On Theorizing Gender

The following is another one of my short "problematic" papers for my Women's Studies class. This time, the readings were "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" by Joan Wallach Scott, "Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective" by Iris Marion Young, and "Interpreting Gender" by Linda Nicholson.

I came to this reading wondering naively why women's studies theorists perceived a need to generalize across cultures. Why not just study the particular, and borrow from the empricist's claim that “this sample is not meant to generalize to the population of women.” Young's definition of theory as “a kind of discourse that claims to be comprehensive, to give a systematic account and explanation of social relations as a whole,” however, helped me to understand the aims of feminist theory (p. 717). The problem rests on how to create a feminist politic(s) of difference, which the theoretical agreement on woman as a social category must precede (Nicholson). The problematic at issue here is how we are to, theoretically and politically, conduct analyses of women as a social collective, not just individuals, without falling into the traps of false essentialism and faulty generalization—making claims about “all women” that do not take into consideration specific cultures' gender constructions.

Scott's tactic to resolve this problematic is to put forth gender, defined as an integral element of “socially perceived differences between the sexes” (p. 167) and “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (p. 169), as a category of analysis of historically specific situations, culture, and power. Scott critiques the work of Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow as presenting gender binaries that are too fixed and isolated. Gender identity might come from family relationships, but family relationships do not exist outside of culture and government. Such a way of viewing gender makes the possibilities for intersectional analyses plentiful, as Scott seems to resist defining woman. Instead, Scott wants us to “recognize that 'man' and 'woman' are at once empty and overflowing categories”--not monolithic, but shifting and full of anomalies and exceptions. What I find lacking in Scott's essay is that she concludes it without a clear political solution to the problematic, simply a gesture toward “new possibilities for thinking about current feminist political strategies and the (utopian) future” (p. 175).

Drawing on Sartre, Young puts forward a view of gender as seriality, or woman as part of a series, as a tactic for resolving the problematic. A "series" is distinct from a "group" in that a "group" comes together consciously, on purpose, to work toward a defined goal. A "series," on the other hand, is an unconscious, passive cluster of people, who have roughly the same experiences, but not necessarily. They are the collective of people who find themselves within the same structure, or "practico-inert reality." Young critiques two proffered resolutions to the problematic: multiple genders and identity politics. Because the notion of multiple genders rests on the assumption that one's gender identity forms completely within the parameters of one's racial and socioeconomic class, it does not take into consideration the nuances of cross-class and cross-race relations or “what it means to call her a woman” (p. 720-721). Young's view allows for intersectionality, as “race or nationality can also be fruitfully conceptualized as seriality” (p. 731). Conceptualizing women as a series avoids the problems associated with identity politics, including the dangers of normalization, false universalization, and arbitrariness with regard to feminist politics. Young finds a way for women to be studied as women, even though the women studied might identify more as Native American than as women.

I found Nicholson's “biological foundationalism” to be the most useful tactic because of the way she conceptualizes sex as a “historically specific variable whose meaning and import are recognized as potentially different in different historical contexts” (p. 101). Accepting “woman” as a contestable term takes, as Nicholson says, “a nonarrogant stance toward meaning” (p. 101). In other words, biological foundationalism concedes that while most of the time those people classified as “women” have female genitalia and genotypes, they do not always, and biology must always be considered in its cultural context (e.g. transsexuals, the Native American berdache). Nicholson suggests coalition politics for feminists, even though the category of “woman” is contested. She is comfortable with the ambiguity involved in coalition politics in a way that Young is not.