Joan Scott
Stanford Humanities Center

Joan W. Scott


Joan Scott portrait
Joan W. Scott

Joan Wallach Scott is a pioneering historian and scholar whose activism and interests reach throughout the academy and into issues at the heart of contemporary society. Although trained as a social historian, Scott is best known for her ground-breaking work in feminist history and gender theory, fields to which she brings a critical engagement with post-structural theory. Geographically, her work focuses on France, but to describe Joan Scott as simply a French historian of gender would be inaccurate and insufficient; her writings address universal issues such as how power works, the relation between discourse and experience, and the role and practice of historians. Indeed, her work is so stimulating precisely because she insists on grappling with theory’s application to historical and current events and focusing on how terms are defined and how positions and identities are articulated.

Scott is well-known to historians of France and of gender, but she has also made a name for herself among the wider academic community through her work with the American Association of University Professors as chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. A search of her articles brings up not only works on women, gender, and work, but also on academic freedom and political correctness. Her public writings supporting academic freedom of speech showcase her commitment to individual rights and equality, and reflect many of the theoretical issues that she addresses in her research.

After receiving her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Scott embarked on a long career teaching at such institutions as the University of Illinois at Chicago; Northwestern; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Rutgers; Johns Hopkins; and Brown University, where she was the founding director of the Pembroke Center for the Teaching and Research on Women. She has written numerous articles and monographs, and edited several books. A comprehensive list of her work and scholarly activities is found on her website: . Scott has received many prestigious awards for her work, including a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize for the best first book by an American author on European history, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women’s History, and the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award for Graduate Teaching, all from the American Historical Association. She has been a valued mentor to many younger scholars at her home universities as well as at other insitutions. Since 1985, Joan Wallach Scott has been the Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Joan W. Scott’s first book, The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth-century City (Harvard University Press, 1974) examines the development of a workers’ movement among glassworkers during the 1890s as a the result of changes in technology. She demonstrates how the workers’ militancy, which aimed to preserve their lost role as skilled artisans in a mechanizing labor environment, was due to the changes that the workers were experiencing firsthand rather than to the spread of socialist ideology. This often-cited book has been called a “methodological gem”[1] for Scott’s skill in combining quantitative and qualitative sources, with a special focus on material that offered insight into the lived human experience, into a coherent historical narrative.

Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988, rev. ed. 1999) assembles a set of essays written when Scott was the director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. While several of the essays recall the labor history of The Glassworkers of Carmaux, the entire work clearly reveals Scott’s decisive shift to the subjects and theoretical questions that have concerned her since the mid-1980s: the history of gender and feminism and the critical possibilities offered by post-structuralist and psychoanalytic theory. The essays are divided into four categories: feminist history; gender and class; gender and history; and equality and difference. Together they aim to understand how knowledge of “social organization of sexual difference” has taken place in the past, and how this knowledge has constructed our current understanding of gender.

 The most influential essay in the book, “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis,” lays out the history of the term “gender” as different from “sex” — particularly as it applies to socially-constructed rather than biologically-determined distinctions. Interest in gender (and class and race) as a category of analysis developed in the 1970s among feminist social historians as a way of broadening the historical field using different theoretical perspectives and for different objectives. To Scott however, gender is most powerful as “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” when it exposes how political discourse has used gendered terms and references to create meaning, by defining occupations and familial, political, and social roles as masculine or feminine to create natural hierarchies or oppositional relationships:

If the themes of gender and history unite this book, so does a preoccupation with theory. Although historians are not trained (in the United States at least) to be reflective or rigorous about their theory, I found it imperative to pursue theoretical questions in order to do feminist history. […] My motive was and is one that I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender. Though simple to state, those operations are difficult to implement, especially if one lacks an analysis of how gender hierarchies are constructed, legitimated, challenged, and maintained. (Gender and the Politics of History, revised ed, 1999, p. 3)

Scott’s next monograph, Only Paradoxes to Offer, French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Harvard University Press, 1996), is a collection of biographical and critical essays on French feminists. Here, she continues her quest to understand the intersection of gender and political power by analyzing how successive French feminists worked to achieve political rights for women from the French Revolution to the eventual granting of women’s suffrage in 1944. Eschewing traditional biographical concerns, Scott focuses on the strategies used by the French feminists Olympe de Gouges, Jeanne Deroin, Hubertine Auclert, and Madeleine Pelletier to interpret republican discourse to include women as rights-bearing individuals - as citizens, workers, and voters. At its heart, this argument uncovers the paradox of French republicanism: the republic is composed of equal individuals, but by suppressing the differences among them, some individuals are more equal than others.

Parité! (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Scott’s most recent book, brings her commitment to the sticky relationship between power and gender to the political movement in France during the 1990s for gender parity in French electoral politics. According to Scott, this quest for equal numbers of men and women candidates at all levels of politics “demonstrated the difficulty of conducting a political struggle with a complex concept (anatomical duality rather than sexual difference, the power of the law to transform social and symbiotic relations between the sexes or even to render gender irrelevant” (Parité!, p. 67). The central argument in this fight revolved around the question of whether the abstract individualism of the French republic could recognize differences within the nation, especially since the practical result of this aspect of universalism had resulted in a (male, white, heterosexual) political class that did not represent the full spectrum of contemporary French society. To support their arguments, both the proponents and the critics of parity evoked the principle of French universalism, arguing that anti-discrimination or affirmative action measures were not compatible with the republic’s relationship with its members. Scott draws comparisons with similar issues challenging French universalism. The broader impact of the question of parity was particularly evident when taken in the larger context of political struggles taking place at the same time — the fights to recognize the religious and cultural differences of immigrants (the headscarf affair[2]) and homosexuals (PaCS[3]) — differences that, like sexual difference between men and women, could not be abstracted out of the universalism of republican thought. In Scott’s words, “Was there some way of changing the notions of the individual, expanding its capacity for abstraction to include differences once thought irreducible? This was the challenge addressed by feminists who founded the parité movement.”(Parité!, p. 31).

Joan Wallach Scott’s recent work, and the subject of her Presidential Lecture, continues on this path of exploring the paradoxes provoked by difference in the context of the universalism and abstract individualism on which the French republic is founded. Her current research and subject of her forthcoming book, The Politics of the Veil: Banning Islamic Headscarves in French Public Schools, addresses the ongoing discussion in France, and increasingly in many Western countries, on the Islamic headscarf and the implications it symbolizes for religion and women in the public spaces of republican, secular France. In her lecture, “Cover-Up: French Gender Equality and the Islamic Headscarf,” Scott will critically examine why supporters of the ban on Muslim headscarves in French public schools argue that that their primary concern is for the emancipation for women. Given that this topical subject brings together the theoretical and historical issues that Scott has long been exploring, it is sure to be an exciting and thought-provoking presentation!


[1] Parker, Harold T. “A Methodological Gem.” Review in Journal of Urban History, 2:3 (May 1976), p.373.

[2] For background on the headscarf affair, see the section entitled “Promoting Secularism in a Religiously Diverse Society” in the article The Challenge of French Diversity,” by Kimberly Hamilton and Patrick Simon, hosted at the Migration Policy Institute.

[3] Pacte civil de solidarité — as Scott describes it in Parité!, a “civil pact of solidarity, a type of registered domestic partnership.” See also this description from the Embassy of France in the United States.

Text by Sarah Sussman, Curator for French and Italian Studies

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