Unequal in the Eyes of the Law – Response: At What Cost? Marriage Law in the United States

The morning of June 26, 2013, I sat cross-legged on the floor, anxiously toying with the engagement ring on my left hand and refreshing the various news sites open on my laptop. I thought, with outrage, that if the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) was upheld, my wedding ceremony would be nothing more than a futile and insulting mimicry of the “right” to love and marry.

Proponents of gay marriage sought to help LGBTQ people gain rights within the political, social, and legal systems in place within the United States. This was an assimilationist strategy employed across “rights” movements throughout history, and it trickles into every facet of our daily lives as well: parents use the desire for their children to fit in, for example, to justify enforcing binary gender roles.[1] Assimilation is thus viewed as a necessary condition for happiness.[2] Judith Butler has (rather famously) described gender as “what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure.”[3] Who hasn’t experienced both the anxieties and pleasures of gender performance? Similarly, when the Supreme Court rejected DOMA, I began saying, with pleasure, “now I can have a real wedding.”

Michael Warner has critiqued the current tendency of LGBTQ organizations to attempt to “win acceptance by the dominant culture, rather than to change the self-understanding of that culture.”[4] My desire for a gay wedding, a real gay wedding, relied on an inherently paradoxical assimilationist understanding of what makes for a pleasurable life. In this way, we might think of the “law” as both the literal and symbolic proxy for cultural “norms,” proscriptions, and phantasmatic circulations of power. As Lisa Duggan writes, “the history of civil rights struggles in the United States shows us that formal legal equality does not provide more resources, greater political power or better lives. Too often, legal equality is an empty shell that hides expanded substantive inequalities.”[5] If we take anything away from the continuance of often-obscene race and gender stratifications in the United States, it is that acquiescing to heteronormative culture in the form of legal same-sex marriages necessarily involves sacrificing radical queer potential. This sacrifice is ultimately inimical to the interests of everyone on the “outside” of heteronormative power. And, as Cathy J. Cohen has asserted, this is in fact “most of us.”[6]

With the approach of my now federally recognized wedding date—October 12, 2014—the anxiety I felt on June 26th returned with full force: white dress shopping, music selections, invitations—who walks down the aisle first? The decisions my partner and I were making were highly gendered, raced, and classed. To make matters worse, many of our choices were attempts to “de-gay” ourselves and the wedding. It became increasingly clear that the pleasures afforded by an assimilationist approach to our lives were constantly subject to failure. With this said, I understand why parents choose to encourage, and at times demand, the gender role conformity of their children. I also understand why the legally afforded “rights” won by the gay rights movement are important—and for many, absolutely necessary—to building and sustaining happy lives. Yet, as Audre Lorde has famously argued, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[7]

There is a cost to social, cultural, and legal “recognitions”: acclimatization within -  and to –  a heteronormative framework ultimately leaves an imperfect and unequal structure intact.

My partner and I postponed our wedding. As proponents of liberationist agendas argue, it is only with the complete destabilization of marriage—and the legal restrictions surrounding it—that we will begin to achieve meaningful equality.

-Sarah O’Connor


[1] Emily Kane, “No Way My Boys Are Going To Be Like That! Parents’ Responses To Children’s Gender Nonconformity,” Gender & Society 20 (2): 149-176.

[2] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[3] Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 519-531.

[4] Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 50.

[5] Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Dugan, Tamara Metz, and Amber Hollibaugh, “What’s Next for the LGBT Movement?” The Nation, June 27, 2013, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.thenation.com/blog/175015/whats-next-lgbt-movement.

[6] Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 3 (1997), 457.

[7] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Random House: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.

