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Some explanations of Joan Scott's, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" in Gender and the

Politics of History

NB: please remember that these are my notes designed for your benefit. As such, they are my
intellectual property. If you use my comments for papers, you must properly cite them.


"Throughout the ages, people have made figurative allusions by employing grammatical terms to evoke
traits of character or sexuality…Most recently…feminists have in a more literal and serious vein begun to
use 'gender' as a way of referring to the social organization of the relationship between the sexes" (28).
-Here Scott talks about the historicity of words, that they do change, that they are used to
transform attitudes or play upon common stereotypes. More specifically, Scott refers to the use
of the grammatical term "gender" to fix certain characteristics or defining traits to the sexes. In
the past (as now) this was used humorously. Scott argues that feminists have begun to use the
word to explain social organization. Like the very word, social organization has a history—that
history is, in part, based on certain attributes of the sexes.

"In grammar, gender is understood to be a way of classifying phenomena, a socially agreed upon system
of distinctions rather than an objective description of inherent traits. In addition, classifications suggest a
relationship among categories that makes distinctions or separate groupings possible" (29).
Grammar has a specific use for gender—it is used to classify terms.

"'[G]ender' seems to have first appeared among American feminists who wanted to insist on the
fundamentally social quality of distinctions based on sex. The word denoted a rejection of the biological
determinism implicit in the use of such terms as 'sex' or 'sexual difference'. 'Gender' also stressed the
relational aspect of normative definitions of femininity."
-Society has built distinctions (status, really) based on sex
-Sex by itself does not create social differences. This is constructed by society.
-Because it is constructed, we must get away from saying, "well, that's the way it is between a
man and a woman." That's the way it is because society has created it, not because it is
-What defines "normal" feminine behavior? A relation to something abnormal must be
established. To know what IS normal, we need to know what IS NOT. Oppositions are set in
-In addition, this relational model was claimed by some historians (notably Natalie Zemon Davis)
to understand "the significance of the sexes." This means that historians sought to understand
how sex and sexual relations were built on culturally constructed notions of what is appropriate
sexual behavior (sex roles).

"'[G]ender' was a term offered by those who claimed that women's scholarship would fundamentally
transform disciplinary paradigms."
-What does this mean????? Basically, it could be used to "push the envelope" or to "throw a
wrench into" traditional histories. It was a way of moving forward, of rethinking history and the
way we look at the past.

"An interest in class, race, and gender signaled, first, a scholar's commitment to a history that included
stories of the oppressed" (30).
-she's getting at the "history from below" that we've talked about before. Emerging partly from the
New Left of the 1960s
-she connects studies of class to Marx's economic theories and argues that while scholars use
class in various ways, there is always an understanding that it "involve[s] an idea of economic
causality and a vision of the path along which history has moved dialectically." (check out the
dialectic cheat sheet for further elaboration)
-she then separates race and gender from studies of class.
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 2

-she argues that feminist historians are looking to find that kind of coherence in studies about
gender for two reasons:
1. "the proliferation of case studies in women's history seems to call for some
synthesizing perspective that can explain continuities and discontinuities."
2. "the discrepancy between the high quality of recent work in women's history and its
continuing marginal status in the field as a whole…points up the limits of descriptive
approaches that do not address dominant disciplinary concepts."
-she then says that nonfeminist historians essentially dismiss this work or try to divorce it from
any connection to political or economic history or basically to say something like "great, women
participated in X event. My knowledge of the event still remains very much as it was." Her
response to these kinds of dismissive attitudes is the following:
"The challenge posed by these responses is, in the end, a theoretical one. It requires
analysis not only of the relationship between male and female experience in the past but
also of the connection between past history and current historical practice. How does
gender work in human social relationships? How does gender give meaning to the
organization and perception of historical knowledge? The answer depend on gender as
an analytic category" (31)
*we MUST take gender seriously to understand the way in which it is so firmly
embedded not only in our understanding of the past, but also in our very
relationships today. If we do not critically examine these relationships, we can
never fully come to an understanding of how the relationship between the sexes
was at an imbalance through much, if not all of human history.


