Tuesday, 19 November 2013

At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

AMS Postgraduate student Nicole Willson blogs about her archival research in Louisiana as well as more contemporary representations of slavery in 12 Years a Slave.

Check out Nicole's blog here and follow her on twitter @NicoleWillson

Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred. This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.
I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Research Seminar: Professor Coll Thrush

Professor Coll Thrush and Rebecca Tillett in conversation after his presentation

The American Studies Research seminar this week was delighted to welcome Professor Coll Thrush (University of British Columbia) for a talk entitled "London Entangled: Indigenous Histories at the Heart of Empire". Coll Thrush is in London on a research trip, and is in the midst of developing some very exciting work for his current book project. In the past, scholars have often treated Indigenous and urban histories as though they are mutually exclusive. But for Coll Thrush these two kinds of history are closely interrelated, or, to use his word, entangled. In a history of London framed through the experiences of Indigenous people who travelled there, from territories that became the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, he shows how stories of Inuit captives in the 1570s, Cherokee delegations in the 1760s, Hawaiian royals in the 1820s, as well as the memory of these travelers in present-day communities, all show the complex ways in which London is an important ground of Indigenous history and settler colonialism.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

UEA 50th Anniversary: The Art of Conspiracy

 Discovered amongst the volcanic ash, discarded event programmes and shattered plastic pint glasses that covered campus the morning after the UEA 50th Anniversary celebrations, the following missive outlines the proceedings of the the School of American Studies' 'Art of Conspiracy' event. Or does it?..

To whomever this message reaches,

I have some disconcerting news.  As a contribution to the University of East Anglia’s 50th Anniversary Festival an assortment of departments, schools and faculties were asked to think up and run hands on activities throughout Saturday 28th September.  The School of American Studies’ input was an hour-long workshop entitled ‘The Art of Conspiracy’.  According to an unidentified whistleblower, a few days prior to the affair the organisers/puppet masters met in an unknown location to plan the event in painstaking detail.  We will never know for sure what happened in that meeting, but thanks to the testimony of several dependable experts and eye witnesses present at the workshop we have a clearer idea of what really happened that Saturday.

As people filed into room 1.6 of the Thomas Paine Study Centre, there was a certain tension in the air.  People knew something was going to happen, something important, but no one knew exactly what; all they could say was that they had been attracted by the mystic title and blurb in a programme that had been suspiciously handed to all of them earlier in the day.  Coincidence? I think not.

The deep rumble of chatter disappeared abruptly when Dr. Hilary Emmett introduced the running order of the event.  The experts have told me that everything happened exactly as Dr Emmett said it would – how convenient.

First, MA by Research student Joseph Broadbent gave a brief talk titled ‘The Logic of Conspiracy Theory’.  He proposed that conspiracy theorists do not live up to their stereotype and to illustrate this point he demonstrated that the tools to be a conspiracy theorist are innate within all of us.  For example, he explained how just a few biases we exhibit—such as the availability error, proportionality bias, the post hoc fallacy, pareidolia, confirmation bias, and the backfire effect—make us more disposed to believing conspiracy theories than we would initially have thought.  Mr. Broadbent went on to run a mini-experiment to prove his hypothesis.  By playing a verse of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ forwards, then backwards he managed to get the room to see how the song has been seen by some conspiracy theorists to be a part of a grand satanic plot.  Ending on that note, he left a list of how to build your own conspiracy theory up for the room to see.


Following this the audience, which had already been suspiciously sat in groups of five to eight, were invited to create their own conspiracy theories.  A chosen member from each group went to the front of the room and underwent a ritual, at the end of which they had selected three cards—a person, a corporation, and an event—that had to explain the oncoming zombie apocalypse.

 An eyewitness found this all incredibly troubling because we all know that the zombie apocalypse is going be here soon.  That the number 3 was used is more worrying because we know that it is the only divisor of the number of the beast that gives us the date of this oncoming catastrophe (2/2/22), but the team from American Studies carried on despite these objections.  It is quite clear that the academics from the school of American Studies knew far more about this event than they were letting on because the selection of three cards cannot be a coincidence.  Therefore, I shall name them so that all who deal with them in the future know about their role in this episode; they were: Dr Nicholas Grant, Dr Wendy McMahon, Dr Kaeten Mistry, and Dr Jonathan Mitchell.

