Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”27 Sep 2012
In this essay, Joan Scott traces the uses of “gender” as a category of historical analysis, offering both critiques and positive suggestions about the possibilities for further study. She describes two categories of approaches to gender by historians: the first being descriptive, the second causal. Where descriptive approaches tend to focus on relations between the sexes and largely those outside of the world of politics, causal approaches focus on the creation of gender identifies. These fall into three general trends, each with its own weaknesses:
- a focus on the origins of patriarchy. (the focus on patriarchy has the unfortunate consequence of ignoring the connections between gender inequality and other inequality, as well as making gender difference a universal, rather than a cultural construct.)
- a Marxist approach that stresses the material causes of gender difference. (but that very focus on material causes limits the analysis and renders gender the result of economic structures, not an independent category.)
- a post-structuralist approach that seeks to explain the production and reproduction of gendered identity, either of the Anglo-American school focused on object-relations and moral development, or the French school focused on readings of Freud and theories of language (1057). (the Anglo-American school focuses on family and household experiences as the sources for gender construction and needs more attention to symbolic systems, while the French school focuses too heavily on “the subject” which results in positing antagonism between males and females as central to gender and results in reductive readings of the past (1064).)
Drawing from all of these approaches and attempting to learn from their weaknesses, Scott poses the following definition of gender as a means of framing gender as a category for analysis. According to Scott, gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based upon perceived difference, which consists of:
- culturally available symbols that evoke multiple and contradictory representations of gender,
- normative concepts that set forth interpretations of the meanings of the symbols and limit metaphoric possibilities,
- a notion of politics and reference to social institutions and organizations,
- subjective identity, which needs to be explored in historically contingent ways,
as well as the primary way of signifying relationships of power (1067 ff). Where the first point, with its four part points to places for historical investigation, the second – the relationship between gender and power – marks the theorizing about gender (1069).
By focusing on gender in these terms, Scott proposes that historians can better explore both individual subjects and social organizations to understand how gender works and how changes in the construction of gender and power can and do occur (1067).