Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Study Guide

Joan W. Scott

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Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Main Ideas


Past Definitions of Gender

Joan W. Scott discusses how difficult it can be to assign a word a specific definition before exploring why past definitions of gender are unsatisfactory. She writes, "Those who would codify the meaning of words fight a losing battle, for words, like the ideas and things they are meant to signify, have a history." She observes that feminists use gender to refer to "the social organization of the relationship between the sexes." Some historians use the word gender as a substitute for women and as a result "gender is a concept associated with the study of things related to women." Scott thinks that Marxist feminists have a more historical approach to examining gender, but with Marxism's focus on the differences between socioeconomic classes this approach is not comprehensive enough. Marxism overall looks at gender as "the by-product of changing economic structures." She maintains that "economic systems do not directly determine gender relationships" and notes that women were subordinate before capitalism and were still subordinate in places that adopted socialism.

Scott examines psychoanalytic theories that feminist historians use to analyze gender. She observes that different psychoanalytic approaches are associated with the backgrounds and national origins of the founders so they are not universal. Objects-relations theory focuses on a child's experiences, and Scott finds this approach to be too literal because focusing on a child's experiences within the home and nearby community leaves out the influences of other sociopolitical, historical, and economic factors. According to Scott, only considering a child's potential sphere of influence to be what is experienced at home "leaves no way to connect the concept (or the individual) to other social systems of economy, politics, or power." Lacanian theory, associated with the writings of French psychologist Jacques Lacan (1901–81), centers on language since "through language, gendered identity is constructed." Scott and other theorists see the Lacanian as a limited view that leaves little room for change because it rests on the antagonism between men and women.

New Ways to Define Gender

After outlining the limited ways in which previous theories have defined gender, Scott writes, "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." She refers to the definition of deconstruction offered by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) to suggest that academics examine the way this man/woman binary operates in context. She acknowledges that feminists have long been doing this by refuting the notion that there is a hierarchy to rank male and female. She adds that now is the time to develop a theory around this practice and evolve gender into an analytic category.

Part of Scott's multilayered approach to defining gender includes the idea that "gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes." She goes on to say that "gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power." Some of the ideas about gender remain entrenched because society ignores or represses alternatives. People take for granted that the narrative that dominates is the only one, and act "as if these normative positions were the product of social consensus rather than of conflict." She gives the example of fundamental religious groups that want to restore women to their "traditional" role. This desire for restoration ignores the possibility that what these groups assume was tradition was not completely accepted in days past.

For Scott, the field of anthropology has limited gender to kinship systems with an emphasis on families and households. She thinks this view is too narrow and that it would benefit from also considering the labor market, politics, and education when looking at gender, particularly because a number of modern societies do not function based on kinship.

Rather than using gender to only refer to women or to biological differences, Scott wants historians to see that gender "provides a way to decode meaning and to understand the complex connections among various forms of human interaction."

Gender and Political History

Scott writes that gender and society have a reciprocal relationship since "politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics." Scott cites the way in which counter-revolutionary French philosopher Louis de Bonald (1754–1840) "establishes a direct correspondence between divorce and democracy." According to Bonald divorce makes it possible for a wife to oppose marital authority which is a rebellion on a household level and could lead to rebellion at the societal level with people opposing the governmental authority.

Scott asks, "If significations of gender and power construct one another, how do things change?" She answers her own question by stating that "change may be initiated in many places." People initiate change on their own. They also find it necessary to change when circumstances demand it. The issue here, Scott observes, is that there may be a faction that works to bring old binary definitions back in reaction to societal change. She advocates for a continual and constant questioning of how gender is incorporated into the structure of people's lives.

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