The Nuptial Deal: Same-Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance


Since the 1990s, gay and lesbian civil rights organizations have increasingly focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, which represents a major change from earlier activists’ rejection of the institution. Centering on the everyday struggles, feelings, and thought of marriage equality activists, The Nuptial Deal explores this shift and its connections to the transformation of the United States from a welfare state to a neo-liberal one ...

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Since the 1990s, gay and lesbian civil rights organizations have increasingly focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, which represents a major change from earlier activists’ rejection of the institution. Centering on the everyday struggles, feelings, and thought of marriage equality activists, The Nuptial Deal explores this shift and its connections to the transformation of the United States from a welfare state to a neo-liberal one in which families carry the burden of facing social problems.
Governance and marriage are now firmly entwined. Fighting for access to marriage means fighting for specific legal benefits, which include everything from medical decision-making and spousal immigration to lower insurance rates and taxes. As Jaye Cee Whitehead makes plain, debates over the definition and purpose of marriage indicate how thoroughly neo-liberalism has pervaded American culture. Indeed, Whitehead concludes, the federal government’s resistance to same-sex marriage stems not from “traditional values” but from fear of exposing marriage as a form of governance rather than a natural expression of human intimacy.
A fresh take on the terms and stakes of the debate over same-sex marriage, The Nuptial Deal is also a probing look at the difficult choices and compromises faced by activists.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Carrington

“Decades from now, when historians reflect on today’s same-sex marriage debate, The Nuptial Deal will provide an empirically based narrative of what was really going on in the lives and minds of activists and of ordinary people caught up in the political and personal hopes and struggles over marriage in the United States. Written with skill, historical insight, and sociological imagination, Jaye Cee Whitehead’s compelling book not only provides a view into the same-sex marriage movement, but also raises theoretically salient questions about the relationship of the individual to society, the conceptualization of political rights, and the differing roles of various social institutions.”
Wendy Brown

“In clear, compelling prose and without theoretical pretension or an axe to grind, Whitehead offers a searing left critique of the marriage equality movement. Using deftly interpreted ethnography, The Nuptial Deal exposes the quest for marriage as a conservative risk-management project, one that leaves those outside its orbit ever more vulnerable in the context of intensifying neoliberal inequalities.”
Dawne Moon

“Whitehead engagingly tells the story of how US health and welfare policies make life especially perilous for those whose intimate partnerships are not officially recognized, and how the quest for same-sex marriage rights seeks to address those dangers—even as some advocates recognize those dangers could be more effectively addressed by other means. In doing so, she demystifies the state-made magic that makes spouses more prized than partners. The Nuptial Deal weaves together brilliant social analysis with thoughtful insights from same-sex marriage proponents. Together, they make this book a must-read for anyone invested in same-sex marriage and key reading for those interested in the neo-liberal culture of markets or US social policy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226895291
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/29/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jaye Cee Whitehead is assistant professor of sociology at Pacific University.
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The Nuptial Deal

Same-Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89529-1

Chapter One

Marriage Equality Meets Neo-Liberal Inequality

In the fall of 1997, Hazel Butler and Amber McDaniel celebrated their one-year dating anniversary in a secluded grass clearing just large enough to spread a picnic blanket. Much to Amber's surprise, Hazel went down on one knee with an engagement ring in hand and asked Amber to marry her. After a short pause, reflecting on her own desire to make a "lifelong commitment," Amber accepted Hazel's proposal. For Amber and Hazel, their desire to marry, in Amber's words, "was just natural. Of course we love each other, and we want to be with each other forever. We want to get married."

When Amber and Hazel returned from their camping trip and began preparations for their wedding, their feelings that marriage was the commonsense and natural next step for their relationship were met with confusion and hostility from their local community and extended family. Hazel recalled the illegibility she and Amber felt when attempting to buy their wedding cake: "One of the cake places refused. Well, they didn't refuse; they just kept saying, 'You want a birthday cake,' and we were, like, 'No, we want a wedding cake.' 'For two women, you want birthday cake.' 'No,' you know, we kept pointing, 'Wedding cake,' 'Wedding cake,' and it wasn't, you know, making any sense to them." Amber also felt that her "natural" desire to marry Hazel was incomprehensible to her family. When she told her parents that she and Hazel were going to get married, they responded, "So, are you, like, having a commitment ceremony?" They also asked, "How legal is it?" Amber's parents even asked, "Is that really how you want to spend your money? Isn't it just better to spend that money making a down payment on a house? Your marriage is not real." Hazel and Amber eventually ordered a cake from an establishment that recognized the possibility of making a wedding cake for two women, refused their parents' cost-benefit analysis, and planned a ceremony because they explicitly rejected the assumption that their marriage would not be real without a legal contract.

