The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

American as a Social Movement

The fifth post in the Volokh Conspiracy symposium on "Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative" (ed. by Joshua Claybourn).


(Potomac Books/Univ. of Nebraska Press)

When I was thirteen years old I won an essay contest, "What the United Nations Means to Me," with Eleanor Roosevelt serving as a judge. She noted the similarity in our names. I was Eleanor Roeloffs, and getting singled out in that way by a former First Lady lauded for her human rights work made a big impression on me. I didn't know much about politics then, but I knew enough to understand that she was a driving force behind what the United Nations stood for and that I wanted to be on her side.

I learned to define my politics and values by identifying heroes to look up to and follow. I think a country does the same thing. The people we choose to elevate and remember over time signify the American narrative. In my own life, the social justice movements that shaped me individually and America as a country, which despite our problems remains the envy of the world, are the civil rights movement, the fight for women's liberation, and the mobilization against the Vietnam War.

These social movements are America's story, and they're my story as a woman born in the middle of the last century whose life was made measurably better amid these broad strokes of history.

Young people coming of age today are shaped by Black Lives Matter, the Me Too and Time's Up movements, and the advocacy for LGBTQ rights, which led to the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling on 26 June 2015. The progress in this area has been remarkably swift in sweeping away political opposition once thought intractable.

For those who despair about our current state of extreme partisanship, I would urge them to turn away from partisan politics and celebrate the progress of the disability rights movement as an analogue of the gay rights and civil rights movements in freeing people to be fully productive citizens. I am also watching with enormous pride the emergence of the next generation of activists, born out of horror at mass shootings and determined to assert their right to be safe from military-style weapons.

Set in motion by Parkland, Florida, high school students who survived a school shooting that killed seventeen of their classmates, people of all ages rallied on 24 March 2018 in Washington and cities all over the country, and indeed the world, in solidarity against a permissive gun culture that sanctions military-grade weaponry in the hands of civilians claiming the protection of the Second Amendment.

Social movements take a long time. They don't make change overnight. If you ask people who waited sometimes for decades to marry the person they love whether the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage happened quickly, they would likely say no, it was a long time coming. They're right, of course, but when we consider how fast things moved once the groundwork was laid, and the courts got involved, and constitutional protections were put in place, it's possible the same shift in thinking could happen around gun safety and commonsense gun laws.

I always thought that if I weren't a reporter covering Hillary Clinton that we would be friends. I admired her intelligence and her fortitude in the face of personal challenges and stinging political defeats, and I hope she finds some comfort in the fact that she has inspired more people, especially women, to get involved in politics because she lost a race she was supposed to win than if she had actually won. They say history is written by the winners, and the record hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the Women's March the day after President Trump's inauguration are winners too, and they will be writing the next chapters in the American narrative.

The women's movement popularized the phrase that the personal is political, and thanks to the internet and social media, more people have the tools to tell their stories and guide the history yet to be lived.