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Final Project Report

by LOIS DUBIN (Religion) and ALICE HEARST (Government), Organizing Fellows

During the spring semester of 2007, the project successfully con-tinued its multi-faceted explorations of marriage and divorce. As faculty and student fellows addressed a range of social, cultural, and legal issues in diverse historical and contemporary settings and through different media, we developed greater appreciation of one another’s approaches and of the value of combining different disciplinary perspectives. Individual fellows were often pleasantly surprised to discover the relevance of another’s work that initially seemed far afield from their own. By the end, faculty and students generally felt that they had substantially advanced their own research agendas through their work with the group.

Once again, as in the first semester, we invited a number of guest speakers whose excellent presentations sparked lively discussions and greatly enriched our thinking. The project opened in January with a presentation by Dirk Hartog, Professor of History at Princeton University. His Man and Wife in America explores how husbands and wives experienced marriage and separation within the 19th-century American legal regime. It was particularly interesting to hear him reflect on the arguments of the book five years after its publication date. That conversation was especially informative for students, as it introduced them to the ways in which scholarly work evolves over time.

Subsequent sessions were equally engaging. Suzanne Gottschang, an anthropologist at Smith College who specializes in 20th century China, introduced seminar members to the complicated kinship system in China, and discussed how the Chinese Revolution has altered (and not altered) traditional ways of thinking and practices of marriage and kinship. Jutta Sperling, an historian at Hampshire College, joined the group to talk about dowry systems in early modern Italy and how dowries functioned as means of inheritance and disinheritance for women. Gail Perlman, a local family court judge in Northampton Massachusetts, offered a judge's perspective on family law in the United States today; a former social worker, she surveyed developments in family law in recent decades and offered critical reflection on changing legal models. Peggy Cooper Davis, a law professor at New York University, discussed how race and gender considerations complicate legal assumptions about marriage, divorce, and citizenship in America.

The project also held a number of public events. In April, we sponsored a panel discussion on the legal and political aspects of gay and lesbian marriage, both in the United States and internationally. The panel was composed of two guest speakers; Lee Badgett, an economist at the Univ-ersity of Massachusetts, and Jennifer Levi, a law professor at Western New England College School of Law. Badgett has written extensively on the myth of gay affluence. She is currently working on the European and U.S. experience with gay marriage, looking particularly at the fiscal impact of same-sex marriage. As an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, Levi was extensively involved in the litigation resulting in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. She is now involved, as well, in litigation involving the dissolution of some of those marriages. The public panel was well attended, attracting some sixty or so audience members. The Fellows enjoyed a follow-up panel at our regular session the next morning.

The project also sponsored several public film screenings, continuing the series started in the fall. The three films presented during the spring were Scenes from a Marriage, La Séparation, and The Squid and the Whale. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage explored the dynamics of a long term relationship and its eventual demise in Sweden; the latter two films focused particularly on divorce in France and the United States respectively.

Considerable time was taken up with the presentation of projects by individual seminar members. Lois Dubin presented her work on a new book, Rachele and Her Loves, an exploration of the regulation of marriage and divorce in early modern Europe, especially the tensions of competing state and religious authorities and the creation of civil marriage by centralizing modern states during the late 18th century. Alice Hearst introduced her work on children, cultural identity and contested custody matters, while Ernie Alleva explored contemporary philosophical work on same-sex marriage. Jennifer Heuer discussed the ways in which marriage was used as a tool of nation-building in Napoleonic France, and Ginetta Candelario engaged the seminar in a discussion of her work on rethinking the value of maternal labor, both by exploring Dominican feminist thought and activism between 1880 and 1960, and by looking at how maternal labor is discounted in the contemporary father’s rights movement in the United States.

Student Fellows also presented their work. Caroline Fox '07 discussed shifts in ideas of gender relations in Spain during the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a democratic regime. Beth Prosnitz '07 explored how Internet dating services affect the customs of arranged marriages in India. Concerning marriage in the United States, Maureen Sarna '07 introduced the group to the phenomenon of covenant marriage; Cara Gaumont '07 explored images of celebrity motherhood in popular culture; and Sarah Sherman '07 discussed the resistance to marriage in some sectors of the gay and lesbian community. Lisa Redmond '07 focused on contract and status as two different building-blocks for structuring marital rights. The students also planned and presented a panel discussion of their projects during the “Celebrating Collaborations” weekend in April.

On the whole, the project enriched and complicated individuals’ perspectives on the study of marriage and divorce. It was successful in creating ties among a number of faculty members, laying the groundwork for future collaboration. It was also successful in introducing students to independent scholarly work; at the end of the Project, many students commented that they now had a much better grasp of the research process. Through the Kahn Institute, they also learned the value of sustained discourse and disagreement among a group of engaged scholars.


Final Project Report

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