After some clearly biased speculation and conjecture each group presented their findings which were rated by how complex and how believable they were.  These ranged from Bill Gates using Microsoft to create wirelessly updateable zombies, to Disney having already started creating mindless zombies (from Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus).  From Sarah Palin being a secret communist, to McDonalds being the epicentre of the future breakout.  On reflection, these entries leave us much to ponder as it is quite possible that they could be truthful, but cloaked in parody so as to disguise their truthiness from the sheeple.

So, we are left with several perplexing questions: first, was ‘the event’ a success? From the information I have to hand I think that for American Studies it would have appeared so, yes, as participants and lecturers alike were seen leaving happily discussing the art of the conspiracy theory.  And, secondly, lastly, and by far the most important, is Miley Cyrus a zombie?  Only time will tell.


A. Nonymous.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Beyond the Border: The Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963)

Date: 23rd November 2013
Organiser: David Mc Carthy (PhD Candidate at the School of American Studies)
Email: davidmccarthy.uea@gmail.com

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most seminal events in modern American poetry, the Vancouver Poetry Conference 1963. Following the publication of Donald Allen’s prescient The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Warren Tallman and Robert Creeley gathered a number of the New American Poets together in Vancouver for three weeks of poetry readings, public lectures, workshops and roundtable discussions on contemporary experimental poetics. This occasion helped to consolidate and disseminate some of the major theoretical arguments informing experimental American poetry of the period and facilitated an unprecedented level of cross-fertilisation and dialogic exchange between current and successive generations of experimental North-American poets.

To coincide with UEA’s own fiftieth anniversary, the School of American Studies is hosting a one-day conference intended to reassess the continuing legacies of the Vancouver Poetry Conference, its participants and the open-form poetics being championed at it. Speakers will include David Arnold (author of Poetry and Language Writing: Objective and Surreal), Daniel Katz (author of The Poetry of Jack Spicer) and Miriam Nicholls (editor of The Holy Forest: The Collected Poems of Robin Blaser and The Fire: The Collected Essays of Robin Blaser), alongside a range of postgraduate and early-career researchers from the UK, US and Canada who will be discussing issues relating, but not limited, to; the dynamic relationships and intertextual dialogues between the participants (chiefly, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Denise Levertov), the influence of the conference and its participants on the development of experimental Canadian poetics, instances of Trans-Atlantic poetic exchange between North-America and British little-magazines, the notably absent Jack Spicer, and the general disregard and transgression of literal and conceptual borders endorsed by the open-forms of the New American Poets.

Beyond the Border: The Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963) will also include a screening of the Canadian film-maker Robert Mc Tavish’s new documentary The Line Has Shattered, which chronicles and explores this landmark occasion in innovative North-American poetry using archive footage and interviews with some of the participants half a century later. In addition, Michael Palmer, one of the most important American poets writing today and an original attendee at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, will be giving a reading to conclude the event and help celebrate this important anniversary.    

Trailer for Robert Mc Tavish’s The Line Has Shatteredhttp://vimeo.com/60036134

Michael Palmer’s Page at Poets.org - http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/98

You can register for the conference here. The deadline for registration is 21st October 2013.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich

Black History Month Exhibition
The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich
@ Norwich Millennium Library

Date: 15th-31st October 2013.
Nature of event: Exhibition
Title: The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Time: Weekdays: 9am-8pm Saturday: 9am-5pm.
Cost: Free
For more info email: n.grant@uea.ac.uk 

Running as part of the celebrations for Black History Month 2013, this exhibition will examine the extent to which the local political landscape influenced the character of anti-apartheid protest in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Made up of original materials form the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive, it will outline the efforts of Norfolk based activists to promote the boycott South African goods and document the fundraising campaigns launched to enable black and coloured students from South Africa to study at UEA. 

Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin

Public Lecture: Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin - Prof. Charles Lumpkins
Date: Sunday 20th October 2013
Venue: UEA London (Room 5.18)
Time: 11 am – 1 am – Talk followed by Q&A.
Cost: Free


Prof. Charles Lumpkins (Penn State University) will be discussing the recent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the African American teenager Trayvon Martin. He will analyse the racial significance of the case in the US as well as the continued problem of racial profiling in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prof. Lumpkins is lecturer in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of African Americans with particular interests relating to the history of social and political movements, the history of the working-class. He 2008 he published American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics with Ohio University Press.

The talk will take place on Sunday 20th October at UEA London, 102 Middlesex Street, London E1 7EZ.

