Shafiq R Khan

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Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis

This essay is very significant in the field of women’s history, and it has been cited widely outside the discipline of history as well. It is a synthesizing text that offers tools and appraisals of them. Scott is focused on the utility of gender analysis — what comes to light when you focus on gender (not just on women but how gender systems and symbolic orders produce men and women, and masculinity and femininity, not only in the home and family but in the labor market, politics, schools, nations, etc.).
Gender — the term usually (and most appropriately) is a grammatical term whereby in certain languages, formal rules apply for making designations of masculine or feminine. In grammar, gender is a way of classifying phenomena, a socially agree upon system of distinctions rather than an objective description of inherent traits. [See our previous discussion of the terms realism, essentialism, nominalism, and social constructionism.]
In recent history, feminists have appropriated the term gender to use it as a way of referring to the social organization of the relationship between the sexes. It is used in this way particularly among US feminists to emphasize the social quality of distinctions based on sex. This use of the term has been useful in the rejection of biological determinism.
Gender Studies — a new formation of academic inquiry that followed after the emergence and partial institutionalization of Women’s Studies. It focused on the constructed and variable nature of distinctions between males and females, and between masculinity and femininity. Gender Studies looks critically at the construction of categories associated with gender. This means looking at masculinity and men as these are constructed, as much as looking at femininity and women. Such a move may avoid the ghettoization that women’s studies as a field as suffered.
Gender Studies as a field regards gender, like race and class, as a designated system for marking difference and organizing power.
Scott is particularly interested in analyzing how gender can be a useful category for historians, but what she has to say applies to anthropology, literary criticism, media studies, and many other disciplines.
Scott notes that historians have tended to borrow from traditional social scientific frameworks for analyzing gender and that these have been reductive and inadequate (see her text for details on this point).
Scott notes that some have worried that the usage of the term gender can be seen as depoliticizing women’s studies by focusing on both men and women, as a way to gain legitimacy in academic circles during the 1980s. But at the same time, it allowed scholars to deconstruct essentialist terms to a great degree than some "women’s historians" had done.
Gender allows the analyst/scholar to look at both men and women, and thus to break down the tendency in Women’s Studies toward "separate spheres."
Gender becomes a way of denoting cultural constructions pertaining to proper sex roles, etc. "Gender … is a social category imposed on a sexed body."
Scott identifies three main theoretical positions used by historians to analyze gender:
1. a feminist effort or position to explain the origins of patriarchy;
2. a Marxist materialist orientation that seeks to bring together a Marxist and feminist analysis;
3. a variety of psychoanalytic analyses of the production and reproduction of the subject’s gender identity (which Scott breaks down further into French post-structuralists as in Lacan on the one hand and Anglo-American object-relations theorists on the other).
More on each of these three positions/approaches:
1. Theories of patriarchy — they tend to focus on women’s reproduction (see, e.g., Shulamith Firestone) and women’s sexuality (see, e.g., Catherine MacKinnon) to explain patriarchy. See Scott’s text for shortcomings on these approaches, including how such theories assert the primacy of the gender system over all other systems of social organization (for example, race or class or nationality, etc.) and how such theories rest on physical differences between men and women as if these differences were universally understood and unchanging.
2. Marxist/materialist theories — Marxist-feminist historians have focused on "material" explanations for gender, often to the exclusion of other explanations. Economic causality is seen as primary for creating and reinforcing inequalities between men and women. Marxist-feminists have refuted essentialism while also recognizing that economic systems do not solely determine gender relations (for example, the subordination of women predates capitalism and persists under socialism). Scott cites historian Joan Kelly as a model for using dual-systems theory (which analyzed how economic and gender systems interact).
Scott then cites Powers of Desire (1983), a feminist anthology that made an important contribution to understanding "sexual politics." Its stress was on how social contexts influenced how gender and sexuality would be constructed, while also exploring the psychic structuring of gender and the circulation of power (see Michel Foucault’s def. of power) in constituting gender relations. In other words, many of the book’s authors asked "why and how do subjects becoming psychologically invested in gender and its social forms?" The text focused on the link between social formations and enduring psychic structures that shape them.
Scott notes that British Marxist-feminists have leaned more on Marxist analyses of economic determinism than incorporating psychological elements into their theories of gender inequality and oppression. There are varieties of Marxism and Scott notes that many Marxisms regard gender as a byproduct of changing economic structures, rather than having an independent analytic status of its own.
3. Psychoanalytic theories — comprised of various approaches, both coming off of original ideas put forth by Sigmund Freud; Scott will highlight two approaches:
a. the Anglo-American school of object relations (main contributing authors are Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, Evelyn Fox Keller); the focus here is on experiential dimensions of a child’s identity formation in relation to the primary parent
b. the French school of Lacanian psychoanalysis that focuses on processes of signification and the construction and reproduction of symbolic orders with each generation (main contributing author is Jacques Lacan, and feminists such as Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Juliet Mitchell). The focus here is heavily on language in producing and representing gender.
