“Joan Hoff …. accused postructuralists gender historians, and Scott in particular, of nihilism, presentism, ahistoricism, obfuscation, elitism, obeisance to partriarchy, ethnocentrism, irrelevance, and possibly racism.”
— Joanne Meyerwitz in "A History of "Gender"" - AHR, 113:5, 2008
Joan Scott’s 1986 AHR contribution “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” ignited a nearly twenty year debate over the role of gender as an analytical category for historical inquiry and the role of women’s history more generally. Prominent among late 20th century French academics, Scott harnessed poststructuralist theory, Foucualdian visions of power and gender, and literary criticism, challenging historians to reconsider their understanding of “the sexes, of gender groups in the historical past. Our goal is to discover the range in sex roles and in sexual symbolism in different societies and periods to find out what meaning they had and how they functioned to maintain the social order or to promote its change.”
According to Scott, “Feminist historians” remained more comfortable with “descriptions than theory.” This creates problems since description requires “synthesis … to explain continuities and discontinuities, account for inequalities and differing social experiences of actors.” Moreover, it fails to “address dominant disciplinary concepts, or at least that do not address these concepts in terms that can shake their power and transform them.” Advocating a more theoretical approach to the study of women, men, and gender, Scott bemoaned the lack of theoretical choices available to feminist scholars. Trapped between three basic positions , Scott explores the limitations of each: theories of patriarchy fail to illustrate “”how gender inequality structures all other inequalities … the analysis rests on physical difference”, Marxists force “material explanations” on gender, while object theorists fail to connect gender to “other social systems.”
Instead, Scott suggested “we need to scrutinize our methods of analysis, clarify our operative assumptions, and explain how we think change occurs. Instead of a search for single origins, we have to conceive of processes so interconnected they cannot be untangled.” so that gender not only illuminates meanings around masculinity/feminity, sexuality, and the differences between the sexes but signifies “relationships of power.” In this way, gender serves as a useful tool to “decode meaning and to understand complex connections among various forms of human interaction.” Thus, Scott’s provocation invited historians to step outside traditional methods of analysis and jargon while reimagining gender as a category. Scott hoped her missive might lead to a deconstruction of fixity concerning ideas like male/female, masculine/feminine, and sexuality, while simultaneously placing it within the context of broader societal institutions and organizations, unveiling power structures connected to race, class, and ethnicity.
Following Scott’s article, historians embraced gender as a category of analysis, but not necessarily in ways the author intended. Joanne Meyerwitz (“A History of “Gender””, American Historical Review 113:5, 2008) noted such developments in her article “A History of “Gender”” as historians ventured “into new territory … they brought race, sexuality, and nationality as equally useful categories of historical analysis, and they borrowed from postcolonial, critical race, queer and political theory.” However, as Scott recently acknowledged, her article had not eliminated fixed ideas concerning gender, instead, for Scott gender had been reduced to a binary which “most often refers to sexual difference, to an enduring male/female opposition, a normatively … heterosexual coupling, even when homosexuality is the topic being addressed.” Adjusting her demands, Scott submitted “that no history of women is complete without a history of “women”. “Gender” was a call to disrupt the powerful pull of biology by opening every aspect of sexed identity to interrogation….” However, even with numerous reservations Scott maintained that though gender could not be codified by any dictionary, “gender is an open question about how these meanings are established, what they signify, and in what contexts, it remains a useful category of analysis.”
Still, just as gender itself exists in relation to various systems, languages, and institutions, Scott’s work does not reside in a vacuum. “Gender” arrived just as the field of history underwent methodological turmoil as many historians began to shift their attentions from social to cultural history, “from the study of demography, experiences, and social movements of the oppressed and stigmatized groups to the study of representations, language, perception, and discourse.” Thus, despite Scott’s own reservations about gender and women’s history, as Meyerwitz points out, Scott bridged the “gap between the feminist social scientists who critiqued “gender” and “gender roles” and the feminist literary critics who deconstructed textual representations of sex difference.” Parallel developments in race toward the study of whiteness or ethnicity and the construction of national identity benefitted indirectly from Scott’s exhortions and she from theirs.
Resistance to Scott’s ideas emerged visibly in the 23 years since “Gender’s” initial publication. Most notably, Joan Hoff (“Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis”, Women Studies International Forum, 17:4) suggested that Scott’s dependence on poststructuralists and postmodernism illustrated a flawed understanding of history. Postmodern thought obliterates historical discourse while, many of the poststructuralists that Scott noted suffered from “misogynistic” beliefs that naturally undercut attempt at excavating the role of women in history. Even Foucault, Hoff argues “talked extensively about gender, but largely neglected to mention women.” Rather than freeing historians, Hoff argued Scott’s approach amounted to “paralysis”. Finally, Hoff issued a professional critique of Scott and others of her generation, arguing that the shift to gender was a dodge since Hoff’s cohort and their collective experiences were “threatening to younger scholars.” Accordingly, Scott’s provocation served as tool to negate Hoff and others while simultaneously “asserting their professional identity and right to career advancement in a tighter and more demanding marketplace, many of them chose a methodology and theory that rejected both our experiences and memories of those experiences.”