Please email n.grant@uea.ac.uk to register.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Black History Month 2013

The School of American Studies is running a number of free public events to coincide with Black History Month. Led by UEA staff and postgraduates, all of these talks are completely free and will be held at the Norwich Millennium Library as well as Fusion at the Forum (see event listings below). They will cover a range of subjects from Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to the Anti-Apartheid movement in Norwich. If you'd like any more information about any of these events, or AMS's involvement in Black History Month as a whole, please email Dr. Nick Grant (n.grant@uea.ac.uk).

Full list of events:

Title: ‘“Forever Free?” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Real Meaning of Freedom’ – Dr. Becky Fraser (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 1st October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

In the 150th year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved peoples in the Confederate States of America, this lecture will consider the very complex and complicated dimensions of freedom for the nearly four million enslaved peoples the Proclamation applied to. In addition it will question whether Lincoln can be, and indeed should be, hailed as the Great Emancipator, given the limits of the actual declaration and its historical legacies.

Title: ‘Collection and Commemoration: Slavery in Sight and Memory’ – Nicole Willson (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 10th October
Time: 12-1:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

This talk looks at visual representations of slavery in museums and memorial sites across the United Kingdom. It considers the unseen and the unsaid in such commemorative spaces and addresses the idea that the practice of memorialisation is twinned with forgetting. Contemplating the evolution of museological practice from the birth of the modern museum in the eighteenth century, it also ponders whether such practices can offer restitution and for whom, if they do, this restitution serves. 

Title: ‘Warrior Marks: Alice Walker’s Writing’ – Dr. Rebecca Tillett (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 15th October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

The controversy surrounding both the publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1982) and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation focused on claims that Walker had refused a full focus on racism in order to discuss African American women’s experiences of sexism in the 1930s American South. Moreover, Walker’s depiction of often fraught relationships and power dynamics between African American men and women, and within black families was condemned as fuelling racist stereotypes. Taking The Color Purple as a starting point, this lecture will assess the relationship between Walker’s writing and her own  passionate and ongoing commitment to political commentary and activism.

Title: ‘The Local Dimension of the Anti-Apartheid Movement: the Case of Norfolk’ – Dr. Nick Grant (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 16th October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

This talk will address the materials that make up the Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich exhibition. It will explore the contributions of local businesses, politicians and students in Norwich to the international consumer boycott of apartheid South Africa. 

Title: Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin – Prof. Charles Lumpkins (Penn State University)
Date: 24th October 2013
Nature of event: Talk
Venue: Fusion, the Forum, Norwich
Time: 6–7:30 pm – Talk followed by Q&A.
Cost: Free
Prof. Charles Lumpkins will discuss the recent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the African American teenager Trayvon Martin. He will analyse the racial significance of the case in the US as well as the continued problem of racial profiling in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prof. Lumpkins is lecturer in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of African Americans with particular interests relating to the history of social and political movements, the history of the working-class. He 2008 he published American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics with Ohio University Press.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

1963: A Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

On the 14th October AMS’s Dr. Malcolm McLaughlin and Dr. Nicholas Grant will be at the British Library to discuss the significance of 1963 for the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and for racial politics around the world.

1963 looms in American memory as a year that changed the course of the nation's history, while shaping how the United States was perceived around the world. When considering the Civil Rights movement, it is so often the events of that year that come to mind: iconic images of police officers setting dogs and turning fire hoses on peaceful marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, in full view of the press and television cameras; Martin Luther King's ‘I have a dream’ speech at the March on Washington on 28 August. 

Dr. McLaughlin will focus on the March on Washington and will ask what we can learn about the Civil Rights movement, its ambitions, and its achievements, by thinking about controversies surrounding the march at the time, and how it has entered American folklore since. Dr. Grant will then open up some new perspectives on the civil rights movement by tracing political connections between black activists in the United States and South Africa, and showing how the Birmingham campaign and March on Washington travelled overseas, shaping racial politics around the world.

This event is co-sponsored by the University of East Anglia and the Eccles Centre at the British Library.

You can book a place for the talk here.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Nicole Willson at the British Museum

In September, current AMS Postgraduate student Nicole Willson will be giving what promises to be a fascinating 'Gallery Talk' at the British Museum in London. She will be speaking on 'Curiosity, collection and memory: thinking about slavery and display in the Age of Enlightenment' - a subject that is close to her doctoral dissertation on the literature, history and culture of the black diaspora. Guiding listeners through the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) at the museum, Nicole will discuss the intersections between discovery, collection and slavery.

