[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.