I feel like I have finally read the essay that started it all. Since I started grad school, it has been literally impossible to avoid the influence of gender on historical studies. Many of the books we have read deal explicitly with gender and male-female power relations; even those that do not are subjected to criticism in our discussions, based on the exclusion of this discourse. It’s almost the easy way out, at this point—if you have nothing to say about a book, talk about how the author ignored gender.
Of course that’s not true in all cases, but my point is that gender is inescapable. I’m glad to have read Joan W. Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” the piece widely credited with really starting the gender craze. It helped clear up some misconceptions I had; although it still seems to me that studies of “gender” typically revolve around women, I know now not to think of the two as interchangeable. (I actually learned this a little earlier in the semester, when I mistakenly referred to the gender class offered this semester as a “feminism class” and was gently corrected.)
So—gender is the hot thing at the moment, as far as I can tell. Scott’s article appeared in 1986; it’s been hot for a while. I hesitate to say that gender is overused, but I’m a firm believer in the adage “everything in moderation.” As Joanne Meyerowitz writes in her essay “A History of ‘Gender,’” “Like all historiographic moments, this one, too, will no doubt pass” (1353). Maybe then we can move past viewing the study of gender as a novelty to be employed in every study and let it take its place as one of the many historical factors that are, as Scott would say, “useful,” not overpowering. Gender is a great tool, but, as Marxism and other theories that all once had their day in the sun remind us, there is no one “magic key” to understanding and studying history.
Although Scott’s original article was much easier to get through than some may have led me to believe (to be fair, as my colleague pointed out this morning, we did read Foucault last week…), her reexamination of gender and sex in “Unanswered Questions” (2008) left me a little baffled. And so I’ve posted my discussion questions for the class below—they’ll be on the Google Doc come Tuesday morning as well!
A History of “Gender” – Joanne Meyerowitz
Meyerowitz explores Joan Scott’s 1986 article in regard to its canonical status. She says that it has remained a seminal work mainly because of its influence on the field, as evidenced by the many works dealing with gender which were written following Scott’s article. The final paragraph sums up Meyerowitz’s point nicely.
One critic of Scott’s article said it “intellectualize[d] and abstract[ed] the inequality of the sexes.” Do you think this is true? Is that necessarily a criticism?
On page 1352, Meyerowitz writes that “As a measure of success, Scott’s essay increasingly served as a voice from the recent past stating eloquently what everybody, it seems, already knew.” For those of us reading “Gender” for the first time, did you find this to be true?
What do you think the legacy of “Gender” has been, or what do you consider its greatest influence in the years since its publication?
Unanswered Questions – Joan W. Scott
Scott complicates her current notion of gender by insisting that “the term gender is useful only as a question” and broadening her discussion of gender to include the terms and usage of “sex” and “women.”
What did you take as the main point of this essay?
Do you buy Scott’s claim that “There is no essence of womanhood (or of manhood) to provide a stable subject for our histories” (p. 1426)? How does this actually affect our study of history?
How does language/semantics affect historical discourse?
Scott talks about a history of “women.” What would that add to the field? She claims that “‘Women’ in the Middle Ages were not ‘women’ as we think of them today” (p. 1426). Is that valid considering that most Europeans at the time, for example, were illiterate and would have had little access to contemporary high theology and scientific thought?
What do you make of her final conflation of sex and gender as indistinct categories?