Some explanations of Joan Scott's, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" in Gender and the Politics of History NB: please remember that these are my notes designed for your benefit. As such, they are my intellectual property. If you use my comments for papers, you must properly cite them.
INTRODUCTORY SECTION "Throughout the ages, people have made figurative allusions by employing grammatical terms to evoke traits of character or sexuality…Most recently…feminists have in a more literal and serious vein begun to use 'gender' as a way of referring to the social organization of the relationship between the sexes" (28).
-Here Scott talks about the historicity of words, that they do change, that they are used to transform attitudes or play upon common stereotypes. More specifically, Scott refers to the use of the grammatical term "gender" to fix certain characteristics or defining traits to the sexes. In the past (as now) this was used humorously. Scott argues that feminists have begun to use the word to explain social organization. Like the very word, social organization has a history—that history is, in part, based on certain attributes of the sexes.
"In grammar, gender is understood to be a way of classifying phenomena, a socially agreed upon system of distinctions rather than an objective description of inherent traits. In addition, classifications suggest a relationship among categories that makes distinctions or separate groupings possible" (29).
Grammar has a specific use for gender—it is used to classify terms.
"'[G]ender' seems to have first appeared among American feminists who wanted to insist on the fundamentally social quality of distinctions based on sex. The word denoted a rejection of the biological determinism implicit in the use of such terms as 'sex' or 'sexual difference'. 'Gender' also stressed the relational aspect of normative definitions of femininity."
-Society has built distinctions (status, really) based on sex
-Sex by itself does not create social differences. This is constructed by society.
-Because it is constructed, we must get away from saying, "well, that's the way it is between a man and a woman." That's the way it is because society has created it, not because it is NATURAL.
-What defines "normal" feminine behavior? A relation to something abnormal must be established. To know what IS normal, we need to know what IS NOT. Oppositions are set in place.
-In addition, this relational model was claimed by some historians (notably Natalie Zemon Davis) to understand "the significance of the sexes." This means that historians sought to understand how sex and sexual relations were built on culturally constructed notions of what is appropriate sexual behavior (sex roles).
"'[G]ender' was a term offered by those who claimed that women's scholarship would fundamentally transform disciplinary paradigms."
-What does this mean????? Basically, it could be used to "push the envelope" or to "throw a wrench into" traditional histories. It was a way of moving forward, of rethinking history and the way we look at the past.
"An interest in class, race, and gender signaled, first, a scholar's commitment to a history that included stories of the oppressed" (30).
-she's getting at the "history from below" that we've talked about before. Emerging partly from the New Left of the 1960s
-she connects studies of class to Marx's economic theories and argues that while scholars use class in various ways, there is always an understanding that it "involve[s] an idea of economic causality and a vision of the path along which history has moved dialectically." (check out the dialectic cheat sheet for further elaboration)
-she then separates race and gender from studies of class.
-she argues that feminist historians are looking to find that kind of coherence in studies about gender for two reasons:
1. "the proliferation of case studies in women's history seems to call for some synthesizing perspective that can explain continuities and discontinuities."
2. "the discrepancy between the high quality of recent work in women's history and its continuing marginal status in the field as a whole…points up the limits of descriptive approaches that do not address dominant disciplinary concepts."
-she then says that nonfeminist historians essentially dismiss this work or try to divorce it from any connection to political or economic history or basically to say something like "great, women participated in X event. My knowledge of the event still remains very much as it was." Her response to these kinds of dismissive attitudes is the following:
"The challenge posed by these responses is, in the end, a theoretical one. It requires analysis not only of the relationship between male and female experience in the past but also of the connection between past history and current historical practice. How does gender work in human social relationships? How does gender give meaning to the organization and perception of historical knowledge? The answer depend on gender as an analytic category" (31)
*we MUST take gender seriously to understand the way in which it is so firmly embedded not only in our understanding of the past, but also in our very relationships today. If we do not critically examine these relationships, we can never fully come to an understanding of how the relationship between the sexes was at an imbalance through much, if not all of human history.