[The Importance of] Gender: A [Highly] Useful Category of Analysis
I have been looking forward to this week’s readings and getting the opportunity to delve headfirst into Joan Scott’s work again for quite some time. Indeed, this time last year, I was experiencing “Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis” for the first time in Dr. Mollin’s class on gender in United States history. In that particular class, we utilized Joan Scott’s foundational text as a foundational text for our class and our extensive discussions concerning gender naturally fell back on her writing throughout the semester. Dr. Mollin’s class proved to be one of my favorite classes of both my undergraduate and graduate career so you can imagine my excitement in getting to read Joan Scott’s work again. For reference, I pulled out my notebook from my gender class and glanced at my notes to see some of my initial reactions. I also found Joan Scott’s “Unanswered Questions” that I also read last year and it was interesting to re-read both works again and compare notes.
This time around, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I understood Scott more readily than before. In fact, I vividly remember feeling that Scott’s writing was dense last year (though after reading Foucault recently, how could I find Scott dense?!) and yet I did not get that impression this time around whatsoever. Perhaps it is because I understand her argument a bit better. I also enjoyed reading another work by Joan Scott, her piece on head scarves entitled, “Symptomatic Politics. The Banning of Islamic Head Scarves in French Public Schools.” I find her writing to be both captivating and transparent, she is remarkably clear in conveying precisely what she means to argue and say. Naturally, I appreciate that approach to historical writing (or really any writing for that matter).
I think what is perhaps most captivating about “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (other than the fact that it proved to be the most influential women’s history essay to date) is that it questions precisely what gender is to begin with. Is it simply (or perhaps not so simply) a construction? Is it a product of the binary opposition of male versus female? Is it completely unrelated to sex? Scott defines gender utilizing “…two parts and several subsets,” 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” (1067). Later she argues, “Gender, then, provides a way to decode meaning and to understand the complex connections among various forms of human interaction. When historians look for the ways in which the concept of gender legitimizes and constructs social relationships, they develop insight into the reciprocal nature of gender and society and into the particular and contextually specific ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics” (1070). Thus, gender is not a simple concept. It is multi-layered and multi-faceted and at times difficult to fully grasp. And yet, gender is a critical lens by which to view history and it is a category of analysis that is ultimately highly beneficial to historians and other scholars, alike.
October 20, 2014 @ 4:30 pm
I was also intrigued that Scott questioned what the term “gender” actually referred to. What I found most fascinating after reading her “Unanswered Questions” was that she determined that gender is a QUESTION. While trying to understand the implications and complexities of considering gender as a question seems like an arduous task, I am able to see the value in this conclusion. Gender can ask HOW and WHY sex roles are defined in the ways they are, and HOW these roles have changed over time. Gender asks under HOW and WHY power relations exist in the ways that they do in different contexts. Gender also asks those researching it to consider the multiple social, political, and culture factors that are intertwined in its meaning. I am interested to see what everyone else thought of Scott’s thoughts on gender as a question.
October 20, 2014 @ 10:11 pm
I agree that gender is a difficult concept to grasp. It is too often seen as referring only to women and not a relationship between the sexes. Understanding these relationships adds depth to any study because even when the opposite sex is not obviously present the influence they have can never be fully removed (even if it sometimes ignored). If you include some of the relationships and identities from our LGBTQ course the conversation about gender gets even more complex!
October 20, 2014 @ 11:03 pm
I agree that gender is not a simple concept, and I second with the agenda that “gender” as a concept, is a critical lens with its own history. In Chinese, “gender” was translated as “binary-sexes” before, and currently is translated into “multiple/different sexes” in order to present all sexual orientations including LGBT. Thus, the translation of gender itself has shown how gender, as the lens, presents and reproduces researchers to categorize this world.
October 21, 2014 @ 6:44 am
Two things: 1) “…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” (1067). If I could only one nugget from this week, this would be it. 2) Hungyin – this Chinese perspective is fascinating. Am I understanding correctly that in Chinese there is not a distinction between the biological and social categories? (gender vs. sex)
October 21, 2014 @ 9:37 am
Thank you for the helpful interpretation in this post. I also very much enjoyed “Symptomatic Politics” and felt like she communicated the complex power relationships at hand in the banning of “the veil” without her writing being too dense to understand effectively.
October 21, 2014 @ 12:43 pm
I love re-reading things too, Laura, if only to see how my perceptions and feelings have changed. I found Scott to be readable and direct, though did find my thoughts becoming a bit tangled after reading so many different articles by and about the same person. I did find it very enjoyable and enlightening to read “Unanswered Questions,” to see Scott’s reflections and thoughts on her own work and the influence it has had. I, too, found gender-as-a-question a powerful thought, and have kept that in the back of my mind while finishing up readings.
October 21, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
Laura, Thanks for your interpretation of Scott being a little dense the first time you read her work. I felt kind of like that this time, as this was the first time that I had read Scott. I found her writing to be a little dense, but manageable. I wanted to also thank you for your bringing up the point about gender being used to understand “human interaction.” I feel that Scott was trying (through all of her writing) to bring that point to the forefront of her argument. I am excited to learn more and more each week about these varying subject fields and look forward to each week’s discussions. Thanks again for a great post.