The Power of Marriage in "The Female American"

Updated on February 13, 2019

Melissa Adams-Campbell asserts in her critical novel New World Courtships that classic marriage plots “…present companionate marriage—that is, marriage based on personal choice and mutual affection—as the heroine’s ultimate reward for the many trials she endures throughout courtship,” (Adams-Campbell 1). Indeed, as Adams-Campbell points out, this appears to give more power to the female: she can (supposedly) choose who she marries and furthermore she can marry for her own happiness, which allows for love and romance. Yet Shulamith Firestone, a radical mid-1900’s feminist, argues that “romanticism is a cultural tool of male power to keep women from knowing their conditions,” (Firestone 147). Indeed, many other feminists have also argued that this classical form of marriage is an undesirable manifestation of the patriarchy and male control. The Female American, a Robinsonade centered around a biracial female protagonist by the name of Unca Eliza Winkfield, is flush with subtle assertions of white European male dominance. The marriages that occur in the novel are no exception. This article will analyze the two marriages that occur in The Female American, specifically how they act as a small-scale representation of colonialism that functions as a site of power for white European males.

Let us first discuss the initial marriage that occurs in The Female American. A group of white settlers in America is taken hostage by a Native tribe, and all are killed except for William Winkfield. Unca, a young Native princess, saves his life and initially seems to adopt him as a pet – she feeds and clothes him and takes him on walks, doing “every thing that could amuse,” (Winkfield 41). Slowly, William begins to accept his position and evens falls in love with her after growing “insensible to the difference” in her complexion (41). In strong contrast to traditional European standards, Unca initiates a marriage between the two. At this point, when marriage is officially brought into the novel, the white man begins to exert his power: William says he will only marry Unca if she converts to Christianity. He takes control of her and uses her love for him to convince her to convert, thus bringing their marriage closer to the traditional white European marriage, a matrimony in which he holds the power.

Soon after, Alluca, Unca’s older sister, attempts to force William to marry her, exclaiming “If you will not love me, you shall die…” (43). Alluca’s actions are violent, perhaps to the point of exaggeration, and she acts as a powerful female whose actions would be unspeakable in a European setting. Due to this attempted murder, William and Unca are conveniently forced to return to William’s English settlement to live in secrecy from Alluca. Here, he further colonizes Unca and exerts his power: he “persuade[s] his wife to conform to the European dress” and he takes “every opportunity that offered to send part of his riches over to England,” (46). These riches, described as “his,” are actually Unca’s as they are gifts from her father – yet in this increasingly traditional European marriage, all of the property and goods belong to the man as the woman is stripped of her power.

As Mary Wollstonecraft asserts in her Vindication of the Rights of Women, “The obedience required of women in the marriage state comes under this description; the mind naturally weakened by depending on authority, never exerts its own powers…” (Wollstonecraft, Ch.4). Just as Wollstonecraft points out, Unca slowly but surely is forced to conform and becomes obedient to William as she dresses as he wants, gives him all of her money, and lives with his people. After the birth of their daughter, Alluca returns to vengefully murder Unca and William. Unca dies in the struggle, and thus the marriage that was brought to fruition by a Native woman ends in her own murder. Similarly, Alluca’s act of attempting to take marriage into her own hands and thus defying white European patriarchal standards ultimately ends in her own destruction as well, for she dies of grief soon after. This form of companionate marriage ends in the death of two powerful Native women as well as a significant loss in their previously Native-owned riches, while the white European man lives on, wealthier and more powerful than before. Indeed, this reflects the history of America: the entrance of the white man directly correlates to the death of the Native population.

Unca Eliza is then brought to England with her father and, excluding a few minor differences, is raised in a European fashion in which she is educated both academically and religiously. She soon emerges as an arguably independent and strong woman – she rejects many marriage proposals as well as emphasizing her status as princess in order to exert power. She is even offered the crown back in America but refuses it, saying that “I might have been a queen, if my father had pleased, for on the death of my aunt, the Indians made me a formal tender of the crown…” (49). Although Unca explains that she is the one who made the choice and had the power to accept or refuse, she still acknowledges that her father must have agreed to it as well. She appears to have the power of choice, but this is an illusion – it is unclear whether or not she would have taken the crown if her father had encouraged it. As the daughter of a classical marriage, the gender roles enforced by her parents’ relationship are projected onto her.