She first asserts that historians' attempts to theorize gender have been rather formulaic falling under the
rubric of the fashion of social science and this is utterly not conducive to truly understanding gender. The
problem, she claims is that "they tend to contain reductive or overly simple generalizations" (31).
She then asserts that the approaches fall into two categories:
1. descriptive—it merely recognizes the existence of certain relationships, but offers no analysis
or explanation
2. causal—it attempts to understand the how and the why of the social world. It asks questions
about the nature of these phenomena and it wants to understand why "they take the form they

Why does she say that 'gender' is a synonym for 'women'? She argues that gender has been co-opted by
women's historians because it seems more neutral (politically and personally), but the subject of the
works remains distinctly about women. This can be problematic because it doesn't carry the analytical
punch it should.
"Whereas the term 'women's history' proclaims its politics by asserting (contrary to customary
practice) that women are valid historical subjects, 'gender' included, but does not name women,
and seems to pose no critical threat."
Now, she says this assertion occurred on the one hand as part of the quest for academic legitimacy. At
first glance, it may seem that she may not like this particular use of gender, but go to the next paragraph
on page 32:
"This usage rejects the interpretive utility of the idea of separate sphere, maintaining that to study
women in isolation perpetuates the fiction that one sphere, the experience of one sex, has little or
nothing to do with the other. In addition, gender is also used to designate social relations
between the sexes. Its use explicitly rejects biological explanations."
I see this as a crucial statement from Scott because with two sentences she has torn
asunder the argument, made above, that one's understanding of a certain event can
remain the same despite the inclusion of women. With the category of gender, one
cannot marginalize the study of women or dismiss their history. Their history is
necessarily interwoven with men's.
"[G]ender becomes a way of denoting 'cultural constructions'—the entirely social creation of ideas
about appropriate roles for women and men. It is a way of referring to the exclusively social
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 3

origins of the subjective identities of men and women. Gender is, in this definition, a social
category imposed on a sexed body."
****KEY POINT!!! This is a MAJOR MAJOR point for Scott's theory. We cannot
claim that women's roles or men's roles have traditionally been what they are because of
some innate biological function. We MUST break away from a biologically determined
notion of what it means to be male (and what the male sex-role is) and what it means to
be female (and what the female sex-role is). In fact, even the sex roles themselves are
culturally constructed to a certain extent, because they imply that "normal" men have sex
with women for the purpose of proceation, etc.
BUT, there are still some problems. She states that this describes what gender is, and has
helped to create a new object of study. However, "gender seems no to apply and so continues to
be irrelevant to the thinking of historians concerned with issue of politics and power. The effect is
to endorse a certain functionalist view ultimately rooted in biology and to perpetuate the idea of
separate spheres…in the writing of history. Although gender in this usage asserts that
relationships between the sexes are social, it says nothing about why these relationships are
constructed as they are, how they work, or how they change."
HUH??? Didn't the definition just suggest the historicity of this category? Why is she critiquing
her own statements? What she's getting at is that while these definitions tell us something about
what exactly gender MEANS, they don't get to the heart of how to analyse those meanings.
Historians needed a way to get at using gender to explain not just a phenomena about the sexes,
but how that phenomena was related to historical change. What we need is a reconciliation
between history (praxis) and theory (33).
She then says we should take a look at the theories that have been used (some of them
problematically, some of them so hidden in the historical work as to not be present at all). There
are three theories that she wants to talk about: Patriarchy, Marxism and psychoanalysis (all of
these should be familiar)
1. Patriarchy—the study of the historical subjection of women by men. For some
feminists (p. 33), the key was linked to women's biological sex role. Subordination was
based on linking women to having babies. For others, sexuality (we should totally know
this term!) was the answer. Throughout history, women have been objectified—even in
the very description of the heterosexual sex act—women are subordinate to men by a
very MATERIAL thing, sex. According to Catherine MacKinnon as filtered by Joan Scott,
"although sexual relations are defined…as social, there is nothing except the inherent
inequality of the sexual relation itself to explain why the system of power operates as it
does." Basically, everything is chalked up to inequality between the sexes—a material,
and biologically determined, analysis
2. Marxism—while Scott says that Marxist feminists are more historical (hence her
critique of the former), she still opines that they are wedded to a material understanding
of the relations between the sexes. Despite the claim by theorists to deny a biological
determinism (and other problems), "the search nonetheless for a materialist explanation
that excludes natural physical differences" was proving hard to come by (35). There
were some critiques within Marxism, but for Scott, the problem was just that…remaining
within Marxism's fold. She states that "[Joan Kelly's] commitment to remain within a
Marxist framework led her to emphasize the causal role of economic factors even in the
determination of the gender system."
SO WHAT?? Why is Joan Scott so bothered by this? Surely, this is as good as it
gets, right? No, because "she tended to emphasize the social rather than the sexual
nature of that reality, and, most often, 'social,' in her usage, was conceived in terms of
economic relations of production."
OK, so why isn't this the end of her discussion of Marxism and feminism? She
recognizes that many scholars increasingly fell under the spell of analytic conceptions of
sexuality and that Michel Foucault's historicization of the concept of sexuality resonated
among many Marxist scholars. She critiques Power of Desire (1983) and its attempt to
fuse gender into a materialist discourse. She claims that this volume of essays is exciting
because there is ACTUAL DEBATE about the way in which gender should be used, yet,
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 4

