Boston University Law Professor Linda McClain traced the ways mixed marriages were treated in the 1950s and 1960s in a lunchtime lecture titled “Am I a Bigot? Debating Mixed Marriage in the 1950s and 1960s as a Problem or Sign of Progress,” sponsored by the Rutgers Center for Gender, Sexuality, Law and Policy.
Drawing on research she’s done for a book she’s working on, Bigotry, Conscience, and Marriage: Past and Present Controversies, McClain talked about prejudices that existed for couples who were of different faiths, economic and social standing, and of different races.
She said after World War II, a number of factors kept people of different religions and different ethnicities from getting to know each other and intermarrying. “There was a suspicion, prejudice and lack of social contact,” with people of class and religious differences, explained McClain.
Some of these attitudes stemmed from families of immigrants who wanted to preserve their heritage by marrying within their own cultures, anti-Semitism, and fear of Catholicism that created a sense of suspicion of people whose religions were different than one’s own. However, she said, young people – particularly young adults – began to intermingle socially and those with a higher education had the opportunity for mobility, allowing them to meet people who were different from themselves.
But studies from the 1930s perpetuated attitudes that couples who married outside of their own faiths would experience a higher rate of break-ups and unhappiness than those who married within their own faiths. “It enforced the idea of not mixing,” she said. In addition, gender roles – requiring women to be feminine wives who were submissive to their husbands and husbands to be masculine leaders – were also considered predictors of marital happiness.
She drew on case studies published by a Beverly Hills psychologist in 1960 that supported the societal norms of the time. Such case studies revealed some of the prevailing wisdoms of the time about interracial and inter-faith marriages.
[In one case, the psychologist counseled a family whose Caucasian daughter had gone away to college and fallen in love with an African-American man to whom she’d gotten engaged. Though her father was liberal in his views about race, her parents were apprehensive about her marriage and said their daughter and her husband would never be accepted in society, would lose their friends and would have to live in an African-American neighborhood. The daughter is counseled against the marriage and ultimately calls off the engagement, fearful of disappointing her parents and of moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood.
McClain also cited an article written in Harper’s Magazine in 1951 titled “My Daughter Married a Negro” that reinforced stereotypes that it’s better when “like marries like” because society isn’t ready to accept mixed marriages.
McClain said there was plenty of fear and suspicion of the Catholic Church in the 1950s that contributed to societal pressure not to marry people of other religions and in fact, Protestants were given literature warning them not to marry Catholics that they would be subject to rule by the Pope and an authoritarian church. In addition, anti-Semitism in the 1940s was so pervasive that universities and colleges, including Princeton University, did not accept Jews.]
She summarized that the main arguments that kept couples from different backgrounds apart in the 1950s and 1960s included that their intermarriage would be a threat to their own ethnic, cultural or religious group, that they would have a higher chance of unhappiness and that society was to blame for not accepting people in mixed marriages.
However, by the 1960s, McClain said there were examples of public interracial marriages, especially among celebrities, including Sammy Davis Jr.
In her book, she said she examines the issue of prejudice and bigotry and the use of those words, challenging whether they mean the same thing in regards to mixed marriages.
McClain is known for her work in family law, gender and law, and feminist legal theory. Her scholarship addresses the respective roles of families, other institutions of civil society, and of government in fostering citizens’ capacities for democratic and personal self-government. Her current research examines controversies over claims of conscience and the scope of religious liberty in the context of marriage equality, antidiscrimination laws, and health care. She is a visiting faculty fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.