Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Study Guide

Joan W. Scott

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Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis | Summary



An Expanded Historical Outlook

Joan W. Scott outlines the attempts feminist historians have made to expand the scope of historical study to include examinations of gender and the roles women have played throughout history. She observes that academics who are trained as historians tend to rely more on description than theory. Scott herself is advocating for a better theoretical framework to approach gender studies within history. She points out that feminist historians use three different theoretical stances to examine gender: a whole feminist approach, a Marxist approach, and a psychoanalytical approach that is divided between the French post-structuralists and Anglo-American object-relations theorists. The post-structuralists focus on how language is a tool for communication and interpreting ideas about gender while the object-relations theorists are primarily concerned with a child's lived experience and how a child relates to caregivers.

Multilayered Approach to Gender

Scott critiques definitions of gender that use a binary "male" or "female" approach and those that use the word "gender" as a substitute for women and outlines her own multilayered approach to defining gender. She does not limit gender to something based on biology. She writes, "Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power."

Applying Gender Analysis

To illustrate her points, Scott uses examples from the world of politics. She is careful to note that politics is just one field where gender analysis can be used. Earlier in the essay, she discusses feminist historians' assertion that since gender has so long been ignored it would open new areas of exploration. She describes politics as an uncharted territory to which academics can apply the analysis of gender.


A 20th Century Concern

Joan W. Scott is an academic and historian who was about 20 years into her career when she published Gender and the Politics of History in 1988. The essay "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" is a chapter in the "Toward a Feminist History" section of Gender and the Politics of History. And while "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" is just one chapter in a book that covers other topics, this chapter resonated with readers. Scott points readers and other academics toward a robust use of gender theory that had yet to be employed widely in the late 1980s when she wrote the book. She notes that attempts to look at women and gender have been dismissed as not relevant to the main thread of previously researched history that focuses on men and their participation in political events. As she writes, "Concern with gender as an analytic category has emerged only in the late twentieth century."

From Description to Analysis

Throughout the essay Scott urges readers to go further and examine their notions of gender and power structures instead of accepting the ideas that have been handed down through generations. She finds that historians are comfortable with describing the past and historical events but finds this descriptive approach does not delve deeply enough or offer analysis to aid our understanding of the past. Past descriptions of the differences between genders are codified in such a way that people do not examine them to see if they are valid. Instead they accept what has been taught already without wondering why. Scott is asking why and encouraging others to ask why as well.

A New Theoretical Approach

Scott advocates for a theoretical approach to history using gender. Before proposing her own approach, she looks at various approaches that have been used and finds them lacking. The theoretical approaches Scott describes are limited by their connection and in some cases allegiance to other cultural norms. Scott is not overly critical though. She examines what does and does not work within each theoretical approach. The Marxist approach with its emphasis on the struggles between socioeconomic classes is more historical than some of the other approaches discussed but has its limits. Since it is under the Marxist umbrella even the feminist Marxist approach has to revolve around the modes of production, a Marxist term that describes how a society structures the production of goods and services. As a result it must focus on a society's economic forces, such as feudalism and capitalism.

Power Dynamics

Scott is concerned with power dynamics that are often either ignored or accepted as fact without much examination. She is less concerned with perpetuating notions of how the physical differences between men and women lead to binary opposition. She is more interested in how gender gets coded into the social stratification people seem to accept as a given. She writes, "History is written as if these normative positions were the product of social consensus rather than of conflict."

There are gender dynamics woven through many aspects of our society, and Scott considers why this is so. She points out that things that are not even related to gender are viewed through the lens of gender. And when gender gets codified into the workings of society, it is often women who are considered subordinate in different areas of life. However, it is not just women. There are men who may be codified as female and weak based on society's perception of their actions.

Scott is very interested in power dynamics and domination. To Scott it is not enough to simply say that men dominate without digging deeper. She opines that at times historians look at existing hierarchies in the workplace or within family life and end up describing them but not really taking them apart. These hierarchies repeat over and over within society and then academics describe these patterns using a man/woman binary without examining them further. Scott cites historical analysis of Islamic political theory during the medieval era from the 5th century CE to about the 14th century as an example. She concludes that women were irrelevant in the political realm since "the symbols of power alluded most often to sex between man and boy." Scott's expanded view of power politics goes beyond the man/woman binary and looks outside of European politics.

Fatigue and Hope for a Different Future

Scott's essay is written in the first person, and Scott inserts herself into the text, not constantly, but often enough to make her personal thoughts clear. She is open about when she finds something "instructive" and when something troubles her.

She finds the way historians and other academics continue to rely on a binary approach to gender that is rooted in physical differences to be limiting and expresses a certain amount of fatigue with it. Yet she is not pessimistic. She sees the possibility of change.

Scott believes people need to "create analytic distance between the seemingly fixed language of the past and our own terminology ..." because this new historical outlook will open different ways to think about "current feminist political strategies and the (utopian) future." Despite all that she knows and has seen, Scott finds reason for optimism where someone else might not.

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