Margins of Acceptability: Class, Education, and Interracial Marriage in Australia and North America

By Ellinghaus, Katherine | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Margins of Acceptability: Class, Education, and Interracial Marriage in Australia and North America


Ellinghaus, Katherine, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


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.

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