Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Study Guide

Joan W. Scott

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Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Context


French History and Academic Scholarship

Joan W. Scott is not only known for her work in feminist history and gender theory but also for her work studying the history of France. The first book she authored The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth-century City (1974) focused on a working-class resistance movement in 1890s France. When describing the approaches employed by feminist historians, she references French post-structuralists who dispute the notion that there is a singular self and contrasts their approach with that of the Anglo-American school. Post-structuralism began in Europe and asserts that the idea of a single identity is a fictional one and its promotion as a theory has been more prevalent in America than in Europe. She also uses examples from the French Revolution (1787–99) to illustrate her points.

Marxist Movement

The Marxist movement originated with the doctrine of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Marx's ideas and theories were applied and interpreted in different ways around the world. Some socialist regimes used their own interpretations of Marx's thoughts as a basis to form new governments.

According to Marx a society's economic structure is the basis for everything that happens in that society. Scott writes about Marxism as well as some of its offshoots, such as Marxist feminism. She sees there is a limit to using this kind of socioeconomic analysis if a person wants to understand the role of gender in history.

Second-Wave Feminism

Scholars have differing opinions regarding when the first and second waves of feminism occurred. However, most agree that the first wave of feminism lasted from about 1848 to 1920 and is bookmarked by the first U.S. women's rights convention held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which gave women the right to vote. The first wave of feminism saw gains for some but not all women since the participation of non-white women was not welcomed. The passing of the 19th Amendment offered all women the right to vote according to the law, but in practice women from marginalized groups weren't always allowed to vote.

Second-wave feminism is associated with the 1960s and lasted through the 1980s. Scott was writing and formulating her theories during this time. Scott graduated with her bachelor's degree in 1962, one year before American author Betty Friedan (1921–2006) published her groundbreaking book The Feminist Mystique in 1963. Friedan's book argued that society shortchanged women by keeping them from using their intellects. The theme of the second wave of feminism is "the personal is political" because there was just as much concern for the everyday indignities women suffered as there was for landmark legislative victories. During this time the Equal Pay Act (1963) closed the pay gap between women and men (at least in theory) and Roe v. Wade (1973) upheld women's reproductive rights. Second-wave feminists also worked on everyday indignities by counteracting sexual harassment and advocating for women to obtain credit cards in their own names. However, these feminists did not unite to tackle the indignity of racism.

Joan W. Scott earned her master's degree the year after The Feminist Mystique was released. So Scott began her academic studies as the feminist movement of the 1960s was beginning. Scott was working in male-dominated academia during this time of protests and consciousness-raising. She joined Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study in 1984 and was only the second woman on that organization's staff. Scott had been working in academia for about two decades when she wrote "Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis" in 1986. After earning three degrees and working in her field, Scott was aware that the academic world needed to recognize women's role in history and expand the idea of gender studies.

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