American Dialogues: Unequal in the Eyes of the Law

Unequal opening illustrationOne unarmed black man strangled, a second unarmed black man shot. These recent horrible events have forced most Americans to become momentarily aware of the powerful relationship between the law, law enforcement and identity. Community leaders and national newspapers are calling for reduced enforcement of low-level crimes – a reversal of the “broken-windows” police policy that linked petty crime as a pre-cursor for the development of larger social ills. The relaxing of enforcement follows other recent moves to shift the borders of inclusion and exclusion. President Clinton stopped enforcing the ban on gays in the military and President Obama stopped enforcing the ban on gays marrying and the use of marijuana. These inactions demonstrate that in the United States, the enforcement of the law is inconsistent. Selective enforcement of the law has historically preceded cultural change as different groups negotiated the power relationships intertwined with law and culture.

This discussion highlights ways in which the law has been, and can be used as a rich resource for the historical study of continuity and change in American culture.

Response: Will Edmonstone

Race and the Social Security Act of 1935

Edmonstone illustration

Figure 1 “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture,” 1934, Earle Richardson
Smithsonian American Art Museum

In examining the relationship between law and the politics of identity, it is important to remember that while some laws are unjust “on their face,” such as the recently overturned Defense of Marriage Act, others are unjust only as they are applied. In other words, while an examination of law and identity often leads to a discussion about explicit or deliberate exclusion, we should be careful not to overlook the ways in which exclusion in U.S. legislative history can often take on more subtle forms. These indirect forms of exclusion often covertly perpetuate structural inequalities. Take for example, the 1935 Social Security Act, which excluded nearly half of U.S. workers from coverage.[1] Among the excluded groups were agricultural and domestic workers, which included large segments of the African American workforce.[2] Understanding exactly how race functioned in the construction of the Act is a complex task, but doing so highlights the ways in which law-making can both reflect and build upon already existing prejudice without expressing deliberate racist intent in an explicit sense.

In his survey of the historiography of this exclusion, Larry DeWitt, a public historian with the Social Security Administration, has argued that scholars have been too quick to explain the exclusion of farm and domestic workers as a function of racism. Dewitt challenges the argument that Southern law-makers “deliberately” excluded African Americans from the Act out of fear that Social Security coverage would bolster their independence as workers. DeWitt posits that such claims are “conceptually flawed and unsupported by the existing empirical evidence.”[3] He argues instead, “It is more in keeping with the evidence of the record to conclude that the members of Congress (of both parties and all regions) supported these exclusions because they saw an opportunity to lessen the political risks to themselves by not imposing new taxes on their constituents.”[4] While DeWitt’s argument convincingly complicates notions of “intentional” racial exclusion, his argument does not adequately address the more complex ways in which racial ideology functioned during the construction of Social Security. As Mary Poole has argued, “The Act’s framers…did not design policy to deliberately discriminate against African Americans, but they structured the Social Security Act in such a way that it would inevitably discriminate against some Americans.”[5] She goes on, “Once the line was drawn and the atmosphere of scarcity established, a scramble ensued…With no protections built into the Act, and no group of policymakers willing to lay down and die for them, the existing marginality of the country’s 12 million African Americans guaranteed that they would fare worst in the scramble.”[6] Thus, while the Social Security Act did not contain a racial animus “on its face,” the law nevertheless reinforced racial inequality as it was applied. The subtlety of this distinction may make it appear unimportant, but it offers some insight into the legality of indirectly state-sponsored racism.

 


[1] DeWitt, Larry. “The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act” Social Security Bulletin. 2010, Vol. 70 Issue 4, p49-68. 20p. 1 Chart. 49

[2] Poole, Mary. The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State. Chapel Hill: North Carolina U.P., 2006. 36-39

[3] DeWitt, 49

[4] DeWitt, 64

[5] Poole, 174 (Poole’s italics)

