Joan ScottEdit

Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis [1986]Edit

In this historic essay, Scott argues for gender as an analytic category that goes beyond recooping histories of the "women's sphere" or merely noting the social construction of gender paradigms. Rather, Scott wants the analysis of gender to double back on its object rather than reinforcing the notion of women's history as a seperate sphere of experience from men's history and political history. Avoiding the Marxist trap that deduces all historical oppression to labor and therefore gender is by-product of that system with no analytic fortitude of its own, and the "radical feminist" trap that renders analysis of gender as the constituting category in all social formations and the psychoanalytic that renders gender difference ahistorical, Scott is interested in a formulation of gender the can express "why these relationships are constructed as they are, how they work, or how they change" (1057). Scott is interested in gender as a paradigm that can address and alter existing historical paradigms, rather than continuing "business as usual" with the addition of women. Moreover, "We need a refusal of the fixed and permanent quality of the binary opposition, a genuine historicization and deconstruction of the terms of sexual difference" (1065).

Scott's definition of gender comes with 2 parts:

  1. gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes. as such, it involves 4 elements:
  • culturally available symbols that evoke multiple (and often contradictory) representations
  • normative concepts that set forth interpretations of the meanings of symbols
  • the role of politics and social institutions in generating the "appearance of timeless permanance in binary gender representations" (1068)
  • subjective identity, to "examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively constructed and relate [the historians'] findings to a range of activities, social organizations, and historically specific cultural representations" (1068)

the relationship between these 4 elements constitutes a question of historical research. Part 1, with its 4 subsets, is intended to "clarify and specify how one needs to think about the effect of gender in social and institutional relationships" (1069). However, the theorization of gender is part 2:

2. gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power

For Scott, this means that "gender is a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated" (1069). Her perspective here remains partial, reassuring us that gender is not the only field, but does exist as a persistant one. Concepts of power, built on gender, may not be about gender per se, and therefore open up a method to understand how the collective illusion of stable gender difference (rendered objective) "structure perception and the concrete and symbolic organization of all social life" (1069). Since these structures establish distributions of power, gender is thus implicated in power itself. Borrowing a qoute from Maurice Godelier, "It is not sexuality which haunts society, but society which haunts the body's sexuality. Sex-related differences between bodies are continually summoned as testimony to social relations and phenomena that have nothing to do with sexuality. Not only as testimony to, but also testimony for--in other words, as legitimation" (1069).

One of Scott's primary goals is to bring gender into political history, to annhilate the resistance espoused by those who would argue that if women are not in politics, nothing about political history can be gendered. When nations gain nothing from the suppression of women but do so anyway, when laws and practices are gendered themselves, we must ask questions about the gendered consolidation of power. While the field of the political seems fixed, it remains in flux as the gender binary can never truly be reified as natural or universal.

Thus, the relationship between these two parts is mutually constituting, any change in how social relations are organized corresponds to changes in representations of power, and it works the other way.