Both schools or approaches are concerned with the processes by which the subject’s identity is created. Both focus on the early stages of child development for clues to the formation of gender identity.
For Lacanians, language encompasses systems of meaning, not just words. These symbolic orders precede the actual mastery of speech, reading, and writing in the individual.
Both schools consider the role of the unconscious mind, but for object-relations theorists (especially Chodorow), the Unconscious is seen as subject to conscious understanding; it can be apprehended with some coherence by the workings of the conscious mind. For Lacan, the Unconscious is beyond the reach of the conscious mind.
Yet for Lacanians the Unconscious is a critical factor in the construction of the subject; "it is the location, moreover, of sexual division and, for that reason, of continuing instability for the gendered subject." [???]
[For more on the general contours of Lacanian psychoanalysis, see Chris Weedon’s chapter on it in Feminist Practice and Post-Structuralist Theory.]
Scott cautions that neither of the psychoanalytic approaches mentioned above "are entirely workable for historians." Why not?
1. object relations (OR) theory is a) literalist and b) it relies on relatively small structures of interaction (such as the family) to account for how gender identity is produced and how it might be suspectible to change. In addition, OR is prone to homogenizing: This is exemplified in a quote from Chorodow: "The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense is separate." Furthermore, Scott notes that OR’s proposed solutions are simplistic [and we could add heterosexist, class-bound, and normative]: for example, OR theorists argue that if fathers were more involved in parenting, the outcome of the Oedipal drama would be different and sexism may wither away.
OR limits the concept of gender to family and household experience, leaving little means for analyzing social systems of economy, politics, or power. Futhermore, OR cannot fully account for how children who are reared outside of nuclear family households or in families where parents divide the work equally seem to learn the associations of masculinity with power and of the higher value placed upon manhood, compared to womanhood.
Scott argues for methods and theoretical frameworks that allow us to analyze signifying systems that construct, represent, and reproduce gender. Processes of signification produce meaning. And it is through meaning that experience is made, not the other way around. [See Scott’s continuation of this argument in her essay "Evidence of Experience".]
2. Scott’s gloss on Lacanian theory: Through language, gender identity is constructed. The phallusis the central signifier of sexual difference but the meaning of the phallus must be read metaphorically — i.e. it is not literally the penis. The Oedipal drama establishes the terms of cultural interaction — in other words, the threat of castration embodies the power and the rules of what Lacan referred to as the Father’s law. The child’s relationship to the law depends on sexual difference, "on its [the child’s] imaginative identification with masculinity and femininity." The female child has a different relationship to the phallus than the male does.
For Lacan, gender identification is highly unstable, even though it may appear to be fixed and coherent. It is anxiously reproduced daily so as to ensure that it continues to appear "natural,"but the appearance of gender as natural is the consequence of a powerful illusion.
Subjective identities are effects in ongoing processes of differentiation and distinction, requiring the suppression of ambiguities and opposite elements in order to ensure (i.e. create the illusion of) coherence and common understanding.
As Scott notes, according to Lacan, "[t]he principle of masculinity rests on the necessary repression of feminine aspects — of the subject’s potential for bisexuality — and introduces conflict into the opposition of masculine and feminine."
Repressed desires are present in the Unconscious and are a constant threat to the stability of gender identification and prevent or subvert a desired unity.
In addition, conscious meanings of masculine and feminine change or are contextually sensitive rather than fixed. Scott again on Lacan: "Conflict always exists, then, between the subject’s need for the appearance of wholeness and the imprecision of terminology, its relative meaning, its dependence on repression."
`Masculine’ and `feminine’ are not inherent characteristics but subjective (or fictional) constructs. The subject is always under construction. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory thus offers a systematic way of interpreting conscious and unconscious desire(s).
Scott sees a limitation, however, in Lacanian’s psychoanalytic theory’s `exclusive fixation on questions of the individual subject and its [tendency] to reify the antagonism between males and females as the central fact of gender. In addition, the categories and relationship of male and female are universalized by Lacanian psychoanalysis, thusing limiting how useful the theory is for analyzing historically different meanings and periods.
It can help to explain how the child’s fear of castration is linked to larger structures of prohibition and the law, but it isn’t great at explaining historical specificity and variability. What happened before the dominance of the nuclear family form, for example? Does the Oedipal drama play out in extended households where the children go off to work at a very early age, or where they may see their parents in intimate embrace quite commonly as a consequence of limited living space? These questions are just a few that may not be fully accounted for by Lacan’s model.
Scott points out that historian Sally Alexander has attempted to historicize Lacanian psychoanalysis but she too hangs onto the primary antagonism between male and female, seeing them as opposed in a sexual polarity. Because Lacan posits the antagonism between the sexes as an unavoidable aspect of the acquisition of sexual identity, the best that Lacanian —informed historiography can do is reveal variations on the way this antagonism appears at different moments, rather than assuming that other antagonisms are as or more important (e.g. class, race, age, religion) or that history of gender (or of other things) is not always centrally driven by antagonism.
