Much Married: Bigamy Prosecutions in Australia, 1812 - 1960
Marriage still matters. Recently, in a Quebec family court, a practicing Baptist argued that since believers must adhere to the marriage sacrament (contrary to non-believers, who can choose to marry or to live as common-law partners), the courts are effectively discriminating against believers. In June 2018, the UK's Supreme Court ruled in favour of a heterosexual couple who wanted to enter a civil partnership instead of getting married. The ruling puts pressure on the British government to change its law, which currently permits only homosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships. These two examples demonstrate that shifting cultural understandings of marriage are a key challenge for contemporary societies.
Studies of marriage, especially its social functions, and how the courts, church, governments, and individuals have interpreted the matrimonial institution over time and across regions, can help lawmakers, politicians, and constituents appreciate how marriage has served differing purposes and highlight the historical persistence of competing interpretations. I study monogamous marriage, looking at the extraordinary (bigamy prosecutions) to get at the ordinary (marriage roles and expectations). My research on bigamy in Canada has generated important insights on marriage, gender roles, family relations, and the legal system. I propose to apply the same approach to a study of bigamy in Australia.
More than the parallels between the two former British colonies, what makes this study compelling is the fact that over two thousand bigamy cases have been prosecuted since 1812 in Australia. Moreover, data on these prosecutions is readily and uniquely available. Trove, the National Library of Australia's growing repository of full-text digital resources, allows researchers to explore historical newspapers. Over 100,000 hits for "bigamy" in Trove reveal that Australians had a vigorous appetite for bigamy stories. These stories constitute a rich corpus to gauge social expectations surrounding marriage. Furthermore, the Prosecution Project has compiled court cases for all of Australia. Their longitudinal data will provide material for me to analyze the prosecution of bigamy and to locate the corresponding case files in various state archives. The documents included in case files will give me privileged access to those history otherwise leaves behind---in this context, the "everyday" people who were defendants and offenders, as well as their families.
As a systematic analysis of this exhaustive corpus, the proposed project will deepen our understanding of the different roles marriage has played in Australian society from 1812 to the mid-twentieth century. My research will shed light on gender, class, and religious expectations, and delve into cultural, social, and economic realities surrounding the institution of marriage. The legal and cultural history of bigamy in Australia, I contend, will have implications for contemporary debates about the nature, roles, and meanings of marriage in Western societies, and thus will interest wide and diverse audiences, including academic communities (legal, family, gender, social and cultural scholars), politicians and lawmakers, and the general public. Furthermore, the project will provide unique opportunities for students to learn transferable research skills in conducting archival research and blending qualitative and quantitative methods.