Joan Wallach Scott’s acclaimed and controversial writings have been foundational for the field of gender history. With Sex and Secularism, Scott challenges one of the central claims of the “clash of civilizations” polemic—the false notion that secularism is a guarantee of gender equality.
Drawing on a wealth of scholarship by second-wave feminists and historians of religion, race, and colonialism, Scott shows that the gender equality invoked today as a fundamental and enduring principle was not originally associated with the term “secularism” when it first entered the lexicon in the nineteenth century. In fact, the inequality of the sexes was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity. Scott points out that Western nation-states imposed a new order of women’s subordination, assigning them to a feminized familial sphere meant to complement the rational masculine realms of politics and economics. It was not until the question of Islam arose in the late twentieth century that gender equality became a primary feature of the discourse of secularism.
Challenging the assertion that secularism has always been synonymous with equality between the sexes, Sex and Secularism reveals how this idea has been used to justify claims of white, Western, and Christian racial and religious superiority and has served to distract our attention from a persistent set of difficulties related to gender difference—ones shared by Western and non-Western cultures alike.
Joan Wallach Scott, the renowned pioneer of gender studies, argues that the law is symptomatic of France's failure to integrate its former colonial subjects as full citizens. She examines the long history of racism behind the law as well as the ideological barriers thrown up against Muslim assimilation. She emphasizes the conflicting approaches to sexuality that lie at the heart of the debate--how French supporters of the ban view sexual openness as the standard for normalcy, emancipation, and individuality, and the sexual modesty implicit in the headscarf as proof that Muslims can never become fully French. Scott maintains that the law, far from reconciling religious and ethnic differences, only exacerbates them. She shows how the insistence on homogeneity is no longer feasible for France--or the West in general--and how it creates the very "clash of civilizations" said to be at the root of these tensions.
The Politics of the Veil calls for a new vision of community where common ground is found amid our differences, and where the embracing of diversity--not its suppression--is recognized as the best path to social harmony.
This anniversary edition of a classic text in feminist theory and history shows the evergreen relevance of Scott’s work to the humanities and social sciences. In a new preface, Scott reflects on the book’s legacy and implications for contemporary politics as well as what she has reconsidered as a result of her engagement with psychoanalytic theory. The book also includes a previously unpublished essay, “The Conundrum of Equality,” which takes up issues concerning affirmative action.
During the 1990s, le mouvement pour la parité successfully campaigned for women's inclusion in elective office with an argument that is unprecedented in the annals of feminism. The paritaristes insisted that if the abstract individual were thought of as sexed, then sexual difference would no longer be a relevant consideration in politics. Scott insists that this argument was neither essentialist nor separatist; it was not about women's special qualities or interests. Instead, parité was rigorously universalist—and for that reason was both misunderstood and a source of heated debate.
The contributors to Women’s Studies on the Edge embrace feminism not as a set of prescriptions but as a critical stance, one that seeks to interrogate and disrupt prevailing systems of gender. Refusing to perpetuate and protect orthodoxies, they ask tough questions about the impact of institutionalization on the once radical field of women’s studies; about the ongoing difficulties of articulating women’s studies with ethnic, queer, and race studies; and about the limits of liberal concepts of emancipation for understanding non-Western women. They also question the viability of continuing to ground women’s studies in identity politics authorized by personal experience. The multiple interpretations in Women’s Studies on the Edge sometimes overlap and sometimes stand in opposition to one another. The result is a collection that embodies the best aspects of critique: the intellectual and political stance that the contributors take to be feminism’s ethos and its aim.
Evelynn M. Hammonds
Joan Wallach Scott