For three decades, feminist research has been explicitly connected with interdisciplinarity. This linkage was initially motivated by the recognition of two realities: the fields of knowledge that had sprung up within disciplinary terrains largely reflected male interests, and the artificial barriers dividing these domains obstructed a complete view of women’s situations and the social structures that perpetuated gender inequalities. Many years before feminist scholars began to imagine that they might “engender” the disciplines, they set out to make the disciplinary landscapes more hospitable to feminist analysis and interpretation. The theoretical work for this undertaking has mainly occurred in three localities: at the margins of the disciplines, in interdisciplinary women’s studies programs, and in interdisciplinary journals. Over time a rich language has developed to describe the nature of feminist work in these disciplinary and interdisciplinary sites, revealing a variety of views. Such feminists as Joan Wallach Scott focused her efforts on transforming her disciplines. Her essay collection Gender and the Politics of History (1988) described the shift from women’s history to gender history.
In her book, Wallach Scott emphasizes gender. The writer avoids conspiratorial interpretations of men’s subordination of women and emphasizes the systematic but changing character of relations between women and men. The work elaborates the ways in which women’s experience and contributions interact with those of men to create and sustain social systems and the discourses that characterize them. The principal danger in this work, from a feminist perspective, lies in its concessions to functionalist models in the social sciences. It is easy for those who emphasize gender to lose the edge of righteous indignation that fuels the most passionate feminist scholarship to assume that women’s position has had to be the way it has been because of the social system as a whole – and to accept the basic framework and categories of academic disciplines – for example, economics – that many feminists view as inherently oblivious or even antagonistic to women’s concerns.
The prestige of post-structuralist literary theory has led Joan Scott to reconsider gender in the light of literary theory. Joan Scott has proposed a definition of gender based on two propositions: “Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relations of power” (40). Under the influence of feminist literary theory and the new historicism, Scott seeks to develop a notion of gender that will simultaneously encompass historians’ traditional concerns with describing past societies and literary critics’ concerns with the problematic relation between language and “reality” – specially the difficulty of identifying any reality other than the language in which it is articulated.
From this perspective, the language in which the distinctions are expressed itself constitutes a political attempt to control human experience by insisting that it reflects a deeper reality. Gender, in this perspective, becomes nothing more than an aspect of language, albeit an especially powerful one. Thus for Scott gender should properly be studied as one among many epistemological phenomena (“economics, industrialization, relations of production, factories, families, classes, genders, collective action, and political ideas, as well as one’s own interpretive categories”) and be understood to mean “knowledge about sexual difference” (56).
In the book, Scott argues that women’s history can help to expose “such seeming dichotomies as state and family, public and private, work and sexuality” and to criticize history “not simply as an incomplete record of the past but as a participant in the production of knowledge that legitimized the exclusion or subordination of women” (90). At the heart of these concerns lies the conviction that the notion of difference has constituted one of the most powerful weapons in the subordination of women. Women have indeed been reduced to the status of other – the necessary opposite of the man. By this logic, deconstructing or, better yet, abolishing the notion of difference will launch us toward the abolition of hierarchy and domination – of authority in all its forms.
Scott, writing about the putative “crisis” in history, explicitly identified her own position as an attack on those conservatives, notably Gertrude Himmelfarb, who protest any attack on a single central historical narrative “because it undermines the legitimation of their quest for dominance.” Identifying the conservatives’ defense of the traditional history of elites with their defense of “their own hegemony in the present” Scott dismissed the entire project as “a repudiation of the possibility of contest and conflicting interpretation, a refusal of change, and a rejection of the possibility for what I would call democratic history.” The conservatives’ defense of their vision of history must in her view be understood as highly political and as having “proroundly exclusionary and elitist effects on the discipline.” For conservative elitism, Scott proposed substituting her own vision of democratic history –“a plurality of stories,” the telling of which raises “contests about power and knowledge” and forces the recognition that “the historian’s mastery is necessarily partial” (276).
Scott claims that good history should embody the conflict of social groups or include diverse stories, but that commonsensical claim masks a much more radical agenda with which many from all parts of the political spectrum do quarrel. Scott’s embrace of postmodernism permits her simultaneously to obscure some issues and to personalize others. For Scott’s insistence upon the centrality of politics in history has more to do with contemporary than with past politics. And Scott does regularly slip from politics in general into the specific politics of the historical profession.
Scott’s emphasis on a “democratic” history and a multiplicity of stories openly betrays her own commitment to individualism, in the narrow sense of personalism, but she combines it with a radical egalitarianism, apparently oblivious to the centuries-long association of those two quintessentially bourgeois concepts. She effectively argues that in our time we must recognize all stories as of equal value, although, somehow, she gives the voices of the elite short shrift. We have, she insists, no grounds for privileging one person’s experience over that of another, for privileging one form of politics over another. She bases these claims not on the grounds of the practical politics of who has most power to determine the conditions of the lives of others but on the grounds of language. Since we can know nothing of “reality” except language, we must accept all language as equally valid.
The problem of equality and difference, Scott has urged, should lead feminists to turn to post-structuralist literary theory for an illuminating guide to “analyzing constructions of meaning and relationships of power that called unitary, universal categories into question and historicized concepts otherwise treated as natural (such as man/woman) or absolute (such as justice or equality) (698). Deconstruction, in particular, she has suggested, offers feminists a new way of apprehending and analyzing language, discourse, and difference. For Scott, the sharp juxtaposition between equality and difference do not properly capture the most pressing issues that feminists confront. They would, in her judgment, do better to repudiate the dichotomy entirely. “When equality and difference are paired dichotomously, they structure an impossible choice” (699). Specifically, the dichotomous pairing “denies the way in which difference has long figured in notions of political equality and it suggests that sameness is the only grounds on which equality can be claimed” (700).
Scott is, in effect, proposing to substitute an analysis of language for an analysis of social and gender relations – of politics and class. In addition, notwithstanding her insistence that she is not simply advocating a happy pluralism, she is making a decisive move in the direction of postmodernism with its emphasis on the unmediated expression of diversity. Above all, her immersion in theory has blinded her to the historical specificity of the concepts of difference and equality she is attacking.
Scott, Joan Wallach. (1988). Gender and the Politics of History, New York: Columbia University Press.