Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis


Scott, Joan Wallach.  “Gender:  A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History.  Revised Edition.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999.  Pages: 28-50.

Subject: Analyzing concepts of gender & proposing how a new understanding of gender affects our understanding of history.

Summary & Main Arguments:  Scott starts out by dispelling the notion that gender is a natural distinction of the biological sexes.  Instead, gender is a socially agreed upon system of distinctions, a way of classifying phenomena.  In other words, Scott approaches concepts such as race, gender, and class from a social constructionist standpoint, arguing that meanings are political: they are agreed upon, or disputed – they are made and do not occur naturally (even though they may seem natural).  More specifically, Scott is influenced by the post structuralist school of thought, and as such conflict rests at the center of her understanding of meanings.  “This [post structuralist] approach rests on the assumption that meaning is conveyed through implicit or explicit contrast, through internal differentiation” (7).  In other words, the meaning behind what something is, is always based on what it is not (even if this negation is absent or invisible from the actual discourse that is producing the meaning).  In this understanding, “gender history” is not simply synonymous with “women’s history,” because one cannot study women without studying men.  “Women and men [are] defined in terms of one another, and no understanding of either [can] be achieved by entirely separate study” (29).

So the first of this chapter’s contributions is to historicize gender:  Her approach “insists on the need to examine gender concretely and in context and to consider it a historical phenomenon, produced, reproduced, and transformed in different situations and over time” (6).  This can be problematic for historians (as their job is traditionally understood – or at least was at the time Scott was writing) because doing “gender history” does not mean simply going back and inserting women into the history books.  It is stopping to completely reanalyze situations, asking how society was organized around sexual difference and the resulting power inequalities.

Power is central to Scott’s analysis, for she is interested in inequality, and she argues that by studying gender relations, one can gain an understanding of (in)equality in general.  For this, she calls for us to change our understanding of power:  “We need to replace the notion that social power is unified, coherent, and centralized with something like Michel Foucault’s concept of power as dispersed constellations of unequal relationships, discursively constituted in social “fields of force.”  So, power is not something that exists outside the social organization and is then wielded by persons.  Instead, the power lies in (and through the existence of) unequal relationships and organizations.  These inequalities are created by knowledge (understandings of the world).

Scott’s definition of gender is multifaceted and is broken down as such:

  1. Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes. This involves four interrelated elements:
  2. Culturally available symbols that evoke multiple (and often contradictory) representations (Eve and Mary as symbols of woman for example)
  3. Normative concepts that set forth interpretations of the meanings of the symbols, that attempt to limit and contain their metaphoric possibilities.  These concepts are expressed in religious, educational, scientific, legal, and political doctrines and typically the the form of a fixed binary opposition, categorically and unequivocally asserting the meaning of male and female, masculine and feminine.
  4. Gender is not restricted to just the household, kinship systems, or a “separate, private” sphere.  Gender organizations affect kinship, labor markets, education, and the polity. Gender is constructed through kinship, but not exclusively; it is constructed as well in the economy and the polity, which in our society at least, now operate largely independently of kinship.
  5. Identity is subjective. Gendered identities are substantively constructed and relate their findings to a range of activities, social organizations, and historically specific cultural representations.

2.     Gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.  In other words, gender is a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated. 

  1. Concepts of power, though they may build on gender, are not always literally about gender itself. 
  2. Established as an objective set of references, concepts of gender structure perception and the concrete and symbolic organization of all social life.  To the extent that these references establish distributions of power (differential control over or access to material and symbolic resources), gender becomes implicated in the conception and construction of power itself.  In this sense, gender has a legitimizing function for society’s structure and for power.
  3.  An example of this: Emergent rulers (in a variety of places) have legitimized domination, strength, central authority, and ruling power as masculine (enemies, outsiders, subversives, weakness as feminine) and made that code literal in laws (forbidding women’s political participation, outlawing abortion, prohibiting wage-earning by mothers, imposing female dress codes) that put women in their place.

But, Scott’s understanding of gender also affects the discipline of history altogether.  Her theory revolves around knowledge and meanings and truths that are made, not discovered.  Knowledge, then, “is a way of ordering the world; as such it is not prior to social organization, it is inseparable from social organization.”  In other words, knowledge is how social organization functions, and indeed, creates the organization of society (as society in turn creates knowledge).  That is why the discipline of history “produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past generally” (9).  “Feminist history then becomes not just an attempt to correct or supplement an incomplete record of the past but a way of critically understanding how history operates as a site of the production of gender knowledge,” and knowledge in general (10).  Moreover, she states that after historians acknowledge the multivalent & constructed nature of society and knowledge, they will be forced to abandon single-cause explanations for historical change.  “We have to conceive of processes so interconnected that they cannot be disentangled” (42).  The result would be histories that are “messier,” and perhaps “less grand” in that they do not offer a narrative that ties everything together as “the story” moves forward in time.  Too often people (including scholars) do not understand how the mechanics of power & knowledge work, so they misunderstand the products.  For example, the “normative concepts” that interpret and set the boundaries for the cultural symbols, and thus create meaning (see point 1c above):  these doctrines that often come in the form of fixed binaries, depend on the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities, resulting in conflict over meaning.  “The position that emerges as dominant is stated as the only possible one. Subsequent history is written as if these normative positions were the product of social consensus rather than conflict” (43).  It is then the job of historians to dispel this notion of coherence and reveal the conflict that created this particular meaning or understanding.  Or, as she puts it more elegantly, “The point of new historical investigation,” Scott writes,” is to disrupt the notion of fixity, to discover the nature of the debate or repression that leads to the appearance of timeless permanence” (43).   In this view, attention should not be given solely to people’s actions, but instead to the meaning that people (and their actions) acquire through social interaction.

Lastly, Scott believes (and I agree) that the sketch of the processes of constructing gender relations can also be used to discuss class, race, ethnicity, or any social process.  So, it is indeed a “useful category of historical analysis.”

For more books on the history of gender and sexuality, see my full list of book reviews, here. 

Categories: Book Review, Sexuality & Gender | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis

  1. Kevin George

    well done with the summarizing part. Everything in a nutshell.(made a lot more sense than the whole essay which was superfluously written.

  2. I agree with Kevin! I had to read this essay for a class on women in American History and the had some trouble with it. But this was a great help. Thank you!

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