In deze rubriek brengt Historica een onderzoeker voor het voetlicht die vanuit haar of zijn discipline reflecteert op de (mogelijke) meerwaarde om te werken vanuit een genderperspectief. U kan via de website reacties posten. Op die manier willen Historica en de VVG actief het wetenschappelijke én publieke debat rond genderonderzoek stimuleren.

In het oktober-nummer 2012 van Historica komt Joan Scott (1941) aan het woord. In oktober vorig jaar was zij de key note spreker op de de conferentie 'Uitsluitend emancipatie' in de Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam, met een lezing over het historische concept emancipatie. Historica maakte van de gelegenheid gebruik voor een gesprek over gendergeschiedenis en feminisme.

Joan Scott is een van de grondleggers van gendergeschiedenis. Haar invloedrijke artikel 'Gender: A Uselful Category of Historical Analysis' (1986)' verlegde de bakens van de historische praktijk. In recente publicaties focust ze op het verband tussen gender en politiek. Joan Scott is professor aan de School of Social Science in het Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Joan Scott (1941) was the keynote speaker at the Conference ‘Uitsluitend emancipatie’ in de Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam in October last year. She spoke about the historical concept of emancipation. This was an opportunity for Historica to speak with her about gender history and feminism. Joan Scott is well-known as one of the founders of gender history. With her article ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, published in 1986, she challenged the foundations of historical practice. In recent books she focused on the relationship between gender and politics. Joan Scott is professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Esmeralda Tijhoff en Greetje Bijl

Esmeralda Tijhoff en Greetje Bijl interviewden haar.


You wrote your famous article about gender as a useful category in historical science in 1986.  Why did you decide to write a new article in 2010, stating that it still can be considered as a useful category?

There was a forum at The American Historical Review in 2006, twenty years since they published my article. They had many different people writing about gender in their different fields of history. My article was an answer to all the other articles in this special issue of The American Historical Review.

Since the first article was published, the concept of gender changed a lot. What do you consider to be the main improvement?

I do not know if it is an improvement. I think people really do use the term gender, not just about women, which was often the case before, but to think about the relation of power between men and women. So when you ask about gender representation, you really are asking: ‘what is the percentage of women in relation to the percentage of men’. Or for example how high are women’s wages in relation to men’s wages. It is very much a question about the relationship of power rather than just another way of asking a question about women. I think that is one major change.

How does one use the concept of gender as a tool in historical science?

It is a set of questions. What you are always asking is: ‘what is the relationship between men and women’. How are women being defined in relation to men? And you do not know what the answer is in advance. So you look at society and you analyse the position of women, the political participation of women, the wages of women, the cultural assumptions about women, the way children are treated in the classroom, whether boys and girls are treated differently, how do people in a society understand what it means to be masculine and feminine, man or woman? All those kinds of questions…

I think that it is very useful if you always have a question mark at the end. If you think that you know what gender means, that men are superior and women inferior, then you would look for that everywhere. To me, that does not seem to be a very useful way of doing it. But if you are always asking what the power relations are like, it is a very useful way of thinking about social organisation.

How can one apply such a theoretical framework to historical resources, autobiographies for example?

Well, you have to analyse the sources. When someone writes an autobiography, they choose particular moments to tell you when something important happened. So one set of questions will be: ‘what is the major turning point in their lives?’ For example: “my father gave me permission to go to school, or I decided not to marry”. So if every single person told you that, then you know that you are dealing not just with an individual experience but with a socially, culturally defined moment, that this person reads his life or her life in certain terms. Then you have some insight into how society has given them scenarios to define their lives. What did it mean to be a woman in those days?

This morning [at the conference] we had a lecture by the head of the labour union. (Agnes Jongerius, GB) She started by telling us that she grew up in a family with five girls and two boys. And even though her mother was very emancipated, but also very catholic, when the boys did not like what the mother made for dinner, she would always make them something else, but when the girls did not like the dinner, they had to eat it. So she said: “When the day comes that both girls and boys have to eat the dinner or if nobody likes the dinner everybody gets another dinner then we’ll have equality”. “Well the poor mother.”