Scott criticizes Carol Gilligan’s writing on moral education. Gilligan drew on object-relations theory to develop this. [See Scott’s text for more details of this critique.]
Main problem Scott sees with Gilligan’s work: Gilligan concludes that women think and make moral choices because they are women [i.e. that they were raised as girls and thus were bound closer to their mothers, have difficulties building social boundaries, excel at relating, etc.], rather than because they have limited means and avenues for action.
Scott also notes that Gilligan refers to `women’s experience’ as an explanation for their divergence from men in moral development. This move homogenizes women into a monolithic category, thus erasing differences among women; by implication in logic, it does the same to the category of men. Furthermore, Gilligan assumes, like Chodorow, that women have a greater capacity and tendency toward relatedness. Her model, therefore, becomes fixed, trans-historical/universal, and thus not useful for explaining changes in gender distinctions across various historical periods.
Scott’s proposed alternatives are:
• Refuse the fixed and permanent quality of the binary opposition (she calls for "a genuine historicization and deconstruction of the terms of sexual difference").
• Subject categories to criticism, and subject our/your analyses to self-criticism.
• Analyze and deconstruct binary oppositions by locating them in specific contexts and by reversing and displacing their historical construction, rather than accepting any binary as real or self-evident or in the nature of things (she’s drawing on Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction — see Chris Weedon for an overview of this).
• Do not abandon the archive or pursuit of evidence about the past just because we now observe that experience is not transparent or immediate but constructed and the product of interpretation and mediation.
• Rather than searching for single origins, "we have to conceive of processes so interconnected that they cannot be disentangled." Ask more often how things happened in order to find out why they happened.
• Study the subject also its/her larger context(s) and the grids of intelligibility that make it/her recognizable.
• Remember that social power is not unified, coherent, and centralized but dispersed across social fields of force characterized by nodal points or constellations of unequal relationships (she’s drawing on Michel Foucault here — see Weedon for an overview of his relevant ideas).
Scott’s definition of gender has two parts and several subsets; they are interrelated but analytically distinct. Her definition rests on two propositions:
1. gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes;
2. gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.
She also notes that changes in social relationships always correspond to changes in representations of power, but the direction of change can be either way — toward the advantaged group or away from it.
She then states that gender involves four interrelated elements:
1. culturally available symbols that evoke multiple representations (for example, Eve and Mary in Christian thought, as well as myths of light and dark, purification/pollution, innocence/corruption).
2. Normative concepts that structure the meanings of the symbols, limiting or containing their metaphoric possibilities (e.g. Victorian ideology or fundamentalist Christianity invoking "tradition"). History can reveal the constructed and contingent/changeable nature of these naturalized concepts or norms (i.e. those things that we take for granted and assume are fixed and/or universal).
3. Social institutions and organizations beyond kinship itself (including schools, suffrage, the labor market, politics). "Gender is constructed through kinship, but not exclusively; it is constructed as well in the economy and polity which now operate largely independently of kinship."
4. Subjective identity — psychoanalytic theory can be useful for understanding normative patterns but historians can study the past to see how individuals and some groups resisted these norms. Furthermore, they can link subjective processes to larger historical and social forces (for example, such a process could help to understand why and how some young girls love Brittany Spears and want to be like her — this inquiry can be conducted both in terms of analyzing the psychological appeal of Spears and of analyzing how her stardom embodies so many of the values of commodity-fetishism in advanced capitalist society which girls are encouraged to embrace).
Scott urges historians to ask how these four elements operate in relation to one another.
Returning to her second proposition, she states: "Gender is a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated." It is not the only field [or vector of power] but it is a deeply influential one.
Scott notes that concepts of gender structure perception and the concrete and symbolic organization of all social life, not just those that seem directly tied to men and women. These concepts make many things, including cities, bodies, disciplines, nations, etc.
Toward the end of her essay, take a look at Scott’s examples of how gender and politics are interrelated. She is seeking to dispel the myth that gender is antithetical to the real business of politics and to counter the unwillingness of political historians who resist the inclusion of material or questions and gender and women. Some of her examples of the interrelationship between gender and politics that she thinks are worth studying are:
• gender roles and authoritarianism;
• family and gender roles as metaphors for the social contract;
• effeminizing the enemy in war;
• demonization of prostitution and homosexuality as a means for consolidating conservative political power;
• welfare state founded on paternalism toward women and children;
• stereotyping of the working class as weak and effeminate;
• stereotyping of African-Americans as weak and effeminate.
She concludes by highlighting what can be gained by using gender as an analytical category for studying history. It can:
• redefine old questions in new terms;
• make women visible as active participants of history;
• create analytical distance between the seemingly fixed language of the past and our terminology;
• open up new possibilities for thinking about current and future feminist strategies;
• sees gender in relation to other axes of difference/oppression.

(Notes on Joan Scott’s essay, 1988)

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