From Hans Sloane's encounters with enslaved people and plantation labour in his voyages to Jamaica in the early eighteenth century, to the advancement of the abolitionist movement at the century's end. this talk will consider how the Enlightenment, and the museum as its cultural emblem, struggled to negotiate the problem of slavery.

The talk will take place at 1.15pm on Friday 20th September. Click here for more information. You can follow Nicole on twitter here.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Battle of Gettysburg at 150

Seven score and ten years ago today, the Battle of Gettsyburg - perhaps the most pivotal moment in the American Civil War - was being fought in Pennsylvania. You can see how Harper's Weekly reported things at the time here, and the New York Times Disunion blog has a great assessment of "What Gettysburg Proved", here. Those two links are the tiny tip of a very large iceberg of online commentary and resources. So below, a selection of links that have caught our eye on Twitter. Please feel free to share your own suggestions for further reading in the comments.

A Busy Week at the Supreme Court (Part III): Same Sex Marriage

Having addressed race conscious university admissions on Monday and the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday last week (see previous posts here and here), Emma Long analyses the Supreme Court's decision made on Wednesday June 26, the final day of its term, in the issue of same sex marriage.  The two cases raised rather different issues and were treated quite differently by the Court: 

United States v. Windsor

The Case
US v. Windsor involved a challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.  Under the law, same sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state were denied access to federal benefits and protections accorded to opposite sex couples.  The challenge was brought by Edith Windsor who, upon the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, received a bill for estate taxes totalling more than $360,000, a bill she would not have received had she been married to a man.  DOMA opponents, including Bill Clinton who as president signed it into law, argued the law discriminated against individuals on the basis of their sexuality.  Supporters of the law worried about what the striking down of DOMA would mean for the nature of families and the sanctity of marriage.

Edith Windsor outside the Supreme Court
The Court
In another 5:4 decision, this written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA.  The majority did so on two grounds: the power of the states and equal protection.  States have long-standing authority to pass laws which govern domestic relations, the Court argued, and this includes the right to determine what does and does not constitute “marriage” within their borders.  DOMA trampled on that authority by seeking to impose a federal definition of marriage in certain circumstances.  This harm was compounded, the majority argued, by the fact that DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.  Kennedy wrote: “When New York adopted a law to permit same-sex marriage, it sought to eliminate inequality; but DOMA frustrates that objective ... DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.”  In a series of emotive passages, Kennedy’s opinion argued that DOMA “impose[s] inequality,” “demeans” same sex couples by determining their relationships as “second-tier marriage,” “humiliates tens of thousands of children” of same sex couples, and “imposes a disability on a class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”  The combination of the infringement of the power of the state and the unequal treatment of same sex couples was, for five Justices, sufficient to strike down Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional.

Three dissents were filed by the four Justices in the minority.  Three Justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas) argued that the Court did not even have the right to hear the case.  Because the Obama Administration had refused to defend the law, they argued, and because Windsor had won her case in the lower courts, there was no “controversy” here to be decided.  Deciding the case was, therefore, a major expansion of the power of the Court that was not justified by any provision of the Constitution.  Coming from Justices on the Court’s conservative wing, from whom expansion of power claims are frequent, this was not surprising.  However, coming the day after the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act), in which Justice Ginsburg for the Court’s liberals accused the majority of extending the Court’s power by denying the will of Congress, Windsor shows that such arguments can be made by both sides when necessary.

On the substantive issues raised by the case the dissenters agreed: the Constitution does not speak to the issue of marriage and therefore can neither support or undermine the right to same sex marriage.  Because the Constitution is silent, properly elected legislative majorities may decide either for or against.  Congress chose to support opposite sex marriage in DOMA which, the dissenters argued, was perfectly legitimate under the Constitution.  For Justice Alito, asking the Court to protect same sex marriage was asking it to protect “a very new right,” one where the consequences have yet to be seen (and thus, implicitly, viewing same sex marriage as somehow different from opposite sex marriage).  Justice Scalia employed sharp and pointed language to argue both that the government may “enforce traditional moral and sexual” norms and that, contrary to the majority’s claims of discrimination, there are “many perfectly valid – indeed, downright boring – justifying rationales for this legislation”.