It was a symbolic story. Here she has a kind of model in her mind about what equality means. Here is an individualized story, but it is serving a larger purpose, because we all understand what she meant. Why did we all understand what she meant, because we all have a shared notion of equality and of gender equality.

For example in the nineteenth century women who refused marriage were defined as crazy. Sometimes they deliberately acted as if they were crazy so they would not have to get married. Otherwise they had to find a way to legitimate or justify the refusal of marriage. So then the question I would ask is: “Where do they look to justify themselves?” For Catholic women it might be the saints or the Virgin Mary. For French women it might be Joan of Arc. There are ways of identifying or understanding your experience in the languages or the vocabulary of your culture at a very specific historical moment.

How are these women defining themselves? What terms are they using, and what do those terms mean in the context they are using them in? If  you ask: ‘what does it take for women in this period to think of themselves as a woman or as feminine’, then it seems to me you are asking questions about what you are not allowed to be as well as about what you are allowed to be. That is going to be different in different historical periods and this way you get to read in a more subtle and sensitive way. The point is that being a woman is not self-evident; it is an experience that is historically constructed and not a biological concept.

But can I still call her ‘woman’?

Yeah, why not? As long as you realize that when she thought of herself as a woman you know and have to explain what she meant. You are historicising woman, but for your contemporary reader who assumed ‘women’ to be a kind of unchanging truth, you are introducing the idea that the category of ‘women’ itself varies.

Is this where one can find agency?

Yes, you find it by understanding who you are, what is attributed to you. Sometimes one acts in conformity with society, sometimes in opposition to society. One’s identifications do not fit prescribed norms. They are influenced by many factors, including fantasy.

How did you experience the realisation that there was inequality between boys and girls?

I guess I realized it very early. My father was a socialist and very secular, against religion. I was young when I asked a question about religion. He said to me: “In most of these religions women are said to be made of a man’s rib. Do you want to believe something like that?” And I thought: “No, that’s not fair.” So that was something I always remembered.

My father thought that girls should be able do everything boys could. My mother too, she was a teacher who always worked. So I had examples all around me of women who were working and women who were organized in unions.

So it did not occur to me that it was not possible to do everything that I wanted to do. Except, I think, I knew that you had to be really good at it and, in fact, you had to be better than good in order to compete. Of course it was clear that there were real differences between the way women and men were treated. But in my own career and personal experience it was less clear. I was part of the generation in the United States when universities were trying to encourage women to get PhD’s and to go into university teaching. They were anticipating the huge expansion of students which happened in the sixties and they knew they were going to need teachers. So I was part of that wave, when the doors were open rather than closed.

It really was not until the women’s movement started in the seventies that I came to feminism, but initially it was inspired more by history and scholarly work than by personal experience. It was much more the sense of how this group was treated and, historically, what the enormous differences were in the situation between women and men.

Did you ever become an activist?

You can call me an academic activist.

I participated in demands for abortion rights, but I was never a real activist. But everywhere I went in universities, I helped women to start study programs and advocated for an end to discrimination against women at the faculty.  So my politics, I would call them radical, but they were located in academic settings.

You have been criticized for being too deconstructivist?

I have to tell you something very funny first. In France, in 2011, there was a huge controversy about the teaching of gender. The French government produced a new textbook for teaching about gender and sexuality studies. The Catholic lobby organized a petition signed by over a hundred deputies and senators in the parliament against teaching gender and sexuality. They thought it would corrupt the youth and teach children that homosexuality was normal or acceptable. And these ideas were said to be American imports into France. Judith Butler was defined in one article as the female pope of gender studies.

People like us were defined as American aliens coming in and corrupting the French. The amusing thing is that in the United States, I am defined by many of my feminist historian colleagues as being too French, too influenced by deconstruction and ‘French theory’. But in France I am the embodiment of ‘American feminism’.