Given the initial lack of acceptance they felt from their family, Hazel and Amber were "shocked" when every invited relative not only came to their wedding but also publicly recognized the authenticity of Hazel and Amber's commitment.

Everyone showed up for this event. I think it really transformed them. I think that they came out of curiosity and also knee-jerk reaction, like, "Well, we go to weddings, and this is a family celebration and we need to be there." There was a part of the celebration where we had the family stand and say, "Do you accept [Hazel] into your family as your daughter?" And they all said, "We do." Hazel's family did the same thing. It was really profoundly sacred at that moment. It is very much like, you know, a commitment to us and back and forth. It is so important to have this moment, because it was not validated by any piece of paper. It was something that needed to be witnessed and acknowledged by the people who were there for us.

Hazel and Amber's wedding was "profoundly sacred," not just because of the vows they made to each other but because their families pledged to recognize their relationship as a real marriage that united two families. In addition, their wedding, as a rite of passage, signaled the official entrance of the families' daughters into adulthood. After their wedding, Amber's family no longer referred to Hazel as a "girlfriend." Amber recalls that since their wedding, "the family members who weren't sure about me being gay or lesbian before and what it meant to have a partner understood what [Hazel] meant to me. They now would introduce her as, 'This is [Hazel], Amber's wife, and she is part of the family.' " Both Hazel and Amber describe their wedding as a magical event that made them momentarily forget that their ceremony would have no legal significance. The law considered their marriage meaningless, but Hazel and Amber felt like a married couple, and their families recognized them as such: they had made a public promise to care for, love, and protect each other for the rest of their lives.

After their honeymoon, Hazel and Amber found these promises to love, care for, and protect difficult to fulfill: they began to experience the reality of being excluded from legal marriage in ways they had not thought about before their wedding. Unemployed at the time, Amber could not be covered as a dependent on Hazel's health insurance, unlike other legally married couples at her workplace. Hazel could not name Amber as the beneficiary of her federal pension. Hazel argued with her car insurance company when, in the absence of a legal marriage license, it refused to recognize her and Amber's relationship and grant them the lower insurance rates for which married couples qualify. Even though Hazel made enough money to comfortably cover Amber's insurance premiums, they began to look beyond their own experiences. As Amber puts it, "[Hazel] and I started looking into all of the rights that come with a civil marriage license that we were denied." Broadly grouped, these rights involve issues of taxation, inheritance, medical directives, access to hospital visitation, legal standing to sue for wrongful death, eligibility for Social Security survivors benefits, the ability to claim spousal privilege in a court of law, legal recognition of joint parenting, dissolution and divorce protections, and immigration for foreign partners. Amber and Hazel's experiences of exclusion sharply contrasted with their otherwise privileged social position as white, upper-middle-class Americans.

From Hazel and Amber's point of view, the state was not living up to its end of the deal: on their wedding day, Hazel and Amber had agreed to the responsibilities that come with marriage, but the state refused to allow them access to the legal recognition that would give them an official identity as a couple and the specific rights designed to fulfill their personal commitments without unwarranted government intrusion. Hazel had vowed to love Amber "for richer or poorer," but the state was making it difficult for her to fulfill this promise.

