Activism to Academe: Professor Marc Stein Makes Impact on Modern U.S. History

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Photo of Marc Stein

On occasion, students in Marc Stein’s classes have come across their professor when conducting research on modern U.S. history. They have found artifacts of his activist past, from the 1980s when Stein was running a national gay newspaper based in Boston and participating in AIDS protests on the East Coast.

He would later transition to scholarship, becoming a well-regarded and award-winning historian of U.S. law, politics and society, with research and teaching interests in constitutional law, social movements, gender, race and sexuality. His books and articles focus on 20th-century urban gay and lesbian history; Supreme Court decisions on sex, marriage and reproduction; queer political activism; and sexual politics in history.

Stein joined SF State last fall as the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor in U.S. History. He is organizing this year’s campus celebration of Constitution Day, comprised of a two-day conference exploring some of today’s most pressing issues such as marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, domestic violence and free speech.

When did you start becoming interested in history?

History was probably my worst subject in high school. Because of that, I think it challenged me. Math and science came easy to me.

My family was mostly a family of scientists and engineers. Partly, I think it was an act of rebellion to be interested in history. One of my father’s favorite lines is that he doesn’t believe in looking back; he just believes in looking forward. I’m quite sure that’s partly why I became a historian (laughs).

In college I jumped around majors a lot. I think I had six majors over the course of my undergraduate years: [including] psychology, sociology, government, education. But I began with history and ended up coming back to history. I had great professors. My initial interests were in the history of Marx and Freud — intellectual history, history of the left. I did mostly European history. Later when I went to graduate school, I shifted to American history.

What drew you initially to Marx and Freud?

For me, history is the discipline that provided the most compelling answers to the questions that I had about why the world was the way that it was. Why there were injustices that didn’t seem right. Why there were inequalities that didn’t seem right. Why governments were structured the way they were. Why society functioned the way that it functioned. Those were the questions that interested me. What I learned in history provided the best answers. …

The ideas of Marx and Freud — and then the history of the ways those ideas lived on and changed and influenced the world — really fascinated me.

What fascinated you about that?

With Marx, it was primarily about how to deal with the questions he raised and the influence he had on questions about inequality and injustice. With Freud, I think it was more about questions that I had about gender and sexuality and family. ...

I was in college during the Reagan years, so questions of inequality were very much on the agenda on college campuses. I got involved in fighting back against cutbacks in federal student aid programs. Economic inequality was really an issue. And then the Reagan wars in Central America were a big issue. …

At the same time, questions about gender and sexuality were really prominent. The struggle for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was still on. I helped start my campus abortion rights student organization. And then I got very interested in, as we called it at the time, gay and lesbian issues.

Why is it important that we study American history and the Constitution?

History offers great answers, compelling answers, for understanding the world today. I’m interested in the past on its own terms, but I’m more moved by thinking about the way historical developments help us explain, understand and hopefully change the world in which we live today.

I think my answer about the Constitution would be a little bit different. I just started one of my courses on the history of the U.S. Constitution last week. One of the ways I introduced the importance of the subject to my students was to ask them to imagine playing a sport and not knowing any of the rules — going out on a baseball field, basketball court, soccer field — being told to play and not knowing any of the rules.

Some of us have may have actually witnessed that kind of dynamic when we see children introduced to sports and they have no idea what they’re supposed to do — where they’re supposed to kick the ball, when they’re supposed to run and when they’re not supposed to run.

I argued that most Americans live in that situation with respect to politics and governance and law. They’re actually quite unfamiliar with the basic, fundamental rules of governance in our society. I think studying the history of the U.S. Constitution can position us to better understand how the rules are played, how to work the rules, how to take advantage of the rules, how to not be taken advantage of under the rules.

We see, on an almost daily basis, the significance of constitutional law. Whether it’s Donald Trump challenging the notion of birthright citizenship that we’ve had since the 14th Amendment was ratified, or it’s the same-sex marriage decision of last year, or it’s the Black Lives Matter movement talking about basic due process rights. We’re all talking about these issues, whether we know it or not, within or against frameworks that are set by the U.S. Constitution.

Do you have a favorite piece of the Constitution?

Yes, I think it would be the 14th Amendment. I emphasize to my students that the three Civil War/Reconstruction amendments were the most important in U.S. history, the 13th, pretty much ending slavery; the 15th Amendment, challenging racial discrimination in voting.

But the 14th Amendment has language about birthright citizenship, defining basic rights of citizenship, defining basic due process rights and using the language of equal protection.

For anyone interested in equality, the most important language is in the 14th Amendment. That’s why every social movement that has tried to argue within the framework of the Constitution about equality has rested their claims on the 14th Amendment.

Any achievements you’re most proud of?

In 2010, I won a graduate teaching award at my last university [York University], nominated by a couple dozen of my students. I was really proud of that, that they took the initiative to nominate me. They showed me the nomination file, which was very flattering. It made it all the more difficult, actually, to leave my last job. ...

In my pre-professional life, I often will tell my students, at the end of my courses on constitutional law, that one of the proudest moments of my life relates to constitutional law. It was when I did civil disobedience at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 and got arrested along with several hundred other activists who were protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold state sodomy laws. … Several hundred activists … tried to storm the Supreme Court building, which we knew was not exactly going to happen.

But it was a very dramatic experience and a real experience of expressing a commitment to a political cause, in a way that’s very unlike reading a book or even going to a regular demonstration — because of the level of uncertainty. You don’t know if you’re going to be attacked by the police. You don’t know if what you’re expecting, which is to be in jail for a few hours, could turn into something of greater duration.

I’m proud that at that moment in my life, in my young 20s, I was willing to believe seriously enough in a political cause and to put my body on the line.


Photo by Hannah Anderson

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