HST287: Reading Notes, 11/03/2004

Scott, Joan Wallach, Gender and the Politics of History. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.)

Reading notes originally stores as a Journal file, a portion of whcih is here: notes-11-04.jnt (another portion of whcih got swallowed up in the great ASD debacle!!)

Review by Linda Gordon with response by Joan Wallch Scott, Signs, Summer 1990 p. 853.

Gordon praises Scott's work for its "call for theorizing gender as an integral category of analysis" but suggests that Scott's work is not completely pursuasive. She faults Scott for suggesting that theory means only "French poststructuralism" which has a tendancy to "identify the theoretical with sentences composed primarily of abstract nouns." She suggests that "such a conception of theory runs the risk of recapitulating the exclusion of certain kinds of women's discourse from the world of scholarship." She disagrees that language is the only thing to study that will illuminate gender assumptions. Deconstructionism is not the only way to reach conclusions about gender.

Gordon says Scott encourages us to focus on "gender as difference in itself, a kind of paradigm for all other divides, insetad of examining gender as a system of domination." She argues that focusing on difference is a way of masking power inequality, i.e.  saying things are "different" is rather like separate but equal: avoiding the reality that they are not really equal at all.

Scott replies: feminists are political (trying to change preceptions and assumptions) when they produce theory, they are not just being "theoretical." So,


1) Scott characterizes Gordon's critique as "resistance to poststructuralist theory"
"Why is there such a resistance at a moment in the history of feminism when--if we are to formulate new kinds of political strategies--we need to understand how, in all their complexity, collective and individual differences are constructed, how, that is, hierarchies and inequalities are produced?" Though the article is 14 years old and she is referring to feminist theorizing, the idea of the construction of differences resonates peculiarly well in light of yesterday's election. The discourse surrounding this election has been one of divides and polarities. What are we/have we created with this language of divisiveness? Are we reflecting a reality or creating one? Scott may find the resistance to theory is a resistance to the most radical effects of feminism itself and thus evidence of the health of the "movement" but I wonder is a similar discursive struggle a sign of health in American democracy?

2) "By positing a distinction between our discursive constructions and those of other times and places, we establish a certain reflexivity on out own stakes and intentions. . .In this way, we open ourselves to history, to the idea and possibility that things have been, and will be, different from what they are now." (p. 218)

I'm glad Scott ends with this, especially after the discussion of the shifting definition of sex/gender and all that implies. She speaks of the fuidity of these definitions and how they reflect societal change. While that very fluidity/reflection ensures that there will be plenty of "grist" for historians' mills, I think she is also saying that it is easier to be aware that terms/ideas are socially constructed when we can see that process of construction continuing. When definitions "harden" we have lost some of that awareness.

3) More politics--seems to be unavoidable this week:
"The point is that the physical presence of females is not always a sure sign that "women" are a separate political category, that they have been mobilized as women. Yet some of the work that tries to attribute peculiarly female or feminine motives to women in social movements assumes exactly that. The projection of a separate women's interest into a situation where it is not operating naturalizes "women," since their interest is taken to predate the political context of the crowd's action and the terms of its mobilization." (p. 212)

A few days ago this paragraph would have made me think of  Fred Lewis Pattee's The Feminine Fifties, a 1960s vituperative railing against women writers of the 1850s. In it he conveniently assumes that all women writers are writing with one voice, for the purpose of denigrating that writing, while he conveniently ignores similar writing from men of the same period (including the demi-god "American Renaissance" Hawthorne).

This week, that passage jumps out at me for another reason: while the Kerry/Bush split among women voters this year stands at 52%/47%, that 47% is a gain for Bush supporters over the last election. I would say then, that the administration has not just assumed feminine motives on behalf of those voters and have taken advantage of it, but have actively  strengthened that political category this year. If so, that should stand as support for Scott's argument that it is necessary to be aware of this kind of constructing.