By 1999, Hazel and Amber had become prominent members in the movement for same-sex couples to gain the legal rights of marriage and helped found a national organization for marriage rights that, for the sake of confidentiality, I refer to as Marriage Rights Now (MRN). Since their wedding, Hazel and Amber have tied their own intimate relationship to the broader struggle. They spend their leisure time on the phone, calling on voters to approve measures to secure same-sex couples' marital rights and reject efforts to restrict marriage to different-sex couples. In their local gay and lesbian pride parade each year, Hazel dons her wedding day tuxedo and Amber her wedding dress, both carrying signs that encourage onlookers to support the "equal right to marry." Every year on Valentine's Day, they join a group of gay and lesbian couples who stand in line at the local courthouse and request marriage licenses, only to be met with rejection and disapproval from anxious heterosexual couples standing in the same line and from clerks who feel their time is being wasted by what they see as hopeless applications.

In the pages that follow, I argue that stories like Hazel and Amber's, coming from the front lines of the marriage equality movement, must be contextualized as a struggle to gain access to neo-liberal governing structures. I combine participant observation, in-depth interviews, and a content analysis of the marriage equality movement in the United States to help explain how individuals can find themselves consenting to and ardently fighting for a model of neo-liberal governance that they ideologically oppose.

The gay and lesbian studies and social movement literature includes a number of notable works regarding the social conditions that account for the historical ascendancy of same-sex marriage on the national gay and lesbian rights agenda (Chauncey 2004), reports of the recent history of marriage equality within particular states (Moats 2004; Pinello 2006), legal and constitutional analysis of the prospects for same-sex marriage or alternative legal arrangements of care (Gerstmann 2004; Koppelman 2006; Polikoff 2008), arguments for (Badgett 2009; Graff 2004; Kotulski 2004; Rauch 2004; Shanley 2004; Wolfson 2004) and progressive critiques of (W. Brown 2004; Butler 2002; D'Emilio 2006; Walters 2001; Warner 1999) same-sex marriage, descriptions of same-sex marriage debates (Cahill 2004; Sullivan 2004), personal accounts of the significance of marriage from the perspectives of "ordinary" gay and lesbian couples (Hull 2006), and even empirical evidence considering the social ramifications of legalizing same-sex marriage (Eskridge and Spedale 2006). Surprisingly absent from this growing literature, however, is an ethnographic account of the same-sex marriage movement and a theoretical framework that places the marriage debate in the context of the practice of governance.

By reconceptualizing the same-sex marriage debate in this way, I have three primary objectives. First, in order to understand the current dominance of the marriage equality movement, we must utilize more than historical and legal analyses; we must understand marriage enticements from the viewpoint of those who ardently fight for them. Throughout this book, you will read stories like Amber and Hazel's that explain how and why individuals end up prioritizing their right to tie the knot while setting aside their very genuine desires for national health insurance, economic equality, and, for some, family diversity. Unlike historical analyses of gay and lesbian social movements, it is not my goal to explain the ascendancy of the marriage debate on the national political agenda but to account for the social and political implications of its contemporary resonance.

Second, I demonstrate that the case of marriage equality is important not just for scholars interested in gay, lesbian, and queer studies but also for sociologists of marriage and family who are working toward conceptualizing marriage in general as a project of neo-liberal governance. As sociologists of the family, we must account for how marriage can advance, rather than primarily stymie, the development of neo-liberal capitalism. Drawing from the governmentality tradition allows sociologists of the family to conceptualize marriage as a particular model of social care constructed along with the deconstruction of a national, public social safety net.

Finally, I hope to contribute to the body of social theory concerned with how forms of neo-liberal governance create terms of consent to power arrangements. I enter a long-standing, multivocal conversation in sociology regarding the often fraught concept of ideology by connecting two prominent voices—Foucault's work on governmentality with Bourdieu's concept of symbolic power—to explain how practices of governance can be misrecognized as lifestyle choices. The case of marriage equality vividly illustrates how individuals who are ideologically opposed to neo-liberalism can come to appropriate and solidify these discourses at the same time that they struggle to see themselves as neo-liberal subjects.

What Is Neo-Liberal Governance?

By using the term governance rather than government, I am drawing from insights developed by theorists of governmentality who see political power as a process that exists beyond formalized systems of political authority. Theorizing governance as a process rather than the action of the state allows one to understand how modern populations are often managed without being under the direct, hierarchical control of state apparatuses. I use the term manage to denote how governance does not primarily aim to solve the problems of the population but to regulate them; furthermore, framing social actors as managers recognizes subjects' relationship to governance as one of appropriation rather than creation. Like managers in a corporate setting, many social actors do not make the rules but selectively enforce, resist, or reinforce them in the course of fulfilling daily tasks. Essentially, from this perspective, governance is not primarily defined by "what the state does" but by a particular logic and practice for managing the problems of the population that may be housed in multiple social institutions, such as marriage.

