Obergefell Made History, and History Made Obergefell

Obergefell Made History, and History Made Obergefell

History matters. Sober and sophisticated historical research can make a difference in the world. I am proud to live in a nation that now, per the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, recognizes the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to marry their chosen partners. And I am proud to be a member of the historical profession, which provided key evidence and interpretive analysis to the Court.

As a historian, I naturally love documents. When I saw news of the decision on the front pages of the New York Times, I immediately clicked through to the text of the decision, and began reading. There, articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States, was a top-notch narrative of the social and legal history of marriage since the colonial era. And there, right in the text of this history-making decision, were the names of academic historians I admire: Nancy Cott, Stephanie Coontz, Hendrik Hartog. The decision cited Nancy Cott’s book, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, multiple times. Less visible, but no less important, were the amicus briefs on the history of marriage and the history of discrimination against gay men and lesbians, prepared by panels of historians from the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.

As Notches blog noted, the amicus briefs read like syllabi from the classes many of us teach. We are pleased to welcome every student who walks through the door of our classrooms, subscribes to our blogs, or reads our books and articles. How thrilling to have the members of the Supreme Court and their clerks among our students this semester!

This is not a simple story, though, of jurists finally asking the right questions, and coming to drink from the fount of knowledge and wisdom eternally flowing at the center of the academy’s ivory tower. In fact, the activism and scholarship that made gay marriage possible grew up together. They emerged from the same set of social movements that insisted that the personal is political, and that all lives matter: movements that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, disability rights, the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. The historical scholarly works cited by the Court and listed in the amicus briefs were all published after 1975. It took until then to be able to ask the right historical questions (and to be paid an academic’s salary to answer them).

Ulrich, Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History poster
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History

When I first read historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007), I suddenly understood that my graduate mentors were, in fact, the founders of the field of women’s history. I was so moved, I cried. I had taken my sense of security, of having a field, a check-box, a respected “area of study” and a set of job prospects, for granted. I was only a generation removed from scholars who had to push and insist and resist humiliation. I guess there were occasional moments when I had an inkling. As a grad student on my way to my second American Association for the History of Medicine meeting, I shared a cab with another attendee. “What do you research?” the crusty old doc asked. “Women’s and their partners’ experiences of menstruation.” He glared at me. “That is NOT INTERESTING!” “Whatever,” I thought. “My committee likes it. Harvard is happy to give me a Ph.D. for it. This guy doesn’t have control over any history jobs.” I could blow it off because I already had robust institutional support for what I was doing.

Laurel Ulrich and her peers had made way for the new questions I wanted to ask, given me a place in graduate school and respectful treatment, helped me find funding, and supported my presentations and publications. I could focus my energy on new questions, new sources, and new lines of inquiry opening up in women’s, gender, and sexuality history. In turn, as a postdoc, I was able to support an undergrad at Wellesley writing a thesis on the history of transgender/sex zines. She was able to do serious research because the two generations of scholars before her had created robust LGBT archival collections, written books and articles that contextualized her research, founded a Women’s Studies department at Wellesley, and were able to write her letters of support for research funding. That’s quite a distance from Gerda Lerner’s estimate that in 1970, only five American historians identified themselves as specialists in women’s history.1

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s made it possible, thinkable, and practical to ask new questions in American history. In addition to personal passion and commitment on the part of an individual scholar, it takes substantial intellectual and material support to produce accurate, nuanced, and insightful history. I am proud to be part of the scholarly community that produced the new knowledge so central to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. I am thankful to the social activists who insisted that all of our histories deserve proper attention from the academy. I am glad that together we can make the world a more livable place.

Further Reading

Laurel Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Knopf, 2007).

Sources cited in AHA and OAH amicus briefs, listed in full on Notches blog.


  1. Laurel Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Knopf, 2007), p. 211. Return to text.

Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at

1 thought on “Obergefell Made History, and History Made Obergefell

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      I wholly agree. History scholarship and activism are too often treated as incompatible. Paul Longmore‘s “Why I Burned My Book” essay is a really powerful articulation of this — and why it’s so important to reject the separation. If historians don’t speak up, then we leave space for inaccurate uses of the past.

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