to Scott's dismay, "a tacit assumption runs through the volume that Marxism can be
expanded to included discussions of ideology, culture, and psychology and that this
expansion will happen through the kind of concrete examination of evidence undertaken
in the articles." Again, they accept the concept of relations of production…
Big difference between Brits and Americans, however, because Brits had a huge Marxist
tradition in academia.
Her ultimate stance on Marxism: "within Marxism, the concept of gender has long been
treated as the by-product of changing economic structures; gender has had no
independent analytic status of its own" (36-37). When this happens, it is easy to be
subsumed by the dominant ideology—big fish eats little fish.
3. Psychoanalysis She begins by defining different schools of though within this
A. object-relations theory—stresses actual lived experience (and experience
based on the senses). Here Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan are given the
status of primary practitioners. For Scott, the problem with object-relations
theory is that it is too literal and too focused around the family itself. As a
consequence, it is too limiting and the historian cannot apply the theories (without
problem) to explain how other social systems like the economy, politics or power
(top, page 38).
Important question: "How can we account within this theory for persistent
associations of masculinity with power, for the higher value placed on manhood
than on womanhood, for the way children seem to learn these associations and
evaluations even when they live outside nuclear households where parenting is
equally divided between husband and wife?…Without meaning, there is no
experience; without processes of signification, there is no meaning" (38).
B. post-structuralist theory—stresses language as a central manner of
representing gender (here she uses Jacques Lacan as her model). Language
here means not "words but systems of meaning—symbolic orders—that precede
the actual mastery of speech, reading, and writing" (37). She states that
"through language, gendered identity is constructed" (38). According to Lacanian
psychoanalytic theory, "the child's relationship to the law (the dominant parent)
depends on sexual difference, on its imaginative (or fantastic) identification with
masculinity or femininity." Nevertheless, in Lacanian theory, gender identification
is NOT a fixed category. Masculinity emerges through repression (of feminine
characteristics), not through some predetermined biological connection. Thus,
there is always conflict and competing meanings of sexuality. As a consequence,
the very concept of "man" and "woman" becomes problematic because their
precepts, masculinity and femininity, are thrown into disarray (that is, what is
"masculine" emerges from the conscious behavior of a person who is always
engaged in a repression of the opposite impulse). THUS, and this is a good thing
for Scott, Lacanian theory points to language as the place to analyse gender, not
to a material reality.
Scott's problem with Lacan: The theory focuses too much on the individual
subject. It also tends to universalize categories without contextualizing them,
thus, "the outcome for historians is a reductive reading of evidence from the
past…it does not permit the introduction of a notion of historical specificity and
variability" (39).
Historians using these two variants of psychoanalytic theory run into problems as
well. They seem to accept fixed relations between male/female as being
universal (and consequently ahistorical). And this has problems because it leads
us to an "essentialist notion of woman" (40). NB: look up essentialist in a good
BINARY OPPOSITIONS??? "fixed always in the same way" is her definition
(40). And this is a good definition. And because there is this idea of a binary
opposition "woman/man" there is a problem. If you want to get at the problems
under the category of female, you need to interrogate the category that it is
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 5

somehow universally opposite something called "male." This is ahistorical. What

we need to do in refuting binary oppositions is to not accept categories as
somehow natural. What is needed is a deconstruction—looking at a binary
opposition in context and asking questions of how it operates; that is, not merely
accepting the existence of such phenomena, but analyzing how they were
created by getting to their root, as JS says, "reversing and displacing its
hierarchical construction" (41).