This definition of governance may seem so loose and inclusive as to be meaningless, but governance does have a precise meaning defined by its object and strategy (aim or goal) rather than its subject (the institutions or programs that direct action). In other words, governance is not primarily defined by who or what does the governing but by the particular practices and goals of managing human conduct. Thus, understanding governance requires attention to logics and methods of governing that enact and legitimate programs for regulating the problems of populations. Theorists of governmentality refer to these logics and methods as "political rationalities" and "technologies of governance." Political rationalities are forms of knowledge that both define and moralize particular ways of conceptualizing the proper aims and limits of governance (Rose and Miller 1992): a more or less coherent set of logical and ethical principles that delineate and justify the purposes of governance, legitimate programs for achieving these purposes, and the appropriate role of individual subjects.

"Technologies of governance" are particular institutions, agencies, mechanisms, designs, and devices that are "oriented to produce practical outcomes" (Rose 1999, 52) and personal conduct that is aligned with the logic and aims of governance (Lemke 2001). Technologies of governance are not the products of individual intentions but a practical realization of particular political rationalities. Technologies can range from codified institutions to experimental designs that attempt to give political rationalities a practical form by organizing social space, subjectivities, and social interaction in a way that orients individuals toward the particular rationality's logic and ethos. When approaching governance from this perspective, the state is one of many potential subjects that can legitimately imagine and institute techniques for population management, depending on what a particular political rationality calls forth.

From a governmentality perspective, neo-liberalism is a logic and ethic of governing the population according to economic principles of practicality and efficiency. Neo-liberalism is characterized by its ethic of managing poverty, illness, and social order by prioritizing cost-benefit analysis above citizen well-being (Dean 1999a). According to this logic and ethic of governance, it is not only smart, but just, to reform the state's techniques for managing the population in a way that maximizes profit and reduces state spending. Neo-liberalism aims to economize the management of the population through methods of self-governance rather than hierarchical state-based programs. In the neo-liberal model, ethical and effective governance occurs when subjects make responsible choices and utilize profit-maximizing strategies for managing the problems of the population (Dean 1999a; Lemke 2001; Rose 1999).

Neo-liberalism can be distinguished from classical economic liberalism in three primary ways. First, unlike classical liberalism, the role of the state is not in opposition to the aims of capitalism. For neo-liberalism, the market is not a specified zone of liberty that must maintain its freedom from the state to function properly. Instead of the principles of laissez-faire, as Thomas Lemke argues, "The market mechanism and the impact of competition can only arise if they are produced by the practice of government" (2001, 193). Second, neo-liberalism does not legitimize or valorize the market as a fact of nature; instead, it sees the market as a social construction, an institution that requires management and intervention (Lemke 2001). Finally, neo-liberalism describes the diffusion of economic logic to multiple spheres of social life. In classical liberalism, the ethic of market competition and principles of cost-benefit analysis are limited to the proper aims of the economy. In neo-liberalism, these principles are diffused throughout social space, and they become standards by which to evaluate the performance of nonmarket spheres of social life such as the family and the state.


Excerpted from The Nuptial Deal by JAYE CEE WHITEHEAD Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1. Marriage Equality Meets Neo-Liberal Inequality....................1
CHAPTER 2. The Nuptial Deal....................35
CHAPTER 3. The Threat: Fear and Insecurity....................59
CHAPTER 4. The Bribe: Free Choice and Privacy....................83
CHAPTER 5. The "Gold Standard": Belonging and Recognition....................105
CHAPTER 6. Why Exclude the Willing? Same-Sex Marriage and the Slippery Slope....................133
CONCLUSION Marriage as a Technology of Governance....................157
APPENDIX A Punk, Friend, or Scholar: Navigating Embodiment and Distance in the Field....................171
APPENDIX B Interview Participants....................177
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