Hollingsworth v. Perry

Gay rights activists outside the Supreme Court
The Case
Hollingsworth v. Perry came from a challenge to a California initiative, Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage in the state.  Prop.8 was passed, by public vote, in response to a California Supreme Court decision which held that limiting marriage to opposite sex couples violated the state constitution (thus opening the way for same sex marriage in the state).  As the case made its way through the lower courts, however, the state government refused to defend the law.  In order to bring a case in court there must be a live controversy: without anyone to defend Prop.8 there was the chance that the case would be dropped.  Individuals who had been instrumental in the campaign for Prop.8 intervened in order to defend the law.  As argued before the US Supreme Court in March there were thus two issues for consideration: the broader issue of whether California, having once permitted same sex marriage, could then remove that right, and the narrower, technical issue of whether Prop.8’s supporters even had the right to defend it in court (a requirement known in legal terms as “standing”).  The outcome of the case had the potential for far broader consequences than US v. Windsor: some commentators had hoped that the Court might use this case to strike down all restrictions on same sex marriage.  Given the Court’s precedents this was undoubtedly overly optimistic thinking, but there was a chance that the Court would at least decide the status of same sex marriage in California which might then open up possibilities in other states.

The Court
In the end, the Court ducked the broader issue in favour of deciding the case on the narrow, technical grounds.  The proponents of Prop.8 had no standing to bring their challenge, according to the 5:4 majority; if the state chooses not to defend a law, private parties cannot simply stand in its stead.  As a result, the appeals to both the lower court of appeals and the Supreme Court were held invalid and the case was returned to the lower courts.

Sandy Stier and Kris Perry wave after they were married at San Francisco city hall.

The Significance
The practical implications of both Windsor and Hollingsworth are significant but, in some ways, rather limited.  With the demise of Section 3 of DOMA, same sex couples whose marriages are recognised in their home states will now be eligible for the same federal benefits and protections as opposite sex couples.  For those involved the financial and security impact may well be significant (as, for example, the first granting of a permanent residency visa to the Bulgarian husband of a Florida man on Friday afternoon or Edith Windsor receiving a refund of the estate tax she paid).  As a matter of law, however, the impact is less major, applying only to the 1000 or so federal laws governed by DOMA.

And despite Justice Scalia’s warnings in dissent in Windsor that this case will ultimately lead to a broad requirement that all states permit same sex marriage, the majority stated this was not the case, holding the ruling applied only to those states which already permit same sex marriage.  The Court’s decision did not challenge Section 2 of DOMA which gives states the right to refuse to recognise same sex marriages performed in other states and clearly made no explicit statement about whether states should permit same sex marriage under their own laws.  Thus, couples who marry in one state and then move to another may still run into difficulties under this rationale. 

This is reinforced by the Court’s handling of Hollingsworth.  Many had urged the Court to use the case to require states to recognise same sex marriage, or at least to make a strong statement in its favour.  Deciding the case on narrow, technical grounds, without addressing the substantive issues, implies that the Court has gone as far as it is currently prepared to with its ruling on DOMA.  In effect, both Windsor and Hollingsworth ensure that, for now, the issue of same sex marriage remains a debate to be had at state level. 

If subsequent events in California are anything to go by, those debates will continue apace.  Following the Court’s ruling on Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit lifted the ban on same sex marriage on Friday.  Several couples, including those involved in Hollingsworth, married Friday afternoon.  On Saturday Prop.8 proponents appealed to the Supreme Court to ban such marriages until at least the deadline for appeals to Court rulings had passed.  On Sunday Justice Kennedy refused that appeal, meaning same sex marriage remains, at least for now, legal in California.

But the impact of these cases goes well beyond the narrow legal principles established.  As the majority and dissenters in Windsor noted, same sex marriage is an issue of much current debate and the astonishing growth in public support for same sex marriage in the US will ensure that continues.  But now it will continue with at least one Supreme Court precedent that, in its language, makes some very strong statements about the value and validity of same sex marriage.  This in a nation where state laws making it a “crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct” were only struck down in 2003 (notably enough, exactly ten years to the day before Windsor and in an opinion also written by Justice Kennedy – see Lawrence v. Texas).  And where, as recently as 1986, the Supreme Court could characterise a challenge to one such law as a claim to a “constitutional right of homosexuals to engage in acts of sodomy” (Bowers v. Hardwick).  In this light, the Court’s decisions in Windsor and Hollingsworth are quite remarkable and speak volumes about the impact of the campaign for gay rights in the United States.  The debates will continue, but in the push forward it is worth taking a moment to consider just how far things have already changed.