**"The term 'gender' is part of the attempt by contemporary feminists to stake claim to a certain
definitional ground, to insist on the inadequacy of existing bodies of theory for explaining persistent
inequalities between women and men" (41).
-This merely reasserts her argument.

"It seems to me significant that the use of the word 'gender' has emerged at a moment of great
epistemological turmoil that takes the form…of debates about theory between those who assert the
transparency of facts and those who insist that all reality is construed as constructed, between those who
defend and those who question the idea that 'man' is the rational master of his own destiny" (41).
-For the purposes of History 302, I find this comment informative because it gets to the way that
we have somewhat arbitrarily divided the sections of this course—from a scientistic "the truth is
out there in some objective reality" approach to an approach that asserts that all knowledge is
built around "discourse." I would hope that this comment resonates with you from lecture 1 until
this reading.

Scott makes an important point on page 42 about historical methods. She states that, "I do not think
that we should quit the archives or abandon the study of the past, but we do have to change some of the
ways we've gone about working, some of the questions we have asked. We need to scrutinize our
methods of analysis, clarify our operative assumptions, and explain how we think change occurs. Instead
of a search for single origins, we have to conceive of processes so interconnected they cannot be
disentangled…It is the processes we must continually keep in mind. We must ask more often how things
happened in order to find out why they happened."
-I've quoted a huge chunk from this very important page because we're getting right to the soul of
our class. We're seeing how ways of looking at the past can radically transform they way we do
history—from what sources we read to how we read them. And this transformation does not
signal the demise of history as a profession. To the contrary, this transformation will allow us to
ask questions of the material that would previously remain unasked. We can stop the search for
causality and begin the search for "how."
-She also says we need to pursue meaning in this how/why model. To understand gender,
according to JS. "we need to deal with the individual subject as well as social organization and to
articulate the nature of their interrelationships, for both are crucial to understanding how gender
works, how change occurs" (42).
-More significantly, she declares that "we need to replace the notion that social power is unified,
coherent, and centralized with something like Michel Foucault's concept of power as dispersed
constellations of unequal relationships, discursively constituted in social 'fields of force'" (42).
-Having read Foucault, you should recognize that this is not some top-down analysis of
-What is intriguing about her attempt to rework gender is that AGENCY remains a part of
it…people matter and make decisions!! "there is room for a concept of human agency as
the attempt…to construct an identity, a life, a set of relationships, a society within certain
limits and with language…"
what's with this "within certain limits" stuff? Either you are free to choose
or you aren't. Agency isn't that simple. We are all at least partially constrained
by our environments—social, personal, political, ecological. Given those
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 6

confines people make decisions. History doesn't happen, people make it happen
(my line, here).
"My definition of gender has two parts and several subsets…The core of the definition rests on an
integral connection between two propositions: gender is a constitutive element of social
relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes [part 1], and gender is a primary
way of signifying relations of power [part 2]" (42).
-Part 1 states that gender is culturally constructed. There is nothing natural or biologically
predetermined about it. It's not "actual" difference but "perceived" difference. Some of
this of course cannot escape physical differences, but those physical differences become
defining traits of essence. There are four elements of this part of her definition:
1. cultural symbols evoke multiple representations;
2. there are normative concepts that interpret what these cultural symbols mean;
3. notion of politics and a reference to social institutions and organizations;
4. subjective identity
-tying these four together, JS states that "Historians need instead to
examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively
constructed and relate their findings to a range of activities, social
organizations, and historically specific cultural representations" (44).
-She asserts that this has been successfully accomplished in recent
biographies, both about the individual (as Hall's [not the same one!]
Jessie Daniel Ames) and the collective (as Sinha's Bengali world).
All four of these must exist together in her definition—they can't operate separately.
So, what is her point of offering a process of how gender is constructed? "to clarify and
specify how one needs to think about the effect of gender in social and institutional
relationships, because this thinking is often not done precisely or systematically."