[6] Poole, 174

Lauren Bacall: An Appreciation

Big Sleep Poster

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t discover Lauren Bacall until my early 20s.  I know that I must have seen at least one of her movies before then, but the first clear memory I have of connecting with her work is watching The Big Sleep when I was 23.  I didn’t know it at the time, but she was only 21 when it was filmed.  I was struck with her presence.  Yes, the studio had altered Raymond Chandler’s novel to make her character a more acceptable romantic lead – in the novel her character is more unambiguously a femme fatale – but she still exudes power with every sultry, knowing look.  Unlike the Hitchcock blondes I idolized at the time, Bacall was more than just spunky.  She knew exactly what she was doing and why.  As I learned later, she was one of the last of a long line of strong female stars produced by the classical Hollywood studio system.  The system may have been dominated by male producers and directors who exercised tight control over all of their stars – male and female – but those men still realized that women made up the largest part of their audience.  Women like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck enjoyed long careers as strong, independent women.  As scholars like Jeanine Basinger have pointed out, even if Depression-era women’s films ended with a conservative message of family togetherness and female submission, they depicted women grappling with difficult issues and often making rebellious choices, thereby validating their right to choose.[1]  The post-war noirs that Bacall starred in are often characterized as reactionary and male-centric, but many still acknowledged and validated women’s desire for independence and fear of male violence.  What I saw in Bacall’s roles, including To Have and Have Not, but even weaker films like Dark Passage, was a young woman struggling to determine her own destiny – and maybe enjoy a few adventures alongside the man she loved – in a society that wanted her to stay at home, where she’d be safe.  Sure, she could be quiet and submissive when she needed to be, but her eyes always spoke of a deeper rebellion against society’s stifling expectation.  She was never sweet.  At the time, all I knew when I was 23 was that she was refreshingly direct and bold, and I felt that my adolescence would have been richer if I’d had her as a role model.  She is the standard by which I’ve judged every strong female role since.

I didn’t spend much time studying Bacall’s biography when I first discovered her.  I learned that she and Humphrey Bogart were married, which helped to complete my image of her as an independent woman who could still have it all, but – to be perfectly honest – I was afraid that I would be disappointed if I knew what she was like in real life.  Stars so often disappoint, and I try to let actors’ work speak for itself.  In the end though, I don’t think I needed to worry so much.  Yes, I wish she – and the rest of Hollywood – would have stuck by their principles instead of backing down on their objections to HUAC and the blacklist, but I also understand that people crack under intense pressure.  Bacall’s film career may not have been as prolific as it should have been.  Even before the studio system’s decline hurt other strong female stars, Bacall appeared to knock heads with studio heads – I learned from her New York Times obituary that Warner Brothers suspended her twelve times for rejecting scripts.[2]  Still, she continued to work in films and on the stage for most of her life, and she advocated for liberal political causes.  All in all, not a bad life.  And really, I don’t know how much I can really be disappointed in someone who famed old-biddy gossip columnist Louella Parsons once castigated for encouraging juvenile delinquency by talking about her “gang” of friends.

-Catherine Martin


[1] Jeanine Basinger.  A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1993).

[2] Enid Nemy.  “Lauren Bacall Dies at 89; in Bygone Hollywood, She Purred Every Word.”  The New York Times, August 12, 2014.

American Visual Culture in Context: A Symposium in Honor of Professor Patricia Hills

AVCICSymposiumPosterOn a rainy Saturday afternoon toward the end of Patricia Hills’ last semester at Boston University, her colleagues, peers, and students gathered together to celebrate her distinguished career. A symposium that included the presentation of papers by former students, as well as celebrations by colleagues and friends, it was a fitting sendoff for someone who we all expect will continue to have a valued presence both here on campus as well as in the field.

Sponsored by the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Alumni & Current Students, the Boston University Humanities Center, the Department of the History of Art & Architecture, the American & New England Studies Program, and the African American Studies Program, the event demonstrates how many students and departments Professor Hills influenced while here at Boston University.

Again and again, celebrants and former students alike praised Hills not only for her scholarship and contributions to the field, but also for her dedication to her teaching. She was called friend, mentor, colleague, supporter, and beloved matriarch—so many roles that have been bestowed upon her over her near-forty year career. Her many articles, books and museum work, including her work on Eastman Johnson, Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence, the social realists of the 1930s, and others, remain an invaluable contribution to historians of American Art.

