A Question of Gender

This week’s readings by Joan Scott (and the essays that reflect on her work) were truly compelling and I once more completed the readings with a new or complicated understanding of a concept that I already thought I had mastered. I have always considered “gender” as a term reflecting “sex roles”. According to Scott, this has not at all been uncommon in the history of the term’s usage. However, what “Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis” suggests is that the term “gender” needs to be understood as “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes,” and, “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Gender, 1067). When jotting down this definition initially, I don’t think I was really grasping what Scott was trying to convey, and so I took the first half of the sentence to reaffirm my belief that gender was based on sex roles and the differences that establish them. It wasn’t until I read the following paragraph of her “Unanswered Questions” that I reconsidered this assumption:

Gender is the study of the relationship between the normative and the psychic, the attempt at once to collectivize fantasy and use it for some political or social end, whether that end is nation-building or family structure. In the process, it is gender that produces meanings for sex and sexual difference, not sex that determines the meanings of gender…And if that is the case, then gender is a useful category of historical analysis because it requires us to historicize the ways that sex and sexual difference have been conceived (Questions, 1428).

Rather than being synonymous with “sex”, gender gives meaning to it. Much more than a simple concept, gender is a question—the question that prompts us to look into the ways in which the concept of sex has been created and understood. This analysis leads to a myriad of other questions, and these questions have prompted feminists and historians to keep attempting to find the answers. It is for this reason that, while my understanding of gender is much more complicated as a result of Joan Scott’s work, it is all the better for it. By continuing to interchange “gender” with “sex” and vice versa, I wouldn’t have considered the historical context within which these concepts arose and evolved (and continue to evolve). Similarly, I would have been content to continue forward with my use of the term, ignoring the processes that have constructed gender relationships and the economic and political relationships that arise from those relationships (again, it seems endlessly complicated). However, if there is one thing I am learning from this course, it is that nothing is quite as simple as we assume it to be. There are endless interpretations, connections, contexts, etc. that shape our understanding of events and concepts, and “gender” is just the latest of these concepts that our class will analyze and take apart.

I also look forward to discussing the second part of Scott’s initial definition of gender—“a primary was of signifying relationships of power”. I think her “Symptomatic Politics” provides an example of how power has been inextricably entwined with gender in both French and Islamic culture, resulting in problems that could not be solved, resulting in the banning of the Islamic headscarf.

One thought on “A Question of Gender”

  1. Carmen,
    I think that you have hit the nail right on the head when you say “Much more than a simple concept, gender is a question—the question that prompts us to look into the ways in which the concept of sex has been created and understood. ” This flows right along with what I took away from Scott’s writings. You always seem to have a firm grasp on what we read and I look forward to dissecting these writings in class and getting input on what everyone else thought as well. This idea that gender is a question, leaves me wondering… how? What do we want to ask? Why do we want to ask this? What impact will it have on my interpretation of past events? What difference will my research make when studying gender in those events? All of these leave me overwhelmed in a subject that I had not really considered, not because I didn’t want to study it, rather because I did not see the correlation to what I was researching or studying at the time. Thanks for a great post.

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