Marriage soon becomes a turning point in the novel. When Unca later sails from America to England, the hired captain of the ship issues an ultimatum: Unca must marry his son or be left on a remote, uninhabited island to be “prey to wild beasts,” (54). She says that she is “too much in his power” and although it may seem she has a choice, the coercive proposal leaves her with two unhappy options. Her unwillingness to participate in the proposed marriage and her rejection of the captain’s masculine aggression leaves her stranded on an island. Although the likeability of Unca may be debated, her consistent determination to reject less-than-desirable marriage proposals paints her in a positive light for many feminist readers.

Before long, the second marriage occurs in The Female American, and Unca Eliza herself is married. Despite fending off suitors for the majority of her young adult life, including the man who she eventually marries, Unca ends up in a classical companionate marriage just as her mother and father did. The reader feels unhappy with this marriage: Unca’s strong and steadfast desire to remain unmarried has dissipated seemingly too easily, and she enters a marriage that she is unsatisfied with. She rejects her cousin twice before she accepts his proposal and is “at last obliged” to accept due to his “constant importunity,” (140). Her cousin exerts his power by more or less threatening her in order to obtain her acceptance, telling her that “…if you refuse me, we cannot enjoy those hours of privacy together…without offence to those around us; at least I know your delicacy will be hurt by them,” (139). He not only threatens her but speaks down to her and places her into the category of a dainty, emotional woman by mentioning her delicacy. He blames the Natives for this, saying that they would judge Unca for being alone with a man. Yet, Unca says that it is likely they would not mind – thus, her cousin is the one who sees this as improper, yet he pins the blame onto her and the Natives, effectively deflecting any possible blame to the white man. He further manipulates her by bringing her aunt and uncle into his argument, who Unca cares greatly for, and reminds her of how greatly their marriage would “add to their pleasure,” (138).

Again, Unca is presented as having a choice in this matter, yet she has been cruelly manipulated and will lose her companion completely if she denies him, as well as the possibility of having any interaction with England or the outside world again. Thus, she accepts, and with her acceptance comes her complete and utter loss of power. Her riches are “committed” to her uncle’s care in England, and consequently she loses her autonomous wealth (153). Whereas prior to her cousin’s arrival she is the leader of the Native’s religious practices (admittedly an already colonializing task), after he arrives and especially after he marries her, he takes control of this religious work. Unca goes from being the preacher to the interpreter, and then to only teaching the girls, while her now husband teaches the boys and preaches “twice a week,” (141). Furthermore, only he has the power to “properly” baptize and marry them (141), something that is implied to not be able to be properly done by a woman. Now, due to her cousin, the Natives are fully converted to Christianity.

Her marriage brings along more European interference than just this: the matrimony more or less opens the doors to the colonization of this island. Not only does her husband join her in living with the Natives, but Captain Shore, another white man, soon joins as well. Unca continues to interact with England as she more or less publicizes the Native’s location: she requests more clothes be brought over for her and writes this entire story to be published overseas. She claims that it is simply for her new “mother and father’s satisfaction,” (155) and therefore in attempting to make her new European family happy she makes the Natives increasingly vulnerable to further European interaction.

Just as Unca Eliza’s mother lost all of her power after her marriage, Unca has the same experience. There are many striking similarities between the two marriages, as well as many important differences. While Unca’s mother married for love, Unca marries for necessity. Yet neither are presented positively: Unca’s mother’s love makes her blind and vulnerable to the influence of her husband, while Unca’s unromantic marriage causes both a personal dissatisfaction and a great loss of power. The book does not present the readers with a successful marriage, for how can a marriage be successful when the protagonist is made weak from it? Indeed, both marriages involve the unification of a white man to an at least partially Native woman. Both times, the wealth originally belongs to the woman but is transferred to the man and becomes completely under his control. The endings of both of these classic companionate marriages are tragic: Unca’s mother dies while Unca Eliza is rendered powerless. Both times, the Native woman is exploited while the European male continues, as he has historically, to dominate and gain power. Just as Adams-Campbell, Firestone, Wollstonecraft, and many other feminists have critiqued traditional marriage, this novel does the same.

Works Cited

Adams-Campbell, Melissa. New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Companionate Marriage. Project MUSE. Dartmouth College Press, 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2019.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Bartleby.com. Bartleby, 1999. Web. 30 Jan. 2019.

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