Allison Blakely, director of the African American Studies Program summed up the many kind things said about Professor Hills in his remarks. “In reflecting over what it is that has inspired Pat’s tireless professional efforts,” he said, “a description of Jacob Lawrence she gives in the preface of her most recent book on him caught my eye. She wrote: ‘Lawrence was one of the gentlest artists we knew, but was also one of the toughest! I admired him not only for his art, but also because he never swerved from his commitment to the struggle for a fair and just society’ I think here is a case of the eyes of an art historian recognizing in an artist a fine reflection of herself!”

If there can be any single image that highlights Professor Hills’ dedication to teaching, it is this: throughout the entire symposium she sat in the front row, dutifully scribbling down notes to share with her former students. Not simply content to sit back at a celebration of her career and a presentation of all the fruits of her academic tutelage, she remained the teacher, supporter, and mentor. We know that will continue for many years to come.

-Rob Ribera

At the Archive: The David Maysles Collection at HGARC

Grey Gardens publicity brochure

Grey Gardens publicity brochure

Nearly 40 years on, Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens remains a stunning achievement. After a decade of successes, including Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles turned their camera toward another fascinating subject. The film chronicles the lives of Edith and Little Edie Beale in their crumbling Gold Coast mansion, while they sing and dance about the years gone by and their status as outsiders from a once wonderful socialite existence.

The film still raises the same questions about the methods of documentary filmmaking and the possibility of exploitation, which is a good thing. Certain documentaries should make us aware not only of the subject, but of the filmmakers as well. We should question the motives of the men and women holding the cameras, and a good documentary should start a conversation rather than finish it. Both David and Albert always contended that their film was a truthful portrait of the women. Although the Beale’s behavior is troubling at times, it is also exuberant and powerful. That they were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave the story some initial tabloid appeal, but when you strip away this back-story to focus solely on the women, we instead see them as fascinating subjects, and human beings, not just tabloid fodder. That their personalities are a little eccentric is certain, that the Maysles took advantage is less so. One object that is not in the gallery below is a letter of condolence from Little Edie to Judith Maysles after David’s untimely death. Years later, she still remembered him as a kind man, and if you listen closely to their interactions throughout the film, you can see that this was a loving portrait of two beautiful, if odd, women. Read More »

Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South

Voice from the SouthAnna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South

Deconstruction of the White Aesthetic Gaze

Historically, African Americans have viewed the literary canon as a space for resistance, and for the expression of political thoughts on racial uplift.  Within the contours of language, black writers and intellectuals have established a foundation of social influence. Although traditionally silenced and obscured in academia and the literary sphere, the voices of black women, and particularly 19th century women writers, signify the locus of this African American literary tradition. One of the monumental writers of the era was Anna Julia Cooper, a “self-made woman born into slavery,” devoted educator, spokesperson and the fourth black woman to earn a PhD. [1] Cooper published a number of commendable works; however, the most laudable is A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South.[2] Published in 1892, this collection of essays and speeches is revered as an “unparalleled articulation of black feminist thought.”[3] Cooper cultivates a language that interrogates pressing issues of the 19th century such as racial uplift and womanhood.  In the text, Cooper emphasizes that, “Only if the black woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”[4] In this illuminating declaration, she asserts that the progress of African Americans is impossible without black women. Cooper also advances in A Voice from the South, that black women are not only the gatekeepers of not only the black community, but modern American civilization. Read More »

Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945

Living the RevolutionGuglielmo, Jennifer.  Living the Revolution:Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945.  Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Jennifer Guglielmo subverts the stereotype of the domestic Italian immigrant woman with her study of multiple generations of feminine political activism for the working class in Living the Revolution:  Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. [1]  In her book, she gives voice to the thousands of women who immigrated from Italy to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly those who engaged in anarchist movements and labor organization. Guglielmo demonstrates how the mass exodus of Italian men forced Italian women to learn strategies of community and political involvement far beyond the domestic sphere, and that these women brought those skills with them to the United States and passed them on to their daughters and coworkers. Using oral histories, state and federal legal documents, and public and private archives, Guglielmo offers compelling biographical histories of some of the women involved in radical politics at the turn of the twentieth century.  Guglielmo illustrates how the identity of Italian-American women was influenced by constant tension between the family and the community, the racialization of Italians and the quest for American assimilation. Read More »

A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

A Word from our SponsorA Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio. By Cynthia B. Meyers, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014, 391 pages.