But back to your question! I think deconstruction is a way of reading analytically. It allows you to ask how concepts are being defined in opposition to others, what the dependence between two opposing ideas might be. So ‘women’ are defined in opposition to ‘men’, each concept acquires its meaning from the other. For me deconstruction is a way of reading that opens you up to look for contradictions.

Your book The Politics of the Veil tackles the political debates about the law that put a ban on the veil in France. What was your most striking conclusion?

I think my most striking conclusion was that I felt in the end that you could only understand the law as racist. Secularism seemed to be an excuse for saying that Muslims were not welcome in French society. It went beyond religious Muslims and applied more generically to all Muslims. Secular Muslims in the government of Sarkozy who were in favour of the ban on headscarves were always referred to as a North African or a Muslim member of the government. So even if they sought to assimilate, they continued to be marked by their difference and referred to as representatives of a different (non-French) group.

People accused me of transposing American ideas of racism on to the French. And I think that is right, but Americans have had a long history with racism because of the treatment of Afro-Americans, and we know it when we see it. It is not a mistake to read the French law in those terms.

How can you explain this political development in Western Europe?

First of all, we are post-9/11. Terrorism or the war on terror, or whatever you want to call it, becomes a central preoccupation. It is a moment when the clash of civilizations, the Muslims versus the West, becomes more fully articulated. But it existed well before September 11th. In France it becomes really visible after the bicentennial of the French revolution in 1989. The far Right party takes up an anti-immigrant stance: “Let’s get rid of these people who are taking our jobs, who are threatening our culture, who represent an invasion of a kind we have to worry about.” The position of the far right parties pushes the other parties and they, too, picked up the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language. Secondly it has to do with the loss of a sense of integrity and national sovereignty. Yes, we are still Dutch but what does it mean to be Dutch if you are a member of the EU? All the policies that really matter are being decided by an inter-European council. On the one hand it is wonderful, it is unity, it is a federation and on the other hand I think there is a tremendous anxiety about the loss of national identity. And so, a kind of nationalism develops in these countries against these ‘Others’. In some cases the others are former colonial subjects, Indonesians here, North-Africans in France. Or they were guest workers, Turks in Germany and here as well. Immigrants become identified as terrorists and in the civilization discourse that follows: “They are the terrorists, we are the civilized”. And you even had the Pope at one point talking about the fact that Muslims are so passionate and superstitious and religious whereas the Catholic Church had always been on the side of reason and Enlightenment.

In the United States there is certainly an anti-Islam feeling, mostly spurred on by the religious Right, many of whom see Israel as the place where the second coming of Christ is going to happen. So there is this alliance between pro-Israeli, right wing politicians and Christian fundamentalist politics in the United States. And Muslims are the target. But there is a difference with Europe. Muslims in the United States are not former colonial subjects and they are mostly middle class. They are engineers, doctors, lawyers, higher level liberal professionals. So they are not seen as dangerous populations in the cities of America. You cannot associate danger with those groups in the way you can associate danger with poor working class populations in the cities and the outskirts of the cities of European capitals. Muslims in the United States are not going to pick your pockets in the popular imagination. But they might blow something up! There is a much more tolerant aspect on a day to day level of Muslims in the United States. Our dangerous classes are the Afro-Americans. They are the poor ones and historically they were the slaves. Muslims in our country were never orientalised in a way they were in the Western European countries that had colonies. I think that makes something of a difference in a way.

Here, traditionally, the guest workers have been drawn from these colonial populations, the very poorest of the poor. You just take a boat from Algeria to Marseille or you just cross a border in Turkey. How do you get to the United States if you are poor? For us it is the Mexicans who are the danger and walls are built to keep them out. It is Afro-Americans and the Latin-Americans, but particularly the Mexicans, but less so Muslims.

It is not the case that American multiculturalism is more tolerant, but different social groups pose different kinds of challenges and problems in the different countries. Everything has to do with class and colonial history. You are dealing with former colonial subjects, the anxiety about poverty and also the poverty of these populations.

Now with the economic crisis even the socialist parties in Europe are worried that there is too much money going to be spent on these people who ‘do not belong here’. The immigrants are represented as a drain on the economy even if that is not actually the case. So it is a very complicated story. No country is totally uniform in its behaviour.

