By looking at historical material from 19th century France, Joan Scott shows that secularization was not synonymous with women’s emancipation, but with the articulation of new justifications for their exclusion from male public worlds. This is an important point to make these days because the word secularism is bandied about loosely in public debate, with little attention to its variable and complex history. Especially in discussions of Islam and its treatment of women, the secular, the modern, and sexual liberation are touted as the “primordial values” of progressive, democratic states while the religious, the traditional, and the subordination of women designate arenas of authoritarian backwardness. Scott’s work on the secular side seeks to challenge that simple opposition, arguing—as historians are wont to do—that things are more complicated than these Manichean characterizations suggest.
Joan Scott is Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study. Her recent books have focused on the vexed relationship of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics, including The Fantasy of Feminist History in 2011.