“As Holtmaat and Naber state in Women’s Human Rights and Culture: From Deadlock to Dialogue, the concept of the fundamental equality of all humans, regardless of their categorization related to their unique characteristics, in the service of  universalist ideals, cannot be statically applied through the exact same treatment of all individuals”  (Schwartz 2013, 4).

As I read Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” I recalled an  issue I had pursued in a paper I wrote in a course called Women’s Rights as Human Rights.  My final essay was entitled:  “Social Justice through an Eco-feminist Critique of International Rights Instruments.”  Through it, I pursued two lines of inquiry.  First was the asymmetry of environmental effects on women and men.  Second was the conceptualization of universalism that international legal instruments develop.   These conceptions often dismiss or undermine women’s perspectives and needs regarding their quality of life.  Several of Scott’s concerns, for instance, that much theory used in historical (and subsequent political) work related to gender lacks cohesiveness, as well as her strategies for combating these difficulties reminded me of the way my eco-feminist project attempted to interrogate the issues of essentialism and concepts of universality.

I was particularly interested in Scott’s suggestions for creating a deeper and more theoretical approach to historical analysis of gender, including methods such as employing context specific critique regarding the interrelationship of gender and politics; the use of biography (and I would add after our reading from last week) autobiography;  and two elements of Foucault’s method, a concern for beginnings as opposed to origins, and the utilization of her proposition that “gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott 1986, 1069-1070).

Much of Scott’s methodological critique considers the importance of the way in which social processes work through specific instances of history.  She also wishes to consider how meanings become attached to gender, while acknowledging that the categories of woman and man are both ‘empty and overflowing’ (1074).  She states that they are not transcendent, and that even when they seem stable, they include “alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions” (1074).  Within this recognition is an understanding of the need to look closely at specific situations to establish a critique of gender that avoids being ahistorical.  At the same time, understanding gender as a multi-faceted categorization related to power that one can analyze in different and evolving ways, avoids a timeless legitimation of (or ‘testimony to’) the establishment of power that precludes any substantive benefit from historical scholarship.


  1. Melissa,

    I would agree that gender and the categories of men and women are indeed unstable. Even when they seem to have a concrete definition individual situations can alter this understanding. In the case of a biography, or autobiography, individual identity can skew the meanings of gender. A persons understanding of their gender role may not match the greater social construct of acceptable gender relations. Acknowledging these differences and trying to include a discussion of gender relations is a very real challenge for historians. As you mention, gender adds a dimension to understanding power relationships that help define and analyze a topic more fully.

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