These days the racist voices seem to be the loudest. The question is: how do you get other voices to be heard? That is the real challenge everywhere in democracies. Another problem is the cooptation of this language of emancipation by the Right. And you find that some feminists are on board with this kind of nationalism. That is very disturbing.

In the last chapter of your book The Politics of the Veil, the part on sexuality, you talk about beards. Why is there no ban on beards as a symbol of orthodox religion?

Here I can only speak of the French case, because I think it is different in the Netherlands. France sees itself as an open society. Women’s femininity is defined by their availability to men, by their willingness to be on display. Muslim women are covered and so Muslims are seen as repressive and unnatural in relation to sex and sexuality. If you define openness and sexual availability as natural, then Muslims are seen as sexually repressed. So women stand for the terms of sexual difference as they are understood in a society. Men are not seen in the same way, so even though beards may define a certain Muslim religious orientation, they do not carry the same symbolic weight that women’s veils do.

After reading Hirsi Ali’s book, you concluded that there are many contradictions in her story. What does this mean to you?

I had to give a talk not so long ago about Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel. If you read it carefully, the whole first part is all about strong women, although she says that Islam is repressing women and enslaves them. But the evidence she gives about women in Islamic society contradicts this. She has a sister who is a doctor and her mother divorced her father and married the man she really loved.

She says that Islam is about beating women, but later on she says that her father said: “That (wife beating) is not what Islam is about”. So the book is full of contradictions. You do not have to go to other sources to say, well, what she writes is wrong. All you have to do is read her! And the question is why did she need to produce this caricature of  Islam? I think she wanted to fit herself into the political niche of the Muslim-anti-Muslim. And the way to do this was to write a sensational book in which she oversimplified her life-story and the history of Islam. So she could tell her story about leaving tradition, oppression, and ignorance behind and coming to the utopian freedom of the Dutch Republic. I think there was a kind of political opportunism in her story, whether it was fully conscious or not I could not say, because I do not know enough about her. I certainly think she worked the politics to her great advantage.

Do you know what she charges to give a lecture? She charges ten thousand dollars to give an hour long lecture and additional fees for her bodyguards. She has created herself as a political celebrity. The story she presents is ‘black to white’, ‘bad to good’, ‘Islam to the West’, ‘oppression to freedom’. But the interesting thing about her book is that, if you read it carefully, she has not eliminated the contradictions.

In your theories and academic life you seem very deconstructivist and conceptualizing, but when it comes to politics you are very practical.

That’s right. Theory and politics are two separate grounds, one informs the other, but they are not the same thing. The way I think about theoretical issues always takes into account politics and political situations and the way I think politically is informed by the way I conceptualize things.

But the two are not the same. Politics is a strategic operation, so you want to be able to think strategically. Theory lets you think outside the box, outside the ordinary strategies, but it does not tell you what to do. As long as you understand the two are not the same, theory should not prevent you from engaging in political activity. There is no such thing as theoretical purity. That is where you end up in dogmatic politics.

Now we have more than forty years of women’s history, but most research does not find its way into the standard textbooks. Do you know what the situation is like in other countries?

I think it is similar in many places. Maybe some more attention is paid to women and women’s history in the standard textbooks. And there have been a lot of attempts to increase the input. In the United States the textbooks in high schools and secondary schools are adopted by the state. So depending on the politics of the particular state there is more or less women’s history in the textbooks.

There is more consciousness about famous women than there was before, and more consciousness about the need to do address questions about women. But it is very difficult to find a textbook that fully incorporates gender into history.

It is interesting to see what the long-term impact of international bodies like the UN and its CEDAW conventioni will be like. Any country that signed the convention must report every year on their attempts to get closer to gender equality, whatever that means. So there is a consciousness about these issues that may translate into an improvement in the representation of women and women’s history in textbooks.

The Vereniging voor Gendergeschiedenis plans to create a new standard history textbook that fully incorporates a gendered analysis.

That’s the way to do it!



i The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly