added: "A Negro, a Hindoo, and a Chinaman, although all civilised after a fashion, would no more be her husband than would an Australian black." (1) On the other side of the world and also in the year 1900, in the American states of Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Tennessee, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, it was illegal for white men and women to marry people of various racial ethnic groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and persons of mixed descent. (2) Meanwhile, in the Jim Crow South, African American men were being lynched ostensibl y for the crime of looking at white women. (3)
In the same year, 1900, a Koori man named Jimmy Governor embarked on a series of brutal murders in rural New South Wales begun in a rage that was prompted, he said, by taunts made to his white wife. (4) Most historians assume that around the turn of the last century marriages between white women and nonwhite men almost never occurred and, if they did, they prompted a serious backlash from the white community. Now scholars are beginning to discover that although such relationships were rare, white women and indigenous men did marry each other at the turn of the century in North America and rural New South Wales. (5) While such couples ensured by their choice of spouse that heads would turn when they walked down the street, their marriages were never completely outside the margins of acceptability.
Interracial marriages have been earmarked by historian Peggy Pascoe as a fruitful area of inquiry for those interested in intersections of race, gender, and culture. (6) A comparative examination of a particular type of interracial marriage--those between white women and indigenous men in Australia and the United States--suggests a fourth category of analysis, social class. Class is an indispensable factor in the history of interracial marriage, especially when a comparison is made between these two nations, both traditionally understood to be democratic. For example, the marital advice dispensed to Australian white women in 1900 did not totally condemn interracial marriage but merely made it clear that women who married men of an inappropriate ethnic background would not be the "worthy, prospective wife and mother" that young women in Australian society should aspire to be. White women, the author warned, would profoundly affect their social status if they married men of a different ethnicity.
As historian Nancy F. Cott points out, marriage is a public institution regulated both by social mores and law. (7) In his classic 1964 study of the family William Goode states that the American system of courtship and mate choice is "formally free, and legally almost any man can marry almost any woman," but "the patterns of choice show that the number of eligibles is in fact highly restricted." (8) American mate-selection systems (like most across the world) encouraged homogamous marriage, which restricted people's choices to their own religion, class, education, and, of course, ethnic group. This is the result of the fundamental link that marriage has to economic status. Put simply, the social and financial status that spouses bring to the marriage affects the social and financial status of the other partner. The degree to which this occurred, until very recently, has been gender-dependent. A man's social status was much less about his family and private life than about his role in the public sphere and his ability to earn a living. Marrying "below" his social class was a setback, but not totally disastrous. While a man's choice of spouse was important, a woman's was critical: Her social status was almost totally dependent on that of her husband.
These gendered differences in the impact of marriage on social status meant that the consequences of relationships between white women and indigenous men were very different from the consequences of relationships between white men and indigenous women. White men engaged in relationships with indigenous women on the frontiers of Australia and the United States with great frequency, as has been documented by many scholars. (9) The vast majority of these relationships were short, casual, and possibly abusive, although marriages also occurred. While there is no doubt that such men made themselves outsiders to some extent, it is clear that white men were able to have both short- and long-term relationships with indigenous women with less damage to their social status than white women. As Kathleen Brown succinctly points out in a very different context, a simple, biological reason underlay this double standard. A white woman who had sex with a nonwhite man could not so easily walk away when there was the risk of a pregnancy with a nonwhite child. (10) She would be literally left holding the baby.
Relationships between white women and indigenous men crossed racial boundaries in ways that upset the normal balance of power between the sexes. Therefore it is surprising that apart from some intrusive curiosity, some marriages of white women and indigenous men were not completely rejected by the community in which they took place. This is because these couples could be imagined by their communities as having a part to play in the ideology of assimilation. Assimilation was the solution to what whites in these countries referred to either as the "Aboriginal problem" or the "Indian problem"; that is, that Aborigines and Native Americans were living on isolated reserves in terrible poverty. Both nations sought to solve these problems with policies that encouraged the absorption--biological, cultural, or sometimes both--of indigenous people into the mainstream population. While removing their identity enabled easier theft of their land, assimilation also required that whites find a place for the indigenous peop le they absorbed. White Americans and Australians had very different ideas about where the assimilated should fit into society.
A discussion of the place that indigenous men who married interracially had in mainstream white societies raises the question of the level of acceptance these couples enjoyed in their everyday life. As Martha Hodes, a historian of relationships between white women and African American men, has argued, it is somewhat problematic to talk about whether or not relationships between white women and nonwhite men were accepted. Just because an interracial relationship did not "provoke white violence by no means implies its sanguine acceptance," Hodes writes. Instead, Hodes invokes the term "toleration," which she distinguishes from "tolerance": "Tolerance implies a liberal spirit toward those of a different mind; toleration by contrast suggests a measure of forbearance for that which is not approved." Toleration, in the main, perfectly describes the reaction of white society to the interracial couples discussed in this paper. The term, however, has its limits. As Hodes points out, "The phenomenon of toleration, no matter how carefully defined, cannot convey the complexity of responses: white neighbors judged harshly, gossiped viciously, and could completely ostracize" the interracial couple. (11) Unfortunately, it is just this kind of human behavior that is rarely recorded in historical sources; it seems we must simply assume that it took place and draw conclusions from the absence of more official forms of condemnation. The assimilation policies of settler societies such as Australia and America are, for example, a fruitful source for ideas about how such couples were viewed.
SOLVING THE INDIGENOUS "PROBLEM": EDUCATION AND ASSIMILATION
In the late nineteenth century the idea of assimilating Native Americans into white culture began to sound attractive, especially to humanitarian-minded middle-class whites who were uncomfortable with the violence and broken treaties that had characterized nineteenth-century contact. In January 1879 a Ponca man called Standing Bear toured the East Coast speaking about the wrongs done to his people. His words inspired many white Americans, men and women, to form organizations that lobbied the government for Native American citizenship and the end of the reservation system. (12) These reformers believed that the answer to the "Indian problem" lay in the education and assimilation of Native Americans into white society.
The Dawes Act, passed by Congress in 1887, reflected this new ideology. It forced Native Americans to divide their reservations into individually owned blocks of land (a process that conveniently left a significant amount of "unclaimed" …