American Othello

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A few choice quotes taken from Christine Stansell's The Feminist Promise:


But no matter how high-born the woman, she was first and foremost subject to her husband. And because it was impossible to live outside family networks, virtually all adult women were destined for marriage...

"The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband," explained Sir William Blackstone, whose section on marriage in his 1765 Commentaries codified English common law...

In the turbulent months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, that roving habit took [Abigail Adams] down an intellectual path John Adams considered off limits. In March 1776 she wrote him of her desire to hear that Congress had declared independence. Anticipating the new government, she suggested--she took a helpful tone--that the delegates "remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors..." The new laws should restrain such power by preventing "the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity."

Abigail probably had in mind the beatings, or "chastisement" that husbands, as masters of the their household, could legally inflict on wives, so long as hey did not injure them. She did not challenge this system: She opposed men's abuse of their power, not the power itself.

The disease of presentism, looking up the past from the strict moral, legal, cultural, political and economic context of our time, is a constant problem.

Take for instance the constant refrain of the planter/redeemer/segregationist confronted by the prospect of expanding black rights. The retort, invariably, was "Do you want them marrying your daughters?" Being a dude of my time and place, I always interpreted this in the most sexual sense. It translated to me as, excuse my language, "Do you want this black ram tupping your white ewe?"


But it's actually a lot more than that. If in the past, marriage meant a woman trading away her  legal existence in exchange for protection -- physical and economic -- then "Do you want them marrying your daughters?" means something more than a father having to endure a bit of uncomfortable mental imagery. It means, "Do you want our enemies to enjoy the kind of near total dominion over our property, that we currently enjoy?" If you live in a time and place where "giving away the bride" has actual, and not figurative, meaning, where the notion that black people are actually separate species, and that ones success in the world surely points to bone-deep traits, than the black ram/white ewe symbolism which racists, at every turn, offered up had meaning beyond the bedroom. I don't mean to slight the sexual implications here, or ignore the whole "protect our virgin daughters from the savages" line of thinking. But I think that's been pretty well explored, and is understood.

In his book, At The Hands of Persons Unknown, Phillip Dray argues, in part, that lynchings tended to rise when white women went to work outside the home. His point is that there is some tie between the loss of dominance of white men over white women, and their desire to inflict violence--often with serious sexual overtones--on black men. 

But reading this I wonder if that loss of dominance also helped pave the way for black rights. Historians of slavery often make the point that to understand the place of slaves -- male and female -- you have to understand how gender worked on the plantation. I wonder if the same is true for segregation. Does white womens' move from property to legal citizens, affect the views of white men, in terms of what they have to lose? If marriage means less in the world, does your fear of interracial marriage then mean less to you?

These are all just questions. I am out of my area. When I was young, we conceived of these sorts of studies as ways to apportion blame, agency, power and victimhood. At one end of the poll there was Precious at the other end there was Roger Sterling. We spent a lot of time trying to decide who sat where, and who had more power. I think it might have been better to use all of these identities as lenses into each other. Mad Men, as I've said before, has taught me a lot about race -- even though there are virtually no black people on the show.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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