The Promise of Marriage Consent: Family Politics, the United Nations, and Women’s Rights in the US, 1947-1967
In this dissertation, I use women’s marriage rights as framed in the 1962 United Nations Marriage Convention to demonstrate the contradictions contained within human rights that allow them to be coopted into the preservation of systems of power, from imperialism to Jim Crow. The treaty’s creators in the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) designed it to defend women’s marriage consent. Delegates pursued a higher age of marriage and more government registration of marriage, and they specifically pushed for the abolition of child marriage, polygamy, and bride price systems. The Marriage Convention’s standards of family resonated with many delegates and policymakers, including segregationist Senators in the United States who otherwise distrusted outside intervention into domestic affairs because they found within the treaty’s human rights project an opportunity to shore up state anti-miscegenation laws.
Conflicts about what human rights were and how best to defend them took shape through the debates about the Marriage Convention, both in the United Nations and in the United States as proponents pressured the Senate to ratify it. Beginning after World War II and ending with the 1967 Senate hearing that ended the Marriage Convention’s future in the United States, I examine events that catalyzed transformations in human rights, including the end of World War II, the founding of the United Nations, the Cold War, and decolonization. I focus especially on the United States, where these international changes dovetailed with those caused by civil and women’s rights movements domestically to make for a complex reception of human rights treaties. I use official United Nations documents, State Department and Women’s Bureau records, newspapers, representatives’ personal papers, and the records of women’s organizations to illustrate the ways that delegates and lawmakers mobilized rights claims as they debated the Marriage Convention.
I argue that the appropriation of human rights by systems of power should not be taken as a corruption of the human rights project but as part of the process of shaping human rights concepts. All parties interested in the Marriage Convention pursued the relationship between marriage and state power to serve their own ends, whether those ends were protecting women, strengthening national governance, or preserving Jim Crow segregation laws. I conclude that supporters of the Marriage Convention were primarily successful in advancing their cause where it coincided with the normal racist and sexist operation of US power at home and abroad. The Marriage Convention speaks to broader changes in the history of human rights, but the treaty’s specific relationship to issues of gender and race through marriage make for a story of rights unique to it.
Family and Marriage
Gender and Race
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