-Part 2 recognizes that gender is used to create and enforce power relations, most
notable the subordination of one sex (female) by another (male). She states, "gender is a
primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated" (45). This is not to
say that power solely is about gender or is built for the purposes of creating gender
distinctions and imbalances; it is only one way in which power manifests itself (others
include race and class).
-She then makes a very intriguing statement: "gender becomes implicated in the
conception and construction of power itself" and she quotes anthropologist
Maurice Godelier to help explain this. We discover that sex differences are used
by society to establish and uphold social relations "that have nothing to do with
sexuality." Once this is done, sexuality is used as legitimation for gender
inequalities and differences.
-How does legitimation work? At first she gives a number of examples.
She then asserts that the examples she has provided "are based on the
idea that conceptual languages employ differentiation to establish
meaning and that sexual difference is a primary way of signifying
-Society takes obvious physical differences and uses them to
construct meaning about social relationships, social phenomena,
She then claims that "Gender, then, provides a way to decode meaning and to
understand the complex connections among various forms of human
interaction…[historians] develop insight into the particular and contextually
specific ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics"
-Now we're getting not only to reasons why gender is a useful category
of historical analysis, but also to why the title of the book is Gender and
the Politics of History.
Sayegh notes
Joan Scott, "Gender"
Page 7

-Examine her examples here from political history. Not only does
she want us to see how politics is an area where gender can be used as
analysis, but she wants to throw a wrench into traditional political history
because it has remained so staunchly resistant to the inclusion of women
or gender.
-Burke and the "murderous sansculotte hags" vs. "soft femininity
of Marie Antoinette"
-Burke again, "to make us love our country, our country ought to
be lovely."
-medieval Islamic political theory as similar to Classical Greece
(and here she references Foucault). What do these homosexual
power relations have in common? "the irrelevance of women to
any notion of politics and public life." And this, of course, is a
gendered notion.
-She then says that we need to understand how the needs of the state gender
society. She says a bit later about authoritarian regimes: "emergent rules have
legitimized domination, strength, central authority, and ruling power as masculine
(enemies, outsiders, subversives, weakness, as feminine) and made that code
literal in laws (forbidding women's political participation, outlawing abortion,
prohibiting wage-earning by mothers, imposing female dress codes) that put
women in their place" (47)
-But not only authoritarian regimes: "In different ways… the democratic regimes
of the twentieth century have also constructed their political ideologies with
gendered concepts and translated them into policy" (47).
She asserts that these examples show how gender is connected to power, but they do not form
the whole of her definition / understanding of gender: "attention to gender is often not explicit, but
it is nonetheless a crucial part of the organization of equality or inequality" (48). The very concept
of hierarchy does not necessarily need to be based in official politics—her example of class
relations (middle class vs. working class) exemplifies this point.
-Even so, high politics is still an important venue for understanding how gender operates:
"Gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived,
legitimated, and criticized. It refers to but also establishes the meaning of the male/female
opposition. To vindicate political power, the reference must seem sure and fixed, outside human
construction, part of the natural or divine order" (48-9).

She ends her analysis with a discussion of change. How is it possible if gender and power are implicated
in each other's construction? How do you break free of the cycle? Well, she provides lots of examples on
page 49 of how / where change may be initiated.
-In the end though, she asserts that "If we treat the opposition between male and female as
problematic rather than known, as something contextually defined, repeatedly constructed, then
we must constantly ask not only what is at stake in proclamations or debates that invoke gender
to explain or justify their positions but also how implicit understandings of gender are being
invoked and reinscribed" (49).
This is an important statement because it forces us to examine sexual relations in the past as part
of their culture—we cannot get away with assigning them some fixed, universal and consequently
ahistorical, predetermined position. We need to understand how each subject under investigation
USED the ideology of gender (however unconsciously) to create a certain sense of the world.
What of all this? What's in it for us? She ends the piece by saying that history will be richer for
including gender as an analytic tool for it "will provide new perspectives on old questions…, redefine the
old questions in new terms…, make women visible as active participants, and create analytic distance
between the seemingly fixed language of the past and our own terminology" (50). In other words, gender
will be its own theoretical discourse to be applied to history in the same way that we apply the methods of
Marxism, annales, or cultural history.
But gender in this sense does more than this. It will provide new ways of thinking about the feminist
project itself because gender "must be redefined and restructured in conjunction with a vision of political
and social equality that includes not only sex, but class and race."