Strategic Pragmatism or Radical Idealism?

The Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Rights Movements Juxtaposed

Note from the Digital Editor: In order to highlight the high-level of research and scholarship from the authors who have published in the William & Mary Policy Review’s peer-reviewed print journal, we have reproduced the abstracts from Volume 2, Issue 1 along with a link to an electronic copy of the full form of the piece. 

(image by Mitchell Shapiro)

Within the debate over the most effective strategy for achieving social change, there remains a significant divide between those who argue in favor of pushing for immediate and full equality and those who favor a more incremental approach. Indeed, this debate is looming large over the current struggle to achieve same-sex marriage rights nationwide. In this Article, I suggest that the unique political and social landscape within which the same-sex marriage movement is unfolding has important implications for the way in which the struggle can most effectively proceed. To illuminate the importance of this individualized approach, I compare the same-sex marriage and Civil Rights Movements to each other and to the oppositions they face by analyzing such factors as organizational capacity, ideological motivations, demographic stratification, institutional support, and the role of collective identity. However, unlike other scholars in the field, who have focused on the similarities between the two movements, I focus on the ways in which the movements, and the sociopolitical backdrops against which they operate, depart from one another. I suggest that examining these subtle, but nonetheless significant, differences is a crucial component of tailoring legal, political, and social strategies for change. I further posit that these differences indicate that the gay rights movement may achieve greater success by pursuing a more tempered strategy than did its predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement. By providing a comprehensive analysis of the historical forces at work behind each of the two movements, this Article offers unique insights into the longstanding debate over social change, as viewed through the lens of a timely legal issue.

Find the full version of this article in PDF form here.

Kathryn L. Marshall is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School, 2011.

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