We all know advertising pays for much of our popular media.  Anyone in danger of forgetting this crucial fact is sure to be reminded by the television industry’s increasingly desperate efforts to make sure people are watching – and paying attention to – commercials.  Expanding video on demand services attempt to protect advertising revenues by allowing audiences to timeshift their viewing as they would with a DVR, while inserting up-to-date advertisements into commercial breaks and preventing fast-forwarding.  YouTube, once the great hope for alternative user-generated content, features increasingly intrusive ads that bookend and overlay videos.  Other supposedly new and innovative techniques, such as product placement and sponsored programs built around a specific product, hearken back to older advertising methods like those described in Cynthia Meyers’ fascinating new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.  Meyers draws on extensive archival research to fill a hole in recent scholarship, outlining the intimate and complicated relationships between broadcasters and commercial interests from the point of view of the admen who were responsible for much of the program that constitutes radio’s golden age.  Throughout, Meyers demonstrates that commercialism was not “an outside force silencing the voice of the people but…a set of beliefs, practices, and economic incentives that not only created dominant institutions but also helped build authentic popular cultural forms” (5). Read More »

Our Nixon: An Interview with Director Penny Lane

Our Nixon PosterOur Nixon, the latest film from director Penny Lane, attempts to shed light on a story that we all think we know, that of the Richard Nixon presidency, and the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The “our” in this case, is not the American public, as President Nixon’s legacy and public image is still a complicated one, to say the least. Rather, here, the “our” is comprised of chief of staff Bob Haldeman, special assistant Dwight Chapin, and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman. These men faced intense scrutiny during the Watergate scandal and trial, and spent time in federal prison for their involvement and perjury. But they also had a great time before that fateful event, as they traveled the world with President Nixon, taking hours of Super 8 footage that was summarily gathered by investigators as evidence and locked away for decades.

Lane rescues this footage and puts it to good use. Pairing it with the audio of the White House tapes and other interviews, she paints a picture of three men who would do anything for their president, and whose loyalty ultimately cost them their jobs and tarnished our image of the office. It is fascinating to think of these issues as we watch them make their way around the world, spend time lounging in the sun, or witness president Nixon’s conversation with Neil Armstrong after he sets foot on the moon. But add to this a healthy dose of Nixon’s famous paranoia and diatribes against those against him, and you have an interesting story to tell. While it does not necessarily transform our understanding of those years, it does help to expand our collective memory, by using the filmed memories of those closest to the president himself.

Our Nixon recently arrived on DVD, and I interviewed director Penny Lane about obtaining the original footage, the process of creating a dialogue with the men without being able to actually interview them, and how her perspective on Nixon changed with the project.

-Rob Ribera Read More »

There is Nothing to Forgive: An Interview with John Ridley

12 Years Poster12 Years a Slave is a beautiful, horrifying, and challenging film. It is the story of the capture and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, after he is duped into taking his violin performances dangerously close to the border and slave states on a promising concert tour. He quickly finds himself in chains, and then in Louisiana, no longer his own master.  For the next twelve years, he is passed from plantation to plantation, finding ways to survive amongst unspeakable suffering. Forced to keep his past unspoken, his ability to read and write hidden, and his passions in check, Northup is nevertheless determined to make the best of his situation, biding his time while he keeps the hope alive that he will one day return to his family.

I spoke with the screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s memoir on spec, hoping that his project with director Steve McQueen would be produced if he could make it good enough. When I first got on the phone with Ridley, I told him that while I did not enjoy the film, per se, he had certainly accomplished that goal. Northup’s journey is a tear inducing, harrowing experience to watch. Over a century of American film has not been able to produce such a powerful depiction of the peculiar institution. Our conversation touched on everything from the religious lives of slaves to Hollywood’s failure to provide us with sufficient images of the era. Read More »