BCRW’s annual Women’s History Month Lecture this year featured renowned historian Joan Wallach Scott. However, as she herself admitted, Scott is often considered to be a political philosopher; more “traditional” historians (read: old university men), as she put it, categorize her as such with the intention of criticizing her and perhaps de-legitimizing her approach to history. As a feminist studies student and enamored attendee of her lecture, I’d grant her the label out of admiration for her work in women’s histories and her use of gender as a productive lens for historical analysis. Her lecture was as dense in information as any history lecture I’d ever attended–I don’t think I stopped taking notes at any point while she spoke, but Scott’s approach to history is one of self-conscious (hyper?)criticism. By this I mean she is not only critical of the more traditional historical narratives (in her 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” she established a methodological framework for using gender theories in historical analysis, opening up a space for alternative narratives) but also of feminist studies and feminist narratives, particularly when “feminism is produced as a kind of politics.”
Much of her lecture asked us to examine and critically interrogate feminist politics and assumptions. For example, the assumption that secularism and feminism are inevitably aligned due to their mutual “progressiveness.” She questions the notion that secularism is the necessary “common sense” prerequisite for a proliferation of feminist thought and feminist policies, when historically secular ideologies and policies have been working against moves made toward equality and inclusiveness. In the sections of her lecture that really had an impact on me, she urged us to question these increasingly “awkward alignments” between feminism and “narrow strands” of liberal secularists’ ideology; take, for example, the Democratic party’s re-branding as the “political party fighting the war on women.” This assumed solidarity between “secular” and “feminist,” Scott warned, stifles the radical activism or progressiveness of feminist groups as they struggle to maintain their coalitions with established “liberal” and “progressive” institutions.